Tag Archives: Claire Breay

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.







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.