By William Aird
Cardiff Historical Papers, Vol.6 (2007)
Introduction: In a late sixteenth-century description of the Rites and Customes of the monastic church of Durham before the Dissolution, there is the following passage:
There did lye on the high altar an excellent fine booke verye richly covered with gold and silver conteininge the names of all the benefactors towards St Cuthberts church from the first originall foundation thereof, the verye letters for the most part beinge all gilded as is apparent in the said booke till this day the layinge that booke on the high altar did show how highly they esteemed their founders and benefactors, and the dayly and quotidian remembrance they had of them in the time of masse and divine service did argue not onely their gratitude, but also a most divine and charitable affection to the soules of theire benefactors as well dead as livinge, which booke is as yett extant declaringe the s[ai]d use in the inscription thereof.
The book referred to in the description of 1593 is the Durham Liber Vitæ, now British Library Cotton Manuscript, Domitian vii. It is bound in a post-medieval red leather binding, which bears little resemblance to the highly ornate covering described in the passage above. The codex proper is composed of eighty-six parchment folios, approximately 20.5 x 14.2 cm, although a few are slightly smaller and some have been trimmed close, probably when rebound in the seventeenth century. The Liber Vitæ text, which begins on folio 15 recto, is preceded by chapters from the four Gospels in a hand of the late eleventh or twelfth century. A full codicological investigation of the manuscript has not been possible and so the relationship of these Gospel folios to the main body of the text is unclear. It should be noted, however, that the only other surviving English Libri Vitæ, those from Thorney Abbey (British Library Additional Manuscript 40,000) and from the New Minster at Winchester (British Library, Stowe MS 944), are both associated with Gospel texts. As we shall see, the presence of a copy of the Gospels was essential in the ritual creating the bond of confraternity between a lay person and the monastic community.