Insular Manuscripts from the conversion of the English to the Book of Kells
Of all the relics of the Early Middle Ages, illuminated manuscripts are among the most remarkable. Christianity was a religion centred on the Old and New Testaments, and proper study of those texts and of other extremely important matters (calculating the correct date of Easter, for example) required a considerable degree of literacy in at least Latin and the existence and possession of a very large number of books. Decoration was not important in the vast majority of them, but when it came to the most important of them all - the Four Gospels - considerable expense and effort was often devoted to beautifying them, eventually to a point where the illustrations seem to have become more important than the texts themselves. The same delight in exquisite craftsmanship and the same mastery of technique can also be seen in early Anglo-Saxon and Celtic jewellery and metalwork. A very high percentage of all the manuscripts that were produced have not survived - at the Reformation one of the three single-volume copies of the entire Bible produced at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow in Northumbria c.700 was torn up and used as scrap paper - but nevertheless some items were saved from the wreck, partly because of the activities of collectors like Sir Robert Cotton, whose manuscripts eventually found their way into the British Library; and one of these was also one of the finest to have come down to us - British Library, Manuscript Cotton Nero D IV, usually known as the Lindisfarne Gospels.
This course may be particularly suited to those who visited the recent Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition in the British Library, with its heavy emphasis on manuscripts, although we shall be concerned with the earlier and not the later part of the period. Also, as the group leader is a historian and neither an artist nor an art historian, the focus will be upon setting these volumes within their historical context, which is a fascinating one. The Lindisfarne Gospels, for example, was created as part of the burgeoning cult of St Cuthbert in Lindisfarne after his death there in 687. Who was he, and why did he matter so much? At the same time nearby Monkwearmouth-Jarrow had become so adept at producing manuscripts which looked as though they had been made in Italy that the only one of the three great bibles (see above) to have survived was long believed to be exactly that. When that is combined with the fact that contemporary Jarrow also contained within its walls one of the greatest scholars of the Early Middle Ages in the Venerable Bede, and that Northumbria had only been converted to Christianity fifty years earlier, it should be evident that we are dealing with events and achievements which border on the utterly remarkable.
All that will be required of group members is a willingness to learn, but it should be stressed that some of the issues under consideration will be complex and that those who favour the undemanding provision of ready easy answers will find themselves better served elsewhere, for example by television. A booklist will be provided and those who get most out of the course will be those who are prepared to read some way beyond the things we cover in class.
The sessions will take place in an upstairs room of the Digby Memorial Hall fortnightly at 2pm on Tuesday afternoons. The first such course starts on 24th September, 2019 and ends on 3rd December; and the second starts on 14th January, 2020 and ends on 24th March. Each group will be limited to between six and ten people and there will be a small charge for the hire of the hall. Communication will be by e-mail, which participants without a computer can access in Sherborne Library. The group leader is Dr Ken Lawson, who has published a number of books and articles on the history of England in the eleventh century and taught various things at various times.