The oldest European book is now on display at the British Library.
The 7th century manuscript known as the St. Cuthbert Gospel has just been acquired for $14 million.
The small book, with its original binding, was buried with St. Cuthbert at Lindisfarne monastery on the northeast coast of England in about 698 AD.
Anchor Lisa Mullins talks to Claire Breay, the British Library’s lead curator of medieval and earlier manuscripts.
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Lisa Mullins: 10 dollars will get you a bestselling eBook these days, so why on earth would the British Library spend 14 million dollars on a fusty, dusty tome? Claire Breay is the British Library’s lead curator of medieval and earlier manuscripts. What is worth that much cash, Claire?
Claire Breay: Well, its the St. Cuthbert Gospel and this book is a book of absolutely unparalleled significance because it is the earliest intact European book. It was made at the end of the 7th Century in the northeast of England and it’s over 1300 years old. It’s preserved in absolutely amazing condition because it was placed in the coffin of St. Cuthbert who was one of Britain’s most important medieval Saints and it was discovered in his coffin in 1104 when it was opened in Durham Cathedral.
Mullins: So here it is, a 7th century manuscript discovered, as you say, in the coffin of a Christian Saint more than 900 years ago and it’s in pretty good condition. What does it look like?
Breay: It’s an absolutely beautiful book. It’s very small. I can hold it in one hand and it has a beautiful decorated dark red leather cover, and in the center, a raised motif of a vine which is thought may possibly echo the text “I am the vine. You are the branches” which is found in the book because the book is known as the St. Cuthbert Gospel because it was placed in St. Cuthbert’s coffin, but the text in the book is the Gospel of St. John.
Mullins: So what’s the historical value of this particular text which is all handwritten?
Breay: It gives us a window into that Anglo-Saxon world in England in the 7th century because it’s written in Latin and it’s written in a beautifully clear script which looks almost as if it could have been written yesterday as 1300 years old.
Mullins: I’m going to assume that you don’t have it with you there right now.
Breay: No, it’s on display.
Mullins: It’s on display under lock and key I assume. Where was the coffin found? The coffin that contained the book?
Breay: So St. Cuthbert died on Lindisfarne Holy Island which is a little island off the northeast coast of England just near where England joins Scotland. That’s where St. Cuthbert was a very famous Christian missionary in the 7th century. This is the point in history, you know, when England is being converted from paganism to Christianity. Anyway, St. Cuthbert died in 687 and was placed in a stone coffin in Lindisfarne and then in 698 he was elevated to Sainthood and we have through beads, the life of St. Cuthbert, an account of what happened. They took him out of the stone coffin and, being a Saint, they found his body was miraculously incorrupt. It hadn’t decay. And they placed him in this new wooden coffin which they had specially made and it seems at that point the book was also put in the coffin. And then after that, Lindisfarne was the subject of Viking raids. You know, the Vikings came across the North Sea and invaded the northeast coast of England and so the community of St. Cuthbert, the monks, had to leave Lindisfarne. They took the wooden coffin with them and Cuthbert’s body inside it and the book. The traveled around the north of England and southern Scotland and they eventually settled in Durham, and then following the Norman conquest, a new cathedral was built in Durham, and to celebrate the building of the cathedral and they open St. Cuthbert’s coffin in 1104 and that’s when they discovered the book.
Mullins: This book has been around and it was in your hands or hand, you said you could hold hold it with one hand?
Breay: Yeah, absolutely. You can hold it, closed, in one hand and it’s a really amazing experience and gives you a really direct connection I think with that 7th century world which can seem so remote, and it’s really remarkable that this book is, you know, the pages is made of vellum, which is made of calf skin. The pages are sewn together with flax thread, so it’s a completely organic object, yet it survived 13 centuries in absolutely amazing condition, and we’re absolutely delighted to have saved this book which is a real national treasure.
Mullins: Were you a little worried you might spill some coffee on it?
Breay: Well, we don’t allow any food or drink anywhere near it and we only handle it in very controlled conditions.
Mullins: That’s a very wise choice, and maybe one day do you think it might be digitized and become an eBook?
Breay: We’ve just digitized it.
Mullins: You have?
Breay: We’ve just digitized it and we’ve put the images on our website, so they’re available free.
Mullins: Good. And we’ll make them available on our website as well. We’ll make a link . . .
Breay: That would be lovely. Yeah.
Mullins: . . . at theworld.org. Who would have thought that this manuscript that’s . . .
Breay: Over 1300.
Mullins: Yeah. Over 1300 years old might be available as an eBook.
Breay: And the dean of Durham said yesterday that he was sure that Cuthbert would share our delight at this news, so I thought that was lovely.
Mullins: Really lovely to talk to you. Claire Breay who is curator of medieval and earlier manuscripts at the British Library. Nice to talk to you.
Breay: Thank you very much.
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