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Seminar 1: The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Early Christian World

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 visually.

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 controversy.

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.

More Sessions
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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

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Introduction The book Its creation The Gospels' world Meaning Turning the Pages
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