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Seminar 2: Eadfrith and the Making of the Lindisfarne Gospels

There is one important dimension which is absolutely crucial to understanding the Lindisfarne Gospels, and that is what the manuscript actually meant to the person who made it. The remarkable thing about it is the fact that not only is it one of the most stupendous examples of book production that I have had the privilege to encounter but that it is the work not of a team but of one artist-scribe.

Whoever made it, whether it was Bishop Eadfrith or not, they would have had to have got up eight times every day and night and have gone into the church for the Divine Office. They would have had manual labour as part of their monastic humility, milking the beasts, brewing, whatever; they would have had prayer, study time - all of this to fit into the working day. We think we are busy today. Try carving out the time actually to immerse yourself in the sort of very fine, sustained act of concentration necessary to make the Gospels.

The creation needed a remarkable input of human resource, as well as the physical resource of 300 of the best, finest cattle skins imaginable. It must have meant many, many communities' annual incomes, with lots of gift exchange as well. Pigments too were needed, not only local ores, leads and materials of that sort, but possibly lapis lazuli from the foothills of the Himalayas. That tells us so much about the environment in which it was made and its socio-economic and historical context. But the most remarkable thing for me is the fact that it is one person's time.

Making the Gospels as opus dei

The Book of Kells had at least eight people working on it. Library books made at Lindisfarne at the same period had teams working on them. The making of the Lindisfarne Gospels is different, this is opus dei, the work for God elevated to a new level. And when you think about some of the works that these people would have been reading at the time, possibly Cassiodorus's words that every word written was a wound on Satan's body, this is the miles Christi, the Soldiers of Christ, spiritual frontlineism of the first order. Cassiodorus, again quoting the psalmist and other biblical sources, said that the scribe preaches with his fingers, that this is the most active form of preaching and ministry that somebody who focuses their life upon service to God and the bigger community can actually achieve. It is a very, very privileged status.

It is relevant too that at this period, in the Irish law code, if you did injury to a scribe they had the same status as an Abbot. So the scribe is somebody very significant within their community, which makes it commensurate with perhaps thinking a bishop would be an appropriate person to do this, even if the administration on top of everything else meant it took him ages. A basic time and motion study that my research has led me to undertake shows that this would have been at least ten years work, or something in this order. Modern scribes say that perhaps it would take two years working full-time with electric light and heating and yet not achieving this standard. This is an incredible feat.

We are talking about something that is an active portal of prayer. It is an act of devotion and meditation in its making. The ultimate object of the monastic quest was to engage in meditatio, which if you were very fortunate and blessed led to contemplatio, a glimpse of revelation of the divine before you actually encounter it face to face.

Rather like Cuthbert on the Farne Islands engaging in his personal inner struggle with his demons - not just for his own soul's redemption, but as a corporate endeavour on behalf of all humanity - what we have in the making of the Lindisfarne Gospels should be seen similarly.

A new dating - and new light on the drawings

Recent research that I undertook on the gospels for the Jarrow Lecture 2000, which I was privileged to give in the church that still contains part of the seventh-century structure in which Bede himself probably worshipped, has shown that the dating needs to be re-evaluated. Obviously this causes a lot of debate, but my work has received a warm response so far. My proposed dating is 710 to 721, rather than the traditionally accepted 698, which is the date of the translation of Cuthbert's relics. It is unfinished in places, and I think that there is something of a context here for the involvement of Eadfrith: his demise in 721 and the fact that if the colophon does contain anything to be believed; the fact that his successor then has it bound. But this dating is not just taken from the colophon. It is undertaken by looking at the relationship to Wearmouth-Jarrow and the combined agenda with Bede and the dating of Bede's work--his rewriting of an earlier life of Cuthbert - reframing the cult as well. 698 may have marked the beginnings of the cult, but the work on promoting and defining it came later and, I feel, provides the context for the production of the great Gospel book which became one of its focal points.

The other thing that that my research showed was that we could say an awful lot more about the physical way in which the book was produced. Going to it with new questions in mind and using lots of different angles of raking light and totally non-destructive forms of observation, I found that once you actually looked at it in detail you found that every single component of the decoration had preliminary drawings.

And what was even more fascinating was that these were conducted in lead point, the forerunner of the pencil. This was occurring 400 years or so before lead point was supposed to be known in Europe, but you may find that subsequently people start finding lead point elsewhere and I had already observed its use in some early eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon illustrated manuscripts.

This is a remarkable project and whoever undertook it is finding remarkable solutions to the way in which he is designing the work. I think you can actually see the point at which he develops the technique. He is using a hard point, probably a stylus, to rule the lines and this must have contained a graphic trace element--either silver or lead. He sees it leaving a line and thinks, ah, I need not then press down and produce the ridge and furrow that is like a plough line that shows on both sides of the page. I can use this lighter drafting mechanism. And that means that you need not score each side of the page. Often you find, even in eleventh- or twelfth-century books, that you will have a beautiful evangelist portrait and it will have tramlines running across it for the ruling of the script on the other side. So this new method gives you great flexibility.

In some cases, the scribe has very discreetly used a hard point to do some under-drawing on the side of the page that he is actually working up. This is especially the case for the display script. And again you can see him making the decision that grafting on Germanic rune features is important. Initially he starts drawing the letters in just an enlarged form of the uncial of the main script. Then he tries Roman capitals; then he experiments with grafting the runic elements on.

Ray Page, the great runic specialist, said that he always suspected that the introduction of rune features came not initially from sculptures and metalwork inscriptions but that there was an intellectual development in the scriptorium. Here I think you can actually see that at almost the point of genesis, tying in again with those wonderful runic display features from other Lindisfarne archaeological objects, such as Cuthbert's coffin and the name-stones.

Creating the designs

On the backs of the pages the scribe has drawn the designs in lead point. He uses compasses and dividers to get the cardinal points and the pricks fine working-up of the main design on the back in lead point and then develops tiny sectors of the ornament, rather like the motif pieces. Bits of waste bone, slate and wood have been found in archaeology of the period where scribes and metalworkers might try out designs. Here he has actually found a way of doing that on his own material without wasting any of that much prized membrane. Although it seems a bizarre way of working, the evidence indicates that he would then have backlit the pages in some way, perhaps using a transparent horn desk of the sort that we know were available in Islamic territories. And he has traced through the key elements of his design. Now why would he do that? Well, as with laying emulsion on film nowadays, the minute you put down your first pigment layer you lose all of the fine line design underneath. If you can then keep referring back to the back of the page as your own motif piece, you can benefit from your initial design as your own model. And also we can see where he has departed from the things that he designed on the back and actually painted them in a different way on the front. So this is absolute creativity, work in progress. It is like looking at James Joyce's autograph manuscript of Finnegans Wake and seeing the editorial or the authorial decisions that are being made, but in this case about the ornament.

The Lindisfarne Gospels after Lindisfarne

What do we know about the Gospels later on? It is normally assumed that it went to Durham and that it was subsequently seized by Henry VIII at the dissolution of the monasteries and brought to London because of its jewelled binding. This is not necessarily true.

We know that in the twelfth century, Symeon of Durham, writing a history of Durham, refers to "a book associated with St Cuthbert" which tried to jump ship when it was threatened with being taken to Ireland when the community had to abandon Lindisfarne. Presumably this was because the book knew that it would then definitely be considered an Irish product. It has subsequently been assumed that this book was the Lindisfarne Gospels. But the Gospels does not carry water staining. Nor have we any intention of submitting it to trial by water now to find out if it is the same volume.

Subsequently, in 1367, a Durham inventory refers to "a book of St Cuthbert" which had survived trial by water and which was now not in Durham but in its cell on Lindisfarne. The assumption is that this is the Lindisfarne Gospels, but big cults such as Cuthbert's, judging by the cult of Columba, would have had many books associated with the saint. So again the evidence is slightly inconclusive.

I do not think it was seized directly by Henry VIII as dissolution loot either. The reason for that being that it did not end up in the royal collection, nor did it end up in the Jewel Tower at Westminster. It ends up, we think, in London, possibly in the Tower, but that is really because the chap who owned it, who was a private individual and bibliophile in the early seventeenth century, Robert Bowyer, a book collector, had a flat there as Clerk to the Parliament and Keeper of the Records. So it is not in royal ownership, it is in a private collection, and it could have come there by any route at any time. It subsequently passes from Bowyer to that great parliamentarian and collector Sir Robert Cotton, who preserved much of the Anglo-Saxon book culture of the country, because he thought it related to the origins of democracy in the Anglo-Saxon period, as well as his religious interests. And his collection was one of the foundation collections which was bequeathed to the nation and which led to the founding of the national museum and library, The British Museum, in 1753, whose book collections now form part of the nexus of The British Library.

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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