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A Decorated Letter, in Bede's Prose 'Life of St Cuthbert'

A Decorated Letter, in Bede's Prose 'Life of St Cuthbert'

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 995

Shelfmark: Harley MS 1117

Item number: f.4r

Length: 25.2

Width: 17.5

Scale: Centimetres

Genre: Manuscript

St Cuthbert, bishop of Lindisfarne (Holy Island), links the early and late middle ages in Britain, with the start of his career in the foundations and early history of Northeastern monasteries in the mid-7th century, the journey of his relics through several Northern centres during the Viking onslaughts of the 9th and 10th centuries, and enshrinement at the end of the 10th century at Durham, whence kings and churchmen, North and South, continued support of his cult. Beginning soon after his death (687), a sophisticated campaign promoted Cuthbert's holiness with works of art and literature, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and accounts of his life. Bede wrote prose and verse versions, copies of which are in this manuscript. Often it is attributed to Canterbury because of its decoration's style, but a monastery in Wessex, such as Sherborne, has been suggested based on the contents of a prayerbook placed after its 'Lives' of Cuthbert. According to an inscription in the manuscript, it was written on the order of an abbot Wigbeorht, who cannot be identified.

Bede wrote his prose life of St Cuthbert about 720 and dedicated it to Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne. The 'Life' begins with the large, decorated letter on this page and starts to tell of Cuthbert's birth and infancy. The fierce beasts which grip the shape of the letter or emerge from it and the classical plant designs are typical of the ornament of manuscripts from southern England around 1000.

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