Domiciling the Evangelists in Anglo-Saxon England: a Fresh Reading of Aldred’s colophon in the Lindisfarne Gospels
By Francis Newton, Francis Newton Jr. and Chris Scheirer
Anglo-Saxon England Vol.41 (2012)
Abstract: The Codex ‘Lindisfarnensis’ (London, British Library, Cotton Nero D. iv, early eighth-century) was glossed in Old English by the tenth-century priest Aldred. Aldred’s colophon purports to give information about the eighth-century makers of the manuscript at Lindisfarne. What is actually reliable about this highly literary colophon is Aldred’s purpose in writing the gloss: to give the Evangelists a voice to address ‘all the brothers’ − particularly the Latinless. We propose new interpretations of three OE words (gihamadi, inlad, ora) misunderstood before. Aldred was learned; his sources extend from Ovid through the Fathers to contemporary texts
Introduction: Some two centuries or more after its creation, that is, around 950, the priest Aldred, at Chester-le-Street (between Newcastle-upon-Tyne to the north and Durham to the south) glossed the entire text of the manuscript interlinearly in Old English – the earliest Old English version of all four gospels that survives. Aldred tells us that he did this in the colophon he added in his own hand in Old English and in Latin at the end (259rb). The book is triply precious, for the history of book-making, for the text of the Latin Gospels and for the history of the English language. But Aldred’s long colophon says a great deal more: he asserts that the book was written (by this he must understand the decoration also) by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne, who died in the year 721, bound by Æthelwald, his successor as bishop there, and decorated with gold and gems by Billfrith the anchorite. This information has been generally accepted by historians of art and palaeographers – scholars such as E. A. Lowe and, recently, Michelle Brown. Through most of the history of discussion of the magnificent manuscript, those who studied it have drawn data piece by piece from Aldred’s colophon, taking at face value, for the most part, and literally the separate bits of information so obtained.
It was only in 2003, in an article in Speculum, that Lawrence Nees looked at the colophon as a whole; he called attention to its artistic symmetries, such as the play upon the number four: the invocation of the triune God (3 + 1), the four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and, of course, the four churchmen who are said to have worked on the gospel book: Eadfrith, Æthelwald, Billfrith and Aldred himself. Nees has also called for an investigation of Aldred’s sources. This present study traces a background of inspiration that includes, in the classical period the elegiac poet Ovid and, from the same century as Ovid, the Gospel writers, in the patristic period the father Jerome, and later Cassiodorus and Bede, in the Carolingian era the poets Alcuin and Theodulf, and in Aldred’s own day the law codes and charters of late Anglo-Saxon England. The result, we hope, is a clearer understanding of Aldred’s colophon as a literary creation.