|The Story of Books
by Gertrude Burford Rawlings
New York D.Appleton and Company 1901
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|Books in Medieval Times
Bright colors were employed in the Irish manuscripts, but gold and silver are conspicuous by their
absence, and did not appear in the manuscripts of these islands until Celtic art had been touched by
The tradition that the Book of Kells was written by the great St. Columba himself, reminds us that at this
period nearly all books were the handiwork of monks and ecclesiastics, and in all monasteries the
transcribing of the Scriptures and devotional works was part of the established order of things. Columba,
we know, was a famous scribe, and took great pleasure in copying books. He is said to have transcribed
no less than three hundred volumes, and all books written by him were believed to be miraculously
preserved from danger by water. As an instance of this, Adamnan relates the following story:
“A book of hymns for the office of every day in the week, and in the handwriting of St. Columba, having
slipt, with the leathern satchel which contained it, from the shoulder of a boy who fell from a bridge, was
immersed in a certain river in the province of the Lagenians (Leinster). This very book lay in the water
from the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord till the end of the Paschal season, and was afterwards found on
the bank of the river" uninjured, and as clean and dry as if it had never been in the water at all. "And we
have ascertained as undoubted truth," continues Adamnan, "from those who were well informed in the
matter, that the like things happened in several places with regard to books written by the hand of St.
Columba;" and he adds that the account just given he received from" certain truthful, excellent, and
honorable men who saw the book itself, perfectly white and beautiful, after a submersion of so many
days, as we have stated."
By Irish missionaries the art of book writing was taught to Britain, chiefly through the school of
Lindisfarne, where was produced the famous Lindisfarne Gospels, or book of St. Cuthbert. This-
magnificent work, which is one of the choicest treasures of the British Museum, was as highly esteemed
by its contemporaries as by ourselves, though perhaps not for quite the same reasons. Tradition has it
that when Lindisfarne was threatened by the Northmen and the monks had to fly, they took with them
the body of St. Cuthbert, in obedience to his dying behest, and this book.
They attempted to seek refuge in Ireland, but their boat had scarcely reached the open sea when it met a
storm so violent that through the pitching of the little vessel the book fell overboard. Sorrowfully they
put back, but during the night St. Cuthbert appeared to one of the monks and ordered him to seek for
the book in the sea. On beginning their search, they found that the tide had ebbed much further than it
was wont to do, and going out about three miles they came upon the holy book, not a whit the worse for
its misadventure. "By this," says the old historian, "were their hearts refreshed with much joy." And the
book was afterwards named in the priory rolls as "the Book of St. Cuthbert, which fell into the sea."
This notable volume is an excellent example of Celtic book art in the beginning of its transition stage, a
stage which marks the approach to the two schools which were the result of the combination of Celtic
and continental influences in the hands of intelligent and skilful AngloSaxon scribes-the Hiberno-Saxon
and the English schools. It contains the four Gospels written in Latin, and arranged in double columns,
each Gospel being preceded by a full-page formal design of Celtic work and a full-page portrait of the
Evangelist. The conjunction of these two distinct styles of ornament forms one of the chief points of
interest in the book.
The formal designs of interlaced, spiral, and key patterns, so characteristic of Celtic work, show its near
kinship to the Irish books, while the portraits prove an almost equally close connection with Roman and
Byzantine models. There is reason to believe that the classical element is due to the influence of an Italian
or Byzantine book or books brought to Lindisfarne by Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, and his
friend Adrian, an Italian abbot, when the archbishop visited the island for the purpose of consecrating
|The Lindisfarne Gospels accompanied St. Cuthbert's body to
Durham in 995, but rather more than a century later was restored
to Lindisfame, and remained there until the monastery which had
replaced St. Aidan's foundation was dissolved at the Reformation.
It is then lost sight of until it reappears in the famous Cotton
Library, with which it is now possessed by the nation.
The English school of illumination had its chief seat at Winchester.
Its work is characterized by its figure drawing, and while the foliage
ornament introduced, together with the gold which was largely used
in the Winchester manuscripts, indicate continental influence, the
interlaced and other patterns are derived from the Irish school. Of
this class of manuscript the Benedictional of Æthelwold, in the Duke
of Devonshire's library, may serve as a typical example. It was
written for Æthelwold, Bishop of Winchester, by his chaplain
Godemann, towards the end of the tenth century. Were it
practicable to offer the reader a reproduction of one of its pages, it
would be seen that it exactly illustrates what has just been said. His
figure drawing and foliated ornamentation are among its most
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