Curator's Choice: Claire Breay on the oldest intact book in Europe found in a Saint's coffin

Claire Breay interviewed by Ben Miller | 04 October 2011
A photo of a hand holding an ancient bible with a dark red cover
© British Library
Curator’s Choice: In her own words... Claire Breay on the 7th century Gospel of St John, the oldest intact book in Europe which is at the centre of a £9 million British Library fundraising drive...

"This is the St Cuthbert Gospel and it was written in the 7th century.

The thing that's unique about the gospel is that it is Europe's oldest intact book, so the pages and the text are still in the covers that were made for it at the end of the century.

It's more than 1,300 years old and when we look at it we’re seeing something that looks basically the same as it would have done to people then, which is pretty remarkable really, given that it’s made of organic materials.

A photo of a woman standing in front of an ancient book in a case inside a museum
The Library has until early 2012 to buy the gospel
It has a red goatskin leather cover over wooden boards and the pages are made of animal skin velum.

It's got this really beautiful decoration on the cover which combines Anglo-Saxon interlace with this central motif which is of Eastern Mediterranean origin.

It's stylised vine, and it's thought that they chose that because the text inside is St John’s Gospel and St John’s Gospel contains the text 'I am the vine, you are the branches'.

The text inside is beautifully preserved – really clearly written text in Latin, which is really interesting. Calligraphers are very interested in it, it's so clear.

On top of all of that, the other aspect of this book which makes it unique is that we know so much about its history and context.

It was made to be placed in St Cuthbert’s coffin. He was Bishop of Lindisfarne. He died in 687 and was buried in a stone sarcophagus. And then 11 years later, in 698, they took him out and put him in a newly-created wooden coffin, and it seems that this book was placed with him in the coffin.

This may have been used at the actual mass when he was elevated to Sainthood in 698. It was discovered in 1104 as the community of St Cuthbert took the book away from Lindisfarme at the time of the Viking raids.

They took the coffin with St Cuthbert and the book in around the North-East and southern Scotland fleeing the Vikings. They ended up in Chester-le-Street and they were there for quite a long time.

Eventually they moved to Durham and then after the Norman Conquests and the start of the building of the new cathedral in 1104 they moved St Cuthbert’s body to his new shrine behind the high altar.

They opened the wooden coffin and we have a 12th century manuscript in the library which records the account of a monk of Durham saying that they opened the outer lid of the coffin and there, in the inner lid, was the book of the gospel.

So it has this amazing story – not only is it Europe's oldest intact book, but it's also closely connected with one of Britain’s most important Saints.

We're currently fundraising for the £9 million price – we need to raise the money by the end of March next year. We’ve got £2.7 million left to go.

It had actually been on-loan to the library since 1979 but the Society of Jesus (British Province) owned it.

They told us that they wanted to sell us and gave us first refusal. We had a robust period of negotiations and agreed a price.

When things are on-loan we don’t invest any public money in interpretation. It can be displayed but we can’t invest in its conservation.

Once we own something we can look into digitising it and making it more widely available on the web so that you don’t have to come in here to see it.

Considering how widely known it is, it doesn’t currently have the profile of something like the Magna Carta or the Lindisfarne gospels.

We want a wider public understanding of its importance and how great it is to have it in a national collection."

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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