British Library launches "Europe's oldest book" appeal

LONDON Fri Jul 15, 2011 11:27am EDT

The 7th century manuscript of the St Cuthbert Gospel in this undated image courtesy of the British Library. REUTERS/Handout

The 7th century manuscript of the St Cuthbert Gospel in this undated image courtesy of the British Library.

Credit: Reuters/Handout

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The British Library has launched an appeal to help it buy the oldest book in Europe, an "almost miraculous" survival from the Anglo Saxon period over 1,000 years ago.

The small volume was buried with one of England's most popular saints, Saint Cuthbert at a time when the country was being swept by continental invasions following the departure of the Romans, and despite its age is still in perfect condition with its original leather cover.

The Library is now just 2.75 million pounds ($4.4 million)from its target of 9 million pounds to buy the Cuthbert Gospel.

The book was loaned to the library in 1979 and has stayed there ever since but if the bid is successful it will stay there permanently.

It has also been agreed that if the gospel is purchased, it will spend half the year at Durham Cathedral, where the saint is buried.

St Cuthbert, also known as the "wonder worker of Britain," died in AD 687 and was buried on the Northumbrian island of Lindisfarne. He was widely regarded as Britain's most popular saint up until the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.

When Viking raiders invaded Lindisfarne in 875, a group of monks fled, taking Cuthbert's body with them. After seven years of traveling with the body, the monks finally buried the saint again at what became Durham Cathedral.

The book was found with him when his coffin was reopened in 1104.

The book, written in Latin, is the Gospel of John. After it was taken from the coffin it was placed in a new shrine behind the altar of Durham Cathedral.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England by Henry VIII in the 16th century, the text passed to a series of private collectors.

Chief Executive of the British Library, Dame Lynne Brindley, said in a statement: "The St Cuthbert Gospel is 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.

(Reporting by Sam Watts; Editing by Steve Addison)

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