"St Cuthbert’s Gospel"

The inverted commas point to the explanation below...

First of all there is a need to clarify the heading. The book is the Gospel according to St John~ written by hand ~ on parchment ~ and bound into a book ~ between leather covered wooden boards ~ once owned by St Cuthbert. This book survives to this day.

It is not The Gospel according to St Cuthbert ~ there is no such thing. It is also known as the Stonyhurst Gospel ~ it spent some time in the library at Stonyhurst College. That might be a better name ~ but popularity has won with the misleading title I have used at the head of this page.

Saint Cuthbert's personal copy of the Gospel according to St John
In the 7th century St Cuthbert was the owner
of this much travelled, much used, much worn,
handwritten copy of the Gospel according to St John

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 established and long-lasting properties of good work.

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

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.

The book's 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. There are many examples of ancient books such as this that have been hacked around and 'spoilt' ~ albeit with good intent ~ eg the Book of Durrow [112035].)

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.

Some additional notes on famous books ~ and links of possible interest

There are numerous scholarly references publicly available on the WWW that describe all the above in more detail. We reproduce, above, illustrations from the web to show something of the surviving craftwork, which ~ I believe ~ has not been reworked or patched-up over the centuries.

The Book of Durrow is a possible rival for 'oldest book' [112035]. It has been re-bound over the centuries. It is entirely handwritten by one author, and contains many beautiful Celtic illustrations. It precedes the Book of Kells by a century or so [126537].

Another famous book ~ exquisitely bound at huge expense ~ The Great Omar ~ has not survived in either its original or copied forms [115032]. A third version was made, and is now ~ as with St Cuthbert's Gospel ~ considered too precious to be removed from the vaults of the British Museum.

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Last updated 2023~0421