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Codex Amiatinus – a very English book with an Italian name

St Paul's, Jarrow
Abbott Ceofrid (pronounced Chalfrith) must have been a remarkable man. At the beginning of the eighth century, he was in charge of the twin foundations of St Peter’s at Monkwearmouth (now Sunderland) and also St Paul’s, Jarrow (right), both on or very close to the coast on the far north-east of England. The church buildings have evidence of Anglo-Saxon work, and although both have been much altered, it is still possible to get something of the feeling of what it must have been like at the time of Ceolfrid and Bede; Bede lived at Jarrow.

cod amIn 692, Ceolfrid commissioned three great pandects (all the books of the bible in one volume) to be created, one for Monkwearmouth, one for Jarrow and one to take with him when he went to see Pope Gregory II in Rome; this last book became the Codex Amiatinus. The date is fairly certain because it was in that year that the twin foundations were given a grant of extra land, needed to raise the cattle required for these books. (Map of Jerusalem on the right from the Codex Amiatinus)

Each of the three books had 1029 leaves from calfskin, which was of exceptionally fine quality. The books were large, one calfskin would have had the edges trimmed and then folded in two to make four pages. It’s been estimated that 2,000 cattle were needed for the project, and it should be pointed out that these would be calves, not fully grown mature cattle because their skin is too thick and unwieldy. The books weighed over 5 stone each (75 lbs, 35 kg), and would have required two strong people to move them once bound.

page from Cod AmiatinusThe writing in the Codex Amiatinus is a particularly fine uncial script (opening of St Mark on the right), and for many years was thought to be produced by scribes in or from Rome because of its quality. It must have taken years to produce three great books; seven scribes have been identified and there is evidence that the Venerable Bede was involved in the project. It was only at the beginning of the last century, and then only because of its similarity to other manuscripts known to have been produced at Monkwearmouth/Jarrow, that scholars agreed that the books would have been written by English scribes in England. There is no punctuation, but sections start with a large initial, and it is written as per cola et commata, which means that it is set out as clauses in a sentence, and indented as such. It is remarkably easy to navigate despite there being few illustrations or big headings.

Ezra page, Cod AmiatinusThe text is an almost pure form of the Latin Vulgate translation of St Jerome (the language used at the time, nothing to do with it being ‘vulgar’), and is thought to be have based on a book called the Codex Grandior, an Italian 6th century book, and again a pandect, but now lost. Benedict Biscop, who has recently been adopted as the patron saint of Sunderland, was the founder of the monasteries, as well as being Ceolfrid’s predecessor. He and Ceolfrid visited Rome in 678 and brought back books, including the Codex Grandior, bought from the library of the Vivarium, a monastery set up by Cassiodorus, on the site of modern Santa Maria de Vetere near Squillace, in Italy. (Right: The Ezra page from the Codex Amiatinus)

Two of the pandects stayed in England at Jarrow and Monkwearmouth, but, when he was 74 years of age, on 16th June in 716, Ceolfrid set out for Rome with the third book. It must have been a tearful departure as the monks knew they would not see their dear abbot again. Sadly, Ceolfrid didn’t get to Rome but died at Langres, Burgundy, in France on September 24th the same year.

Codex_Amiatinus_(dedication_page)By the 9th century, the pandect was at the monastery of Monte Amiata, near Siena, which gave the book its current name. It remained there until 1792 when the monastery closed and it was taken to the Laurentian Library in Florence, where it is to this day. In 1888 a scholar called Giovanni Battista de Rossi noted the similarity in text to the bibles mentioned by Bede, and also noted that the dedication of Petrus Langobardorum (Peter of Lombardy, see right, line 5) had been added over Ceolfridus Anglorum (Ceolfrid of England) which had been partially removed. This was one of the great Ceolfrid pandects.



Greenwell leafWhat happened to the two books that stayed? We have evidence that one was presented to King Offa when it was thought that it was a book from Rome, but that hasn’t survived, and nor has the other. However, individual leaves have. The most famous is the Greenwell leaf (right) discovered by the Reverend Greenwell in an old register that he said he bought in Newcastle. Other leaves have turned up including one from a book found at Kingston Lacy; mainly these are used as binding waste, which is why they are often discoloured and with pieces cut off.

So the Codex Amiatinus, one of the most famous books in the world because of its purity of text and script, is actually an English book produced by English scribes from Northumbria. Perhaps its name should be changed to Codex Northumbrianus (or whatever the Latin translation would be!).