Sunday, September 16, 2012

You CAN take it with you

12th c. image of St. Cuthbert
St. Cuthbert (c.634-687), briefly mentioned here, never stayed in one place for very long—not even after he died. He grew up near Melrose Abbey, became a monk and was made master of guests in a monastery at Ripon, then returned to Melrose when the monastery was given to someone else.* After a few years he was made prior at Lindisfarne. Before his death he resigned and retired to one of the Farne Islands off the northeast coast of Northumbria. Urged to become Bishop of Lindisfarne, he left the Islands for a few years, but returned when he felt his death was approaching. His body was brought back to the mainland so that he could be interred at Lindisfarne Priory.

In 875, with the threat of Danish Invasion, the monks fled Lindisfarne, taking Cuthbert's remains. The monks and Cuthbert's body wandered for seven years looking for a home. In 883 they were offered a place called Chester-le-Street near Durham, where Cuthbert was re-interred.

In the late 900s, the threat of Danish invasion caused monks to remove the Saint's bones again, carrying them to Ripon over 300 years after he had lived there—but only for a few months. The monks brought the bones back toward Chester-le-Street, but stopped in Durham after having dreams that the saint wished to be interred there. A stone church was built to house the relics. Then came William the Conqueror, campaigning to make sure the north of England feared him, so in 1069 the monks fled with the bones back to Lindisfarne, but shortly after returned to Durham.

William's habit of building massive churches to impress the locals (and perhaps to appease God for William's sins) meant that, by 1104, the bones of Cuthbert could return to Durham to a cathedral that had been built on the site of his original stone church. We are told that it was decided at this time to open the casket they had carted around for so many generations; they discovered two remarkable things. One was that Cuthbert's body had remained uncorrupted (a sign of sanctity). The second thing was a book, now called The Stonyhurst Gospel or St. Cuthbert's Gospel.

It's a tiny bound book, only 5.4x3.6 inches, and was probably not Cuthbert's personal Gospel. It is likely that it was made after his death, and placed with him out of piety at some point during his post-death wandering. It, like Cuthbert, wandered for hundreds of years after its finding, ultimately passing among collectors until it came to the Jesuit Stonyhurst College. The British Library has called it "the earliest surviving intact European book," and purchased it in April 2012 for £9,000,000. They plan to display it alternately in London and Durham.

*That someone was later St. Wilfrid; among other things, Wilfrid became celebrated for his speech at the Synod of Whitby on why Easter should be calculated using the Roman method, not the Irish method. Cuthbert was raised in the Irish tradition, but accepted the Roman method when it became the rule.

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