Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Codex Amiatinus: An Ambassador for the English Nation

With pages measuring 27.5 by 20.5 inches and weighing in at 75 pounds, it is safe to say that this bad boy is huge. Not only massive in size, the Codex Amiatinus is also rich in history: it is a highly celebrated manuscript of the Latin Vulgate Bible, and is the oldest surviving copy of St. Jerome’s text, making the Codex the oldest complete bible to date. 

Written in the seventh century, the Codex was produced in the monastic scriptorium at Wearmouth-Jarrow by six scribes under the guidance of Abbot Ceolfrith. Ceolfrith’s predecessor, noble Benedict Biscop, established the double monastery and library in his native Northumbria after visiting Rome. It was at this monastery that the Venerable Bede, the prolific scholar and writer established himself; it is thought that Bede played a large role in the design and production of the Codex as well. A total of three copies of the Codex Amiatinus were produced in Latin calligraphy, however two of the copies are lost. Interestingly, the copy that travelled is the copy that survived. In AD 716 Abbot Ceolfrith and followers journeyed to Rome with a copy of the text, where it was to be given to Pope Gregory II. Unfortunately, the Abbot died en route, and it was not known to have reached its intended. Many years later, it was found in the monastery of San Salvatore in Italy, subsequently, it was sent to the Laurential Library in Florence where it has remained.

The Codex Amiatinus contains 1, 029 folios of vellum, arranged in quaternions (quires of four sheets). It is written in uncial characters in two columns on each page. There are roughly 43 to 44 lines per column. There is narrow spacing between words, with little punctuation. The text is divided into sections, with the initial line of each section written in different colored ink. There is very little ornamentation in the book, and few illuminated pages.

What has always fascinated me with manuscripts is the concept of someone meticulously copying text; as well as images, so another book can come to be. The process allows me to further appreciate printers. When I think of the Codex Amiantinus, I think that even though there were six scribes, each scribe had roughly 300 pages to copy for one book, and there were a total of three books made. To produce these texts, it takes a massive amount of time, effort, and patience, and the likelihood of your creation standing the test of time is not a sure thing. Only one is left, with bits of the other two copies found in odd places and used in other books. What especially drew me to this manuscript in particular, is the size of the codex and how beautifully it was made. Among the thousands of lines of consistent, clear, conscience, scrolling uncial text, I have discovered only two carefully illuminated pages from the text, as well as a lightly embellished dedication page. 

The first illuminated page is the frontispiece of the Bible. It depicts Ezra, an ancient scribe and writer, bent over a codex. He is busily writing, even though his eyes don’t appear to be on the page he is writing on. He has no irises, only tiny pupils in a sea of white: he looks terrified. Behind him is an open cupboard with nine red books on each shelf. I believe that this alludes to the nine volumed Bible written by Cassiodorus, which was obtained by Ceolfrith and Biscop at the time that the Codex Amiatinus was created.

The other image is of a Maiestas Domini (Christ in Majesty). Christ is flanked by two angels in a series of concentric circles. It looks like there are open books with spines facing the viewer within the hedges of the circles. The circles are enclosed by a rectangle, with the four Evangelists and their respective symbols claiming the space created by the corner of the rectangle and the outer edge of the circle. This image precedes the beginning of the New Testament.

The dedication page features the text in the center of the page with a blue and yellow arch curving over the words. What is really neat about this particular page is that the identity of the book was reestablished because of the dedication. The codex had the inscription “Petrus Langobardorum” and was thought to have been an Italian work because it was donated to the Laurential Library from an Italian monastery. In 1886, G. B. di Rossi recognized that several names had been altered, and were written over words that had been removed. He discovered that the original donors name was “Ceolfridus Anglorum”, therefore establishing that the Codex was not Italian, but English. In this way the Codex is incredibly important to the English people, because the earliest known complete bible written in Latin was produced in that region. Thus allowing the English to have bragging rights. 

Fun Facts:

  • The text is made with 1,030 folios of vellum, with an estimated 515 calf hides required to provide the material.
  • The Codex is not exactly complete; it is missing the book of Baruch.


  1. Creating the Codex Amiatinus must have been an amazing feat; even if you ignore that in fact three copies of the manuscript were originally produced. The sheer amount of time and effort afforded to producing this bible is incredible to think about. This manuscript emphasizes the quality and scope of the library at Wearmouth-Jarrow, and it is an incredible scholarly achievement. A vast amount of scholarship and research went in to producing this bible, not merely the physical act of copying an existing manuscript. The quality of production and the integration of native British traditions in this manuscript is also an interesting facet to consider. The Codex Amiatinus was copied from the Codex Grandior which had previously traveled to Britain from Rome. The only now remaining copy of the Codex Amiatinus was intended to be delivered to Pope Gregory II, and although it never made it to its originally intended destination, the fact that the codex was considered high enough quality to be given to the pope indicates the ties between Britain and Rome still existed, although Rome at this time was no longer in control of Britain. Thinking about the Codex Amiatinus having been created when it was and its journey gives me a newfound appreciation for religion and its ability to inspire such a great work of art.

  2. It is hard to believe that the Codex Amiatinus is the oldest complete bible to date. I had not really thought about the tenuous process by which scribes had to copy text after text. I wonder if they enjoyed it at all or if it was just a job that brought in money? I also ponder if scribes that created works such as the Codex Amiatinus knew that their work was going to last a thousand years? I am specifically interested in the historical time period this text represents. A major aspect of this would be the linkage between the British Isles and Rome. Bare in mind this text was published following the fall of the Roman Empire, yet, this text traveled from Rome to Northumbria and then back to Rome. This demonstrates the importance of international ties at this time in history. When I think of the Middle Ages I do not think that travel played a role in daily life, when in fact I am incorrect. People traveled regularly in this period and some of the reason they did so was because of book distribution, in addition to book's used as conversion assistants. In reference to what I mentioned about book distribution I feel it is necessary to touch on the fact that this book represents a period of time where book distribution was growing and strengthening. It is a shame that the two other copies of the Codex Amiatinus did not survive, but it is quite an accomplishment that one did, and the one that did is able to tell historians so much about the past.

  3. The effort that it must have taken to produce a nearly complete Holy Bible by hand is truly staggering, and there is something rather heartwarming about the story of a monastery that was about as far removed from the center of Catholicism as you can get without entering the pagan territory of Scandinavia producing such a codex with the intent of presenting it to the Pope himself. Though the codex never actually made it to Rome, it has survived as a testament to the quality and care with which Insular manuscripts were produced.

    The sheer size of the codex is an achievement all its own, and acquiring the parchment to produce it cost Wearmouth-Jarrow a fortune. The monastery had to secure additional land on which to raise the two thousand cattle that were needed to produce the necessary parchment. It is very likely that the book would have been left on the lectern it was to be read from, given that it would probably have taken several monks to actually move it back and forth from whatever bookcase was strong enough to support its weight.

    On an interesting note, the Codex Amiatinus is one of the few Latin Vulgate Bibles from the Middle Ages that does not mistranslated the word certe (Latin: indeed) as celte (no meaning, though it has been adopted by archaeologists to refer to ancient adzes.).

  4. The Codex Amiatinus is truly a testament to both the intellectual and technological development of the manuscript traditions of Insular peoples in the 7th century. The time and effort that must have been put in to fashioning just a single version of the Codex, let alone another two copies, is an incredible feat. The amount of time that had elapsed between the start of their creation in 692 and their completion in 716, no doubt, affirms the fact that the creation of the Codex was a phenomenal undertaking and an impressive endeavor. There is also the additional monetary cost that must have gone into creating the Codex, which is clearly shown by both the size of the Codex, which made us of hundreds upon hundreds of calf skins, and also the quality of the pages such as purple colored page in the photo examples given on the Wikipedia page. Not only was a complete Bible being produced in full Latin by people from Britain, but the additional fact that this surviving Codex had been intended as a gift to the pope shows that Insular peoples were now producing texts of high enough quality to be presented to the head of the Roman Church. One of the features of this manuscript that I found to be the most alluring was in the text itself, as opposed to the fully illuminated pages. In folio 950 recto, the passage from the first book of Corinthians, there seem to be bits of text at the edges of certain lines that have been scrapped away and it left me wondering if these were mistakes that had been made, omissions from the authors, or the work of later scribes and owners of the various folios who had been looking to restore sections to preserve the passages better. Additionally, the written Latin is actually legible; a relief as some of the manuscripts we have looked at were driving me insane because I could not read the text in its entirety. The Codex is truly an impressive piece of history.