Raiding the Archive: a study in the Veneration and Visibility of the Lindisfarne Gospels

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Raiding the Archive: A Study in the

Veneration and Visibility of the Lindisfarne Gospels
Rebecca Welzenbach

Submitted in Partial Completion of Research Honors

April 13, 2007

Table of Contents

Introduction 6

I. Leaving Lindisfarne: “And the Word was God” 12

II. The Library of Sir Robert Cotton: Judging Books by their Covers 25

III. The Lindisfarne Gospels in the British Library: An Absent Presence 42

Conclusion 59

Appendix 63

List of Figures

  1. Book-shrine of Cathach of Columcille (Brown, Lindisfarne Fig. 79).

  2. Map of Northumbria in the eighth century by John Mitchell (Brown, Lindisfarne Fig. 2).

  3. Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero.D.iv), f. 90r, Mark prologue (Brown, Lindisfarne Pl. 13).

  4. Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero.D.iv), 1853 treasure binding, upper cover (Brown, Lindisfarne Pl. 1).

  5. Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero.D.iv), f. 210v, John carpet page (Brown, Lindisfarne Pl. 24).

  6. Portrait of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton by Paul van Somer, engraved by George Vertue (Tite Fig. 10).

  7. Example of a Cottonian binding, early seventeenth century (Brown, Lindisfarne Fig. 59)

  8. Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero.D.iv), f. 25v, Matthew evangelist miniature (Brown, Lindisfarne Pl. 8).

  9. Artist’s rendering of the library room in Cotton House (Tite Fig. 34).

  10. Duke Humphrey’s library, Bodleian Library, Oxford (Tite Fig. 32)

  11. Staircase in Montagu House, from a print c. 1810 (Alston, Inside front cover).

  12. Robert Smirke’s museum building, from a watercolor by George Scharf, 1845 (Wilson Pl. 18).

  13. Plan of the British Museum’s ground floor (Wilson 377).

  14. The Roman Pantheon as painted by Pannini c. 1750 (Wheeler Pl. 81).

  15. The British Museum’s round Reading Room (Alston Title page).

  16. Exterior of the British Library, from the photo essay “Approximation,” by Gerhard Stromberg (Stonehouse 11).

  17. St. Pancras rail station behind the British Library, from the photo essay “Approximation,” by Gerhard Stromberg (Stonehouse 13).

  18. Drawing of the British Library Main Entrance Hall “big wave” by Colin St. John Wilson (St. John Wilson 90).

  19. Saint Denis cathedral interior from the west, off axis (Tuck Langland Database)

  20. Inside the Humanities Reading Room of the British Library (St. John Wilson 58).

  21. The King’s Library, The British Library, from the photo essay “Affirmation” by Gerhard Stromberg (Stonehouse 213).


What is no longer archived the same way,

is no longer lived the same way.

~Jacques Derrida
The Lindisfarne Gospels (LG), also known as BL MS Cotton Nero D.iv, an eighth-century English Gospel Book, has been revered since its creation for its unique illuminations and its Anglo-Saxon gloss of the Latin gospels. This codex has changed hands many times, surviving Viking attacks, the Norman Conquest, and the tragic biblioclasm associated with the English Reformation. This study examines the way that three owners of the manuscript have understood and negotiated the balance between protecting the LG and sharing its treasures with pilgrims and scholars. I explore the methods and motives of the eighth-century monastic community that produced the Gospels; the Jacobean librarian, Sir Robert Cotton; and London’s British Library. Although growing collections, impressive buildings, and advances in digital technology suggest that present-day scholars have increased accessibility to rare books like this one, librarians enshrine the LG today in almost the same way that medieval clergy did.

In his lecture series Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Jacques Derrida begins his argument about the institution of the “archive” by dissecting the word itself. In revealing the word’s etymology, Derrida also illustrates what he understands to be the purpose and function of the archive. Aristocratic bureaucrats, the arkheions, or archons, of ancient Greece were responsible for storing the records of a community in their homes, which became known as archives: repositories for the preservation and organization of information (2). This basic structure holds true today, although archives and archons come under a wide variety of names. In this study, monks, librarians, scholars, and architects will all play the role of the archon at one time or another. Throughout Western history, archons of all kinds have recognized different connections between the archive and the Ark of the Covenant, which contained such sacred material that it was never to be opened or touched. Applying the motifs of the archons and the Ark to the case of the LG (with a little help from Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark), I identify three phases in the history of archiving and determine how far we have, or have not, come in the last 1300 years.

By examining the ways that the archons entrusted with the LG have understood its value and their responsibility to it and its users, I have learned about the art of preserving and presenting rare books, and about how prioritizing and achieving these goals has changed over the centuries. Because I intend to pursue archival studies as a career, I have found it valuable to understand the historical development of archives as religious, academic, and cultural institutions. Furthermore, I have learned that it is necessary to acknowledge the power and, thus, responsibility of the archivist. Derrida ascribes to the archive the authority to determine how and what people can know, remember, and relate about a population, culture, or event (17). This authority is particularly powerful in light of One Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition of the term “archon:” in the Gnostic tradition, archons were subordinate only to the Deity and were responsible for creating the world. This notion of the archons as creators warns that, in order to maintain conscientious and productive scholarship, scholars must recognize the interests, motives, and goals of the authorities that manage and interpret documents and texts.

The next leap, from archive to Ark, is not difficult: both fall under Richard Harvey Brown and Beth Davis-Brown’s definition of the archive as “a repository—that is, a place or space in which materials of historic interest or social significance are stored and ordered” (17). This idea of “place” is a flexible one—an archive might exist in a building, a room, or even a portable box, as long as it unites and contains the historic material associated with it. According to Achille Mbembe, “[a]rchives are the product of a process which converts a certain number of documents into items judged to be worthy of preserving and keeping in a public place” (19, emphasis mine). According to Mbembe, this transformation occurs at a specific moment, like the death of the author or owner of a collection. After such a disruptive event, “[t]here will always remain traces of the deceased, elements that testify that a life did exist, that deeds were enacted, and struggles engaged in or evaded. Archives are born from a desire to reassemble these traces rather than destroy them” (Mbembe 22). Gathered together, or consigned, as Derrida calls it, these remnants aim “to coordinate a single corpus, in a system or a synchrony in which all the elements articulate the unity of an ideal configuration” (Derrida 3). Archivization is literally the process of re-membering, of gathering and reassembling the disparate and fragmentary elements of a dis-membered place or event in order to create an ideal, complete memory of it. As an archive, or part of one, the LG has the potential to signify an otherwise inaccessible history in each of the historical phases I present. Although this potential never changes, limits of function and access, which the archons of each era define, affect the realization of the LG’s signifying power.

Sîan Echard agrees that “archival practices and archival encounters structure and control our reading of medieval books and the texts they contain” (186). Echard suggests that, although many archives attempt to represent manuscripts only in their “original” state, scholars should attempt “to approach the object in its ‘medieval’ condition—to recover the medieval book—and to trace the evidence of that object’s passage from one culture to another” (186, emphasis in original). The history of medieval manuscripts, according to Echard, is written literally on the pages of the book in its marginalia—from commentary to doodles—left by their various owners, users, and abusers. She suggests that “all the moments between scribal workshop and research library” (202) merit consideration and academic examination, because each of these “moments” leaves its mark on a manuscript. I expand upon her work of writing the history of ownership “back into” manuscripts (202). Taking as a premise the influence of each of the LG’s owners, I explore the relationships among these guardians and reveal the patterns rehearsed each time the LG has changed hands.

First, I examine the eighth-century monastic community that produced and brandished the LG in a culture where books of scripture were understood to contain and produce divine power. For the monks of Lindisfarne, the LG embodied the divinity of God, and therefore empowered their community through its physical presence among them. It is helpful to consider here the description of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark: according to Indiana’s rival, the villainous but expert Belloq, “It was a transmitter, a radio for speaking to God.” Indy’s sidekick Marcus Brody also explains, “The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste in entire regions. An Army that carries the Ark before it... is invincible.” For both the Ancient Hebrews and the Lindisfarne monks, God became present through the presence of an object—the Ark or the LG—and as a result, both treasures were powerful and miraculous forces in their communities. Furthermore, when the Lindisfarne community was driven from their home by Viking raids, the codex, which they carried with them, as the Hebrews had carried the Ark in the wilderness, became a testament to their community and their experience, representing Lindisfarne while the community was away from that place.i

Second, I explore the famous library of the seventeenth-century antiquarian Sir Robert Bruce Cotton and the way his philosophies of collecting, organizing, and sharing information changed the way his peers used and understood the LG. Cotton, vigilante librarian extraordinaire, is our Indiana Jones. “This belongs in a museum!” is Indy’s battle cry, which echoes Cotton’s desire to gather and catalog the manuscripts and documents scattered by Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the monasteries. For Cotton and his colleagues, the contents of the LG, in particular its translation of the gospels from Latin to Anglo-Saxon, were most important. Known for re-organizing, re-covering and freely lending his manuscripts, Cotton emphasized the importance of gathering information and making it available to scholars. His philosophies of collecting and lending counteracted medieval reverence for scriptural manuscripts and the careless biblioclasm of the Dissolution. The LG was a particularly valuable addition to Cotton’s collection. However, rather than remaining an individually powerful entity, it served Cotton’s goal to compile all of English history.ii

Finally, I locate the LG in its current home, the British Library, by following the development of this national library from its foundation in 1753 as part of the British Museum to the new British Library at St. Pancras, which opened in 1997. Both institutions have reacted to the significant alterations Cotton wrought on his holdings and his open, often careless, lending policies by focusing on the maintenance and security of its collection, especially of very rare materials like the LG. Sir Anthony Kenny, former Chairman of the Board of The British Library (Kenny 17), and Sir Colin St. John Wilson, its architect (St. John Wilson 26), both identify the British Library’s first priority as conservation and preservation of materials. The LG is frequently sought and visited when on display in the British Library, but is rarely available for scholarly study. As a consequence of the modern technology that protects its pages, the LG has disappeared into vaults, behind closed doors, and even “in plain sight” under the glass of a display case (Echard 186).iii

Today, scholars enshrine the LG and rare books like it with a secular reverence that echoes the religious awe medieval Christians felt in the presence of God incarnate on the page. However, the LG does not, indeed cannot, function the same way in a secular, academic setting as it did for believers over 1000 years ago. For the Lindisfarne monks, God’s presence and power were incised on the skin of the LG’s pages, and so to approach the codex was to approach that power. Today, the LG is valuable not as an embodiment of holiness but simply as itself, a precious artifact. In order to benefit from the insights into historical material culture that the LG offers, scholars must have total physical access to the codex—more than archons have ever granted to LG pilgrims in history. Ironically, because it is so rare, the LG is also fastidiously protected and preserved with state-of-the-art technology, and is almost completely inaccessible. As a result, the LG no longer signifies, but instead is signified by the technological and exhibition resources that allow scholars partial access to it. Valuable only in its own right, rather than as an embodiment of something else, the LG is powerful by virtue of its absence. Guarded like the Ark in Spielberg’s film, with a barrier of “top men” between the object and the user, the LG has been transformed from signifier to signified, an absent presence made partially accessible by the British Library’s exhibition resources.
I. Leaving Lindisfarne: “And the Word was God”

The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling

mountains and laying waste in entire regions.

An Army that carries the Ark before it... is invincible.

~Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
These books are portals of prayer,

during the acts both of making and studying

~Michelle Brown

The Gospel of John, of particular importance to the Christians of Pre-Viking Northumbria, opens with the following verse: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Verse 14 then adds, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” For Christians in seventh- and eighth-century England, these passages proclaimed the literal, physical presence of God in the sacred Word of the Bible. As a result, scriptural manuscripts, literally made from the flesh of animals and inscribed with the Word of God, signified a transcendent Creator and were capable of producing God’s power for believers. According to Marc Drogin, “Letters and words were miraculous in origin and therefore were the stuff of magic. And with the stuff of magic one could produce magic” (33, emphasis in original). There are countless reports of miracles wrought by those wielding scripture, especially the Gospel of John. St. Augustine suggested that this gospel’s opening verse could cure headaches. According to John of Salisbury, aide to St. Thomas Becket and later Bishop of Chartres, St. Cuthbert, in whose honor the LG was made, once healed a man by laying a copy of John’s gospel on the patient’s body. In fact, St. Cuthbert himself was buried with a copy of that text (Brown 70).

Drogin compares the divine power ascribed to manuscripts in the Middle Ages to that of another prevalent, miraculous signifier of the day: the relics of saints. These relics—fingernails, hair and toes were all popular—evoked the powerful presence of an absent saint, even when unexamined or hidden from view in reliquaries. According to Drogin, this “[h]oliness produced what can be called contagious magic” (33). Christians believed relics to be holy and powerful because they were the remains of saints and, through their physical presence, brought supplicants closer to the intercessory influence of those saints. The miraculous power of these relics then spread to the reliquaries that contained them, the altar upon which the reliquary was set, and even the chapel housing the altar and the community that built the chapel. Manuscripts worked the same way: the divinity of God’s Word spread to the pages on which it was inscribed, and to the book itself. According to Brown, “the potent relics associated with the cult of St. Columba [who is discussed below] were not his corporeal remains or burial place but his clothing and books” (Bede 10). Indeed, the physical presence of a scriptural manuscript in a religious community, rather than its textual content, made manifest God’s presence and power.

The longstanding Christian practice of writing holy words, or cutting them from a manuscript, in order to burn them, bury them, eat them or wear them “for their protective, talismanic merits” (Brown Lindisfarne 70), further illustrates that the physical presence of scripture, in addition to—and often in place of—its meaning, worked powerfully for Anglo-Saxon Christians.iv This unorthodox consumption of divine material in order to access divinity echoes the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist, which illuminates the logic behind this practice. In both the miracle of transubstantiation and the inscription of God’s word on vellum pages, earthly material is infused with divinity. The sacrament, which laypeople usually received twice a year, was the most direct and therefore the most powerful way for a Christian to connect with the divinity of the Godhead. This explains why medieval Christians would have seen value in ingesting what they understood to be God in the flesh. The consumption of God’s power through a manuscript’s pages, as a trace of the Eucharist, would have provided believers, many of whom were illiterate, with more immediate access to God’s power than the analogous ingestion of reading or hearing the Scripture.

Monks and other clergy made up most of the literate population at the time and they, of course, valued scripture for liturgical and meditative purposes, in addition to revering the holiness of manuscripts themselves. The monks, too, consumed and digested God through the Word, although for them it was a strictly figurative meal. Part of daily monastery life involved study of and meditation on the Bible, so that the monks might increase their own holiness by absorbing scripture. As they studied individually, reading aloud softly as practice dictated, their mouths moved along with the words, giving the impression that the monks were chewing on the scripture and enhancing the metaphor of eating God’s Word.

However, even the literate guardians of a book like the LG would rarely, if ever, open and read it as we would a text today. In fact, “within a generation of their manufacture and sometimes perhaps from the point of completion, some … stunning Insular scriptural manuscripts would never actually have been seen, but would have been enshrined as powerful embodiments of divinity” (Brown, Lindisfarne 69). An extreme example of an unreadable holy book contemporaneous with the LG is the Irish Cathach or “Battler” of Columcille (named after the Irish prince St. Columba, who founded many Irish monasteries), which is built into a “book-shrine,” an elaborate metal casing with no opening mechanism (Fig.1). The psalter was permanently and impenetrably stored inside this case, but its divine presence, not its readability, produced its power (Brown, Lindisfarne 69). Just as the ancient Hebrews did with the Ark of the Covenant, Irish troops carried this manuscript into battle as evidence of (and probably as a prayer for) divine approval and protection from the enemy. For the exiled Hebrews, the Ark containing the remnants of the Ten Commandments proved their proximity to God, and also their identity as the chosen people under Mosaic Law. This notion of a holy book as a representative talisman would serve the community of Lindisfarne well, as the LG would come to stand for their identity, authority, and origin—the essence of their community—thereby functioning as their community’s archive, as well as their connection to God.
Historical Contexts: Between Ireland and Italy

The LG was created in a tradition that developed from conflict between the Irish and Roman Churches in sixth- and seventh-century England, a conflict that would reveal itself on national, regional, and personal levels. Roman Christianity came to the British Isles in 597, when the Benedictine monk St. Augustine established a monastery at Canterbury. v Although he was on a mission of conversion, another variety of Christianity already prevailed in the insular world at this time. A generation before St. Augustine’s arrival, the Irish prince St. Columba established a monastery on the northwest island of Iona (Fig. 2). This institution developed a tradition of elaborate manuscript production that would influence all the surrounding monastic houses, most of which were dependencies or daughter houses of Iona. Founded in 635 by Bishop Aidan of Iona, Lindisfarne (also known as Holy Island) was one of these. Throughout the sixth and seventh centuries, the Irish monks set a new precedent for combining pictures and letters to represent God’s Word and thus—because “the Word was God”—God himself. Although manuscript illumination was certainly practiced on the Continent at this time, Brown notes the significant difference between insular and Continental illuminations:

In Insular works, the Word assumes iconic status, the sacred incipits and monograms of its Gospelbooks growing to occupy the entire page as vehicles of contemplatio intimately combining word and image. The modest initials of sixth- and seventh-century Italy and of Merovingian Gaul, with their crosses, birds and fishes, do not begin to approach the level of adornment accorded to the Word in an Insular text. (Lindisfarne 76)

The development of the historiated initial, a large, illuminated initial letter featuring a scene inside and around it, along with other intricate illumination conventions, came out of and continued to feed into the insular passion for the miraculous quality of words.

This Celtic tradition characterized the illumination practices at Lindisfarne, which was established off England’s northeast coast during a resurgence of the Columban (Irish) church’s influence under King Oswald, who came into power in 634. However, Oswald died in 641, and in the quarter century after his death, the Roman and Irish churches continued to clash. The main conflict was over the method used to determine the date of Easter. In 664 King Oswy convened the Synod of Whitby to address this conflict, which affected him particularly heavily: while he was for the Irish church, his Kentish wife favored the Roman tradition. The synod ruled in favor of the Roman method.

Although not all Columban monasteries were eager to accept the change, many of them, including Lindisfarne, benefited from the Roman influence in the north of England. This influence appeared most obviously in the monasteries at Monkwearmouth (founded in 674) and Jarrow (681) by Abbot Benedict Biscop and his successor Ceolfrith. Each of the abbots made numerous trips to Rome to stock their famous library, the largest in Anglo-Saxon England, and the home base of the Venerable Lindisfarne made use of the library at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, as well as the libraries of Canterbury in the south and York in the north. Under the diplomatic leadership of St. Cuthbert, who was assigned to Lindisfarne shortly after the Synod of Whitby and became its bishop in 685, the community thrived in the “new eirenic atmosphere of reconciliation and collaboration” (Brown, Lindisfarne 34) that developed in Northumbria after the Synod. Despite this trend toward the integration of Roman, Celtic and Eastern traditions and King Oswy’s declaration of a united English church, tensions continued to mount among regional and individual supporters of the Roman and Columban traditions. One of these rivalries, between the cults of St. Cuthbert and Wilfrid of Ripon, was likely the impetus behind the creation of the LG.

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