Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Lindisfarne Gospels: One of the Middle Ages' Greatest Treasures

I find it hard to comprehend the amount of time that some manuscripts have survived, and moreover, how these manuscripts have changed the way history is perceived in present-day. The Lindisfarne Gospels is a wonderful example of a text that has survived for 1300 years. The text offers historical evidence of the spread of Christianity throughout the British Isles, and in addition, demonstrates the importance of Christianity in people's lives at the time. It is remarkable that this text can be referenced today simply by searching the name in a Google browser. I think that the Lindisfarne Gospels is incredible because of the amount of information about the past that is preserved within its binding. To begin my discussion, I will expound upon the information the book offers through the history of the text, and later, explain its importance as a historical document.

The history of the text dates back to around 698 (Christopher de Hamel) or between 715-20 (Michelle Brown). The scribe of the text, Eadfrith, a bishop of the island monastery of Lindisfarne (located in Northumberland in the northeastern part of England), also known as Holy Island, wrote the text. The text dates to the transition from the Greco-Roman period into the Middle ages.

Brown outlines five examples of influencers that are attributed to the production of the Gospels, which I believe are worth mentioning. First, "The monastery at Lindisfarne was established by monks from St Columba’s island monastery of Iona in Ireland." Monks from Ireland migrated to England and brought with them beliefs and practices which eventually filled the gospels. Second, "The native British people left in the wake of the Roman Empire." Following the destruction of the Roman Empire, people began to move out of Roman territories leaving the island somewhat vacant. Third, "The Germanic warlords and settlers… form[ed] England." England became a kingdom that was formed from the Germanic example. Fourth, "The legacy of Rome and its Early Christian Popes and missionaries' influenced the Gospels." After the fall of the Roman Empire, people did not wish to abandon Christianity. In fact, Christianity continued to spread even after the fall of the empire. And fifth, "The exotic, timeless mysticism of Byzantium, northern Africa and the Middle East." These far off places helped to create the elaborate illuminations that are present in the Gospels. These five influencers are responsible for the text that lies within the Lindisfarne Gospels. It is mind boggling to be able to trace them and link all that to one document.

The Lindisfarne Gospels contains the four gospels of Mark, Luke, John, and Matthew, which reference the life of Jesus Christ. There are five decorated pages of the manuscript, one of which that outlines St Jerome’s address to Pope Damascus across from a beautiful cross-carpet. 

The Gospels also contain sixteen pages that outline the canon that I find quite incredible. 

Something else that is really interesting is the fact that each evangelical is demonstrated at the start of their chapter with an illumination of them reading or writing their perspective gospel.

I think the history of the Gospels is really interesting as well because of the uniqueness of its initial purpose and eventual use. The Lindisfarne Gospels was originally used as a display piece. It is believed that the book was displayed for the first one hundred of its existence next to the remains of St Cuthbert. Around the year 875 the monks at Lindisfarne fled the Island due to a Viking advance. They took with them the Lindisfarne Gospels and the relics of St Cuthbert. This event mirrors the biblical account of Moses and the Israelites seeking the ‘promised land’ (Brown). During the movement of the Gospels, a myth arose about an encounter the monks had while they were at sea, reflecting the parting of the Red Sea during the Israelites escape from Egypt. The Gospel eventually made its way to Chester-le-Street, and was annotated into the Anglo-Saxon language around the 950s-60s, by a Christian called Alfred. He not only glossed the text but he also created a ‘colophon’ (a description of the production of the Gospels), which will be elaborated on later. The outline of production history remains one of the reasons the Gospels remain important today. Unlike most of the manuscripts that exist today from the early Middle Ages most books’ histories are somewhat unknown, whereas, the colophon present in the Lindisfarne Gospels offer a great deal of history that would otherwise be unknown.

An example of a book that was written around the time the Lindisfarne Gospels is the Book of Kells. One of the differences between the two books is that we know more historically about the production of the Lindisfarne Gospels, as opposed to the little we know about the Book of Kells. De Hamel mentions, “We know where it was made, who wrote it, why, who bound it, who decorated the binding, and who glossed the text. We know enough about the craftsmen to be able to date the manuscript fairly closely.’’ It is worth noting that the decorated binding was rather extraordinary. Originally it was leather bound by Ethelwald, and later, in the 8th century, was redone with extravagant medals and jewels by Billfirth the Anchorite (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero D.IV). It was again redone by Edward Maltby in 1852 and remains in that state today.

I think that the colophon that is found within the Lindisfarne Gospels is rather unique. I want to mention that not only is it physically present, but it also is thought of to be extremely accurate; this is something historians cannot say about other manuscripts from the era. De Hamel believes that there is no reason to doubt Alfred’s account of who wrote what and when. He alludes that “Eadfrith, bishop of the Lindisfarne Church, originally wrote this book, for God and for St Cuthbert and – jointly – for all the saints whose relics are in the island. And Ethelwald, bishop of the Lindisfarne islanders, impressed it on the outside and covered it – as well as he knew how to do. And Billifrith the anchorite, forged the ornaments…” It is unlikely to find the depth of background that is exhibited by this text in any other book from this time period.

The Lindisfarne Gospels represents a time period in remarkable accuracy. I believe they are worth learning about simply because they remain beautifully preserved today despite their age. 


  1. One of the things I thought was most interesting from this past week was our comparison of the illuminations in the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Codex Amiatinus, since both were made around the same time and display some similar themes in insular manuscript production. The portraits of Ezra the scribe in each are particularly interesting to me, because of the difference in the contents of the rooms he is writing in.

    In the Amiatinus illumination, Ezra is in a room with a sort of bookshelf armoire in the backdrop, and is otherwise alone. On the other hand, in the Lindisfarne illumination, St. Matthew is included in his eagled form above Ezra's head, yet I'm still curious as to who the fellow appearing to peek into the room is - is it just another form of St. Matthew? I couldn't find a description that mentions him, so that would be interesting to figure out. Additionally, we may have gone over this in class (though I don't remember it specifically), but are the gold circles around these figures halos? If the other figure in the room is a more flesh-and-blood version of Matthew, that would be super interesting to me, as it would symbolically work to reinforce Ezra’s (and the individual gospels’) authority.

  2. The Illuminations in the Lindisfarne Gospels are just as amazing as the manuscripts origins and history. I find the carpet pages to be particularly interesting along with the illuminations in and around some of the writing.
    The carpet pages are named because they are meant to reference actual prayer mats. In Bede’s writings it is explained that these mats were known in Northumbria along with early Christianity and Islam. The geometric designs are created around a central cross; each cross on a page is different from the next. This is because each is meant to represent as different Church tradition. These carpet pages are similar to ones found in the Book of Durrows and the Book of Kells, which were both likely made in the same location.
    The illuminations in the manuscript are in the ‘insular style’. The interlace or ‘knot work’ patterns within a lot of the illumination is a style that can be found from Coptic to north Italian art. Germanic mercenaries even used it. These designs were inherited from Greco Roman art. But the style used by the artist-scribe of Lindisfarne took the styles that were a fusion of Celtic and Germanic and created his own style. Which was interpreting realistic creatures in a decorative fashion. The combinations of cultures that inspired the illuminations in the Lindisfarne gospels aren’t surprising but are still fascinating to learn.

  3. To me, one of the the most fascinating aspects of this manuscript is how many times its been rebound.This truly demonstrates the importance the Lindisfarne Gospels held, not only for us, but for all the generations in the past. Each rebinding must have been meticulously and expensively done to allow it to be in the shape it is today.

    This is always a surprise to me because for some reason I can't get through my head that most of these manuscripts were as revered in their time as in ours. And when I find evidence, like this, that is contrary to that belief it is almost poetic in how similar humans in history can be with what they find beautiful.