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Treasure of the Month

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

July 2019: Gospel Book, Northumbria, 8th century.

On 7 June 793 the Vikings made their first raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne. Medieval sources say these raiders ‘poured out the blood of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the street.’ Over the next one hundred years warfare in the region increased. No longer could the monks ‘stand bravely and defend the camp of God’ as had been suggested by Alcuin of York. In 875 Bishop Eadulf took the decision that the monastic community should leave Lindisfarne and seek safety elsewhere. When the monks left Lindisfarne they took with them the body and relics of St. Cuthbert along with as many other treasures as they could carry, including books. This eighth century Northumbrian Gospel book (Durham Cathedral Library, MS A.II.16) was very likely one of the manuscripts that left Lindisfarne with the monks on that journey.

This is an intriguing manuscript. It contains four different recensions of the Gospel text and was written by four different scribes in three different styles of writing, with only the Gospel of John written by a single person. The remaining three Gospels were divided between the other three scribes, with each has a distinctive hand indicating which scribe was allocated which section of text. This variety of scribes, texts, writing styles and format could mean that the manuscript was written over a period of time, possibly at several locations, and bound together at a later date.

There are some clues within the text about its intended purpose – it seems likely the manuscript was intended for reading in church. The text is marked up for liturgical use with lection notes. For example passages of Matthew 19, which describes how to enter the kingdom of Heaven, have been marked with lection notes indicating it was to be read during the ordination of a bishop. This is would suggest that the book was intended for use at a bishopric, such as Lindisfarne, Hexham or York.

By the mid-twelfth century the manuscript was being used by the monks of Durham. Blank spaces on the vellum at the end of the gospels of Mark and Luke were filled in by a twelfth-century hand with notes on the privileges and rites granted to Durham Priory. Copying such information to holy books was a common medieval practice designed to ensure that these documents were recorded, protected and preserved, and in this case provides evidence that this was an important book for the community of Durham.

The opening page of the gospel of Mark features a long decorated initial letter ‘I’ which takes up most of the left hand side of the page. The top features a human face while the bottom shows an open jawed head of a beast. It is here that the original colouring of the decoration is still most evident with a vivid flash of orange filling its head. The yellow and orange colours on the five panels of interlace are now badly faded.

A digital copy of the complete manuscript can be viewed online via the Durham Priory Library Recreated website here: https://iiif.durham.ac.uk/index.html?manifest=t2mqj72p7126

The manuscript itself is currently on display as part of the Vikings in Northumbria temporary exhibition in Open Treasure, which is open until 28 September. Find more information about Open Treasure here.