Codex Amiatinus and the St Cuthbert Gospel

Codex Amiatinus and the St Cuthbert Gospel

We look at two significant Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, both produced in a thriving centre of scholarship in eighth-century England: Codex Amiatinus and the St Cuthbert Gospel.

What do a giant copy of the complete Bible and a small copy of the Gospel of St John have in common? They were both made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the early eighth century.

The early English Church relied heavily on manuscripts imported from abroad. These manuscripts formed the core of the earliest monastic libraries, and acted as inspiration and models for manuscripts produced in Anglo-Saxon England.

In the early eighth century, Bede (died 735) wrote an account of the foundation of his Wearmouth-Jarrow monastery, close to modern-day Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Bede described how the founders of that monastery, Benedict Biscop (died 689) and Abbot Ceolfrith (died 716), travelled to Rome on several occasions, and returned with manuscripts made in Italy and northern Europe.

These imported manuscripts were kept in the library at Wearmouth-Jarrow. As a result, that monastery became a thriving centre of scholarship with an active scriptorium in the eighth century.

Codex Amiatinus

Bede described how Abbot Ceolfrith commissioned his scriptorium to make three large, single-volume copies of the Bible. Two of the three Bibles were to be kept at Wearmouth-Jarrow, and one was intended as a gift to the shrine of St Peter the Apostle in Rome. In 716, Ceolfrith left Wearmouth-Jarrow with a group of monks, with the intention of delivering this great Bible to Rome.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died in Langres, now in North-East France, and a group of monks continued their journey to Rome to deliver the manuscript on his behalf. This giant Bible has remained in Italy since this fateful journey and is now known as Codex Amiatinus.

Codex Amiatinus

Manuscript page of a man in a study, writing

Codex Amiatinus is the earliest complete Latin Bible (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1)

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This manuscript is colossal in size and scale. The volume contains copies of both the Old and New Testament, written on 1,030 leaves of parchment made from at least 515 animal skins.

Codex Amiatinus contains three detailed paintings, a series of diagrams, and a choice of script that are all profoundly Mediterranean in style. Many manuscripts that Benedict Biscop and Abbot Ceolfrith brought back from their trips to Rome would have acted as models for these three giant Bibles.

Codex Amiatinus was so Mediterranean in appearance that, until modern times, the manuscript was thought to have been produced in sixth-century Italy rather than early eighth-century England.

One of the first pages in Codex Amiatinus was a dedication page, which proclaimed that the manuscript was a gift from ‘Ceolfrith, abbot from the far-off lands of the Angles’ to the shrine of St Peter in Rome. However, part of this dedication inscription was later scraped down and Ceolfrith’s name was replaced with that of Peter of the Lombards, an abbot of San Salvatore in Tuscany.

It was not until 1888 that an Italian scholar discovered the original inscription, and was able to demonstrate that the manuscript was produced at Ceolfrith’s monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

Producing three manuscripts of this size and style would have been an immense undertaking and a display of the monastery’s economic resources and intellectual skill.

Another fragmentary Bible

Bede explained that Ceolfrith intended the two other Bibles to remain in England, one to be kept at Jarrow and the other at Wearmouth. Unfortunately, neither of these Bibles survive in their original form.

In the later medieval and early modern periods, it was common for manuscripts to be dismembered and their parchment to be reused for other purposes. Parchment could be scraped down and used for new texts, incorporated into book bindings, or used to wrap other documents.

This is exactly what happened to one of the two Bibles that remained in England. By the mid-16th century, fragments of this great Bible were being used at Wollaton in Nottinghamshire to wrap deeds concerning the estates of the Willoughby family.

Ceolfrith Bible fragments

Ceolfrith Bible Fragments

Ceolfrith commissioned the production of three massive, single-volume Bibles. All that remains of one of them are 10 pages and some other fragments. (British Library, Additional MS 45025, f. 2v)

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Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Two more leaves of this great Bible survive. One parchment page was found in 1982 in the estate papers at Kingston Lacy in Dorset. William Greenwell, canon librarian at Durham, reportedly found another leaf in a shop in Newcastle in 1882.

These leaves are collectively known as the ‘Ceolfrith Bible’. They are also sometimes associated with King Offa of Mercia (reigned 757–796), who is reputed to have presented a massive Bible to the monks of Worcester.

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Codex Amiatinus was not the only manuscript produced at Wearmouth-Jarrow that ended up on the Continent.

Bede’s most famous text is his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which describes the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the development of the Anglo-Saxon Church up to the early eighth century. Copies were in demand soon after Bede completed the text in 731. The scriptorium at Wearmouth-Jarrow supplied copies of Bede’s text to libraries across Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent.

Tiberius Bede

The Venerable Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People)f.5v

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People was created in 731. It tells the story of the conversion of the English people to Christianity (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v)

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Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

One of the earliest surviving manuscripts of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History was copied at Wearmouth-Jarrow, but may have been sent to the Continent soon after its production.

This manuscript is known as the Moore Bede because it was it was once owned by John Moore, bishop of Ely (1707–1714). It had previously been kept in the cathedral at Le Mans, France. Annotations in the Moore Bede demonstrate that it had reached France not long after its production, perhaps as early as the reign of Charlemagne (768–814).

Moore Bede

Page from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript

The Moore Bede is the earliest extant copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Cambridge, University Library, MS kk.5.16, f. 22r)

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The Moore Bede is copied in Insular minuscule script, which facilitated rapid writing and an economical use of parchment. This suggests that the manuscript was produced in haste, and reflects the great demand for Bede’s writings in the years after his death.

The St Cuthbert Gospel

At roughly the same time as Wearmouth-Jarrow produced Codex Amiatinus and its two sibling manuscripts, the scriptorium produced another important manuscript: the St Cuthbert Gospel. This manuscript, dramatically different in scale, is a small copy of the Gospel of John copied in the second or third decade of the eighth century.

St Cuthbert Gospel

Leather-bound front cover of manuscript

The front cover of the St Cuthbert Gospel (British Library, Additional MS 89000)

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Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The St Cuthbert Gospel originally came to light in 1104 when the coffin of St Cuthbert (died 687), bishop of Lindisfarne, was opened at Durham Cathedral. The monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow may have intended this manuscript as a gift to the community of St Cuthbert.

The St Cuthbert Gospel is the earliest surviving European book with an original, intact binding. This binding is comprised of wooden boards covered with red goatskin. The front cover is tooled with panels of interlace, with a central motif of a stylised vine sprouting from a chalice which reflects Christian imagery from the eastern Mediterranean. The plant on the cover of the Gospel has a central leaf or bud and four fruits, echoing an extract from John’s Gospel 15.5 (‘I am the vine, you are the branches’).

This style of binding may have been influenced by a style of Coptic binding practised in Egypt. It is possible that the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow learned of this binding technique from books imported from the Mediterranean.

The Cult of St Cuthbert

Cuthbert had been elected bishop of Lindisfarne in 684, but after two years he resigned and returned to his hermitage on the Farne Islands. Cuthbert died in 687 and was buried at Lindisfarne that same day. Miracles were soon attributed to him, and Cuthbert’s cult soon became one of the most important in northern Britain. Bede wrote two Lives of St Cuthbert, one in prose and one in verse.

Lives of St Cuthbert

A manuscript page depicting a saint and a king

This copy of Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert includes the earliest surviving, painted portrait of a king of England – King Æthelstan (reigned 924–939) (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 1v)

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By the 10th century, Cuthbert’s cult had become equally popular in southern Britain. A beautifully decorated copy of Bede’s Lives of St Cuthbert was made in southern England in the mid-930s. An illustration in this manuscript depicts King Æthelstan (reigned 924–939), the first king of the English, presenting a book to St Cuthbert. This is the earliest surviving contemporary ‘portrait’ of an Anglo-Saxon king in a manuscript.

Æthelstan may have commissioned this book for presentation to the community of St Cuthbert, which was at this time based in Chester-le-Street in County Durham, having fled Lindisfarne to escape Viking attacks.

  • Becky Lawton
  • Becky Lawton is an Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts Intern at the British Library, working on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Her doctoral research, carried out at the University of Leicester and the British Library, focuses on how the Anglo-Saxons experienced the city of Rome in the 7th and 8th centuries.