The St Calais, or Carilef, Bible: May Treasure of the Month

Each month we feature an object from our internationally renowned collections as ‘Treasure of the Month’, and explain a little of their fascinating history. Durham Cathedral’s Treasure of the Month for May is undoubtedly one of the finest examples of 11th century Norman book production in existence – the Saint-Calais, or Carilef, Bible. Leaf through its pages at the website of Durham Priory Library Recreated, an ambitious digitisation project!

A feat of human talent and endeavour, the three and a half kilometres of beautiful, intricate script is the work of a single scribe; the stunning decorated initials the work of a single artist. There are 56 major initials in this work: 39 purely decorative, and 17 of relevance to the text they head – the four gospels represented by their evangelist symbols, for example; Psalm 1 headed by King David – author of the Psalms – playing a harp. As we know that the scribe of this work was based in Normandy, it is reasonably safe to assume that the Bible was created there, and brought to Durham by Saint-Calais after its acquisition.
An illustrated initial from the St Calais bible
A decorated initial from the St Calais, or Carilef, Bible
The Carilef Bible was gifted to the Priory Library of Durham by the founder of Durham’s Benedictine community, Bishop William of Saint-Calais, during the late 11th century, and was part of the collections at Durham by 1096 at the latest (when Saint-Calais died) – making this the earliest illuminated Romanesque Bible with an English provenance. Originally the second volume of a two-volume set, this is the only surviving part.
The distinctive style of this Norman scribe reappears in several other Durham Priory manuscripts – three of which were also included amongst Saint-Calais’ gifts to Durham (a complete list of which was recorded in this volume by Symeon of Durham, with the Carilef Bible at the top – “A Bible, that is the Old and the New Testament, in two volumes”).

st calais bible 3

By the late 14th century, library records show that this volume had been removed from the general collection and was one of a small group of items kept in a separate cupboard – suggesting its importance to the community centuries later. By gifting Durham Priory this magnificent Bible, Bishop William of Saint-Calais was fitting a common European trend: religious centres from Flanders to Italy had been acquiring such works. Durham University’s Professor of the History of the Book, Richard Gameson, writes in Manuscript Treasures of Durham Cathedral (2010, Third Millennium Publishing) that “beyond their obvious utilitarian value, giant Bibles might be perceived as a symbol of renewed spiritual fervour”.

Durham Cathedral Library still holds around 300 of its medieval manuscripts – making it the largest in situ medieval monastic library in the UK, and one of the most comprehensive in western Europe. Durham University, in partnership with Durham Cathedral, is currently involved in an ambitious project to digitise all of the manuscripts and printed books owned and used by the pre-Reformation Durham Priory – including this volume, and others, gifted by William of Saint-Calais. Further information on Durham Priory Library Recreated can be found here:

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