Maev Kennedy reports on www.guardian.co.uk that a £9m appeal has been launched by the British Library to buy the oldest intact book in Europe.
This is no great illustrated volume, but instead a palm-sized leather-bound copy of the gospels, which was buried 1,300 years ago in the coffin of Saint Cuthbert, which is at Durham Cathedral.
Called the Cuthbert Gospel, it has been on loan to the British Library since 1979. Now, the National Heritage Memorial Fund has offered a £4.5m grant, half the purchase price. The Art Fund and the Garfield Weston foundation have each promised £250,000. The challenge is to raise the rest – a mere four million pounds.
If the appeal succeeds, the library has agreed the gospel will be displayed half the time at Durham cathedral, where it was found with the body of the saint when his coffin was reopened in 1104.
Cathedrals make great archival vaults, being cool and dry, because of the great weight of stone between the interior and the world. The gospel is still in its original 7th century leather cover, which has survived in perfect condition.
And this is despite early pirate attack. Believed to have been buried with St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne in 698, it 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, the chief executive of the 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."
Rich and sophisticated? That doesn’t quite match my image of the Anglo-Saxons. A copy of the gospels with such an interesting history is certainly worth preserving, but I do wonder why it merits such an enormous price.