In the midst of seemingly endless centenary commemorations, and their relentless focus on the twentieth century, it’s worth recalling events of June 716 in the north-east of England. Our specific interest is the twinned monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow, most famous today as the home of the Venerable Bede, but in June 716 we are concerned with the monastery’s abbot, Ceolfrith, who unexpectedly resigned his office due to age and ill-health to go on pilgrimage to Rome where he wished to end his days.
An eighth-century Anglo-Saxon going to Rome is not as remarkable as it might seem: Ceolfrith had visited the city as a younger man and his predecessor as abbot, Benedict Biscop, went to Rome six times during his lifetime. This particular trip is worthy of note because when Ceolfrith left his monastery, on 4 June 716, he brought with him an extraordinary gift for the papacy: an enormous manuscript of the Bible, known today as the Codex Amiatinus. There are many attributes of this book that could be highlighted, for example, its huge size: the individual pages are 19¼ by 13⅜ inches, and the volume is 7 inches thick.
It weighs over 75 pounds – approximately the same as a female Great Dane – and contains 1,040 leaves of vellum. However, its real significance is that it’s the earliest surviving one-volume edition of the Latin Bible.
Clearly earlier versions of various books of the Bible pre-date this manuscript, but one-volume pandects (what full Bibles such as Amiatinus are called) were very rare in the Middle Ages, largely due to their exorbitant production costs. Instead, assorted collections of biblical books travelled together: for example, the four Gospels, or the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – known as the Pentateuch).
Ceolfrith’s monastery produced not one, but three one-volume Bibles at the same time: Amiatinus, which was sent to Rome, and one each for Wearmouth and Jarrow, though only a couple of leaves have survived from the two that remained in Britain. As well as the biblical text, Amiatinus also contains beautiful full-page illuminations, the meanings and interpretations of which have been much discussed in scholarship.
The book is an extraordinary testament to the craftsmanship and wealth of this eighth-century Anglo-Saxon monastery, and the cultural achievements of the kingdom of Northumbria in this period. Ceolfrith died in September 716 en route to Rome but members of his party continued to Italy and presented his gift to the papacy. Pope Gregory II later wrote to Ceolfrith’s successor, Hwaetberht, in acknowledgement. 1 At some point the volume was moved to the monastery of San Salvatore at Monte Amiata – from whence its name derives – and then, after San Salvatore was disbanded in 1782, to the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence where it remains.
In creating the Codex Amiatinus, the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow were influenced by the manuscripts in their remarkably well-resourced library and both the script and images were inspired by continental models. Indeed, the work is so unlike other contemporary manuscripts from Britain and Ireland, and so akin to Italian styles of the period, that it was regarded as a sixth-century Italian book until the late-nineteenth century when its real provenance was identified.
And this is perhaps the most amazing part of this extraordinary book’s story: it was created by English monks in a monastery that had been established only forty years earlier, and in an Anglo-Saxon kingdom that first formally encountered Christianity, with all its attendant attributes including writing and books, just ninety years before in AD 625: many members of the community were first or second-generation Christians.
And yet, in a very short time, these monks attained such high standards of book production they created a masterpiece which was mistaken as a product of the supposedly culturally-superior Mediterranean world. This is not to suggest that they were simple copyists either: the rarity of one-volume Bibles indicates the novelty of this project. 2
The Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity in the seventh century brought the peoples of Britain into closer contact with the rest of Christian Europe and introduced a wealth of cultural influences and new ideas. Rather than being overwhelmed, however, the Anglo-Saxons rose to the challenge and through fusing native traditions with new influences they produced extraordinary works of art revealing their cultural confidence, originality and imagination. It is worth celebrating their achievements as we remember the thirteenth centenary of the Codex Amiatinus’ departure from these shores.
Máirín MacCarron is a Teaching Associate in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. Her research centres on the early medieval period, with a particular interest in the transmission and transformation of ideas from the Mediterranean World to Britain and Ireland. You can find her on twitter @.
Image 1: Folio 5r from the Codex Amiatinus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatinus 1), Ezra the scribe: ‘When the sacred books had been consumed in the fires of war, Ezra repaired the damage’, [Wikicommons].
Image 2: Codex Amiatinus, Remi Mathis, [Wikicommons].
Image 3: Maiestas Domini page from Codex Amiatinus (fol. 796v), Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, [Wikicommons].
- The letter is preserved in an anonymous account of Ceolfrith’s life that was written at Wearmouth-Jarrow soon after his death: Vita Ceolfridi (Life of Ceolfrith), §39, ed. and tr. Ian Wood and Chris Grocock, Oxford UP 2013, pp. 118-121. ↩
- A view that is confirmed by close studies of its biblical text and illustrations. ↩