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The Curious Reason Europe's Oldest Intact Book Was Found In The Coffin Of An "Undecayed" Saint

author

Madison Dapcevich

Staff Writer

clockOct 2 2018, 10:52 UTC

The Gospel of St John (formerly known as the Stonyhurst Gospel) is the oldest intact European book. Wikimedia Commons

During his lifetime, Saint Cuthbert was a hermit monk famous for his healing powers. Although he attracted both paupers and noblemen during his 7th-century tenure, it wasn’t until after his death that he reached sainthood and harnessed a cult following.

Nearly a decade after Cuthbert died in 687 CE, followers lifted the lid of his coffin and claimed his body had not decayed. It was apparently still as “flexible as a living man”– a sign of purity and holiness. It sparked a movement, and in the years following believers carried the coffin across Britain as they fled from Vikings and instability. 

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While claims of Cuthbert’s incorrupt body have not been validated, another item found in his coffin has stood the test of time, providing a window into the era of Cuthbert’s following.

When his body was reinterred for the last time in 1104 CE, the saint’s followers found a small red leather book placed near his head.

"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," reads a note written to accompany the manuscript after its discovery. 

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The book was removed from Cuthbert’s coffin before he was laid to rest and held at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, UK. In the 1,300 years that followed the book has been passed between the protective care of historians, archivists, and religious leaders. Since 2012, it has been housed at the British Library.

 

The manuscript is the only one surviving from this period that's original in appearance – both inside and out. Wikimedia Commons

Often dubbed the "St Cuthbert Gospel", the Gospel of St John is written in Latin on pages bound by threaded birch boards covered in goatskin stained crimson. It’s been described as “miraculously well preserved,” and as one of the “world’s most important books,” it is the only high-status manuscript surviving from this period that's original in appearance – both inside and out.

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The book is notable in three parts. First, researchers note it is an important example of Insular art that was popular across the British Isles between 600 and 900 CE. Due to the circumstances of its discovery, the book was well maintained in the centuries that followed and was transferred with other relics of early decorative art.

The design of the book also lends information about how publishing and book construction knowledge began to be shared across Europe during this time. The book was bound using a method called “link stitch”, which was first developed in the Mediterranean and Africa – a technique that would have made its way north as people traded knowledge.

Lastly, researchers believe the spiritual book wasn’t randomly selected but was in fact chosen to serve as a talisman in the saint’s afterlife. During the 7th and 8th centuries, a book was fitted with cord or placed in a pouch and worn on the body to ward off evil and help guide its bearer. 

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The manuscript will be on display at the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition beginning October 19 and is also available in its digitized form online

The book was bound using a method called “link stitch”, which was first developed in the Mediterranean and Africa. Wikimedia Commons

 

Dubbed the Saint Cuthbert Gospel, the Gospel of St John is written in Latin on pages bound by threaded birch boards covered in goatskin stained crimson. Wikimedia Commons

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