12.03.08, Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels

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Timothy Graham

The Medieval Review 12.03.08

Brown, Michelle P.. The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Early Medieval World. London: The British Library, 2011. Pp. vi, 184. ISBN: 978-0-7123-5801-9.

Reviewed by:
Timothy Graham
University of New Mexico

In recent years the Lindisfarne Gospels has loomed large in the scholarly output of Michelle P. Brown, formerly Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library and now Professor of Manuscript Studies in the University of London. In 2002 a full-color facsimile of the manuscript appeared under her auspices. She accompanied this with a commentary that in 2003 was also published as a stand-alone volume, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe, which has established itself as the definitive analysis of the manuscript, incorporating significant new research, most of it Brown's own. The same year saw the publication of a short picture-book, Painted Labyrinth: The World of the Lindisfarne Gospels, aimed at the general reader and associated with a British Library exhibition of the same title. Her latest book, while recapitulating a substantial amount of the material presented in the major 2003 study (extending to numerous lengthy passages repeated verbatim), offers arresting insights and is especially successful in setting the Lindisfarne Gospels within its broad cultural and historical context. The book is handsomely illustrated, beginning with twenty-eight full-page color plates of the nineteenth-century treasure binding and the major decorated pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, and including almost one hundred and fifty in-text figures, nearly all of them in color. To accommodate a readership of both specialists and generalists, the book adopts an innovative method of typesetting: within each chapter, sections providing basic information are set in black type, with full justification, while more in-depth discussions appear in sepia type, with left justification only. Although the book has not been copy-edited with the rigor one might anticipate from a publisher of the stature of the British Library, it is a splendid volume that will have wide appeal, providing readers with a magisterial evaluation of this most beautiful of early medieval manuscripts.

Over its six chapters, the book progressively narrows and sharpens its focus. Following the Introduction, which provides a summary overview of the Lindisfarne Gospels, underlining its landmark status within the history of book production, the first chapter, "The World of the Lindisfarne Gospels," offers a masterly account of the cultural diversity of the early medieval British Isles. Emphasizing the mixture of Germanic, Celtic, and Greco-Roman influences that impacted upon Insular culture--all these influences being reflected in the script and artwork of the Lindisfarne Gospels--Brown also underlines the range of contacts effected through trade and travel, which linked the British Isles, at the westernmost point of the known world, with the Orient. To illustrate early Anglo-Saxon England's range of cross- cultural contacts, she gives the striking example of a coin of King Offa of Mercia that is modeled on dinars of the Abbasid caliph al- Mansur, featuring Ethiopic script alongside Offa's own name and that of Allah (pl. 11); but her desire to depict an intensely multicultural early medieval world perhaps goes too far when she is obliged to advance the generally-accepted date of death of King Edwin of Northumbria, 633 CE, by one year in order to have him die in the same year as Mohammed (53, 56). "The Lindisfarne Gospels," Brown concludes, "...celebrat[es] visually and symbolically the rich cultural and ethnic diversity of the entire British Isles and their widespread international contacts, signalling that there was a place for everyone and everything within the new order in the eternal and universal fabric of Creation" (48). Of special value in this chapter is her incorporation of evidence yielded by recent archaeological finds: the Prittlewell burial, excavated in 2003, and the Staffordshire hoard, uncovered in 2009 by an amateur using a metal detector. Both of these discoveries have expanded our knowledge of early Anglo-Saxon art while also forcing a re-evaluation of the evolution of artistic styles.

Chapter Two, "The Biography of the Book," provides a detailed discussion of the so-called "colophon group" on fol. 259r of the Lindisfarne Gospels, following the end of the gospel of St. John. It is here that Aldred, who glossed the manuscript in Old English in the third quarter of the tenth century, attributes the production of the manuscript to Eadfrith (bishop of Lindisfarne, 698-721), the provision of its binding to Aethilwald (bishop of Lindisfarne, 721-ca. 740), and the adornment of that binding with precious metalwork to the hermit Billfrith. In recent years, scholars including William O'Sullivan, David Dumville, and Lawrence Nees have questioned the reliability of Aldred's statement and have suggested that the Lindisfarne Gospels could have been produced elsewhere than Lindisfarne itself. Brown emphasizes that Aldred may have based his account on authentic Lindisfarne tradition, perhaps even on an inscription on a metalwork shrine in which the book may once have been stored. More importantly, however, she establishes through a comparative discussion of the style of artifacts executed in various media and associated with a range of centers in northern England and southern Scotland that Lindisfarne is the most likely place of production: the stylistic links are closest with objects produced within Lindisfarne's ambit. Brown accepts that the artist-scribe was Eadfrith, but as she has done in her previous publications, she associates the manuscript's production, not with the translation of St. Cuthbert's remains in 698 (as Rupert Bruce-Mitford and Julian Brown had suggested), but with the years 715-20. Such a dating accords better with developments in Insular script and art, while a terminus post quem of 715 seems to be indicated by certain textual divisions, which apparently reflect liturgical readings introduced at Rome in that year (these readings are referenced throughout the book; one might wish for more specific information about them). Noting that within the Celtic tradition, the copying of Scripture was typically assigned to senior members of a monastic community, Brown sees Eadfrith's labors, conducted while he was bishop, as a work of spiritual devotion, perhaps performed in part in solitary retreat on "Cuddy's Isle," where St. Cuthbert himself had prayed; Lindisfarne, she suggests, may not have had a formal scriptorium at this time.

This second chapter also discusses the history of ownership of the Lindisfarne Gospels up to the present. There are no unequivocal references to the manuscript throughout the medieval period. It may, however, be the book that, according to twelfth-century historian Symeon of Durham, miraculously survived immersion in water during the period when, having abandoned Lindisfarne in 875, the community of St. Cuthbert was progressing through its estates in northern England before finally settling in Durham. From 995 the book was most likely kept at Durham: it may be the "liber magni altaris" mentioned in Durham records, but Brown also suggests that it could be the "liber de reliquiis" that contained documents recording benefactions to Durham Cathedral: Brown's researches have revealed codicological evidence-- offsets of ink and pigment--indicating that additional leaves were formerly tipped into the manuscript at various points. Yet a 1367 reference also suggests that the book may have spent some portion of the Middle Ages back at Lindisfarne, which had been re-founded in the late eleventh century as a dependency of Durham. As for its early modern history, Brown notes that, while it has generally been assumed that the manuscript left Durham following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, a text of the 1590s may indicate its continuing presence there up until that date; this, however, would not explain how it had been consulted in the 1560s for the Old English lexicographical projects of Laurence Nowell and John Joscelyn, who were based in London and are not known to have traveled to Durham. What is certain is that by 1605 the book had come into the hands of Robert Bowyer, Keeper of Records at the Tower of London, from whom it passed to Sir Robert Cotton. The Lindisfarne Gospels was consulted by William Camden for his Remaines of a Greater Work concerning Britaine, published in 1605, and by Thomas Marshall for his commentary on the Gothic and Anglo-Saxon gospels, which appeared in 1665; as part of the Cotton collection, it was gifted to the English nation by Sir Robert's grandson in 1702 and entered the British Museum upon that institution's foundation in 1753.

Chapters Three and Four respectively cover the text and paleography of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Brown confirms previous scholars' conclusions that textually, the manuscript follows a Neapolitan model acquired by Wearmouth-Jarrow; she suggests that a copy of that model may have reached Lindisfarne via Bede, who is known to have consulted with Eadfrith and the Lindisfarne brethren while preparing his prose Life of St. Cuthbert. Two eighth-century Insular gospel books closely related to the Lindisfarne Gospels, and evidently derived from the same textual model, are London, British Library, MS Royal 1. B. vii and the St. Petersburg Gospels (National Library of Russia, MS F. v. I. 8); the three manuscripts, however, have prefatory canon tables of varying designs, indicating that the model lacked such tables so that its Insular copies had to derive their tables from other sources. The sixteen-page sequence of canon tables of the Lindisfarne Gospels is related most closely to that found in a sixth-century Italian copy of Victor of Capua's gospel harmony (Fulda, Landesbibliothek, MS Bonifatianus 1) that later belonged to the Anglo-Saxon missionary, St. Boniface. A notable feature of Brown's discussion of Lindisfarne's gospel text is her observation that Eadfrith skillfully used decorated initials to mark various kinds of subdivisions, including chapters, Eusebian sections, and liturgical divisions; this was "the most ambitious attempt to articulate text by the ornamentation of script at text breaks that the world had seen and was the result of innovative, original planning of layout on the part of [the] artist-scribe" (87). Citation marks entered in the margins and consisting of a pair of dots followed by a versus mark, Brown observes, may be the earliest to occur in any Insular manuscript. The entire text of the Lindisfarne Gospels, with the exception of the headings and numbers of the canon tables, some rubrics and corrections, and the marginal apparatus, is the work of a single individual. Although David Dumville has suggested that the script in which the Lindisfarne Gospels is written--Julian Brown's reformed Phase II Insular half- uncial--is most likely to have originated at Wearmouth-Jarrow, Brown, while acknowledging the influence upon the reformed half-uncial of Wearmouth-Jarrow uncial, convincingly links the script with Lindisfarne and its ongoing Celtic traditions. She believes that the scribe left his work not quite complete because he was prevented from finishing his magnum opus by illness or death. The elements he did not execute were then supplied by the same hand as conducted two campaigns of correction in the Durham Gospels (Durham Cathedral Library, MS A. II. 17), also ascribed to Lindisfarne.

Chapter Five discusses the manuscript's artwork, above all, the five carpet pages, the four evangelist portraits, and the Incipit pages (including, of course, the chi-rho page at Matthew 1:18). Eadfrith, Brown argues, created a masterful and innovative synthesis of Germanic, Celtic, Mediterranean, and Pictish elements; his work represents the epitome of the Insular style. In discussing the carpet pages, she suggests that this feature of the Insular gospel books may have been inspired by the prayer mats on which Christians kneeled when venerating the Cross. Such prayer mats originated in the Christian Orient but, as liturgical evidence attests, were used in Europe for Good Friday services; they are mentioned by Bede. The evangelist portraits, she notes, combine two aging, bearded figures (Matthew and Luke, alluding, according to exegetical tradition, to Christ's incarnation and sacrifice) with two youthful, beardless ones (Mark and John, signifying Christ's triumph over death and return to the heavenly world). This combination, along with the details that three evangelists are depicted in profile while the fourth (John) stares frontally at the viewer, and that only two of the accompanying evangelist symbols blow trumpets, suggests that Eadfrith composed his evangelist portraits using several models, with the intent of making a symbolic statement through the varying modes of depiction. The vibrant menagerie of interlacing birds and beasts that fills the carpet pages and, on the Incipit pages, combines with Celtic La Tène- style spirals and pelta designs, is paralleled in Insular metalwork. The closest links are with artifacts produced within the Columban federation, while a particularly striking parallel to the lettering of the Incipit pages--where Roman, Greek, and quasi-runic forms combine-- occurs on an inscribed stone recently excavated at Tarbat in north- eastern Scotland, itself a Columban foundation. That the artwork of the Lindisfarne Gospels is not quite complete is again most likely explained by the demise of its creator before he could finish his great work of spiritual devotion.

Chapter Six investigates the remarkably innovative techniques used by Eadfrith and concludes that his innovations had little immediate influence largely because of the isolated conditions under which he created his masterpiece. Eadfrith seems to have used a leadpoint-- both for ruling the lines that guide the script and for drafting the designs of the great decorated pages--more than three hundred years before the medium was generally adopted in Western Europe. His preliminary designs for the artwork were marked out, not beneath the finished products, but on the blank reverse sides of the leaves. This meant that he had to compose the designs back-to-front; and when executing the final versions, he must have placed a strong light source behind the parchment so that the designs would show through. Brown suggests that Eadfrith perhaps laid the sheet of parchment on a glass or horn writing-slope mounted on a frame, in a manner akin to a modern light-box. This would indeed be a stunning innovation; not until Cennino Cennini in the fifteenth century was a similar technique described in writing. Previous scholars have seen the leadpoint designs as later tracings, but Brown's observation that the painted versions sometimes depart from the designs does indeed suggest that the latter are preliminary drafts that the artist might then modify as he took up his paints. While future scholars will most likely accept Brown's interpretation on this issue, paleographers may question her account of how Eadfrith entered the text on the leaves, "imposing" it by proceeding one bifolium at a time, so that he would begin by writing the sixteenth and first pages of an eight-leaf quire, then continue with the second and fifteenth, and so on, calculating in advance the exact amount of text that would appear on each page. Although textual imposition was undoubtedly a technique employed in some late medieval manuscripts--and then in printing--its use at such an early date seems improbable, and would surely reveal itself by the scribe's occasional miscalculations, leading to disruptions in the spacing of the text as he had to squeeze it in or space it out at the end of one page in order to coordinate with the top of a page already written. It seems more likely that Eadfrith would have adopted the standard procedure of entering the text sequentially, advancing through a quire one page after the other.

Notwithstanding the extraordinary richness of this book's content and the depth of its analysis, there are some jarring features as well as signs that it was hurried to publication without rigorous scrutiny at proof stage. The writing, while generally compelling, occasionally produces meandering sentences with long parentheses that obscure the meaning. There is a scattering of grammatical solecisms, and on p. 155 occurs a sentence fragment. The author has a tendency to use pronouns and possessives where it is difficult to ascertain to whom or what the terms refer. In discussions of the Lindisfarne Gospels' text, the term recension is invariably rendered as rescension. On p. 66, within the transcription of Aldred's colophon, the Old English letter eth is twice omitted from the beginning of the word ðæm. On pp. 92 and 101, some footnote calls mysteriously appear as roman rather than arabic numerals and are not set in superscript. The illustrations, while of excellent quality, are not well coordinated with the text: figures are often several pages removed from the passages that discuss them, a feature that is especially problematic in the chapter discussing the artwork, where, for example, an illustration of a pair of Islamic carpet pages appears adjacent to text discussing evangelist portraits (116). Beginning on p. 119, as a result of the omission of a reference to plate 49, several plate references within the text are misnumbered; on p. 126 there are as many as five such erroneous references. Plate 7e should show the great Sutton Hoo belt buckle, but instead presents us with the Crundale buckle; plate 54b, the Luke evangelist portrait from the Lichfield Gospels, is printed back-to-front; plate 69, which according to its caption should present the opening of St. John's gospel from the Stowe Missal, actually shows a prayer for forgiveness of sins.

Such errors and infelicities will do little to mar the reader's overall enjoyment of this beautiful book. A more substantial issue is the book's unacknowledged debt to Brown's 2003 The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe. Given the amount of material that is repeated verbatim, there should at least be an authorial or publisher's statement spelling out how the two books relate to one another. In many ways the new publication stands as a more handsomely produced version of the earlier one. Numerous illustrations that there appeared in black and white are here rendered in color and in sharper resolution, while the adoption of the two colors of type, with different text-justification for each, accommodates the book to a readership likely to span both generalists and specialists. In view of the amount of duplication, anyone who has read the earlier book may want to think twice before investing in this one; but for a reader coming fresh to the study of the Lindisfarne Gospels, this will be the book to purchase, and it will not disappoint.

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Author Biography

Timothy Graham

University of New Mexico