St Cuthbert’s Gospel

First of all there is a need to clarify the heading. It is not The Gospel according to St Cuthbert. It is the Gospel according to St John, written by hand, on parchment, and bound into a book, once owned by St Cuthbert, and surviving to this day. The book is claimed to be the oldest surviving bound book in Europe, and possibly the world. It is now kept securely in the British Museum, and is regarded as too precious to be continuously displayed to the public. We are happy to record a few notes on it here, since we are keen to support craftspeople of all centuries, and also to demonstrate the long-lasting properties of good work.

St Cuthbert's Gospel is a good example of what is called traditional codex bookbinding. Pages of text ~ assembled in order ~ folded into folios ~ gathered into sections ~ sewn on cords ~ worked headbands ~ bound between boards ~ covered in leather ~ appropriately decorated.

Saint Cuthbert's personal copy of the Gospel according to St John

St Cuthbert owned this copy of St John's Gospel in the 7th century

St Cuthbert died in 687, so the book is around thirteen centuries old. It has survived since then because it was interred with him. For some reason his coffin was opened four centuries later and the book was removed. Its significance was sufficiently recognized for it to have been treated with respect. Nor has anyone tried to preserve it by sticking loose pages back with adhesive tape. (Bookbinding novices please note: book preservation must be left to experts. Do not do anything to "repair" any old volume until you have qualified as a conservator, for which great knowledge and experience, spread over ten years or more, is required. The gospel in the photograph above would normally have been protected by holding it in a clean and cotton gloved hand, to prevent impurities, such as skin grease, from soiling it. Either the photograph was taken before the museum bought it, or a dispensation was made for this picture. Those are the sorts of matters that conservators insist upon.)

The broken spine of a very old book

I suspect this is the original, untampered, stitching. However old it is, it demonstrates the same method of hand stitching that is used today.

Close-up of a headband, worked about 1300 years ago

The headband is worked around a hempen cord, with a decorative faded blue thread.

A handwritten page of Uncial script

Latin and "Uncial" style of handwriting. There are signs of worm damage.

Close-up of the cover of St Cuthbert's copy of St john's Gospel

The decorative leatherwork could well have been that of a 20th century craftsman. It takes quite some skill to work, and finish in gold, a Celtic knot.
There are numerous scholarly references publicly available on the WWW that describe all this in more detail. We reproduce, here, some illustrations from the web to show something of the surviving craftwork. Unlike another famous bound book, The Great Omar, [115032]. It was carefully preserved in an oak box and shipped to a customer in America on the Titanic. Painstakingly remade, it was later destroyed by fire during World War II. A third version was made, and is now, also, too precious to be removed from the vaults of the British Museum.)

 

 

 

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