I read this at The Guardian online yesterday; it’s worth a blogposting all to itself...

'A £9m appeal has been launched by the British Library to buy the oldest intact book in Europe, a palm-sized leather-bound copy of the gospels buried 1,300 years ago in the coffin of Saint Cuthbert.

The Cuthbert Gospel, on loan to the library since 1979, is regarded as of such importance that the National Heritage Memorial Fund has raided its reserves to offer a £4.5m grant, half the purchase price and the largest single acquisition grant in the library's history. The Art Fund and the Garfield Weston foundation have each promised £250,000.

If the appeal succeeds, the library has agreed that the Gospel will be displayed half the time in Durham Cathedral, where it was found with the body of the saint when his coffin was reopened in 1104.

The gospel is still in its original 7th century leather cover, which has survived in perfect condition.

It is believed to have been buried with St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne in 698, and survived the journey when the monks fled from Viking raids two centuries later, taking with them their treasures, the body of the Northumbrian saint, and sacred objects he had owned. After several stops, and more raids, the saint and his Gospel were buried in what became the great cathedral of Durham.

Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library, described it as ‘an almost miraculous survival from the Anglo-Saxon period, a beautifully preserved window into a rich, sophisticated culture that flourished some four centuries before the Norman conquest.’'

I don’t really know where to start with this one.

I take some (perhaps misplaced) pride in the extent and depth of my knowledge of the north-east; indeed, that’s what got me my first broadcasting slot on the BBC on Paul’s Saturday show. Over several decades, I’ve absorbed information almost by osmosis - the area’s people, places, dialects, buildings, heroes (forgotten or otherwise), stories, myths and legends.

I’m not daft enough to claim pre-eminence in this respect. There are many, many other people who know a lot more than I do, as my time at the BBC showed me! I did, however, think that I knew enough to be able to say that, if the oldest intact book in Europe originated here, I would know about it.

And yet I didn’t know about it. This Guardian item came as a bolt from the blue. I’ve never heard of the Cuthbert Gospel. I’m not only ashamed of that fact; I’m puzzled by it, in exactly the same way that I didn’t know about the Zurburan paintings at Bishop Auckland until the Church Commissioners threatened to sell them.

If Europe’s oldest book originated on Lindisfarne and still exists, why have I - and, I imagine, a great many other people - never heard about it? If it’s been on loan to the British Library since 1979, why has it not been displayed in the north-east?

I love the British Library and have visited it twice. It is the essential custodian of many of England’s most valued, most historic and most important documents. But I sense a rather smug and arrogant attitude is being displayed here, just as it is with the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Library does not ‘promote’ items like these in its possession in case, I suspect, they engender a sense of local ownership and thus campaigns for their return.

We hear about them only when the Library needs cash to ‘save them for the nation’. Hence the offered trade-off; ‘give us money and we’ll let you display the Cuthbert Gospels in Durham Cathedral’.

Like many other local people, I have other concerns, too.

I don’t suppose we’re allowed to know who owns the Cuthbert Gospel at present but I’m anxious to find out why it is not in public ownership already.

And why is its owner being allowed to sell an item of such outstanding cultural significance - significant not just to north-east England or even to England generally but to the whole of Europe and thus to the world? Have we no laws (as, for example, the Greeks, Italians and French have) to prevent the potential loss, through export, of an item quite as priceless as this?

If we haven’t - why not?

It isn’t often that I seriously ask you to take whatever steps you can to make your voice heard in the wider world. But this is serious. The Cuthbert Gospel must be saved - and that’s not an easy thing to have to do in straitened times like these. Here’s a list of people you may care to email or write to. I’m sure you can think of others.

Your MP
The Prime Minister
The Queen
The Archbishop of Canterbury
The Bishop of Durham
Your local council
Lord Sugar
The Chairman of a big local company - Greggs, Fentimans...
Stephen Fry

If you’ve never done anything like this before, try it just this once. You never know; yours might be the email or letter that tips the balance.

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com


Vivienne said...

Hi Ian,

Like you, I had never heard of The Cuthbert Gospel. I found an article about it via Durham Cathedral's tweet on Twitter, and initially thought they must be talking about The Lindisfarne Gospels. I retweeted the tweet for other people to see. Certainly it must be saved, and returned to Durham Cathedral, albeit part time.

Lots of love,

Vivienne xxx

Sid said...

Christie's auction house approached the library on behalf of the gospel's owners....The Society of Jesus (British Provence). They be better recognised as The Jesuits.
How they came to be "the owners" of the book remains a mystery to me.

Sid said...

It seems that after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England by Henry V111 in the 16th century, the gospel passed to a series of private collectors.

Sid said...

The Society of Jesus purchased the Gospel in 1769. It isn't known how much they paid for it.
The reason for selling is that like all of us they are feeling the pinch in todays financial climate...

Vivienne said...

Very interesting, and well researched Sid.

Sid said...

Thanks Vivienne,
Like us, it would seem that most folks are unaware of the existence of the Cuthbert Gospel. We can always rely on Ian to keep us informed as to what is going on in the world.