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Treasure of the Month

Highlighting some of our most precious historic artefacts, from manuscripts to jewellery.

January 2020: The Durham Cassiodorus (Cassiodorus’s ‘Commentary on the Psalms’), Northumbria, 8th century

Durham Cathedral Library is ushering in the new year by shining a spotlight on one of the oldest and most precious items from the Library’s collections: the earliest surviving copy of the commentary on the Psalms by the Roman statesman and monastic founder Cassiodorus. Produced in the 8th century in either Northumbria or York – possibly at the twin monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow (home of the Venerable Bede) – it was written by a team of six scribes using a hybrid script. It was clearly a volume that was in use for a long time – as evidenced by marks and corrections added by generations of readers including some dating from after the Norman Conquest.

 

Cassiodorus, who died in the 580s, founded the monastery of Vivarium on the shores of the Ionian Sea, turning it into “a major centre of Christian learning” modelled on that at Alexandria. His commentary on the Psalms was unusual in that, aside from Augustine’s, Cassiodorus’ work was the only one to cover the entire psalter: for each psalm he examined the title and its overall form, and then worked systematically through each verse, eventually concluding what its true meaning for a Christian were. He set out to prove that the Old Testament psalms orientated towards a future Christ. This is an abridged version of his text, which was usually spread over three volumes.

 

This beautiful manuscript was particularly prized by the 14th century monks of the Durham Priory, who (erroneously) believed it to have been transcribed by the Venerable Bede himself. An inscription on folio 1v states “Cassiodorus super phalterium de manu Bede”, or “Cassiodorus on the psalter from the hand of Bede”.

It is true that at least one manuscript belonging to Cassiodorus – his ‘Codex Grandior’ – had been acquired in Italy by Abbot Coelfrith for the community of Wearmouth-Jarrow, and it is likely that Bede had access to that; however, there is no evidence at all to link any of the six hands found in this volume to Bede.

 

A particularly striking feature of this manuscript is its practice of marking the three-fold division of the Psalter with miniature paintings. Two of these still survive: depicting the biblical King David (presumed author of the Psalms) as a musician (see here: https://iiif.durham.ac.uk/index.html?manifest=t2mrn3011371&canvas=t2t6q182k23p) and as a warrior (see here: https://iiif.durham.ac.uk/index.html?manifest=t2mrn3011371&canvas=t2tcr56n1104). Both illustrations were coloured with green, orange and purple ink, and surrounded by Insular pattern-work; still striking now, they would have been magnificent when new. This was a status book indeed.

 

This manuscript recently returned from the British Library, where it was on loan as part of their ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War’ exhibition. It has been fully digitised and is available to view online, in full and free of charge, as part of the ‘Durham Priory Library Recreated’ project, here: https://www.durhampriory.ac.uk/