British Library buys oldest intact book in Europe

After an unprecedented campaign to raise £9 million ($14.5 million) in 8 months, the British Library has reached its goal and is now the proud owner of the 7th century St. Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest book in Europe that is fully intact from covers to binding to sewing structure to vellum pages. It was the most ambitious and most successful fundraising campaign in the Library’s history, marshaling donations from the likes of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the British Library trusts, the Art Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Foyle Foundation, major individual donors and members of the public.

Although the former owners, the Society of Jesus, had loaned the book to the Library since 1979, since it wasn’t publicly owned the institution could not spend any money on conservation. It was on display, but with the cover closed to avoid any damage to the pages. Once the money to acquire the Gospel was secured, the British Library brought in leading conservation experts to assess the ancient volume. They found it in unbelievably good condition.

The first page of the Gospel of John in the St. Cuthbert GospelThe Gospel has now gone on display in the entrance hall of the Sir John Ritblat Gallery in the British Library building at St. Pancras and for the first time it is open so that visitors can see two of the pages. This exhibit closes on June 17th.

The St. Cuthbert Gospel is a copy of the Gospel of St. John written in Latin around 687 A.D., the year Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, died. The cover and back are made of crimson goatskin leather over birch boards, with a chalice and vine motif embossed on the front. It’s an incredibly rare surviving example of Anglo-Saxon leather work. Inside, the Latin script on the vellum pages is beautifully preserved and extremely clear.

Illumination of monks finding the incorrupt body of St. Cuthbert, from Bede's Life of Cuthbert, 12th centuryIt was written by monks at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, probably with the specific intention of creating a pocket gospel to place in Cuthbert’s coffin when it was moved behind the altar at Lindisfarne Cathedral in 698. When the coffin was opened, Cuthbert’s body was found to be incorrupt for the first, but not the last, time.

The Vikings invaded Lindisfarne in 875, and the monks fled carrying the coffin and its precious cargo with them. They were on the lam for seven years until they settled in Durham. The saint was kept in a church on the site of the present Durham Cathedral (with occasional interludes elsewhere while escaping later invaders), then in Durham Cathedral as we know it today until Henry VIII’s marauders came to pillage the cathedral during the Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1541.

The monks hid St. Cuthbert’s body, but the Gospel was taken during this time and passed into private hands. It turned up again in 1769 when a private collector gave it to the English Jesuit College at Liège, later moved to England and renamed Stonyhurst College. The Jesuits kept it in the Stonyhurst Library until they loaned it permanently to the British Library in 1979.

Despite this checkered past, the St. Cuthbert Gospel has been preserved in a virtually incorrupt state of its own. You would never imagine looking at it that it’s 1300 years old. Now that the Library owns it, they are making long-term conservation plans to ensure that it retains its preternatural condition. They’ve also digitized the entire volume and uploaded it to their website.

The British Library is partnering with Durham Cathedral so the Gospel will split its time between London and Durham.

The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham, said: “It is the best possible news to know that the Cuthbert Gospel has been saved for the nation. For the people of Durham and North East England, this is a most treasured book. Buried with Cuthbert and retrieved from his coffin, it held a place of great honour in Durham Cathedral Priory. The place in the Cathedral where it was kept in the Middle Ages is still the home of our unique manuscript collection.

“I want to pay tribute to the heroic efforts of the British Library in achieving this wonderful outcome. It has been a privilege to be associated with this fundraising campaign. I am pleased that the Friends of Durham Cathedral have supported it with a generous gift, and that one of the fund’s donors has chosen to channel a major gift through the Cathedral.

“As part of the plan agreed between the World Heritage Site and the British Library for its display, we look forward from time to time to welcoming this precious book back to the peninsula where Cuthbert’s remains are honoured. It will be always be loved and cherished here. I am sure Cuthbert shares our delight.”

Bouncy Stonehenge!

Bouncy Stonehenge!

The Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art opened on April 20th, and one particular piece has become a sensation: a life-sized inflatable bouncy Stonehenge. It’s called Sacrilege and was designed by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller. He worked with Inflatable World Leisure for two months to create this masterpiece of public art, and although you might think some Scots would be displeased to have an icon of English history on Glasgow Green, in fact people of all ages are having a complete blast on it because it’s undeniably awesome.

The installation is deflated at 6pm every night and re-inflated in minutes the following morning. Project manager James Hutchinson said it had caught the imagination of Glaswegians.

“I think it would take a mean heart not to smile as you are passing by,” he said. “People have been wanting to get on and we have had all ages from seven to 70. Nobody knows what Stonehenge is for. It doesn’t belong to anybody. Not the Druids or those interested in British or English history or Glaswegians.”

“We come to the green a lot and I was surprised to see it and wondered what it was, but I think it’s great,” says Robert Barnes, 72, who lives locally. “My grandson’s been playing on it and I can’t get him off.”

Deller envisioned it as both an interactive public sculpture and a tactile, playful way to introduce ancient history to young children. The constraints of preservation often by necessity keep people at a distance, including at Stonehenge where visitors are no longer allowed to roam amidst the sarsen stones. A version you can bounce on brings the remote into the immediate.

ForArgyll’s Paul Hadfield has written a detailed review of inflatable Stonehenge’s bouncing good times. Key points:

There were bouncings, boundings, hurlings against the megaliths, collapses for a breather, group bounces, hide and seeks.

You can’t get near the real thing any more but oh boy, you can get up close and very personal with this one.

The ‘stones’ are surprisingly hefty. You can throw yourself at them with impunity – but you know you’ve met. […]

You can see people starting off just bouncing, then getting more inventive, then teaming up in impromptu mass playfulness and daft game strategies, then splitting and going off in separate directions but somehow lighter footed than when they arrived.

Sacrilege will remain in Glasgow until the festival ends on May 7th, then it will travel to various locations in the UK until it arrives in London for the Olympic Games.

Here’s video of Funhenge guaranteed to make you want to play on it even more than reading about it did:


Mole archaeologists excavate where humans can’t

Molehills dot the Epiacum Roman fort siteWhitley Castle, a.k.a. Epiacum, is a Roman fort in Northumberland close to the border with Cumbria, 12 miles south of Hadrian’s Wall. It’s also a scheduled ancient monument, a legal designation that prohibits all excavation on the site. Not even the landowners (Elaine and John Edgar of Castle Nook farm) are allowed to touch the soil. Moles, however, care not for our puny human “laws.” Moles laugh in the court’s collective peruked face and dig with impunity as deep under the fort as their little hearts desire.

Seizing the opportunity afforded by the moles’ tireless efforts, a team of 37 volunteers assembled on the site to sift carefully through the molehills for ancient artifacts under the careful supervision of English Heritage whose presence made the sifting legal and who assessed the artifacts as they were found.

Among the finds were:

A quarter-inch-long piece of rare Samian ware, tableware known as the classic Roman ceramic discovery;

A number of pottery rim fragments from Roman serving bowls and earthenware pots;

A jet bead from a Roman necklace or bracelet.

Roman pieces that had been brought to the surface by the dirt-churning vigor of the moles were found last year too, including a number of nails that confirmed the fort was not solely built out of stone but also of wood. A visitor on a guided walk stumbled on a small bronze dolphin that might have been part of a bath tap.

For now, the Roman artifacts are in the care of Paul Frodshaw, one of the directors of Epiacum Heritage Ltd, a company dedicated to the promotion and development of Epiacum. Elaine Edgar is a co-founder and one of the directors. Frodshaw will catalogue every artifact before returning them to the landowners. Edgar just this month received a £49,200 Heritage Lottery grant which Epiacum Heritage plans to use to raise the profile of the fort as a tourist attraction. The ultimate aim is to have all the artifacts the moles have unearthed be part of an on-site display.

Epiacum, aerial viewEpiacum is the highest stone Roman fort in Britain. Its unique diamond-shaped structure once housed a garrison of about 500 Roman soldiers who were probably in charge of supervising local lead and silver mining operations. It was built at the same time as Hadrian’s Wall (ca. 122 A.D.), but the wall a dozen miles away gets thousands of visitors each year, while Epiacum, despite its unusual design, extensive remains including a civilian settlement, a bath house, some of the best preserved stone ramparts in the entire Roman Empire, not to mention the in-house mole archaeologists, goes almost entirely unnoticed.

It never really has gotten the attention it is due. Small excavations in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries turned up a number of important artifacts like intact leather shoes, coins, pottery and altars to Apollo, Hercules, Minerva and Mithras. Nonetheless, even before it became a scheduled monument Epiacum was barely touched.

The new corporation has plans to create an interpretation center and hopefully lure tourists to the “hidden gem of the North pennines” but they’ll need to raise more funds to make it happen. They also need volunteers to help develop the site within the parameters of the scheduled ancient monument designation. For instance, volunteers can help survey the site in more detail, adding to our understanding of the fort and its occupants during its 200 or so years of habitation. If you’re interesting in volunteering, click on the Help Out page of the website and fill in the email form. Follow Epiacum Heritage’s progress on Twitter @epiacum.

Many thanks to Elaine Edgar for correcting some errors in this entry and for sharing information about Epiacum Heritage’s goals. :thanks:

15th c. Scottish tower gets new living roof

Smailholm Tower with rubble roofSmailholm Tower is a peel tower, a small, four-story rectangular tower used to warn of and for defense against raids by English and Scottish border reivers. It was built in the first half of the 15th century by the Clan Pringle, whose lairds lived in the tower until it was acquired in the 17th century by the Scott family of Harden.

When the Scotts moved to nearby Sandyknowe Farm in the early 18th century, the tower began to fall into ruin. Its decay only enhanced its appeal to wee Walter Scott, future literary giant, whose father sent him to stay with his grandparents at Sandyknowe in 1773 after polio left him lame in one leg when he was just two years old. The fresh air of rural Scotland wasn’t a miracle cure but it did improve his health.

By the time he left in 1775 he could walk with a cane, and most importantly for history’s sake, he could read. His Aunt Jenny’s stories and the songs and legends of the Scottish Borders he read during long winter visits instilled in him a lifelong love of Scottish folklore. Smailholm Tower, with its dramatic vistas and basalt walls, loomed large in his consciousness. It was the setting for his 1801 poem The Eve of St. John, and makes an appearance in Marmion, his epic poem about the 1513 Battle of Flodden in which several Pringles died. In 1831, ill and just a year from death, Sir Walter Scott would return for one last emotional visit to Smailholm with artist J.M.W. Turner.

Despite its historical and literary significance, Smailholm Tower continued to decay. In 1950 it was given to the state by John Sutherland Egerton, 5th Earl of Ellesmere, and various restoration attempts ensued, including a new whinstone rubble roof added in the 1960s over the elliptical stone vault that was originally built to support the long-gone stone slab roof.

Smailholm Tower roof constructionBy 2006, cracks in the rubble roof were leaking water, damaging structural timbers and the top story rooms of the tower. Since rebuilding the original slab roof was not an option due to concerns about whether the current structure could support it and because we don’t know exactly how the original was built, Historic Scotland initiated a project to replace the leaky roof with a grass one that would absorb water.

“In 2006, the agency trialled two different specifications of living roof. One was based on traditional puddled clay below turf, and the other a proprietary clay membrane beneath a sedum mat. The tests were checked over a period of two years, with visual inspections and electronic monitoring, and we discovered that both roofs had been successful in preventing rainwater penetration.”

Historic Scotland decided to combine the best features of both specifications to achieve long-term durability. The capping was based on the sedum system but modified to enhance drought resistance, and to encourage the growth of a thicker sward to improve overall rainwater retention.

The Tower’s new roof is fully reversible, and replicates evidence of previous vegetation that once grew on the roof, as documented in historic images.

So far it is working like a charm. The sedum roof has stopped all water penetration into the tower and it looks fantastic to boot. It’s like a Chia Tower now. :love:

Smailholm Tower with its new living roof
Detail of Smailholm Tower living roof

Pictures of the roof construction and the lovely new green roof courtesy of and copyrighted by Walter Baxter, who generously allowed me to use the glorious high resolution versions you see above. They are licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Dirty pages reveal medieval fears, prayer habits

Densitometer analyzing page of a medieval illuminated manuscriptUniversity of St. Andrews art historian Dr. Kathryn Rudy has devised an ingenious new way to unveil the deepest fears, reading and prayer habits of medieval people. Using a machine called a densitometer, she measures how much dirt is on each page of a medieval manuscript. The dirtiest pages are the ones that were open the most, and therefore most read and referred to.

Dr Rudy said: “Although it is often difficult to study the habits, private rituals and emotional states of people, this new technique can let us into the minds of people from the past.

“Religion was inseparable from physical health, time management, and interpersonal relationships in medieval times.

“In the century before printing, people ordered tens of thousands of prayer books – sometimes quite beautifully illuminated ones – even though they might cost as much as a house.

“As a result they were treasured, read several times a day at key prayer times, and through analysing how dirty the pages are we can identify the priorities and beliefs of their owners.”

St. Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna, ca. 1470-1475Dr. Rudy analyzed a number of European prayer books. She found that one of the most read pages was a prayer to St. Sebastian, the saint who was shot full of arrows at the command of Diocletian but didn’t die from it. The iconography of the nearly nude martyr with wounds all over his body that he survived associated Sebastian with surviving the plague. Legend has it that after an altar was built in his honor in 7th century Lombardy he stopped a plague, so praying to St. Sebastian was deemed a protection against it. Given the alarming frequency and mortality of plague in medieval Europe, it makes sense that the prayers to Sebastian would be among the most frequently recited.

In people-are-people news, prayers for the salvation of one’s own soul were more often read than prayers for the salvation of other people’s souls, and the prayers read in the wee hours of the night and morning are dirty mainly on the first couple of pages. After that, readers consistently stopped, no doubt because they were face down in a puddle of their own drool, snoring happily.