Ancient thumbprints

02 November 2006

NOT only does it bear their thumbprints, but this medieval Bible also includes the names of several of the monks and priors of Durham who once used it for their private devotions: Robert Graystones, subprior in 1333, Thomas Launcell, monk from 1355 to 1409, Richard Bell, prior 1454-79, and John Auckland, prior 1484-94.

It is small enough to hold in the hand, about six by eight inches, and was originally produced about 1300, not lavishly decorated, but with exquisite initial letters at the beginning of each book. The writing is so tiny it is hard to read even with the benefit of electric light and reading glasses, says Anne Heywood, Chapter steward, but it was obviously very precious.

It was in the library of Durham Priory when Henry VIII did his worst in 1539. It eventually became part of a collection owned by the family of Baron Middleton. It was deposited at Nottingham University in 1947. Last November, the university auctioned it with other medieval books. Durham Cathedral Library, with the help of generous grants, was able to buy it back "at a substantial sum - otherwise it would have gone abroad". It will be on display through the summer in the "Treasures of St Cuthbert" exhibition in the cathedral.

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