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04 June 2018

The first voyage of Codex Amiatinus

One Thursday in June over 1300 years ago, a group of monks stood on the banks of the River Wear, weeping. In the distance, a boat was sailing away across the river. Over the water, the sound of the monks’ singing and sobs reached the elderly man in the boat, who was himself in tears. This was Ceolfrith, their abbot. He was leaving, never to return. Among the things he took with him was an enormous book, a gift he intended to deliver at his earthly destination. That book has never returned to the British Isles … until now.

The monumental Codex Amiatinus.
Codex Amiatinus, written at Wearmouth-Jarrow before 716: Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatino 1 (© Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

The dramatic description of Abbot Ceolfrith’s departure is set out in The Life of Ceolfrith, written shortly after those events by an anonymous author. Ceolfrith's departure also features in another contemporaneous work, the History of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, which was written by another of Ceolfrith’s monks: the Venerable Bede. Wearmouth and Jarrow were two sites of the same monastery. Together, they formed one of the major intellectual centres in Europe in the 8th century, and these works are key sources for the monastery’s early history. They also provide useful information about the production of that giant book Ceolfrith took with him, now known as Codex Amiatinus. Today, Codex Amiatinus is the oldest surviving, complete Latin Bible in the world. The manuscript that contains the earliest surviving copies of both the Anonymous Life of Ceolfrith and Bede’s History of the Abbots has recently been digitised, thanks to The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200.  

A page from the earliest surviving copy of the Vita Ceolfridi, showing an account of the departure of Abbot Ceolfrith.
Account of Ceolfrith's departure in the earliest copy of the Anonymous Vita Ceolfridi, made in England in the 10th century: Harley MS 3020, f. 29r 

According to Bede, Ceolfrith was the sort of ‘man who worked hard at everything’ (‘industrius per omnia vir’). Ceolfrith was particularly energetic at expanding the libraries at Jarrow and Wearmouth that his predecessor, Benedict Biscop, had set up. According to Bede, he doubled the size of those libraries. He also ordered that three giant Bibles be made, using the new Latin translation of the Bible (Jerome’s Vulgate translation). One of the Bibles was to go to Wearmouth, the other Jarrow and the third Ceolfrith took as a gift for St Peter’s shrine in Rome.

A page from a 12th-century manuscript of Bede's Lives of St Cuthbert, showing a portrait of a scribe writing at a desk, possibly a representation of Bede himself.
Late 12th-century image of a scribe that may depict Bede, from the Lives of St Cuthbert, Durham, 4th quarter of the 12th century: Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r 

Both Bede and the anonymous author state that Ceolfrith decided to go on a final pilgrimage to Rome because he felt he was becoming too old to set a good example to his pupils. Both accounts claim this was something of a surprise to his monks: Bede claims they were only given two days’ notice. This seems dubious, given the elaborate preparations necessary for the journey, that included not only Ceolfrith but dozens of other travelling companions. Nevertheless, using both accounts, we can reconstruct some of his route. 

Reconstruction of Ceolfrith's journey, based on the Anonymous Life, Bede's History of the Abbots, later pilgrim itineraries and the analysis of Grocock, Wood and Morris and comparisons with Archbishop Sigeric's later itinerary; with the Nodegoat visualisation environment

‘Now Ceolfrith set out from his monastery on 4 June, a Thursday …’ according to the Anonymous Life. Ceolfrith sailed across the River Wear in a boat, then rode south on horseback:

he got out of the boat ... and got on a horse, speeding away from the land of the Angles to the lands where, with a freer and purer spirit for contemplating angels, he might be delivered to Heaven.

Sometime between 4 June and 4 July, the Anonymous Life claims that Ceolfrith was in ‘Ælberht’s monastery, at a place called Horn Vale’. Scholars have suggested that this place was Kirkdale, in Yorkshire. Ceolfrith then boarded a boat for the Continent at the mouth of the River Humber on 4 July. It was not smooth sailing: the boat was apparently blown off course three times. Nevertheless, on 12 August Ceolfrith ‘reached the lands of Gaul’ (Galliae terras), where he was received with honour by King Chilperic himself. The party then travelled over land: Bede claims Ceolfrith went part of the way on horseback and part of the way being carried on a litter, as he was becoming ill. Ceolfrith reached Langres around 9am on 25 September. He died there on 29 September 716.

Codex Amiatinus’s journey did not stop there. According to the Anonymous Life, a group of monks continued on and delivered Ceolfrith’s gift to the Pope. The Anonymous Life also preserves the Pope’s thank you letter to the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow, which mentions a fine gift he had received — probably Codex Amiatinus.

The dedication page of Codex Amiatinus
The dedication page of Codex Amiatinus as it now looks; the alterations use a brown ink, in contrast to the main text (© Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence)

In later centuries, Codex Amiatinus moved again, this time to the abbey of San Salvatore in Monte Amiata, Tuscany. An inscription in the front the book recording that it was a gift from Ceolfrith to St Peter’s was partially erased and altered to say that it was a gift from Peter of the Lombards (fl. late 9th century) to the abbey of Monte Amiata. However, later scholars have been able to prove this volume is the one that travelled with Ceolfrith, because a copy of its original dedicatory page is preserved in the Anonymous Life, and it matches the page in Codex Amiatinus, apart from the erasures.

A detail from a medieval manuscript of the Life of Ceolfrith, showing a copy of the dedication page of Codex Amiatinus.
Copy of the dedication page of Codex Amiatinus, from the Anonymous Life of CeolfrithHarley MS 3020, f. 33r 

Codex Amiatinus is now preserved in the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence. It will be returning for the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019). 

Alison Hudson

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Since no archaeological evidence for Wearmouth-Jarrow has come to light, it might be wiser for the BL to hedge its bets. A proper scientific test on the ink used in the Codex would be a good starting point.

Those who'd like to know more about this wonderful manuscript should check out the Codex Amiatinus chapter in Christopher de Hamel's marvelous book, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. A great read!

We are producing a documentary about Codex Amiatinus. We are launching a crowdfunding campaign in order to realize this project.
If you are interested have a look at this link

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