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Seminar 3: The Lindisfarne Gospels in Use

The Lindisfarne Gospels was always a book to be seen. But the fact that it existed was important too. It is a symbol. It represents a higher level of achievement and a greater level, if you like, of sheer care and input of resource than almost any other book from the period.

It is not, however, a working service book. It is hard to see it performing a function for actual lections, readings and so forth within the mass.

Part of the reason for that is that the numbering system of sections and capitula, which are the forerunners of chapter and verse sections, do not fully agree with those that you find in the canon tables at the front. Canon tables were devised in the fourth century by Eusebius of Caesarea as a way of working out the concordance of the gospels; if a passage occurs in one, does it occur in the others? The numbers in the canon tables do not tie up with the numbers in the margins of the text itself. They seem to have had perhaps two different models underlying them.

The text of the Lindisfarne Gospels

The model for the main text of Lindisfarne, which is a Latin Vulgate, was probably obtained on inter-library loan from Monkwearmouth-Jarrow and was probably from Italy. It has been suggested it was of Neapolitan origin because some of its prefatory material mentions the feast days of saints associated with Naples. But it has recently been found that those saints are also associated with one of the most important early monasteries, that of Vivarium, founded by the Roman Senator Cassiodorus, who set up his monastery specifically to train monks who were also teachers and textual transmittors and editors.

He finds books stand a better chance of disseminating the work more widely, as long-distance teachers, and we know that several of the major books and editions of the bible that he produced were probably available at Wearmouth-Jarrow. The great Ceolfrith bibles, one of which Ceolfrith takes as a present to the Pope in 716, were produced partly by working from such models. But they are not slavish copies, but rather an active editorial campaign.

Ceolfrith and whoever makes the Lindisfarne gospels are paying their respect to the great tradition of biblical transmission which goes right back to the Septuagint scholars, who were set to work on the island in the harbour of Alexandria and produced a Greek translation of the Old Testament, through Saint Jerome and his Vulgate tradition, through Cassiodorus and his reworking of Jerome's Vulgate of the old Latin texts and the nine volume edition that he made of the bible, through to Ceolfrith and Lindisfarne.

What each of the creators of these is saying is that you are carrying the editing process forward. Not only are you reflecting the fact that the message has reached the farthest outpost, the ends of the earth, as Ceolfrith describes his Abbacy, but that you are actively carrying that tradition forward and you are going to be feeding into later translations, to Alcuin, to Wyclif, to Tyndale, to the King James Bible. It is directly within that line. So it is not a working book, but a very visual symbol of the insular world's place within that tradition. And the visual appearance was very much geared towards sounding bells of unity and diversity in a combined culture.

Communities of reading

Who would have seen it? If I may I'll tell a story about a conference that took place in Trinity College, Dublin, on the Book of Kells a few years ago. I was one of a number of people who had had the great privilege of working on Kells in the flesh in recent years, and we were having breakaway sessions talking about our experience of working on Kells. We were talking too about the experience of the inner circle of the ecclesiastical elite of the day, who were very well versed in scripture, and Greek, Latin and probably even Hebrew and what they would have made of the symbolism and the very complex imagery in Kells and in the Lindisfarne Gospels.

At the same time, the rest of the conference, the monastic community, if you like, in our context, was talking about its significance within the history of their communities and their scholarship and their approach to the book. Meanwhile, the public were having special lectures, which were geared towards presenting it in a more approachable, public light. Sponsors, the press, the media, all those that are granted high-level privileged access but who do not really want to know the nuts and bolts of the scholarship were being catered for as well.

Meanwhile, against the background of all of this, the mile-long queue that perpetually snakes around the quad at Trinity was there waiting to pass by the dimly lit mystical object itself, for reason of devotion, of cultural tourism, nationalism, or with whatever motivation.

To some extent you can take each of those ingredients and apply it back to the period in which the Gospels was made and subsequently. We are talking about communities of reading, and even if people could not read--and most people could not--the symbolic nature of the book was very powerful. The insular world had done a lot to actually elevate it into that status. Think about very sophisticated pre-literate communities such as that of the Celts, and even to a certain extent the Anglo-Saxons, and their very well-schooled oral traditions, think of their cultures which are geared to visible consumption of wealth and to symbolising status and power through display of metalwork and so forth.

What could be more natural, with the conversion of the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and those who have already known such things all along in the Celtic and British hinterland, but that you should apply all of that to the service of the new ultimate authority of the divine word? So I think the messages were well understood by a lay community who might just have glimpsed the Gospels, at however far a distance or however close they were allowed up and however much they had paid in land or tribute. They would have some appreciation of it on high days and holy days when it would probably have appeared alongside the coffin of Cuthbert, if indeed this is the book that was a focal point for Cuthbert's cult. I think there is pretty good evidence for that from a number of sources now. So they would have seen it in that way. The community would have had access to it probably in a limited fashion for study purposes, but it does not show signs of tremendous use. This is a cult item, first and foremost.

The uniqueness of the Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels is a remarkable book. I think it was always a remarkable book. Having said that, it is not a unique book in terms of its genre. I have already mentioned the Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow, the other great gospel books associated with the cult of St Columba. We know that at the cult of St Bridget at Kildare another great gospel book was displayed--Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald of Wales, writing about it in the twelfth century says that its craftsmanship was so intricate you would think it the work not of man but of angels. So there were other books about.

From Lindisfarne itself, the work on the Lindisfarne scriptorium of the previous academic generation led by Julian Brown, for example, and by scholars such as Chris Verey would tend to indicate that there were possibly two other major gospel books that were being made in a broadly similar period and place: the Durham Gospels, now in Durham Cathedral, and the Echternach Gospels, now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. There are others who think that one or possibly even all three of these were not made there, they made at Rath Maelsigi in Ireland. Opinion is split. But there are very close links between those three books, and especially between the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Durham Gospels, where at one point they have been corrected by the same person soon after they were made.

Once again, the chronology has been turned round about by sticking with 698 as a fixed point. If you take the Lindisfarne Gospels as having been made later and see it as the most sophisticated you solve some of the dating problems. And what seems to happen is that the Durham Gospel scribe corrects the Durham Gospels once, but then what has not really been taken on board is that he comes back to it and corrects it a second time following the new text of Lindisfarne or its model.

The great Gospel books today

Books which have survived within monastic libraries of this sort, such as the Durham Gospels and the Chad Gospels at Lichfield, are remarkable books. Very opulent objects which must, as I have said, have had something of a cult status, but perhaps not quite of the order of manufacture of Lindisfarne. What strikes you most forcibly is that they are in nowhere near as good a condition or state of preservation. Chad is still actively used as a service book for very important feasts at Lichfield, which is wonderful in one way, but which does mean that it cannot be preserved in such good condition for future generations.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are kept in The British Library with state-of-the-art conditions that can ensure the very best levels not only of preservation but also of exposure to the public through different levels of interpretative access. Not everyone can handle it, so there have to be exhibitions, publishing programmes, electronic programmes and a whole series of different levels of outreach to make sure that people get a full appraisal of it. You have to put an awful lot of resources behind doing something like that. The fact that it has always been an important and prized object means that it is known internationally, whereas something like the Durham Gospels really is not.

More Sessions
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




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