Meet the marvellous manuscripts of Durham Priory

For the Heritage Open Days festival 2020, we explore some of the marvellous manuscripts which belonged to the monks of Durham Priory.

Some manuscripts were created at Durham. The monks copied existing texts, annotated them, wrote new works, and created illuminated initials and other decorations.  Some were made elsewhere and given to Durham: as we will see, the bishops of Durham often were the givers of significant collections of manuscripts.

The manuscripts covered everything that monks might need to know: Bibles, service books, theological works, the lives of saints, science, history … all the areas of medieval knowledge. Some were created to help manage the Priory, such as catalogues of the library books or lists of the treasures given to Saint Cuthbert. Much more material relating to the management of the Priory survives in the Cathedral Archives.

A significant proportion of the manuscripts were dispersed during the disruptions of the Reformation and the Civil War.  Fortunately many found their way into other rare book libraries and can still be studied. Over 300 though have survived in their original home at Durham. They are among the most precious treasures of the Cathedral, each a beloved and history-rich object. Each full of evidence in its writing, decoration, binding, marginal writings, doodles, spills, repairs and other interactions over the centuries.

These manuscripts are fragile, vulnerable to damage from handling and light.  We can only make them available to researchers and show them in exhibitions in strict and controlled conditions.  For the past five years or so we have worked with our friends at Palace Green Library, Durham University, to produce high quality digital reproductions of the surviving manuscripts of Durham Priory.  Most of the manuscripts of the Cathedral are now freely available to view online via the Priory Project website, thus bringing very high quality images of the manuscripts to people everywhere.  This resource has been particularly valuable during the Covid-19 lockdown when we could offer no physical access at all to the manuscripts.

Here is a personal selection of some particularly interesting titles that you might enjoy looking at and that will give you some insight into the kinds of books used by the monks of Durham.

The Durham Gospels MS A.II.17

The opening of St John’s Gospel, MS A.II.17 f.2r.

Produced in Northumbria around the year 700, almost certainly in the scriptorium of the monastic community at Lindisfarne, this manuscript is over 1300 years old. It would have journeyed with Cuthbert’s community when they left Lindisfarne and settled at Chester-le-Street and then Durham.

Closely related to the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Durham Gospels would originally have been as grand and beautifully decorated as this sister volume.  The full-page Crucifixion at the opening of the Gospel of Saint Mark is the earliest known illustration of the Crucifixion in any western manuscript. However its long life of heavy use has taken its toll and it is now damaged, faded, stained and missing folios.  It seems to have been used for services as late as the 11th century. It is bound with something else that is very special: a fragment of gospel book, produced at Wearmouth Priory around 700, written by a single scribe in a monumental Uncial script.

See it all:

The Durham Collectar or Durham Ritual, MS A. IV. 19

The Durham Collectar, MS A .IV .19

The Durham Collectar is a 10th century service book, containing the Divine Office: the cycle of daily prayers sung by the community of Saint Cuthbert.  This very early example of such a book in England is thought to have been written by a scribe in southern England. Note the small red letters written above the main text. This is a word-for-word translation of the Latin into the Old English language more familiar to users of the text.  It was made by Aldred, a scribe who famously did a similar ‘gloss’ for the Lindisfarne Gospels.

See it all:

The St Calais Bible MS A.II.4

The winged ox representing Saint Luke, MS A.II.4 f.107r

The St Calais Bible is a beautiful and distinctive work of art, the earliest known illuminated Romanesque Bible with an English provenance. Made in the 11th century, it was the work of one highly skilled scribe, who produced 3.6 kilometres of clear and elegant writing, covering the Old Testament from Daniel and New Testament. This was enhanced by 56 decorated initials in shades of green, blue and red, depicting the Biblical characters and assorted beasts.

William of St Calais (sometimes known as St Carilef) (1030-1096) was a Norman monk who became a trusted counsellor of King William and thus was made Bishop of Durham in 1080. He replaced the secular clerks of the Priory with monks in 1083 and laid the foundation stone of the Cathedral itself in 1093. St Calais brought many books to Durham, this one among them. Symeon of Durham, his biographer, added a list of these books to the front of this volume.

See it all:

The Durham Cantor’s Book MS B.IV.24

Saint Benedict’s rule in Latin, MS B.IV.24 f.74v
Saint Benedict’s rule in Old English, MS B.IV.24 f.98v

This relatively small and humble manuscript helps us to understand the development of life at the new Benedictine Priory at the end of the 11th century. It comprises a miscellany of works relevant to the proper running of monastic life. They include the Rule of St Benedict in both Latin and Old English, guidance helping Benedictine communities to organise their religious and domestic activities appropriately. The book also includes the best preserved copy of the Monastic Constitutions written by Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1070-1089. These were written to provide practical guidance for the liturgy, administration and discipline at Canterbury but were found very helpful by other monasteries.

The cantor was another term for the precentor, the official responsible for the music and many other aspects of monastery life. This role was undertaken by the historian Symeon of Durham at around this time and his handwriting is thought to appear in this volume.

See it all:

The Le Puiset Bible MS A.II.1

Biblical soldiers in the clothes of Norman knights. MS A.II.1

This 12th century Bible is a giant among the manuscripts. In four volumes, it weighs over 45 kilos, uses more than 130 square metres of vellum, and was produced by a team of scribes. They were probably based in Durham as they used the St Calais Bible text.

This Bible is famous for its historiated initials which are full of brilliant colour and design. This one shows biblical soldiers dressed as Norman knights. Sadly over 50 were cut out before the early 18th century. Note that part of the original medieval binding survives, incorporated into a more modern structure. Two original clasps have also survived.

Hugh du Puiset, bishop of Durham, donated this majestic creation, one of 76 books he gave to the Priory. The splendour, scale and cost of the Bible reflect Hugh’s life as bishop. Elected very young for political reasons, he led an aristocratic life of luxury, was heavily involved in politics, and feuded with the Priory officials. Not himself a scholar, he supported skilled craft, the making of beautiful and valuable objects, and significant building works, above all the exquisite Galilee Chapel.

See Volume 1:

Volume 2:

Volume 3:

Volume 4:

Hunter 100

Diagram of cauterisation: the application of hot irons to relieve a head ailment, MS Hunter 100 f.119r..

Hunter 100 is one of our best-known manuscripts, a vital source for understanding the history of science.  Written in Durham in the early 12th century, it is a compilation of texts which cover two main subjects:

‘Computus’ and ‘quadrivium’: in other words, astronomy, explored via various calendars and dating tables, including guidance taken from Bede and many other important thinkers.  We saw in a recent blog post why the dating of Easter was important – and difficult. This compilation helped scholars to think about these significant matters.

Medicine. This section includes information about physiology and pathology, medical recipes and information from Isidore of Seville and other scholars. There’s a glossary of herbs, featuring the earliest known use of Old English word lavender. The illustration shows an operation to cauterise the patient’s head using hot irons.

The ‘Hunter’ in the manuscript reference is antiquarian Dr Christopher Hunter (1675-1757). His collection of notes, transcriptions and manuscripts relating to the history of Durham were bought in 1757 by the Dean and Chapter from the executors of Hunter’s will.

See it all:

Pierre Bersuire, Repertorium morale MS A.I.17-19

Illuminated letter, MS A.1.19B f.319v

A much later volume to illustrate the splendour of our later medieval manuscripts.  This is another giant! The Repertorium morale was a kind of directory to assist with the writing of sermons. Thousands of words, from the Bible were organised alphabetically, listing their meanings in the Bible and followed by rhymes linking to Biblical references and other sources.  Bersuire was a Franciscan, later a Benedictine, who produced several important works of this nature, his Repertorium proving popular and useful among those who preached for centuries to come.

Our copy was originally in three volumes, each created by a different team, during the late 14th and early 15th century.  It was made for Durham at the request of Bishop Thomas Langley. The delightful decorated initials use pink, blue and green against gold and feature light, frothy sprays of flowers and designs.  Discover more about these wonderful decorated books in a blog post by Professor Kathleen Kennedy.

See Volume 1:

Volume 2a:

Volume 2b:

Volume 3a:

Volume 3b:

More manuscripts await

We hope you enjoyed this glimpse at the Durham Priory manuscripts. You might also be interested in this recent blog post which looked in detail at an individual manuscript: Annotating Aristotle.

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