Tag Archives: British Library

The Vespasian Psalter

Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.56.19The Vespasian Psalter is an Anglo-Saxon book written, it is thought, in the second quarter of the eighth century. The style suggests the south-east of England, possibly St Augustine’s or Christ Church, both in Canterbury, or Minster-in-Thanet.
The large full-page illustration on the right shows an intriguing mix of Insular interlace, La Tène spirals, and Roman motifs. David is painted as the psalmist with scribes recording his words on a scroll (which could represent the Old testament) and a codex (the New Testament). Musicians play musical instruments and a couple of young men look almost as if they are break dancing!

 

Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.53.12The prefatory material contains pages written in small elegant Rustic letter-forms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.54.53The main text is written in delightful Flat Pen Uncials, held with the pen almost horizontal. The fine serifs at the top and bottom of many of the letters give the impression of the script being written between tramlines.

 

Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.55.37The huge advantage of viewing this manuscript on the British Library’s website (view here) is that the pages can be enlarged so that the formation of each letter can be seen. The large triangular ends to the downstrokes on the letters N and T are clearly shown here, and it is possible to enlarge the pages even more. And the change in nib angle from the flat pen used for the fine hairline serifs and the diagonal stroke to about 45° for the bowl of the letter A is also obvious. The very fine curved stroke leading off to the left from the bowl of the letter A is made by the left-hand corner of the pen. How this is done is shown in writing the letter t in this Calligraphy Clip for Gothic Black Letter here, about 2.30 minutes in. The dancing Insular Minuscule Gloss (word-by-word translation) was written about a hundred years after the main text and is the earliest extant translation of biblical text into English.

Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.54.11But it is the decorated letters which are so inventive. Here is a little gold bird in the letter D with rather unusually-shaped lumpy companions either side. The gold is flat, but it does look like leaf gold rather than shell gold here.

 

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.58.07And on this page, there is a line of decorated letters with a huge initial S. This letter is an intriguing mix again of patterns and decorations from different cultures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.58.36And when enlarged, the sad little bird, who looks most perplexed, can be seen clearly. Note, too the many red dots indicating the line markings and surrounding the letters; these are typically insular. There is more about this page in my book ‘The Art and History of Calligraphy’, published May 2017 by the British Library.

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.56.38The book has another first and that is that it contains the earliest known historiated initials, and the one shown here is of David and Jonathan. An historiated initial is one that tells a story as opposed to a decorated initial.

 

 

Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 16.53.36The book was owned by Sir Robert Cotton, and his was one of the three major collections which made the British Library. Here is his signature in the book.

 

 

 

The Ramsey Psalter

imagesThe Ramsey Psalter (BL, Harley 2904) is a masterpiece of the tenth century; it was the manuscript identified by Master Calligrapher Edward Johnston at the beginning of the last century as a good example of strong letter-forms to start to learn calligraphy. Psalm 1 in the psalter begins with a huge gilded B and this is then followed by enlarged capital letters for (B)eatus Vir qui non abiit in consilio imporum (Blessed is the Man who walketh not in the path of the ungodly …), see right.

 

 

psalter_of_oswald_-_harley_2904_f3v_crucifixionOpposite this majestic page is a wonderfully delicate line drawing of the crucifixion with Mary and John the Evangelist. The economy of line is truly admirable. The artist also contributed to Harley 2506 which you can see here.

 

 

 

 

6412942719_3e20dd5645_bThe Ramsey Psalter was written in Winchester in the last quarter of the tenth century, and is reputed to have been produced for St Oswald who became Bishop of Worcester in 961.For more about St Oswald and the manuscript, the Clerk of Oxford website has a great article here. The script is English Caroline Minuscule; the forward slant, small x-height and elongated ascenders and descenders of Caroline Minuscule have been changed. Once across the Channel, the x-height has increased, ascenders and descenders decreased, and the letters are upright resulting in a grander script perhaps.

 

 

fullsizerenderEdward Johnston developed an analysis of scripts by looking at 7 aspects of letters such that they could be copied. Here is my analysis of the Ramsey Psalter using Johnston’s 7 points (taken from the Historical Source Book for Scribes, I have a limited number of copies so do contact me through my website if you would like to buy one).

f151vThere are superbly executed smaller gilded and decorated initials, as here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

images-2Psalms start with an enlarged gilded initial, and then verses begin with a smaller gilded letter, followed by the grand text script.

 

 

 

 

 

harley-2904-f-144Explicits and incipits were written in Rustics. The gilded Square Roman Capitals starting each psalm are particularly fine.

 
screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-20-19-05What is intriguing to me is the slight darkening around the small gilded initials. I have a theory – it could be excess gold leaf being scraped off, or it could be the stickiness in the gesso leaching out. My preference is for the latter.

To see the whole book click here.

 

 

 

 

 

The Art of the Bible

fullsizerender-2This book published by the British Library is an amazing feat. The book is huge and the dimensions of it are as large as some of the manuscripts in their collections, with the result that the detail is quite amazing. Huge enlarged images fill whole pages, and it is possible to see individual brush strokes in many of the illustrations, the reproduction is so fine.

 

 

 

img_1883The book starts with a short but fascinating overview of the development of the bible and is then straight into the first of 45 featured manuscripts from across Europe, Africa and the Near East, all now in the safe care of the British Library. The Vespasian Psalter is one of the first books shown in detail, and detail means detail. This huge letter S at the beginning of Psalm 68 (Salvum) is reproduced so that it is over 22 cms (just under 9 inches) high. Of course, in the actual manuscript it is only a few cms high, but the enlargement is wonderful. The interlace on the letter, the rather anxious bird or animal (a duck?) on the bottom left, and the precise positioning of the red dots are really clear. And for those of us who love the script letters, enlargements at this scale really show how they were formed.

6a013488b5399e970c01b8d0f8b0b0970c-500wiThe Stavelot Bible is a giant by any stretch of the imagination. At 580 x 390 mm (almost 23 by 16 inches) it is shown well in this large book. We know that the monks Ernesto and Goderannus worked on this book for four years, however, as many as five different artists were involved in the manuscript, so it may be that the two monks wrote the script and left the pictures to others. The images, though, show a very thorough knowledge of the bible so the two religious brothers may well have guided the posse of painters. Find out more about this huge book here.

 

 

061922Another grand book is the Arnstein Bible, only slightly smaller than the Stavelot and produced just under a century later. With its twirling decorated colourful pattern on leaf gold on gesso background, everything about this shouts Romanesque. The image on the right is the beginning of the Evangelist John – work out the ‘In principio’ of the start of the gospel in Latin. Silver decoration has bled into the surroundings and looks rather smudged, but the hair of John, Christ and the old man on the bottom left is painted in amazing detail, and it can be seen really well in this book. All the pages have been digitised here.

 

6a00d8341c464853ef017d3d2dc471970c-500wiThere are over 1,000 images in the Queen Mary Psalter, and although not the original owner, Queen Mary, the sister of Elizabeth I and first daughter of Henry VIII gave her name to the manuscript. It is thought the have been written by one scribe and has two types of images. Gloriously coloured and illuminated pictures as well as line and wash drawings, often on the same page as here on the right. Christ is debating in the Temple, sitting on a rather precarious single-legged stool, and below that hunters are out with their birds on a rather windy day as the ladies’ headdresses look as if they might blow away! For more on this book, the great British Library Typepad has a post here.

 

thumbnail-by-urlThe detail is so amazing in this British Library book written by Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle that it is possible to see individual brush strokes on the faces, limbs and clothes of the people at Balshazzar’s feast (see right), which is the first image shown for the Bible Historiale of Edward IV. The rack of lamb, chicken and duck of the feast with a wonderful gold salt cellar are placed on a white cloth, while the king, with his gold crown balanced on a red hat looks at the moving hand writing on the wall. The manuscript was written in Bruges in 1470 and illuminated in 1479 during Edward IV’s book collecting campaign. See the image in the digitised manuscript here.

This is a treasure of a book and one to save up for to treat yourself on dark winter nights. Every page has brilliant colourful and enlarged illustrations that will delight the eye and warm the soul! Highly recommended.

 

 

The St Cuthbert Gospel – new studies

FullSizeRenderI have already written about this gem of a book on my blog here, but this blogpost is about fesh studies on the manuscript in a new publication from the British Library edited by Claire Breay and Bernard Meehan – The St Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of St John. The new research marks the fact that the manuscript has been saved for the nation (it was on loan before). Claire and Bernard have managed to get the very best experts looking at various aspects of the Anglo-Saxon manuscript which was found in the coffin  of St Cuthbert.

 

 

Loan 74, f. 1vThis new book starts with eight enlarged full-colour images of the manuscript. This means that those interested in the binding can really see the patterns which are both indented and also raised on the front cover, and even make out the remains of paint. And those interested in the lettering have an excellent opportunity to study the letter-forms closely.

 

 

 

 

Loan 74, f. 1The chapter on Materials, Text, Layout and Script by Richard Gameson of Durham is particularly fascinating. Richard notes that the arrangement of the vellum reflects that which was typical of Insular manuscripts, that is hair and flesh sides on opposite sides of an opening spread. On the Continent, hair faced hair side, and flesh faced flesh side, giving a much more even look to the pages when the book was opened. However, unlike many Insular manuscripts of the period, the skin is thin and smooth; usually the skin is thicker and more suede-like in finish. Richard also compares the Uncial style in manuscripts of the time, and includes a photograph of a page in the Codex Amiatinus (previous blogpost here) showing the usual Flat Pen Uncial used in this book with a column of the Angled Pen Uncial of the St Cuthbert Gospel. There is a series of my free Calligraphy Clips showing how to write Angled Pen Uncial here.

st Cuthbert_Appendix4-1The skin has been identified as vellum. An analysis of the hair follicles shows a pattern of narrow rows of three, five or seven holes which indicates calf skin. This can be seen on the right.

 

 

 

 

 

st Cuthbert_z1_Appendix1-9Raman spectroscopy has been used to identify the pigments used in the book. Generally the red in the initial letters is red lead, or minium, which has deteriorated in some places to black, as can be seen on the right. Some letters, though, have been over-painted, and vermilion or cinnabar was often used for this.

The dark brown ink was identified as oak gall ink from the presence of iron salts.

 

 

Add. 89000, f. Front CoverThe cover is particularly interesting, and is addressed in the chapter by Nicholas Pickwood. X-ays show that the wooden boards are particularly thin, rounded and chamfered, and the red covering leather particularly thick.This is the earliest European binding and has fascinated many for years. The red leather is, apparently, only surface coloured, yet it has maintained that vibrant pigment which, bearing in mind the age, is quite astonishing.The decoration of the front cover has also intrigued many – how was it done? X-rays again show that cords were used for the outer rectangles but a much more sophisticated and complicated method for the stylised vine central decoration. The book is not sewn together on cords but by a sort of chain stitch, very typical of Coptic binding. The whole covering and decoration of the book is very sophisticated and suggests the work of an experienced craftsperson.

St Cuthbert Cover_c03-1Leslie Webster looks at the meaning of the decoration and the dating of the binding, and compares the intricate interlace, the stepped cross on the back cover, and the vine decoration on the front with manuscripts and artefacts of the period. Raman spectroscopy has also identified the pigments used to decorate the cover as indigo and orpiment. It seems somewhat over critical, but the original painting, when the colours were fresh, may have made the cover rather garish! The lack of symmetry in the upper horizontal interlace border, in a very symmetrical design, is intriguing.

 

 

Loan 74, f. 2This new research in this book, focusing on the St Cuthbert Gospel itself, also includes chapters considering the cult of St Cuthbert, the St Cuthbert relics, the history of the manuscript and Irish Insular Books.

This is a terrific and fascinating publication taking a new look at a very old book and one which must surely be high on the list of the treasures in the British Library. For anyone interested in manuscripts in general, this manuscript in particular, and the ways in which scientific methods can be applied to shed new light on old processes this is an absolute must. I highly recommend this book! To get your copy, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Kindersley Centenary Celebrations

David Kindersley letteringI happened to be waiting in Exhibition Road to go into the Victoria and Albert Museum many years ago, and noticed the letter-cut sign on the wall. The more I looked at it, the more intrigued I was. The lettering looked so perfect and so even; it was cut over two blocks of stone, and yet no letter was actually on the join. In addition, the steady diagonal on the right-hand side almost drew in to the lettering the obvious bomb damage. It seemed a supreme example of craftsmanship. I learned later when talking with David that, when he was approached to cut the inscription noting that the damage to the building was as a result of air raids, he was asked what sort of stone he wanted to cut the lettering on for it to be attached to the building; his reply was that there was perfectly good stone already on the walls!

IMG_0015David’s lettering was exceptional, his eye for design, and particularly spacing quite phenomenal (one of his quotes was on the lines of a bad space is worse than a bad letter). This year, 2015, celebrates his centenary and there are a number of events planned. For details see the Cardozo-Kindersley workshop website here. One major event is the exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum; this is on from 21st April to 14th June and coincides with more of David’s work at Kettles Yard, both in Cambridge. If you haven’t been to either then both are worth a visit on their own, but take in David’s exhibitions while you’re there!

wall picHis inventiveness and skill are shown here in a picture from the wall in the Cardozo Kindersley workshop – examples of lettering of various styles and designs, and beneath that a cupboard with the tools of the trade. David learned letter cutting with Eric Gill when the latter was based at Pigotts in High Wycombe in December 1934 starting when David was 19. His father, it was said, liked to do things properly, and so he paid for David to be apprenticed. Whilst with Gill, David worked on many important commissions.

 

 

IMG_0004When Gill died in 1940, David was asked to take over the workshop, but once he had sorted out Gill’s affairs, he set up his own workshop at Dales Barn in Barton. David was a leading figure in setting up the Crafts Council and became Chair, stepping down because of concerns of underfunding (’twas ever thus!). David’s lettering for the Ministry of Transport was widely praised, but in the end they chose a lower case monoline style for motorway signs. Yet his clear and readable letters are still seen throughout Cambridge and in other towns and cities which have an eye for good design!

pod57Many commissions flowed from the workshop in Barton and when it was moved into a converted infants’ school in Cambridge itself, not least the magnificent gates for the British Library, designed by David and his third wife, Lida. They are a fitting addition to a remarkable building.

 

 

 

 

IMG_0394The workshop is currently preparing for the exhibitions and centenary events and here is a selection of David’s work being considered for inclusion. Again it shows just how versatile and talented he was.

There is not only the exhibitions but also an evening at the British Library with Tanya Harrod, Fiona MacCarthy and Lida and Hallam Kindersley on Friday 12th June (tickets here). The London exhibition is at the Patrick Bourne Gallery on 15th June, with pieces of David’s work for sale alongside new pieces by the workshop. Then the Centenary Walk is previewed here, and also a wonderful set of playing cards with David’s work featured on the backs of the cards – a delightful video shown here.

All in all a great way to celebrate the life and work of such a wonderful man, a true Alphabetician!

History of the Book in 100 Books

GutenbergIt would be difficult enough selecting 100 books just in Britain to represent the history of the book from scrolls to codices, to manuscripts to printed books to e-books. And then there’s what’s in the books – fiction, scientific books, company reports, instruction manuals, religious books – and what religions? – Christian (Gutenberg Bible completed in the mid-1450s on the right), Muslim, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism etc  – so authors Roderick Cave and Sara Ayad really did have a task on their hands when they took on all the books of the world!

 

 

Ptolemy's world mapStarting with cave paintings, this book is divided into 11 sections and ends with digitisation and the future of the book, having taken in mediæval books, books from the East, printed books and printing and the great classics along the way. Atlases are included, such as this of Ptolemy’s world map from the Cosmographia of 1482, and describes all the known world. As he was based in Alexandria the most detail is around the Mediterranean, and the southern hemisphere is lacking a bit!

Elementa GeometriaeScience books are not left out, and Euclid’s Elementa Geometriæ, was translated from Arabic into Latin by Abelard of Bath in the 12th century. The printed version by Erhard Ratdolt, on the right, was made in Venice in 1482, and, amazingly at this early date in printing history, there are printed geometric diagrams.

 

 

 

 

L'escole de fillesAnd pornography is not new either! In 1668 Samuel Pepys burned a book (another copy on the right) that he had bought for his wife to translate from the French. L’eschole des filles was a dialogue between a young virgin and a more experienced female cousin. Pepys made sure that he read it before burning (hmm! even missing church to do so); he described it as ‘the most bawdy, lewd book that I ever saw’.

 

 

Playfair's Commercial and Political AtlasThe History of the Book in 100 Books is comprehensive and has details of a very wide range of selected books (including Playfair’s Commercial and Political Atlas on the right). There is also an extensive bibliography for those who want to read more, and a detailed glossary. Each opening spread has a very useful ‘Connections’ section so that it’s possible to look at other related books. If you’re stuck for a gift for the person who has everything, then this could well be the answer!

The Art and History of Globes

Farnese AtlasEven around the time of Pythagoras in the 6th century BC, the ancient Greeks thought that the earth was a sphere, with Plato (c.429–347BC), a little later, likening the earth to a leather ball. Similarly, the heavens were considered to be spherical in form, and the Farnese Atlas (right) shows Atlas, a Titan, holding the heavens, as a globe, on his shoulders.

 

 
Globe, 1606-21Globes were made before 1500, but very few have survived, and it was in the early 16th century that printed globes were made. This new publication, The Art and History of Globes, from the British Library is a detailed and lavishly illustrated book, beautifully designed. The author clearly knows her stuff, and covers the history of globes in a thorough and detailed way. The section on how globes were made is fascinating and one of the best sections in the book for any craftsperson. What follows then are page-after-page of stunning photography of globes, some enlarged over two pages with wonderful close-ups, and detailed information on each. The globe on the right was originally made in 1606 but revised to include the discoveries at the tip of South America in 1616.

Globe 3The North Pole on this globe from 1730 (right) is shown as ‘Parts Unknown’, but the East Coast of America depicts details of new discoveries. The prime meridian line goes through London rather than Greenwich, but after the founding of the Royal Observatory in 1675 at Greenwich astronomers and navigators began to use it as the base zero for longitude.

 

 

 

Globe 4This globe on the right was engraved by Thomas Bowen (c.1733–1790), and includes details of the recent discoveries around the North Pole. The distance from the sun from the equator throughout the year is also shown. However, this globe pre-dated Captain Cook’s voyages, so that part of the world is rather vague!

 

 

 

 

Globe 1Of course, globes were not just for the earth, but also for the heavens. This celestial globe on the right was made by Thomas Malby in 1869. It was in rather a poor state before it was repaired and conserved.

This wonderful book is not only essential reading for anyone interested in globes, the mapping of the world, and the engraving of maps for globes. But I also think this is a book that would be just the ticket for those who you just don’t know what to get them for Christmas or a birthday! Thoroughly recommended!

What’s on show at the British Library?

Lovell LectionaryI thought it would be helpful to have an easy link to the manuscripts on display at the British Library. Thanks to Dr Kathleen Doyle for supplying the list. I plan to update this when new manuscripts are added or are removed.

These are they:

Harley MS 4431, ff. 2v-3 Christine de Pizan
Add. MS 20698, ff. 69v-70 The City of Ladies
Harley 7026 ff. 4v – 5 The Lovell Lectionary, England, 1400 – 1410
Egerton 608 ff. 138v – 139 An Echternach Gospel-book, middle of the 11th Century
Harley 2804 ff. 216v – 217 The Worms Bible, central Germany, circa 1148
Add. MS 16977 ff. 186v – 187 Glossed Bible, Paris, Second-half of the 13th Century
Egerton 618 ff. 57v – 58 Early Wycliffite Bible, London circa 1400
Royal 1 C viii ff. 325v – 326 Later Wycliffite Bible. London (?), Early 15th Century
Add. MS 39625 ff. 71v – 72 The Vidin Gospels, Bulgaria, mid-14th Century.
Add MS 39626  ff 292-293 The Gospels of Jakov of Serres
Add. MS 39627 The Gospels of Ivan Alexander
Sloane 1975, ff.42v-43 Herbal
Add 41623, ff.35v-36 Herbal
Add 18850, ff.207v-208 Bedford Hours
Add 82945, ff.18v-19 Wardington Hours
Harley Roll Y.6, first 2 or 3 membranes Guthlac Roll
Add 5111, ff.10-11 Canon tables
Burney 19, ff.63v-64 Portrait of Mark

The Dering Roll

Sir Edward DeringThe Dering Roll is the oldest roll of English coats of arms and dates from 1270–1280. In the seventeenth century it was acquired by Sir Edward Dering (1598–1644) (right), from Dering in Kent, who is described as a knight and a baronet. He bought it in the seventeenth century, and although it seems dreadful to us now, he ‘modified’ the roll to include a fictitious ancestor of his own. While Dering was lieutenant of Dover Castle, he removed entry number 61 on the roll, the coat of arms of Nicholas de Croill, and put in his own arms with the false name of Richard fitz Dering in its place. This was to prove the ancestry of his family.



Dering rollIt is thought that the roll was commissioned by the Constable of Kent, Stephen of Penchester, which would explain why there are more coats of arms from Kent and Surrey than from elsewhere.

The roll itself starts with the two illegitimate children of King John (1166–1216, king from 1199 to 1216) who were Richard Fitz Roy (fitz = son, roy = king) and William de Say, although their coats of arms at the top are difficult to discern because of the condition of the roll.

Dering rollMade from four strips of 8 inch wide parchment pasted together, and stretching to almost three yards in length, it is a huge piece of work, and it’s remarkable that it has survived so well. The shields are arranged six to a row and there are 54 rows, making 324 shields in all. All but five of them have the individual names of the knights written above them. These names have either been removed or were never written in in the first place. The background to the colourful shields is painted green.

NPG x166117; Sir Anthony Wagner by Godfrey ArgentIn the twentieth century it was bought by Sir Anthony Wagner (right) who became Garter King of Arms at the College of Arms in London. It was sold at Sotheby’s in 2007 for £192,000 and was due to be exported from the country. A stay of execution meant that the British Library were able to raise the sum of £194,184 to ensure that it stayed in the country. The importance of this heraldic roll is summed up by the Head of Mediæval and Earlier Manuscripts, Claire Breay, who said of the purchase, ‘the acquisition of the Dering Roll provides an extremely rare chance to add a manuscript of enormous local and national significance’.

 

St Cuthbert’s Gospel – a rare jewel

St Cuthbert's Gospel 1St Cuthbert’s Gospels is one of the most covetable books I have ever had the privilege to see close up. Being within a foot or so of a seventh-century book that was found in the coffin of the important Northumbrian saint, St Cuthbert, was an amazing experience. When the coffin in the shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral was opened in 1104, the book was found placed there with other objects such as St Cuthbert’s pectoral cross and precious textiles. It fits in the hand, as you can see on the right, and could so easily have slipped into my pocket if no-one had been watching!

 

 

St Cuthbert Gospel, coverWhat is quite remarkable about the book is that it is still in its original binding, and as such is the oldest European bound book. Deep red leather covers wooden boards. On the front cover a scroll pattern and straight lines (which make a neat frame) have been outlined, possibly with cord or even carved wood which was then glued on to the cover. This meant that, when the red leather was pasted on, these areas became raised from the surface. In the surrounding border and in the upper and lower blocks, an interlace pattern has been indented and also coloured; the yellow pigment is more obvious than the blue in this photograph.

 

Coptic bindingThe gospel is a coptic binding, which means that, rather than the sections of folded pages (gatherings) being sewn on to wide tapes and these then attached to the covers, the gatherings are sewn with thick thread in a sort of chain stitch (see right) and these hold the sections of the book together and are then attached to the wooden boards (as you can see on the right). This is how codices (books as we know them) were first made and they rarely have covered spines. The wooden boards of this book (right) – made when I was at college – would then have been covered by red leather and tooled to get the effect of the St Cuthbert Gospel.

Coptic book openThe binding is particularly flexible, as you can see again here with that college-made book. When I was being filmed writing the first page of this book at the British Library I was able to speak to the conservation book binder, and he said that the spine is still completely flexible, and it would be possible to turn the book round completely on itself so that back and front cover could touch – of course he hadn’t done this!

St Cuthbert Gospel, f. 1Inside the book the text is written in the lettering style of Uncial. There are very few ascenders and descenders and the letters are essentially majuscule. The Gospel of St John starts with a long versal I in red (versals are letters where the thicker strokes are constructed out of two or more pen strokes, rather then simply changing the nib to the thickest angle and making one stroke); this letter is followed by a smaller letter N. The red ink has smudged slightly over the years. The rest of the text is in a dark brown ink. As with most scribes when writing an important manuscript, the first few words are rather tightly written, but by line four things are more relaxed, although it is only in the second paragraph that the scribe really gets into his stride. Notice, too, that the first two words (In principio – In the beginning…) are written with more pen nib angle changes than for the remaining Angled Pen Uncial script. This page, too, because it is the first page, is more discoloured and worn than the rest of the book.

St Cuthbert's Gospel 2And the remarkable aspect of this book is how even and pleasing on the page the text is. There is considerable consistency to the lettering, and it is quite easy to read with very few contractions, unlike some manuscripts written centuries later. Look out for Lazarus at the end of the second line on the right, for example (obviously this page is about the raising of Lazarus). It is written per cola et commata, that is the length of the line is determined by the sense of the text, and a subsequent clause starts on the next line. You may also be able to see the fuzzy ink indicating an erasing at the start of line 8. The scribe has scratched out whatever it was written in error and the vellum skin is rougher at this point. Look out, too, for where the ink is running out and so the scribe fills his quill for the next letter. In the second to last line the letters TT in quattuor have had additions to the start of the serifs on the crossbar (look closely, and see that the crossbars are fainter at the beginnings and ends, and so the scribe has added tiny strokes with a full quill of ink to emphasise them).

Look also at the free Calligraphy Clips page on this website for how to write this style of lettering (it’s the latest set I’ve put up so you’ll need to scroll to the bottom).

photoWhen the St Cuthbert Gospel was saved for the nation, the British Library made a film to celebrate this, and I was lucky enough to be asked to show how the first page was done. I tried to be as ‘period’ as I could. I knew that a plastic ruler wouldn’t quite cut the mustard, so I found a piece of wood to draw the lines (rather large, but it was real wood), and fished out an old bradawl from the tool box to score the lines. There is no sound on this clip, but it does show how the page would have been set out, and how the letters were written.

The book is now at the British Library, and they were thrilled to own it now, as is evident on this BBC World News item with Dr Claire Breay (a couple of seconds in on this clip). It is usually on display in the British Library, and for many years it was shown closed – very frustrating to we scribes! Conservation experts have indicated that it can now be displayed open so everyone can have a chance of studying the wonderful script for themselves.