|illumination, the Lindisfarne Gospels. The text is written in an
insular majuscule hand developed from the script that the monks had
brought from lona. About 250 years later Aldred, son of Alfred and
Tilwin, added a gloss in English. Fortunately for us, he also wrote a
note about the origin of the book that, for a brief moment, draws aside
the curtain that hides life on that storm-swept island:
Eadfrith, Bishop of the church of Lindisfarne, he at the first wrote this book for God and for St Cuthbert and for the whole company of the saints whose relics are on the island. And Ethilwald, Bishop of those of Lindisfarne Island, bound and covered it outwardly as well as he could. And Billfrith the anchorite he wrought, as a smith, the ornaments that are on the outside and adorned it with gold and with gems and gilded silver, unalloyed metal. And Aldred, an unworthy and most miserable priest, with God's help and St Cuthbert's, over-glossed it in English. . . .
Another aspect of the Lindisfarne Gospels bears fascinating witness to the international character of the Church in those early days for (and this is about the last thing one would have imagined) it exhibits strong Neapolitan traits in the liturgical directions which, with tables of lessons proper for festivals and so on, precede each Gospel. This appears to have been the result of an exchange of ideas and experience.
Benedict Biscop, a Northumbrian nobleman who founded the twin monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow, made more than one journey to Italy, travelling right down nearly two hundred miles beyond Naples to the south. Here he visited a Benedictine house famous for its manuscripts, founded about the end of the fifth century by Cassiodorus near his birthplace, and called by him Vivarium, because of its fishponds. Biscop must have spent much time following the rites practised there, and he also acquired manuscripts, which he carried home to Northumberland. On the other hand Bede tells us of Hadrian, Abbot of Nisida, near Naples, who came on a mission to Northumbria in 669 and later spent some years in Canterbury. These travels explain the extraordinary phenomenon of a Neapolitan liturgy being written in a monastery in the far north of England.
In 875 the Danes invaded Lindisfarne and destroyed the monastery. The monks fled, taking their more portable treasures, including the relics of St Cuthbert and this book. It was carried from place to place and, during a journey to Ireland, was washed overboard in a storm. It was recovered, miraculously uninjured, at low tide.
After many wanderings the Lindisfarne Gospels came to rest in Durham, where it was seen by a certain Simeon of Durham in the twelfth century, as he records in his history of the cathedral. But in all probability the book was later returned to the refounded priory on Lindisfarne, for the inventory of 1367 records: 'Liber S. Cuthberti qui demersus in mare . After the sack of the monasteries the manuscript disappears until, in the seventeenth century, it was acquired (stripped of itsjewelled binding) by Sir Robert Cotton. It eventually passed, with the rest of his library, to the British Museum on its foundation in 1753.
'That man is little to be envied,' said Dr Johnson, 'whose patriotism
would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would
not grow warmer among the ruins of lona!' It was here, in 563, that St
Columba founded the monastery that rapidly became the centre of Celtic
Christianity and sent forth missionaries to pagan Europe. And it was
here, in the second half of the eighth century, that the supreme
masterpiece of the Celtic school, one of the world's greatest books, was
written - the Book ofKells.
The Northumbrian civilization, which did so much towards relighting
the lamps all over Europe, was overrun and destroyed by the Danes, and
we must turn to the Anglo-Saxon world of southern England. Here a
distinguished group of kings, bishops and abbots promoted a remarkable
culture. This lasted only a little more than a hundred years, beginning
with the accession of King Edgar in 959 and ending at Hastings in 1066.
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