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Scriptorium survivors

by
09 June 2010

A new book reveals some of the manu­script treasures of Durham Cathedral

MORE books survive from the medieval library of Durham Cathed­ral than from any other pre-Reformation foundation in Britain. The greater part of them remains in the Cathedral to this day — kept, moreover, in the room in which many of them were stored during the Middle Ages.

The items extend from the sixth to the 16th century, embracing 1000 years of history, art, and culture, and include masterpieces of book pro­duction. There are celebrated volumes from Anglo-Saxon North­umbria, Romanesque books asso­ciated with the great Norman bishops, and examples of French and Italian work from the Middle Ages, as well as a panorama of volumes from later medieval and Tudor England — including the oldest “English” depiction of the crucifixion.

When William of Saint-Calais (also known as Carilef), Bishop of Durham 1080/81-96, reformed his cathedral community into a Bene­dictine priory in 1083, it already owned some extremely venerable manuscripts stretching back to the beginnings of Christianity in north­ern England.

As one of the few bodies with a continuous (if disrupted) history straddling the Viking Age, the com­munity of St Cuthbert preserved not only some of its own earliest books, but also some that had been made at, or acquired by, other centres in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.

Alongside converting the com­munity into a Benedictine priory and initiating the construction of the Romanesque cathedral church, in 1093, Saint-Calais energetically pro­cured books for his new foundation, acquiring them in Normandy as well as in England.

In addition to the Bible, service-books, works relating to monastic life, and an important copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, he acquired a range of writings by the Fathers of the Church — precisely the class of text in which late Anglo-Saxon Eng­land had been poor, and which Norman-appointed bishops and abbots were trying to amass. Saint-Calais’s impetus put Durham at the forefront of such endeavours.

The rapid growth of the book collection during the first half of the 12th century, not least as a result of in-house copying, is documented in a couple of mid-12th-century cata­logues. The documents and books show Durham, unequivocally, as the leading institutional library in the north of England.

This was a status it was never to lose.

Richard Gameson

The Ebchester-Burnby mortuary roll, Durham, 1464

IT WAS the duty of medieval reli­gious to pray for the repose of the souls of recently deceased members of their communities. When the de­ceased had been head of the com­munity, these prayers were especially elaborate, and, in addition, further prayers were usually requested from other religious houses.

IT WAS the duty of medieval reli­gious to pray for the repose of the souls of recently deceased members of their communities. When the de­ceased had been head of the com­munity, these prayers were especially elaborate, and, in addition, further prayers were usually requested from other religious houses.

The request was made in a formal letter, or “brief”, which, together with a group of pictures showing the death and burial of the superior, was at­tached to a roll of blank parchment and enclosed in a stout leather cover.

This roll was carried by an official brief-bearer to religious houses across the country. News of the death would be made known to the religious community in its chapter meeting, and prayers would be offered for the deceased. In the scriptorium a formal written res­ponse would be added to the roll, indicating that this had been done. The roll was then returned to the brief-bearer, who travelled to the next religious house.

The roll illustrated requests prayers for two priors of Durham: John Burnby, who died on 17 October 1464, and his predecessor, William Ebchester, who resigned as prior in 1456, and died some time between June 1462 and May 1463. The roll is more than 11 metres long.

The Ebchester-Burnby roll is rare. It is one of only two such English rolls still with their medieval leather covers, and one of a small group of rolls from across Europe to survive with their pictures, letter, and responses intact. It seems that normally, when a roll had completed its circuit, it was broken up.

Lynda Rollason

Lynda Rollason

A missal from St Nicholas’s, Durham (?)

A missal from St Nicholas’s, Durham (?)

IN THE Middle Ages in Western Europe, missals were always in Latin. And nearly every region and reli­gious order had its own variations of prayers, readings, and ritual, known as a “use”.

IN THE Middle Ages in Western Europe, missals were always in Latin. And nearly every region and reli­gious order had its own variations of prayers, readings, and ritual, known as a “use”.

In England, from the 13th cen­tury, some dioceses (such as Lincoln and Hereford) had their own uses, but that of Salisbury (known from its Latin abbreviation as Sarum) rapidly prevailed throughout the province of Canterbury and the whole of the south, while the use of York was generally followed in the north.

In the course of the 15th century, however, the Sarum use gradually spread in the north, and liturgical books in accordance with its forms were adapted or made for churches there.

This manuscript is a Sarum-use missal, made in the mid-15th century. The addition to the calendar of the feasts of St Oswin of Tyne­mouth and St John of Beverley indicate that it was probably ac­quired by a church in the north-east before 1500, and the grading of the feast of St Nicholas points to the parish church dedicated to that saint in Durham marketplace.

The contents are in the traditional arrangement. And the canon is, as normal, preceded by a full-page pic­ture of the crucifixion, in which the skull and bones refer to Golgotha. Mary’s raised hand is unusual.

In response to Henry VIII’s edicts of 1534 and 1538, the title of “Papa” and the names of St Thomas of Canterbury have been erased in the calendar and texts.

In 1549, all missals and other Latin service-books were removed from all churches and chapels on the introduction of the first Book of Common Prayer. It is fortunate that this one was not destroyed along with tens of thousands of others, as was decreed. Presumably it was saved by someone local.

A. I. Doyle

Bede, Vita Cuthberti (prose); His­toria ecclesiastica IV, 31-2. Historia translationum S. Cuthberti; Brevis relatio de sancto Cuthberto. Vita Oswaldi; Vita Aidani (ex Bede)

THIS volume is a treasury of the hagiography of the Anglo-Saxon saints of Durham — above all, of course, St Cuthbert.

THIS volume is a treasury of the hagiography of the Anglo-Saxon saints of Durham — above all, of course, St Cuthbert.

It opens with Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert, to which was appended a series of texts that often accom­panied that work: two miracles recounted in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, a dossier of Cuthbert’s subsequent miracles, and a version of the Brief Account of St Cuthbert — a synopsis of Cuth­bert’s life and miracles based on Bede and Symeon of Durham. The manuscript as a whole ends with short accounts of St Oswald and St Aidan adapted from Bede’s Ecclesia­stical History.

The manuscript text was articu­lated with golden initials at the head of each chapter, and fine decorated letters mark the main divisions. But, more remarkably, the edges of the leaves were adorned with paint­ings.

Depicted on the upper edge is a crowned figure holding a trefoil- or cruciform-topped sceptre in his right hand, and a staff in his left. A bishop appears on the lower edge, his right hand raised, his left folded over a (now very faint) staff or crozier. On the long fore-edge is another bishop, seemingly blessing with his right hand and holding a staff in his left.

These figures doubtless represent respectively Oswald, Aidan, and (the largest) Cuthbert, and are clearly contemporary with the writing of the book.

Richard Gameson

Manuscript Treasures of Durham Cathedral by Richard Gameson (Third Millennium Publishing, £25 (£22.50); 978-1-906-50712-1).

You can order this book through CT Bookshop.

You can order this book through CT Bookshop.

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