Sunday, April 22, 2012

The British Library and the St. Cuthbert Gospel

I heard this interview on NPR Friday morning:

How much would you pay for a very rare book?

The British Library in London has just paid about $14 million to purchase Europe's oldest intact book, known as the St. Cuthbert Gospel. It's a copy of the Gospel of St. John, thought to have been produced in northeastern England sometime during the seventh century.

Claire Breay is the curator of medieval and early modern manuscripts at the British Library. She says the book's beautifully decorated red leather cover is a wonderful example of Anglo-Saxon leather work, and the inside is astonishingly well-preserved. "The text is beautifully clearly written, looks almost as if it were written yesterday," she says.

But me being me, Claire Breay's statements at the end really caught my ear:

"Eventually they settled in Durham," Breay says. "And then after the Norman conquest [of 1066], with the foundation of a new Norman cathedral in Durham and the creation of a new shrine for St. Cuthbert, the coffin was opened in 1104, and the book was discovered intact inside the coffin."

The story doesn't end there. By the early 17th century, the book was in private hands, and in 1769 it was donated to a Jesuit community in Belgium. "And they have owned the manuscript for almost 250 years, until it's been bought now by the British Library as the result of the largest fundraising campaign that we've ever held," Breay says.

The book had been on loan from the Jesuits since 1979, but Breay says the purchase means the British Library will now be able to invest public money in long-term preservation and interpretation of the Gospel.

"One of the things we really want to achieve through having it in public ownership is to raise awareness of the importance of this book," she says. "Because for a book that is so important, it isn't really very well known."

Notice that the story conveniently skips over quite of chunk of time: the time filled by the English Reformation, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the destruction of shrines, the destruction of St. Cuthbert's tomb in Durham Cathedral, the outlawing of Catholicism in England . . .

In the on-air interview (comments not included on-line), she seemed to blame the private ownership of the Jesuits for the lack of knowledge of the treasure that is the St. Cuthbert Gospel. As I've posted several times in the last year or so on various exhibits in England on saints, relics, religious art, and shrines, part of that lack of knowledge also is due to England forgetting its Catholic Christian past. If the monastery at Durham hadn't been dissolved, and the tomb of St. Cuthbert not destroyed, and Catholicism not temporarily suppressed in England, the Gospel of St. Cuthbert would have been a public treasure all these hundreds of years.

Oh well, as my late father used to say: "If dog, rabbit." (Excuses, excuses.)

You can see (kind of rough) images of the St. Cuthbert Gospel here.


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  2. No worse than the Taliban!

    It can make one shiver to think of the ancient libraries lost during the Dissolution, and then during the Interregnum. I have read of hand-copied manuscripts used as fuel, even toilet paper.