Received wisdom on the scholarship of the Lindisfarne Gospels
is that it was made in Lindisfarne, which is a monastery in
Northumbria on a tidal island called Holy Island off the north-east
coast of England. It has been thought that it was made probably
in 698 CE to celebrate the translation of the relics of St
Cuthbert to the high altar at Lindisfarne. Cuthbert was the
monastery's most prominent saint, who had died in 687.
The primary reason for this having been thought to be the
case - and I do think it is the case, although I would differ
with the dating--is the fact that some 250 years or so later
a priest called Aldred added to the Latin Gospel text an interlinear
gloss, a translation, in Old English. Aldred had joined the
monastic community of St Cuthbert at, we think, Chester-le-Street
(they had been forced to leave Lindisfarne by Viking attacks)
and he added the Old English as part of his work of establishing
himself in the community. In the colophon he says that he
saw this as finishing the work on the gospels, and he attempts
to associate that work and validate it by giving the names
of those whom he, and presumably the community, thought had
made the book originally.
Aldred says that it was written and illuminated by Eadfrith,
who was Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721. He says that
the book was sewn together and physically bound by his successor
as Bishop, Ethilwald. And he says that the metalwork within
which it was contained was made by Billfrith the anchorite.
We do not know much about Billfrith as an anchorite, a hermit.
He is rather shrouded in mystery, although it is interesting
that Cuthbert himself had a prominent profile as a hermit
too. But the other two, Eadfrith and Ethilwald, are well attested.
Most historians would say that you could not take at face
value something added 250 years later. Having said that, it
is reasonably early in the provenance history of the Gospels
but it is not entirely conclusive by itself.
Lindisfarne as a centre of hybrid culture
The best contextual evidence for production at Lindisfarne
is the mixture of Germanic, Celtic and Mediterranean influences
that we see in the Gospels. When we look at the history of
the foundation at Lindisfarne we recognise it is a very apt
centre for the sort of hybrid culture that we see represented
Lindisfarne had been founded by St Aidan in 635 as part of
the paruchia, the monastic family, of St Columba which was
working outwards from the Irish centres of Kells, Durrow,
through Iona and Melrose and down into Northumbria at the
invitation of the then rulers of the Bernician-Northumbrian
royal house. Initially the focus of Lindisfarne was very Celtic.
By the time that the book was produced - and as we will see
I am going to date it between about 710 and 721, rather than
698--by this period we find that Lindisfarne had changed somewhat
in its affiliations.
A lot of things had happened by that time. There had been
the Synod of Whitby in 664, when a big debate had occurred
essentially as to whether the church in the insular world
- that is in Great Britain and Ireland - should go it alone
and become more regional following its very ancient and venerable
Celtic and possibly British traditions. Or whether it should
become more mainstream, and specifically whether it should
observe the outward formalities of Romanism in terms of the
dating of Easter, the appearance of priests, and other things
as well. Basically it was a question of is the church in Britain
a local church or is it part of the centre? Wilfrid of York
becomes the great champion of Romanitas in Britain at the
time of Whitby, and is followed by some key figures such as
Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith, the founders of the very important
monasteries in Northumbria of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow.
Wilfrid was a very ambitious prelate, with a lot of land
and power, he upset the ecclesiastical hierarchy and the royal
house and aristocracy alike, and was consequently often ousted
from office. Each time he went off and camped on the Pope's
doorstep in Rome until he got a hearing, and so did the other
parties. There was the danger from all this furore of losing
the impetus built up for the work in Britain and Ireland and
the work in missions on the continent. So it is a period of
The importance of St Cuthbert
Cuthbert emerges in his own ministry as a figure who transcends
and is a reconciliation point for these different groups.
Certainly that is the way in which he is presented subsequently
by his successors. Following Cuthbert's death in 687, Wilfrid
is appointed as the head of the Lindisfarne community. It
is a period of such bitterness that the historian Bede, writing
later, can barely bring himself to speak of it. Subsequently
we find that by the period of 698, Cuthbert has been brought
forward as the more acceptable face of the combined and reconciled
approach to the new order. Lindisfarne by about 700 had come
round to the Easter dating of the Roman church. It had also
moved closer to the style of more corporate and communal monasticism
favoured, so we are told, by Monkwearmouth and Jarrow.
In 705 the first anonymous life of St Cuthbert had been compiled,
probably made by a monk at Lindisfarne. What happened subsequently
is very interesting, because the events in 698 and the moving
of the relics to the high altar is just the kick-off point.
Bishop Eadfrith, whom Aldred names in his colophon as the
maker of the book, commissions the leading scholar of the
time, Bede of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, to rework the life of
St Cuthbert and gear it towards a new agenda, one of reconciliation.
So Bede reworks the Life of St Cuthbert twice. Once as a
verse form that can be sung in a monastic version of the mead
hall, and the second as a reworking of the anonymous prose
life. And that is the period, when he is working on his exegesis,
his commentaries, which you can find reflected in things like
the Matthew miniature in Lindisfarne. All of the theological
points and the interetextuality are like buttons that are
being pressed in the minds of the intellectual elite who are
looking at them.
There are other more overt symbols in the minds of pilgrims
who can see that there were Germanic features that represent
the dress of their warrior caste, that there are Celtic features,
and exotic elements of Romanitas and affinity with the Holy
Land. All of these things would have been very visible, they
would have meant things to them. They are symbols of ethnicity.
And all of that is going on at this slightly later period.
It is also the time, about 710s to 720s, when Bede is actively
researching his The Ecclesiastical History of the English
People, which again does something of the same thing. So I
would see the Lindisfarne Gospels as a visual equivalent,
a part of this agenda in which I think Eadfrith and Bede are
actively collaborating. And I think therefore that makes good
sense of the rapprochement that we see between those communities
and the loan of textual exemplars.
Scholars recently have suggested that nothing was made at
Lindisfarne, that it was all made at Wearmouth-Jarrow. But
what we know was made at Wearmouth-Jarrow is stylistically
very different. The evidence for the Gospels having been made
at Lindisfarne is strengthened when we tie in what we know
from archaeology to have been available at Lindisfarne: the
figures carved on the outside of the wooden coffin of St Cuthbert;
the pectoral cross of St Cuthbert, whose geometry seems to
be reflected within one of the carpet pages of Lindisfarne;
and the namestones which would have laid at the head of the
graves of some early members of the community. There are very
similar scripts to the display capitals that we find in the
Lindisfarne Gospels, which are fascinating because you can
see the artist scribe actively grafting on Germanic runic
features to Roman capital forms. These are very overt statements
of a hybrid culture. And the best context for all of that
is Lindisfarne and its archaeology.
Click below to explore further.
Session 1 The Lindisfarne
Gospels and the Early Christian World
Session 2 Eadfrith and
the Making of the Lindisfarne Gospels
Session 3 The Lindisfarne
Gospels in Use
Session 4 A Display Opening
of the Lindisfarne Gospels