The Lindisfarne Gospels: A Living Manuscript
By Margaret Walker
FORUM: University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, Special Issue 3 (2014)
Abstract: This article questions how current and previous owners have marked the Lindisfarne Gospels, created 1,300 years ago. Their edits, which would be frowned upon today, are useful for historians to understand how the Gospels have been valued by previous owners and thus why they are so treasured today.
Introduction: The Lindisfarne Gospels are on display in the treasures gallery of the British Library. The eighth-century Insular manuscript is opened and accompanied by a short caption with information about the work. It is presented as a 1,300-year-old masterpiece, which has survived to the present day against the odds of time. The average visitor will overlook even the most pervasive changes that can be observed in the manuscript. With modern science and ever improving conservation technologies, we are quick to judge those who “desecrate” items from the past, but we are far less critical if that physical change was made two centuries ago.
The display of the Lindisfarne Gospels should prompt viewers to question how what they see today is not the original but rather a manuscript that has lived among many communities and bears marks from them. It is difficult to criticise edits made long ago, though, especially when they harm only the aesthetics of the book. The changes made to the Lindisfarne Gospels have only affected how the manuscript is viewed; it remains a book of the Holy Scriptures. When studied with historical empathy, the edits are beneficial for enabling an understanding of this book as a sacred text, a work of art, and a window into British curatorial practices.
Physical changes to the Lindisfarne Gospels denote how their symbolic significance has changed over time. The book was created within a monastic community and kept by the church until Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. In this capacity, it was both a sacred text and a relic of St. Columba. However, the seventeenth-century collector of manuscripts, Sir Robert Cotton, likely bought the book because he recognised its scholarly value and artistic richness. Once the Gospels came into the national collection at the British Library they became a link to the past and a relic of Britain’s national identity.
Yet all of the book’s curators have left a mark, whether within the text or as an addition to the original manuscript. These marks take many forms, internal and external, but almost all were motivated by recognition that this was an uncommonly beautiful and historically significant manuscript.