It’s probably safe for me to assume that because you’re reading this article, you are most probably something of a book worm and possibly even a history buff. If so, you need to get to the British Library in London next month for what is being called a “once-in-a-generation exhibition” entitled Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War , where you can see a bizarre, 1300-year-old book known as St Cuthbert Gospel.
Opening on October 19th, this exhibition of rare and ancient texts and books is a virtual hall of records featuring thunderous works of fiction such as Beowulf, often cited as one of the most important works of Old English literature and priceless religious works like the illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels and Codex Amiatinus, a “giant Northumbrian Bible taken to Italy in 716.” Important civic records are also contained within this collection, for example, Bede’s 7th century Ecclesiastical History and the legendary Domesday Book .
St Cuthbert Gospel, The Oldest Book in Europe
While these iconic works of literature attempt to entrap visitors with their splendor, sheer magnificence and intrinsic historical importance, in their shadows, a tiny book known as St. Cuthbert Gospel is maybe not so aesthetically striking as some of its rivals, but it is “the oldest surviving intact European book,” according to an article on Open culture.com about the exhibition. Now, although I suggested you get to London next week I understand that for most of you that won’t be possible, so, for those who fancy reading the oldest intact book in Europe, it has been translated and digitized on the British Libraries webpage.
The St Cuthbert Gospel was made in the early 8th century and was formerly known as the ‘Stonyhurst Gospel’ having once been owned by Stonyhurst College. Retaining its original binding, the manuscript contains a Latin copy of the Gospel of John.
Cuthbert, the Incorruptible Saint
Cuthbert himself was a hermit monk who died in AD 687 and was later re-interred on the sacred island of Lindisfarne in 698 AD. Cuthbert was risen to saintliness after his death and became one of the most important medieval saints of Northern England. His coffin “was removed following Viking raids in the 9th century and was later taken to Durham, where it was opened in September 1104 on the occasion of the translation of his remains,” according to the British Library. The Gospel was discovered in remarkable condition inside the coffin of St. Cuthbert with his bodily remains, which Christian traditions hold as being “ incorruptible.”
St Cuthbert fresco, Durham Cathedral (public domain)
According to the Roman Catholic tradition, it is believed that certain venerable individuals and objects can escape the ravages of time because of their inherent holiness or because they are under the protection of a divine power.
“Incorruptibility is an important attribute of saintliness and only counts if it occurs naturally – in other words, mummification or embalming does not qualify,” writes Kerry Sullivan in an article about ‘incorruptible saint Padre Padilla’ . “Moreover, incorruptible corpses do not reek of death but instead are said to produce a pleasant, floral scent.”
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The incorrupt body of St Cuthbert from Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, 12 th century (public domain)
Cuthbert Coffin Mystery
How the small book made its way into Cuthbert’s coffin is a mystery, but specialists believe it was likely slipped in sometime between 700 and 730 AD, when his body was moved to Durham. The British Library note that when Cuthbert’s casket was reopened in 1104 AD, the book was discovered “in miraculously perfect condition […] In a satchel-like container of red leather with a badly-frayed sling made of silken threads.” Oxford Bibliographies , notes the books “near perfect condition” allowed experts to carefully study its features which include the “layering of pattern, line, and color on seemingly flat surfaces” creating “complex spatial patterns.”
St Cuthbert’s coffin, Durham Cathedral. Credit: Chapter of Durham Cathedral
Not only does the book’s content fascinate experts, but it was bound with an ancient North African sewing technique called “Coptic binding or Coptic sewing, comprising methods of bookbinding employed by early Christians in Egypt, the Copts, and used from as early as the 2nd century AD to the 11th century. Coptic bindings are the first true ‘codices,’ a word which describes any compiled sheets of parchment, paper, vellum, papyrus, or paper sewn through their folds and attached to each other with chain or stitch linkings across the spine. The phrase "Coptic binding" usually refers to multi-section bindings, while single-section Coptic codices are often referred to as “Nag Hammadi bindings,” after the 13 Christian and Gnostic codices discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.
So far as to “why” it was placed inside Cuthbert’s coffin, experts think that its small size and placement in a leather pouch was deliberate and spiritually “significant.’ St. John’s Gospel “was sometimes employed as a protective talisman” and worn around the neck, in a pouch, it might have been perceived as warding off evil forces. It might even be the case that this book was used by Cuthbert while working his many recorded miracles, which included not only healing the sick, but freeing those who were possessed by demons.
The book being displayed in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition is a moment in the transmission of writing skills and publishing knowledge from the Mediterranean across Europe.