In their own handwriting – connecting to the creators of the Lindisfarne Gospels

For the last few weeks I have been researching the Lindisfarne Gospels for a chapter in my book, and writing an article about them for an e-magazine.  For those of you not familiar with the Lindisfarne Gospels, they are a lavishly illuminated hand-written book of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) of the New Testament, in Latin, produced by a scribe-artist called Eadfrith around 700CE, in the monastic community on the island of Lindisfarne (aka Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland in North East England.  About 250 years later, a word by word translation (or ‘gloss’) in Old English was added above each line by a priest-scribe called Adred, at Chester-le-Street where the community was then living, having fled the island after raids by Vikings.

Incipit, Matthew’s gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.027r

The art of the Lindisfarne Gospels is quite widely known today – the manuscript has been digitised and is available on the British Library website, and its motifs are used on all manner of historically-inspired merchandise.  But, though beautiful, the art is not what excites me about the Lindisfarne Gospels.  What makes my heart beat faster is that sense of glimpsing into the distant past something which connects us physically with the individuals who created it more than a millennium ago.

Far from being dry and academic, my research has been a fascinating journey into the England of the early medieval period – what used to be called the Dark Ages, between the departure of the Romans in the 5th century CE and the Norman Conquest in 1066, during which time it was thought that culture, learning and civilisation were largely absent.  Historians think differently now, in no small part due to the artefacts produced in this period which have been found in various excavated hoards, and probably most famously at the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo which was excavated on the eve of World War II and which was found to contain jewellery of breath-taking beauty and craftsmanship.  The sophistication shown in the illuminated manuscripts of the time is now seen, not as an exception, but as representative of the high standards of creative skill on the part of the peoples of the time.

Carpet page, Matthew’s gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.026v

In an era before print, the production of a book – even the most plain and workaday one – was a major undertaking.  First, the vellum which formed the pages had to be prepared from the skins of young animals – calves or lambs – and trimmed and pricked in preparation for the binding process (making the Lindisfarne Gospels required the skins of almost 150 calves).  Lines had to be marked out on the page (Eadfrith invented the lead pencil, and the lightbox, to do this).  Ink had to be prepared, using oak galls and iron.  Feathers – ideally big sturdy ones like the flight feathers of swans – had to be trimmed into pens.  Then the scribe had to copy the book painstakingly from an exemplar, without the benefit of electric light.  It could take years to produce a book – years of dedication, focus, bad backs, cold, working in a scriptorium lit only by south-facing windows in the summer and candles in the winter.  A number of scribes left notes in the books they produced, complaining about their discomforts – issues around health and safety at work and RSI are not new!

The Beatitudes, Matthew’s gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.034r

What I love about these documents, though, is the immediacy of something which was produced by hand.  Just as our own handwriting is distinctive to each of us, it is possible to identify individual scribes by their handwriting.  Often, teams of up to half a dozen scribes and artists would work on a book – the Lindisfarne Gospels are unusual in having been written by just one man.  It is thought that it must have taken Eadfrith several years to produce the text and illustrations for this work.  It can be a stretch of the imagination, in 21st century Britain, to imagine the life of a 7th century monk on a windswept island in the North Sea, toiling on this work of great beauty, to the glory – as he would have seen it – of God.  Even as a visitor to Lindisfarne, it’s a challenge to look beyond the cafés and gift shops, the retreat centre and the museum, and the ruins of the later Norman priory, and picture this as a working monastery, its central work of prayer and worship buttressed by farming, fishery and the creation of high-quality books.  Seeing the personal handwriting of one of those monks, the strokes made by his pen, the drawings and embellishments he drew in the colours he chose (and created himself from mineral and plant pigments), brings him within reach.  Just as when, while researching your own family history you come across a 1911 census return in the handwriting of an ancestor you have never met and who died long before you were born, it makes them more real, so seeing Eadfrith’s handwriting brings him to life for us.

And in the Lindisfarne Gospels we are lucky enough to have the handwriting of two identified people.  I mentioned earlier that an Old English word-for-word translation (or gloss) was added in the middle of the 10th century.  We know that the man who did this was called Aldred, because he left us a note (a colophon) at the end of the Gospels to tell us so.  He also names Eadfrith as the original scribe/artist, as well as crediting the people who bound the book and made a jewelled cover for it.  By translating the text into English, Aldred was part of a movement championed by King Alfred (‘the Great’) in the late 9th century to make English a language not only of the people but also of learning and religion, alongside Latin.  Here we not only have Aldred’s handwriting, we can also see him wrestling with language as he frequently offers several alternative translations of Latin worlds into Old English.  Anyone who has ever attempted to translate from one language to another will relate to this!

Aldred’s colphon, Lindisfarne Gospels. British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f.259r

In these times of emails, word-processing and SMS, handwriting is becoming a dying art.  In one way, that doesn’t matter – as long as we are communicating with words, it’s irrelevant how they are produced – but in other ways we are maybe losing something.  There is no digital equivalent of the personal, intimate legacy of someone’s handwriting – the notes and letters of past generations, which are often all we have left of our own families – and future generations will not experience the particular thrill of poring over a hand-written document produced by known, named people over a millennium ago.  I wonder what ways they will have instead to connect to the human individuality of the people whose words they are reading?

My article on the Lindisfarne Gospels is published in Issue 7 of The Pilgrim, which is available online here.

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