Medieval Writing
Paleography Exercises
Lindisfarne Gospels, late 7th century (British Library, Cotton Nero DIV, f.5v). All images by permission of the British Library.
This is just a section from a page of the famous Lindisfarne Gospels, produced in Northumbria in 687 - 698. This is considered to be one of the greatest manuscript treasures of England, and there is a movement to have it repatriated to its northern home. The script is a rounded and formal insular half uncial, also known as insular majuscule. Between the lines of Latin script there is an Old English translation, written in a pointed insular minuscule. This was added in the mid 10th century, by the same hand that added the famous colophon which records the tradition of the book; that it was written by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne. The producers of the binding, the jewelled cover and the English gloss are also named.
The jewelled cover disappeared, probably at the Reformation, but there is a legend that it saved the book from destruction when it was lost overboard in a storm at sea and later found by the shore. It sounds a bit mythical, but it is just possible, given that the cover was probably a container or book shrine, such as survive for some Irish books of great value, rather than a conventional book cover.
The book is most famed for its artwork, and it is the carpet pages, Classicised pictures of the evangelists and incredibly elaborate headings that have been most studied and depicted. The book contains the four works of the Gospels in the Vulgate version of St Jerome, as well as a series of prefaces. It begins with St Jerome's letter to Pope Damasus, at whose command this revision of the gospels had been carried out. This is followed by the prologue to St Jerome's commentary on Matthew, then the canon tables. Each gospel is preceded by a short introduction, a list of passages used for liturgical readings and a list of festivals at which they should be read. This last contains certain entries that indicate that the exemplar from which the text was copied emanated from Naples, although the insular half uncial script used was a distinctively local development.
The section of page shown here represents the end of the letter to Pope Damasus, the explicit for that section and the incipit for the following prologue, a highly decorative initial and first word and the beginning of the text of the prologue. As the text is fragmented, we will pass on the translation and just concentrate on the insular half uncial script. The later pointed insular minuscule will be dealt with in another exercise.
There are various books which describe or refer to this famous work but Janet Backhouse 1981 The Lindisfarne Gospels Phaidon: Oxford is a recent definitive work. Some beautiful colour illustrations from this book can be found on the web on The Lindisfarne Gospels site, including a colour reproduction of this segment of page we are looking at here.The British Library itself has an assortment of images scattered about. The Treasures section now only has one detail. There is an web exhibtion called Painted Labyrinth which shows a few more. You can look for free at a few low grade images at Images Online and get better ones if you pay for them. If you have Macromedia Shockwave installed, you can also look at the very overrated Turning the Pages presentation on the web. I wonder why they don't just put up a simple gallery of good quality pictures???

| overview | text | alphabet | abbreviations | exercises | transcript |

Click on each of the above to walk your way through a segment of the text. The transcript will appear in a separate window so that you can use it for reference at any time. These exercises are designed to guide you through the text, not test you, so you can cheat as much as you like.
Script sample for this example
Index of Exercises
Index of Scripts

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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 13/4/2005.