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Earliest surviving European book to go on display


British Library

John Burger - published on 10/02/18

Once buried with an "incorrupt" saint, the Stonyhurst Gospel is itself nearly incorrupt.

The earliest surviving intact European book will be on view in the British Library’s exhibit “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War,” opening October 19.

It won’t surprise some that the remarkably well-preserved book once accompanied the relics of a saint who was believed to be “incorrupt,” St. Cuthbert, who was once bishop of Lindesfarne.

The hermit monk’s body was found to be incorrupt over a decade after his passing in 687, in Northumbria, according to JSTOR. When word of this amazing fact spread, the faithful came to venerate the body and leave offerings at his tomb. One of those offerings, a Latin manuscript of the Gospel According to St. John, was slipped into his coffin sometime around 698.

According to the British Library, St. Cuthbert was re-interred at Lindisfarne in 698. His coffin was removed following Viking raids in the 9th century and was later taken to Durham, where it was opened in September 1104 on the occasion of the translation of his remains. The Gospel discovered inside the coffin was removed.

Researchers have found two notes on the book, known as the Stonyhurst Gospel: a 13th-century one and a 12th-century one that had been erased, that both identified it as “The Gospel of John which was found at the head of our blessed father Cuthbert lying in his tomb in the year of his translation.”

“Today the 1,300-year-old manuscript retains its original pages and binding. It was acquired by the British Library in 2012,” JSTOR said, noting that the library has digitized the entire book and made it available online.

Not only the contents of the book but the binding is of historical interest: an “unsupported” sewing technique with threads linking to stitches on a previously sewn section.

“This link-stitch method developed around the Mediterranean and is regarded as the earliest type of codex sewing,” said book conservator Scott Husby in The Princeton University Library Chronicle. “Often referred to as Coptic sewing because of its origination with the Copts of North Africa, this technique spread widely; there are even examples of it from the medieval British Isles, the Stonyhurst Gospel being the best known. Binders from the Greek and Byzantine tradition used this chain-stitch type of sewing, as did Islamic bookbinders for many centuries.”

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