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Oh, that old thing
April 16, 2012 7:33 PM   Subscribe

Thanks to a record-breaking £9 million fundraising effort, the British Library has acquired (and fully digitized) the St. Cuthbert Gospel. The manuscript, buried with the eponymous saint in 698 AD, is the oldest European book to survive fully intact.

For any UK readers of this post, please substitute "the British Library have acquired" and "fully digitised".
posted by Horace Rumpole (25 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Melvyn Bragg did an episode of In Our Time on the history of books which had a long section on the St. Cuthbert Gospel.

Looking at the digitized copy, I'm amazed at how crisp and legible it is. If my Latin were better, I imagine I could read it with little effort.
posted by feckless at 7:47 PM on April 16, 2012


FOR THE GLORY OF THE CUDGEL!!
posted by The otter lady at 7:47 PM on April 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Busted! My favorite cleric ever wielded a might big stick for the Saint ...
posted by feckless at 7:50 PM on April 16, 2012


Looking at the digitized copy, I'm amazed at how crisp and legible it is. If my Latin were better, I imagine I could read it with little effort.

The writing is truly wonderful. So clear to the modern eye. Quite unlike many later medieval scripts, such as that of the 1100s inscription inside the front cover. Indeed, the first words, "In principio erat verbum," anybody should be able to figure if you're familiar with John.
posted by Jehan at 8:05 PM on April 16, 2012


He's not the eponymous saint. It is the eponymous Gospel.

// Not the same as chicken or the egg.
posted by notmtwain at 9:11 PM on April 16, 2012


Past-o-rama
April 16, 3012 10:33 PM  ╗Subscribe

Thanks to a record-breaking $4.3 billion fundraising effort, the New New York Public Library has acquired (and fully undigitized) the St. Bezos Kindle. The device, buried with the capitalist saint in the year 2039 of the stupid ages, is the oldest e-reader to survive fully intact.

Unfortunately, the only document available was written in an incomprehensible dead language. Selected excerpt:
Comment Candide fut élevé dans un beau château, et comment il fut chassé d'icelui.
Prominent paleolinguists have described this text as "crazy gibberish."

For any United Kryptondom readers of this post, please translate "~»ᒯ\\⊥ǁ»⊢".
added by Hubert Rumpole (15,302 comments total) [add to favorites] 5 users marked this as a favorite [!]
[infinity comments removed. delmoi, I don't care if you've been a member of this site for over a thousand years; you are still not allowed to use your parallel universe accounts as sockpuppets.]
added by cortex at 11:17 PM on April 16 [+] [!]
posted by Riki tiki at 9:13 PM on April 16, 2012 [16 favorites]


Yes, that is a remarkably clear and easy to read script, unlike later ones. You need special training to read secretary hand (popular in c1600), but not this one. Aside from the Latin, of course.

Were the Italic/modern hands based off of early medieval?
posted by jb at 9:16 PM on April 16, 2012


so, how long do they have to be buried before it's cool to dig up dead saints and take the stuff out of their graves? asking for a friend.
posted by camdan at 9:56 PM on April 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Good work, Rumpole. She who must be obeyed will approve.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:57 PM on April 16, 2012


I've been wanting to do that to Horace Rumpole for years, but this was the first post of his that felt... well, British enough...
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:59 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Were the Italic/modern hands based off of early medieval?

The Cuthbert Gospel is written in uncial script. Uncial begat Carolingian minuscule, which begat humanist bookhand, which begat italic script, so yes, the Cuthbert Gospel is a distant ancestor of our modern italic hands, which is why the script seems so legible to us.
posted by verstegan at 11:54 PM on April 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


"so, how long do they have to be buried before it's cool to dig up dead saints and take the stuff out of their graves? asking for a friend."

If the vikings are coming, do it immediately. Otherwise, it's best to wait for a few centuries.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:30 AM on April 17, 2012


It's still "the British Library has acquired" in English English. It's not a footy team.
posted by ComfySofa at 2:16 AM on April 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Am I the only one who thinks this was a terrible waste of money?

They could let someone else buy it, pay for super high quality scans, and then spend the reamaining money in SAVING items that would otherwise be lost. Or are we to believe that all the archeologists and archivists fully funded? Are the tales of government cut-backs just a myth?

It is a simple choice. Spend money on reserving knowledge, or spend money on trophies. The British Library, it seems, is run by barbarians.

But wait, at least we, the new owners, can physically touch the object? Oh wait, no we can't, it will be locked behind thick glass.

The irony is that St Cuthbert lived in a cave to avoid attachment to possessions, and this is the gospel of John, a fisherman who gave up all he owned in order to follow the one who said a few choice things about rich men, and about the practice of idolizing dead prophets while the poor starve.

On the other hand, I suppose this is a fitting tribute to the Dark Ages. Let's all worship relics.
posted by EnterTheStory at 4:35 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, as ComfySofa observed, we would still say "The British Library has acquired", because it is a singular institution. We use the plural form you're thinking of when talking about teams, bands and so on. "Radiohead are playing at my local tonight". "Wales are shite" (when talking about a Welsh sports team of some sort), "Wales is shite" (when talking about the country).
posted by Decani at 4:50 AM on April 17, 2012


Any idea if there are notes in the margins?
posted by arcticseal at 5:23 AM on April 17, 2012


Am I the only one who thinks this was a terrible waste of money?

Perhaps. Paying to acquire the oldest intact European book seems par for the course for the British Library. Going up to £12bn over budget for a couple of carriers seems worse.

But wait, at least we, the new owners, can physically touch the object? Oh wait, no we can't, it will be locked behind thick glass.

Since the book has archaeological value, of course we can't and we shouldn't. We can still read it as they digitised it.
posted by ersatz at 6:01 AM on April 17, 2012


Am I the only one who thinks this was a terrible waste of money?

They could let someone else buy it, pay for super high quality scans, and then spend the reamaining money in SAVING items that would otherwise be lost.


They did save it. If the British Library hadn't bought it, it was going to Christie's auction house where any fool with money could have bought it and easily lost or misplaced it.
posted by vacapinta at 9:02 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


EnterTheStory - I agree with you that maybe more money should be spent on less famous manuscripts (and less pretty) which could be of equal historical interest, and which are threatened with destruction - and on the archiving and preservation that they need to be accessible.

That said, the realist in me knows that fund-raising campaigns to buy up collections of early modern business records (or some other very mundane looking and sounding but really quite useful documents) really don't do very well. It may be that some of the money raised will be used to fund other acquisition and preservation. I know that my uni used to do that kind of switcheroo: the government at the time would only fund new building for business or tech, so they built new business buildings they didn't need and moved the humanities and social sciences departments that did need more space into the old business building.

Also, now the book will be on display along with the other treasures - which gets bodies into the BL, non-research bodies who suddenly feel like they have a reason to support this major research resource. Non-academics pay for all public libraries and archives, and thus academics have to make sure that they enjoy them as well. The PRO has done a wonderful job of this by making things very accessible for geneologists and local historians -- and they subsidize (through taxes and fees) the academic uses of that wonderful archive, along with all the invaluable county record offices around the UK. (I love family history societies).

I was curious: I couldn't find anywhere in the articles or press releases that said where the Gospel had been before the British Library acquired it. Was it in a personal collection? Overseas?
posted by jb at 9:03 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


jb: It was owned by Stonyhurst who I guess needed money. So they went to Christie's who gave the BL first option with a fixed date to raise the money.
posted by vacapinta at 9:08 AM on April 17, 2012


I couldn't find anywhere in the articles or press releases that said where the Gospel had been before the British Library acquired it.

Jesuits sell historic 7th-century St. Cuthbert Gospel for $14.7 million
posted by Horace Rumpole at 9:09 AM on April 17, 2012


the oldest European book to survive fully intact.

For values of "fully intact" that include "with a ruddy great hole across more than half a line of the very first page of the 'fully digitised' link"
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:51 AM on April 17, 2012


It has its original binding. There are older books (ie codices), but I've never heard of such an old binding.
posted by jb at 10:08 AM on April 17, 2012


What's really interesting about the script is to compare it to the Lindisfarne gospels (also digitised by the BL). Produced in the same place, probably less than thirty years after the St Cuthbert gospel and you can see the differences in the script used.

EnterTheStory - after learning how badly the Gospel of Judas was handled while in private hands I can only see this as a very worthwhile thing to spend the money on. Your assumption is that whoever else would buy it would treat it as well as the BL will, and that is by no means a given.

And also, while we'll never know if he wore it in life or was just buried with it, St Cuthbert did have some medieval bling (and quite possibly was buried with more than that, since Henry VIII did a repossession job on his shrine).
posted by Coobeastie at 1:19 PM on April 17, 2012


Parchment is stronger than papyrus - or even paper (though the ink seems to rub off cheap/badly made parchment). When I have my self-published memoir produced, I'm totally having it hand-copied onto parchment.
posted by jb at 2:43 PM on April 17, 2012


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