Friday, July 15, 2011

A Really, Really Old Book

Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth

I have to admit, very little has penetrated my bubble this week. I am a few weeks away from finishing a book, and as most authors will  testify, the closer one gets to a deadline, the further the outside world recedes from view. Only the endless schadenfreude (not sure that covers the delicious relish of seeing the Murdoch Empire burn - the Germans need to come up with a new one) of the phone hacking saga has seized my interest. It truly is the scandal that keeps on  giving.

But one other story did catch my attention. The news that the British Library was seeking £9m to buy a book written in the 7th century. I'd never heard of this book but the story behind it is a fabulous one.

Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth
The St Cuthbert Gospels also known as The Stonyhurst Gospel, is a leather bound copy of the gospels and Europe's oldest book. It was found in the coffin of St Cuthbert, after being buried with him on the island of Lindisfarne in 698. When the Vikings invaded, the monks fled, taking with them the body of their saint and the objects he owned. Eventually his coffin was buried in Durham Cathedral. In 1104 the coffin was opened and the book found. It still bears the original leather cover, immaculately preserved. It was kept at the cathedral among other treasures, until Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries when it fell into the hands of collectors and finally the English Jesuit College in 1769.

Durham Cathedral
The British Library has had the book on loan since 1979 but now wants to save it for the nation, displaying it for half a year in London, and the other half at Durham Cathedral. The National  Heritage Memorial Fund is putting up £4.5m to buy it from the Jesuit order, while various other grants account for another £2.75m. Which only leaves another £2.75m to secure the book.

Hidden books in coffins, long sought after, with a soupçon of medieval intrigue. It sounds right up Dan Brown's street. Come on Brownie, get your hand in your pocket.


Dan - Friday


  1. I had never heard of this book, either. What a lovely artifact--and so well preserved, after all these centuries!

    I'm sorry, but e-books ain't never gonna top something like this. (Somehow, it just wouldn't be the same if St. Cuthbert had been buried with a Kindle...)

  2. Currently reading The Sisters of Sinai. Enjoying the parts about Greece/Greeks particularly.

    Amazes me what, and where, biblical materials turn up.

  3. Nothing is more satisfyingly mysterious than a really, really old book. It amazes me, as many books as there have been about old manuscripts, that there haven't been twenty times more.

  4. Buried with a Kindle or Nook. That is a vision!

  5. The sad thing is that the book will be subject to all kinds of deterioration, and is probably handled with cotton gloves, while the Kindle will live forever. This was a great story, as opposed to everything else.

  6. Dan--

    One wonders what Cuthbert (who put in time as a hermit) would think about inadvertently donating four and a half mil to those worldly, socially connected Jesuits.

    The Lord finances in mysterious ways.


  7. The Jesuits are organized along the same lines as the military, an organization which knows a great deal about being worldly and whose advancement system owes as much to skill and knowledge as it does to who one knows.

    I spent some time at Trinity College in Dublin. A group of us went to visit the Book of Kells everyday, after the page was turned. Turning the pages guaranteed that the binding and the page aged gracefully together. The illumination on each page is extraordinary, so many animals and fantasy creatures perfectly formed in brilliant color.

    Nothing manufactured today, book or otherwise, is crafted to last longer than the time necessary to create the next generation. Hold on to something long enough it will eventually need a repair. That's when the owner discovers that no repair is possible because the part is no longer available.

    The monks who created the New Testaments that are treasured in the cathedrals and libraries of Europe poured their souls into their work because the books were food for the soul. Gadgets come and gadgets go but every time someone looks at a page of the Book of Kells, they connect with the man who created this beautiful art in approximately 800 AD (in this context, anno domini is more appropriate than the common era).

    In Irish step-dancing, the lavish embroidery and decoraton is based on images from the Book of Kells.

  8. Lenny, if Cuthbert was alive today he'd turn in his grave. And the Lord sure does - the Church of England, it was revealed, invest in Murdoch's News Corps(e). Figure that one out.

    lil, Liz, Undine - I agree. But saints buried with kindles at their side? Don't be giving Konrath ideas!

    Then again, as Tim hints at, very few books survive the ages. You do wonder how many are squirrelled away by secretive religious societies.

    Beth, The Book of Kells is a marvel. And you're right, nothing connects the ages like the love of a book. Which is why books will never die, regardless of technology.

    Never knew that about Irish step dancing. But then my memories of step dancing are usually clouded by exhaustion and Bushmills.

  9. Talk about curling up with a good book. At least Cuthbert had 400 plus years to finish it before it left his side.

    Murdoch, on the other hand, might need a Kindle to pack all the tales of his deteriorating predicament into a Cuthbert-size post mortem reading room.


  10. A book steeped in that much history has magic in it! A fascinating bit of history/mystery...someone will pen gold based on!