Giving gifts can be a bit of a minefield at times. How much do you spend? Who do you buy for? How long is it germane to hold onto an unburned scented candle before re-gifting it? Dedicating over a decade of your life to painstakingly copying out and illustrating the Bible by hand is, it’s probably fair to say, overkill by modern gift-giving standards. We’re more used to diving into Boots for a deodorant, shower gel and keyring combo pack for a nearly- forgotten nephew at 6pm on Christmas Eve. The Medieval monks of the North East had rather higher standards than that.
This year marks the 1,300th anniversary of the Codex Amiatinus leaving the region with Ceolfrith, the abbot of the monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow, on its way to Rome as a gift to the Pope. It was an extraordinary statement of allegiance to the Roman church, and a powerful statement of the artistry and dedication of the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow, but for more than a thousand years its true roots were a mystery.
‘It wasn’t the norm to make complete copies of the Bible in the seventh and eighth centuries,’ says Matthew Storey, a historian of the North East’s monastic history who became fascinated with the Codex while helping to curate an exhibition of a facsimile version of it.
‘Normally, Bibles consisted of individual books or collections of books; the gospels, for example, very much like the Lindisfarne Gospels, or the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch. That’s the interesting thing about the Codex Amiatinus, in that it was a full, complete Bible containing both the Old and the New Testaments.’
It’s no pamphlet: each double-page is 27 and a half inches by 20 and a half inches. With the cover closed, it’s 10 inches high. Altogether, it weighs about 75lbs. As you might have guessed, the Codex wasn’t designed for portability. ‘It’s huge,’ Matthew says. ‘One scholar compared it to weighing the same as a female grey deer.’
Three Bibles were produced: one for the monastery at Jarrow; one for the monastery at Wearmouth; and one for the Pope in Rome. The dedication page at the front of the Codex gives a sense of its purpose, Matthew says: ‘It was a statement about Wearmouth- Jarrow’s connection to the church in Rome, as opposed to the Irish tradition, for example. It’s Ceolfrith and the monks at Wearmouth- Jarrow asserting their connection to the Roman church.’
Such a monumental task took an enormous amount of work. We know seven monks put it together, but how long would it have taken? ’It’s an unknown, really,’ Matthew says. ‘We might assume that it was started shortly after Ceolfrith became the sole abbot of both monasteries in 688. If his departure for Rome in 716 reflects the final completion of the volume that went to Rome, that gives us a potential working period of some 28 years.’ Some scholars put their estimates a little lower, reckoning the Codex and its two companion Bibles took a breezy 10 years of seven monks’ lives to complete.
If that sounds like an extraordinary thing to dedicate one’s life to, the extended life of the Codex has been an eventful one too. While it was produced as a gift for the Pope in Rome, we’ve no firm evidence that the Codex ever made it there. Certainly, it spent around a millennium at Abbadia San Salvatore, a monastery on Monte Amiata in Tuscany, before being sent to the Laurentian Library in Florence.
Up until the late 19th century, the critical consensus was that this was clearly a Mediterranean work. ‘The style of the book itself always seemed to be very Roman and Mediterranean,’ Matthew explains. ‘The monks that produced the book at Wearmouth- Jarrow were trying to replicate that Roman style because it was that statement of the connection between Wearmouth-Jarrow and the Roman church.’ The script was Roman, the illustrations were Roman, and it had been in Italy since time immemorial. It was, everyone agreed, a Roman book.
Then, in 1888, an Italian scholar called Giovanni Battista de Rossi rediscovered the Codex and spotted that its dedication page had been altered at some point in the past, and that its original dedication was to Ceolfrith, the Abbot of Wearmouth-Jarrow. That, along with mentions of the Codex in the work of Bede and an anonymous biography of Ceolfrith, placed the Codex squarely in the North East. More scholarly revelations since on the actual construction of the book backed up di Rossi’s thesis – like the fact that Mediterranean books tend to have their calfskin pages set so smooth side faces hairy side, whereas the English tradition faced hair against hair and smooth against smooth, for instance.
‘In the 19th century when they were looking at it they presumed that there was no other place that it could’ve been made other than Italy,’ Matthew says. ‘We look at it now as scholars and we can see that there are also some examples of insular art and scribal patterns in there as well. Now we can see that it’s not just a Roman book; it’s actually a blending of Roman and insular styles, more like the Lindisfarne Gospels which were very insular but also had the Roman style in there as well.’
While acknowledging that some academics have been somewhat sniffy about the quality of the penmanship and uniformity of the handwriting in the Codex, Matthew is sure of its importance and quality.
‘It’s a highly impressive Bible, produced to an extremely high quality,’ he says. ‘The impressiveness, really, is in
Then there’s the other amazing thing about the Codex Amiatinus: it’s the oldest surviving complete translation of the Bible into Latin anywhere in the world. ‘They used the most up-to-date translations that they could find and that was Jerome’s translation from the original Hebrew and Greek into Latin. And that was, as far as they were concerned, the closest translation to the original available, and they used that text as the text for the Codex Amiatinus.’
That makes it, in academic opinion, ‘the closest complete version of the Bible that we have to Jerome’s original translation.’ That translation, the Vulgate, was commissioned in 382 and was made the Catholic church’s official version of the Bible in the 16th century. ‘In terms of determining the modern text of the Bible, the Codex Amiatinus is an incredibly important aid,’ Matthew explains, ‘because it’s the oldest surviving copy of the Vulgate.’
The Codex is a significant feather in the region’s cultural and historical cap, and its importance will be re-emphasised to a new generation when the facsimile version of the book which fascinated Matthew so much goes on permanent display at the revivified Bede’s World museum, to be called Jarrow Hall Anglo- Saxon Farm, Village and Bede Museum. Naturally, he’s delighted.
‘People will be able to go and see it, learn about it and use it for scholarship as well,’ he says. ‘It’s an incredibly important asset for scholarship into Medieval manuscripts, and Wearmouth-Jarrow and the Anglo-Saxon world in general.’