Medieval Literature · Medieval saints · The Book

The St Cuthbert Gospel – medieval Kindle?

I’ve just returned, full of medieval zest, from the Annual York-UEA-KCL Medieval Conference in Norwich. Many diverse papers on such weird and wonderful topics as medieval cross-dressers, Anglo-Saxon crowns (or lack of evidence for them…), cyborg saints and religious athletics served to delight and amaze. After all this medieval whimsy I’ve been inspired to write another little blog post for your delectation.

The St Cuthbert Gospel – medieval Kindle?

St Cuthbert Gospel
The St Cuthbert Gospel

Three weeks ago I visited the St Cuthbert Gospel at the British Library. The next week my partner bought me a Kindle 4. It’s probably something to do with the pocket-sized quality of both. Or the fact that I first saw them in the flesh around the same time. Maybe it’s because I notice medieval/modern parallels all over the place (because they’re there, really!)… but suddenly the two objects, although separated by a space of roughly 1,400 years, didn’t seem so different at all. In fact the Kindle heralds, in some ways, a return to medieval modes of text dissemination. Flummoxed? Hopefully by the end of this we’ll be on the same e-page(!).

The St Cuthbert Gospel

St Cuthbert Gospel page 1
First page of the Gospel

The St Cuthbert Gospel was produced in late 7th-century north-east England, at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow. It is a copy of St John’s Gospel from the New Testament and is the earliest intact European book. I can testify that it looks unbelievably good for its age! The original binding is still intact, and the letters are crisp and legible. I only hope I can age as gracefully.

The book is associated with St Cuthbert, a super-star English saint from the early Middle Ages. Now, I’m not usually one for saints per se, but I make an exception for Cuthbert. He was fond of praying waist-deep in the freezing cold North Sea (seemingly naked, if you go by the manuscript illumination below!), raising his voice to the elements, and then, once he was done, having his feet dried by two little otters on the beach. If you’re going to pray, that’s definitely the way to do it.

The Gospel was placed with Cuthbert in his coffin at Lindisfarne Priory in 698, and was discovered in 1104 when the coffin was opened in Durham Cathedral. By then, the body of St Cuthbert and the book had already travelled from Lindisfarne, across northern England and southern Scotland. The book now resides in London. This pdf, produced by the British Library tells you more about the Gospel and St Cuthbert.

Pocket-sized is heavenly

St Cuthbert Praying
Cuthbert – from The Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert by Bede (Add 39943 f.24)

In their approach to size and portability the St Cuthbert Gospel and the Kindle are practically twins. The Kindle 4 comes in at a petite 170mm x 110mm and the Gospel at an even tinier 138mm x 92mm – perfect for keeping in a handbag or robe pocket for when you need reading material on the go, whether on a busy tube train or, if you’re St Cuthbert, on the road visiting a neighbouring monastery.

Upon hearing the phrase ‘medieval manuscript’, the image conjured for many is likely to be the stereotypical one: a huge, unwieldy, dust-covered tome. But it was common in medieval Britain to divide texts into parts for the purpose of creating collections that were often smaller in physical stature. Many wealthy patrons in the later Middle Ages commissioned their own Books of Hours. These were a customised pick’n’mix of religious content, usually an assortment of prayers, psalms and other texts, and often included a handy liturgical calendar.

Book of Hours
A teeny-tiny Book of Hours

Medieval mix-tape

At the other end of the size spectrum, there were also large miscellanies and anthologies which contained strange and fantastical combinations of texts. The Lincoln Thornton manuscript (Lincoln, Cathedral Library MS 91) is an eclectic treasure trove of medieval romances, religious texts and pseudo-medical advice. It also houses the only remaining copy of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a poem which influenced parts of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, and which the contemporary poet Simon Armitage recently translated into modern English.

So our medieval predecessors had the corner in literary innovation, both pocket-sized and in terms of larger compilations. The Kindle is the great-great-great-great-great-grandchild of the St Cuthbert Gospel in its tiny stature, and of medieval compilations in terms of the concept of including more than one text within one physical object.

Far out, man

In terms of travels, the Kindle has got a lot of competition from the St Cuthbert Gospel. I might take my Kindle on holiday (wishful thinking), or use it on my daily commute to work, but the St Cuthbert Gospel has pretty much done the length and breadth of England and even visited parts of Scotland. St Cuthbert himself was buried with it. Now that’s impressive. Do you think any modern-day saints will be buried with their Kindles? We’ll have to keep an eye on that situation.

Are we in a medieval publishing renaissance?

The Kindle and other ebook readers have prompted a surge in self-published works. A quick look on the Kindle book list on Amazon shows a host of budding new writers, selling their works for mere pennies. The other great thing is that teams of volunteers are digitising texts with expired copyright – this means that a whole plethora of classics are free to download (including some medieval ones)!

Anyway, I recently read an article called My book was a bad idea. The author wrote frankly about her experience of having two books rejected by publisher after publisher, after which she eventually gave up on her dream of getting published to instead write purely for her own pleasure. One of the comments beneath the article caught my attention, and mingled in organically with this subconscious contemplation of the St Cuthbert Gospel and the Kindle:

‘In the Middle Ages a manuscript that someone took the time to write might very well be the only copy of that particular book, but it was still a respectable enough book.’

Now this is not necessarily true – it might have been a rubbish book – but the point here about mass book production and the changed face of the publishing industry since the Middle Ages is a pertinent one, tied in with modern notions of literary success. In this day and age success is often equated with money-making, which in the publishing industry means hitting those high sales figures. This then means that publishers (some, not all) will only consider publishing books that are safe bets, guaranteed to sell well.

Of course, sales volumes weren’t really such a pressing matter in the Middle Ages, with books often specifically commissioned by wealthy patrons or created for ecclesiastical purposes. Before innovators like William Caxton introduced the printing press to England, manuscript production involved scribes painstakingly etching out elaborate scripts onto vellum. This was no overnight process, and took time, money and technical craftsmanship developed over a number of years. There was no such thing as copyright, and no big-name publishers pushing for sales. Just a few monks in a room burning the midnight oil to make a beautiful book. Aren’t these self-publishing writers the modern equivalent?

Perhaps with some of the power taken out of the hands of the publishers, who ‘are not,’ as another comment beneath the article stated, ‘gatekeepers or judges of what is quality’, we are returning in part to a more independent mode of text production and dissemination, similar in some ways to the medieval. Ebooks and Kindles have allowed this interesting development by the very non-physical, digitised nature of the text: we can all be digital scribes now, armed not with vellum and scrapers, but laptops and Word docs.

The St Cuthbert Gospel has now been fully digitised. What a lovely hybrid of medieval and modern textuality, just like the Kindle.

3 thoughts on “The St Cuthbert Gospel – medieval Kindle?

  1. A lovely exposition, the St Cuthbert Gospel is a work of art in itself. You’ve also touched on an interesting issue here. It is commonly believed that medieval western libraries were rather limited affairs focused entirely on “religious” texts to the exclusion of all others until the Muslim invasions and the expulsion of Islam from Spain. In fact there are an enormous number of texts from ancient Greece and Rome on a very wide range of subjects in monastic libraries dotted all over Europe (Henry VIII and Cromwell destroyed a lot of similar British collections) that give the lie to this myth.

    The York conference must have been fascinating!

    1. Thanks Gray Monk, I’m glad you enjoyed the piece.

      The conference was really interesting! So many varied topics were touched upon, which was a real treat. Funny you should mention the Greek/Roman textual inheritance in Britain actually, because we had a Classicist in our midst at the conference who is researching ‘loathly ladies’ in Classical and medieval texts for her PhD. There was undeniably a Classical literary presence and awareness in Britain in the Middle Ages, as evidenced in the large body of references to Classical texts in medieval ones.

      And you’re right, it certainly wasn’t just religious material that was being produced in the Middle Ages. Personally, I don’t have a huge interest in ecclesiastical texts, it has to be said. My preferences lean towards Arthurian romance, chronicles, epics, alliterative poetry, etc. But the St Cuthbert Gospel and the stories about St Cuthbert himself are just brilliant!

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