The Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated manuscript from the late 7th or early 8th centuries. The exceptional manuscript was produced at the monastery at Lindisfarne in Northumbria, where Christianity was reintroduced by Irish missionaries.
The Lindisfarne Gospels are magnificently illustrated and were originally finely bound, and it is one of the finest manuscripts in the Hiberno-Saxon style of the period. A 10th-century annotation, inserted between the lines of the original, is also the oldest extant translation of the gospels into the English language.
Here are 10 facts about the Lindisfarne Gospels.
1. The manuscript was written at the Lindisfarne Priory
The Lindisfarne Gospels were created at the Lindisfarne Priory, located on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumbria. The priory was founded by Irish monks from Iona, in present-day Scotland, in 635. While other Irish monks settled in the south and east, the monk Aidan established the institution and served as its first bishop.
2. Their author was Eadfrith
According to an annotation made a few centuries later, when the manuscript was located at Chester-le-Street, the Lindisfarne Gospels were authored by a person named Eadfrith. He was the bishop of the Lindisfarne Priory from 698. They are actually unfinished, suggesting he died before he could complete his masterwork.
3. It is an illuminated manuscript
The illuminated manuscript containing the Lindisfarne Gospels is made from 258 leaves of calfskin vellum. Literacy was probably widespread in early 8th-century monastic sites. Other impressive works from the period include the Durham and Echternach Gospels, and the Codex Amiatinus, a 2,060-page Bible which survives in Florence.
4. The Gospels reflect a culturally diverse society
The Lindisfarne Gospels are embellished with artwork of varied influences. There is animal interlace which derives from Germanic metalwork, Celtic decorative motifs such as trumpet-spirals and triskeles (triple spirals), and Mediterranean step patterns. These describe Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Western and Eastern Roman, and Coptic influences. It refined an Insular or Hiberno-Saxon style that had spread across Britain and Ireland in the 7th century.
Illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels remind us that in the 7th and 8th centuries AD, Britain was not cauterised from the rest of the world. Additionally, learning and scholarship were joined by a thriving artistic culture in the early English Church.
5. Its original binding was probably lost during a Viking raid
The Lindisfarne Gospels were originally bound in finely decorated leather, but this binding was lost during the Viking age, perhaps as a result of a Viking raid. The earliest known written account of a Viking raid is the sacking and plundering of Lindisfarne in June 793. Then in Francia, the contemporary scholar Alcuin interpreted the event as divine punishment for Northumbrian sins.
As Martin J. Ryan writes in The Anglo-Saxon World (Yale, 2015), the Vikings themselves probably did not see their raids in religious terms: “religious institutions were simply wealthy but poorly defended sites, many of them occupying coastal or riverine locations that were easily accessible by boat.” Hostages and even books might be ransomed.
The plundering of Lindisfarne typically marks the beginning of the Viking age in the British Isles. It was not the first Viking landing in Britain, however, which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle noted as taking place between 786 and 802, probably near Portland in Dorset. Following Viking raids, the priory was abandoned in 875.
6. Its current binding is Victorian
The impressive outwards appearance of the Gospels is the result of work commissioned by the Bishop of Durham, Edward Maltby, in 1852. The 19th-century replica was created by Smith, Nicholson and Co. silversmiths and gives an impression of its original grandeur.
7. The text of the Lindisfarne Gospels was copied from the Vulgate
The four gospels of Matthew, Luke, Mark and John make up the Lindisfarne Gospels. They are reproduced from a Latin translation of the Christian Bible written by St. Jerome. This is known as the Vulgate.
8. They were annotated in 970 AD
The Lindisfarne Gospels were amended in 970 AD by the provost Aldred. By this time the monastic community of Lindisfarne had migrated to Chester-le-Street. Between the lines of the original text, Aldred inserted a translation of the Latin text in contemporary English. This is the oldest surviving translation of the gospels in English.
9. Each Gospel begins with a ‘carpet page’
The author of the Lindisfarne Gospels expertly ornamented its pages. The beginning of each gospel is marked by a page of intricate decoration. This is followed by an incipit page. This features large, detailed drawings of the first letters of the gospel.
10. The Gospels were donated to the British Library
The antiquarian and MP Sir Robbert Cotton folded the Lindisfarne manuscript into his vast private collection in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In 1753, his collection became part of the foundation collections of the British Museum. Today, they are in the collection of the British Library, though they were exhibited in Durham in 2013.