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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The St Cuthbert Gospel Book

Before I begin, I want on behalf of all of us to congratulate the British Library on a spectacularly successful fundraising campaign to save the Cuthbert Gospel for the nation.  This quintessentially Anglo-Saxon book belongs in England.  And we in the north owe a particular debt of gratitude to all who have helped bring the ‘little book of St Cuthbert’ to this point in its history.

I have been asked to speak about the significance of this wonderful book.  I want to do this at two levels.  First, there is its cultural significance for the part of England I come from, the north-east, and specifically, Durham.  Secondly, there is its spiritual significance as an icon in its own right, which I believe transcends the region or even the nation of its provenance.

If you ask the people of the north-east what historic book they most associate with their region, they will almost all reply, the Lindisfarne Gospel Book.  They may go on to remind you that the Gospel was written ‘in honour of God and St Cuthbert’ which unambiguously marks it as an emblem of the north.  When the campaign to save the Cuthbert Gospel for the nation was launched in 2011, some in the north were confused, thinking that the book in question was Lindisfarne.  We realised that we would need to raise awareness about the Cuthbert Gospel if we were to achieve a successful fundraising result. In the past year in the north-east, there has been a lot of interest in this little-known volume that was lovingly interred with St Cuthbert in his coffin and after 1104 became a cherished treasure of Durham Cathedral Priory. That the book apparently originated in the scriptorium at Wearmouth-Jarrow has served to strengthen that sense of connection.  The willingness of the British Library to exhibit the book in Durham for a 6 monthly period every two years has been warmly welcomed across the region. 

When the body of Cuthbert arrived on the peninsula of Dun Holme in 995, Durham inherited a saint who was already a distant memory.  That memory was coloured by a long history after his death that was as extraordinary as his career while he was still alive.  Most saints are left alone in their resting places when they die as no doubt Cuthbert was intended to and indeed wished: Bede tells us that he hoped to rest in peace on the Inner Farne but he suspected he would not be allowed to.  And chance, circumstance, providence, call it what you will, did indeed decree otherwise. Cuthbert travelled further when dead than he did in his lifetime.  Three centuries after his death he reached his final resting place at Durham.  So by the time he arrived there, a vast quantity of collective memory, reverential myth, legend and folk tale had coalesced around the three primary sources for his life, the anonymous Life of about 700, and the two Lives by Bede, one in prose and one in poetry.  And once installed in Durham, in a context so different from his origins, his presence came to acquire yet more layers of meaning that are both intriguing in themselves, and paradoxical for the way they represent a rather different vision from the one he himself had embraced. The Cuthbert of history stands in some tension with the Cuthbert of faith.  I shall come back to this point later. 

As we know, the book travelled with him when his community left Lindisfarne for fear of the Vikings.  The places where the saint’s body and his book rested on its long journey became indelibly associated with his memory.  Already, the community had acquired estates across the north of England through the donations of kings and noblemen.  The churches built on these sites were obvious safe stopping points on the pilgrimage, and the recollection that Cuthbert had lain in these places often provided the impetus to found small monastic cells there and enlarge their churches.  Norham on the Tweed, Bedlington in Northumberland, and Crayke in North Yorkshire are among many places that were part of what came to be known as the Patrimony of St Cuthbert.  Wherever you find a pre-Conquest church dedicated to St Cuthbert, you can usually assume a link to the Patrimony and often to this period of wandering.  Even today, the memory of this defining époque is perpetuated in the fact that most of these parish churches dedicated to Cuthbert remain within the patronage of Durham Cathedral, the lineal successor to the ancient community of Lindisfarne. 

The memory of how Cuthbert’s body had travelled around and rested at these stopping-places created a strong sense of what we might call ‘sacred geography’ in the north of England.  It reinforced the notion of ‘Northumbria’ as not simply a political entity but a ‘kingdom of the mind’ with a cultural, emotional and spiritual dimension.  This built on the connections already established in his lifetime between Cuthbert and the northern part of Northumbria, the kingdom of Bernicia. By the time of the Norman Conquest, the inhabitants of the far north were known as haliwerfolk, the people of the saint. Here, the memory of Cuthbert provided a kind of ‘glue’ that 1300 years later is perhaps still able to affirm something like a common history and set of values that coalesce around the saint of Lindisfarne.  So the significance of the Cuthbert Gospel for the north is inseparable from the significance of the saint himself.

If we pursue this story into the era of Durham Cathedral Priory, we encounter the paradox I have mentioned.  Durham Cathedral is not a cathedral with a shrine inside it.  It is a shrine with a cathedral built around it.  That the Normans should have adopted the Cuthbert cult and built their great Romanesque cathedral in honour of the Saxon saint is worth pondering.  Is this pietas or Realpolitik?  For his career was profoundly counter-cultural to all that the Norman Conquest stood for and we know how much trouble the Saxons gave King William, for which he cruelly harried the north.  As for Cuthbert, he would have been much troubled at the thought that his body would be imprisoned beneath the heavy stone vaults of a place so compromised by the principalities and powers of this world.  His holiness and simplicity were fundamentally at odds with the sophisticated complexities of Anglo-Norman life, with the Priory’s accumulation of wealth, status and power, and with the violent history of conquest and harrying with which it was associated. The sense of permanence that the Cathedral evokes, its confidence that it will last for ever, exude a spirit very different from the lowly wooden churches and monasteries that Cuthbert and his peers inhabited. 

As we know, the elaborate shrine became the focal point of pilgrimage across England, at least until the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in 1170 when the Chancellor turned turbulent priest began to overtake Cuthbert in popularity.  The paradox of 12th century Durham is that its way of remembering Cuthbert strikingly fulfils his own forebodings about his burial place.  Far from resting in humble, obscure solitude, he found himself interred at the climactic point of a building that would later be dubbed ‘half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot’.  Nothing could be further from the spirit or the spirituality of Cuthbert, although the simplicity of the feretory as it has been since the Reformation with its gaunt black slab bearing only the saint’s name is probably more in keeping with the lived life of the man himself.  But we can recognise that this process of ‘reinventing’ the saints was precisely what the Normans were doing with Cuthbert by placing his shrine at the heart of Durham Cathedral.  We can see that this was not only inevitable but necessary. For as I have already said, Cuthbert had already become a distant memory by the time the Cathedral was built.  Placing him within the frame of a Benedictine Cathedral Priory was a way of ‘claiming’ his universal significance for times and challenges utterly different from his own day.

As for his book, its career followed a similar trajectory to that of the saint’s relics. Reginald of Durham, the colourful 12th century author of the ‘Little Book’ or Libellus about the Wonderful Miracles of Blessed Cuthbert which were Performed in Recent Times recalls another ‘little book’, the Gospel.  He describes how it was carefully looked after in its reliquary, and was worn as a pendant round the necks of honoured guests of the Priory.  Anyone coming near to touch it had to put on an alb and fast.  One monk, John, had the audacity to ignore these instructions and hold it with unwashed hands: he was struck down with an unpleasant affliction. So here again, memory, hagiography and devotion combined to make the book itself an object of veneration that needed to be protected from any defiling contact, a long way from the intimate bodily connection it had had with Cuthbert when it was laid to rest in his coffin. 

So I think we can say that this book is emblematic of the significance of Cuthbert both before and after his death.  Unlike the sophisticated Lindisfarne Gospel Book, this little volume breathes an air of winsome simplicity.  That it was interred with him is surely a mark of his own devotion to the scriptures, and especially, in common with others of that era, St John’s Gospel in particular. In his prose Life of Cuthbert, Bede tells how the dying abbot of Melrose, Boisil, determined to spend the last week of his life with the young Cuthbert whom he was training up in the ways of the monastery.  Cuthbert wanted to know which book of the Bible they should study during this all-important week. Boisil replied: “The evangelist John.  I have a book consisting of seven gatherings of which we can get through one every day, with the Lord’s help, reading it and discussing it between ourselves.’  For Bede, this would no doubt be a poignant memory when, on his own death bed, he bequeathed to a different Abbot Cuthbert a translation of St John’s Gospel.  (It would be nice to think that the Cuthbert Gospel is none other than Boisil’s book, cherished by the pupil in memory of the teacher, but this is unlikely as Boisil’s seven gatherings or quires do not correspond to the Cuthbert Gospel’s eleven.)

Benedicta Ward, in an essay on the spirituality of St Cuthbert, explores the significance of the Fourth Gospel in Saxon Christianity.  She points to the traditional symbols of the four evangelists that we know from the Lindisfarne Gospel Book: the winged man of St Matthew, the lion of St Mark, the ox of St Luke and the eagle of St John.  St Jerome, a commentator much followed in the 7th and 8th centuries, says that eagle symbolises the transcendence of Christ, that is to say, his divinity. Bede no doubt wants us to understand that Boisil was instructing Cuthbert not only simply scriptural reading, but in theological understanding. Bede represents Cuthbert as an unquestionably orthodox prior and bishop, so his immersion in the Gospel of the incarnate Word under Boisil’s tutelage is perhaps an important pointer.  The seven days of their study together may also be symbolically important, for they recall the six days of creation and the Sabbath rest, as if in the same way, Cuthbert was led through a ‘week’ of soul-making, spiritual formation that would equip him for his life task.  In St John, the holy week of Jesus’ passion and death is followed by the first day of a new week, where the risen Jesus meets Mary Magdalen in a garden, intended as a recapitulation of the first paradisal garden in Eden where history began.  So Boisil’s 8th day, the beginning of his heavenly life, corresponded to Cuthbert’s 8th, the beginning of his new life and public ministry in the church.  If we think it is strange to approach biblical texts in this way, we can be sure that it was natural among biblical commentators of late antiquity and the middle ages.  

But I want to go beyond Benedicta Ward in suggesting that there is a further aspect of John’s portrayal of Jesus that may have influenced Cuthbert as he set about realising his vocation as a leader in the church. In the Gospel, the first sign of Jesus’ divinity is his turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana in Galilee. This is one of miracles Bede ascribes to Cuthbert in the Prose Life.  Cuthbert drinks from some water, then passes it to a priest who declares that he tastes wine. It is passed in turn to another brother, and the verdict is that they have never tasted better wine.  It is hard not to see this as directly referencing the Fourth Gospel. 

If we ask ourselves, what was it about Cuthbert that so impressed Bede, we can say: his devotion to God, his compassion for human beings, his humility, his simplicity, his skill as a teacher and spiritual guide, his care for all living things, his sense that the world and his own soul was a battleground between God’s goodness and the ever-present threat of evil, his willing embrace of death. All four gospels depict Jesus as embodying these qualities, but it is the Fourth Gospel that especially portrays him as the humble slave who washed the feet of his disciples and taught them that this was an enacted parable of life laid down in self-giving, humility and death.

The Prose Life gives a detailed account of Cuthbert’s death which, Bede says, he owes to the testimony of Herefrith. Before he dies, Cuthbert delivers a discourse on peace and humility, urging the brothers to live in the light of divine love, to be of one mind, to be generous and hospitable to all who are in need of kindness, and to imitate the example that they have seen in him.  The themes of this address are strikingly similar to those in the great farewell discourses of St John’s Gospel where, having washed his disciples’ feet, he teaches them the meaning of true love and service.  It is St John who elaborates this theme of love more than any of the other evangelists. ‘This is my commandment: that you love one another, as I have loved you.’  Bede wants us to understand that Cuthbert’s entire career was driven by this principle.  As prior, and then as bishop, it was his duty to preside over a community that must always aspire to, and at its best live out, this divinely ordained way of life for those whom the Lord called, not servants but friends.  The category of friendship is one way of reading Bede’s lives: Cuthbert the friend of nature, the friend of human beings, the friend of God.  And at the moment of his death, Cuthbert raises his eyes heavenwards and stretches his arms aloft in prayer, reminiscent again of Jesus’ last great prayer in St John where, says the Gospel, he looks up to heaven and prays for the disciples he has loved. 

I am suggesting that in important ways, it is possible that consciously or not, Bede was giving a reading of Cuthbert’s life and death that conformed him to Jesus as portrayed in St John’s Gospel.  And this helps us see how, as I said earlier for the north of England, the significance of the Cuthbert Gospel Book of St John is inseparable from the way we today read the saint’s life and career.  The Cuthbert Gospel is the eloquent symbol of the man whom the text of that book helped to form and shape. In historical terms, it suggests how the saint was understood and cherished by those who laid a humble gospel book in this coffin on Lindisfarne, perhaps at his own request.  Perhaps – who can say? -it may even give us a glimpse of how he understood himself and his vocation?   The Benedictines who created his shrine in Anglo-Norman Durham and honoured his book in the Cathedral that bore his name were distanced from this more primitive vision: the ordered, hierarchical, institutional lens through which they saw things, the ritual and ceremonial world they inhabited were far removed from that of the Saxon community they had displaced in 1083. And yet the Cuthbert Gospel, this eloquent symbol of a distant, simpler, more innocent past prevented it from being altogether forgotten.  

Since the Reformation, the symbol-system that once inextricably connected the saint’s relics in their Cathedral shrine with both his ‘little book’ and the Lindisfarne Gospel Book written in his honour is broken up.  But not irretrievably.  To bring them all together once again, as we look forward to doing in the summer of 2013, will be a matter of great celebration in Durham and the north-east.  I can’t help thinking that Cuthbert will be pleased. 

The British Library, May 2012   

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