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Codex Amiatinus, the oldest complete Latin Bible

Codex Amiatinus, before 716, Wearmouth-Jarrow, c. 505 x 340 mm (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, MS Amiatino 1) Speakers: Dr. Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) - [Beth] We're at an extraordinary exhibition, in the British Library, of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, and we're standing in front of perhaps one of the most important books in the world. This is the Codex Amiatinus. - [Claire] Codex Amiatinus is one of the greatest treasures of Anglo-Saxon England. It really is a giant, both in its importance, but just physically as well. - [Beth] What we see at first is how enormous it is, how many pages or folios there are. - [Claire] It weighs 75 pounds. The spine of the book is almost a foot thick, and it contains over a thousand leaves of parchment, so it would've required over 500 animals to produce the skins that were laid into the parchment. - [Beth] And what I find remarkable is that this was meant to be carried from Northumbria to Rome. - [Claire] Codex Amiatinus was one of three giant Bibles that were commissioned by Ceolfrith, abbot at Wearmouth-Jarrow at the beginning of the 8th century. One is completely lost, for one we have a few leaves surviving, but this one is the only one that survives intact. And the other two were made, one for Wearmouth and one for Jarrow, but this one was made to be taken to Italy as a gift for the pope. And we know that it left Northumbria in 716. And yeah, was taken all that way to Rome. And carrying it was a great endeavor, but it may have been taken dis-bound, so perhaps not the whole 75 pounds bound into one manuscript. - [Beth] So what we're looking at is a pandect, that is, a book that contains both the Old Testament, or the Jewish Bible, and the Christian New Testament. And this is in itself unusual. - [Claire] Codex Amiatinus is on display with the greatest treasures of Northumbrian book production. But the other manuscripts are mostly gospel books, and it is these gospel books and some psalters that mainly survived. - [Beth] It's interesting to think about the missionaries coming from Iona, but also missionaries coming from Rome. - [Claire] Missionaries approached Anglo-Saxon England from two directions. So famously, St. Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory in 597. But then as we go into the seventh century, missionaries were sent from the Irish-founded monastery on Iona. And with the support of the kings of Northumbria, came over to Northumbria and to Lindisfarne, and founded the monastery on Lindisfarne. - [Beth] Wearmouth-Jarrow and the kingdom of Northumbria were incredibly important. - [Claire] Benedict Biscop and Abbot Ceolfrith, together at Wearmouth-Jarrow, built up a fantastic library. These were really great centers of learning and scholarship, and places where manuscripts were collected and where manuscripts were produced. - [Beth] And so we have to imagine manuscripts coming from the continent to Northumbria. - [Claire] Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith made several trips to the continent. They went to Italy and to Rome, and they collected manuscripts there, and brought those all the way back to Northumbria and to the monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow. - [Beth] So we're looking at the scribe Ezra. And also a page of text, with lovely script. It looks as though all the letters are written in capital form. - [Claire] This is the dedication page, and as I think you can see, the text has been altered to make the dedication appear to be saying that Peter of the Lombards had given this Bible to a monastery in Tuscany in Italy. And so, for a very long time, this manuscript was thought to be Italian, when actually, these words are replacing words which stated that Ceolfrith was giving the manuscript to the body of St. Peter, to Rome. And that realization changed the perception of this manuscript from being an Italian manuscript into realizing that it had actually been made in Northumbria. - [Beth] In Anglo-Saxon England. - [Claire] Yes, in Anglo-Saxon England. And apart from the dedication, the other reason that people had thought that it was an Italian manuscript is that this script is very similar to what you find in manuscripts that were produced in Italy. Because Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith had been to Italy and to Rome and had collected manuscripts and brought them back to Wearmouth-Jarrow, and the scribes had copied not just the text, but the style of the script, imitating the Italian features up there on the Northumbrian coast. - [Beth] And the illustration looks also very Mediterranean. - [Claire] Absolutely, and here we see Ezra sitting in front of these shelves, with perhaps books of another Bible, with his scribes' tools on the floor beneath his feet. - [Beth] This looks very Classical. We have an illusion of space, an illusion of the figure sitting firmly on that bench. And the bookcase in fact reminds me very much of a mosaic in Galla Placidia in Ravenna. - [Claire] All the way through the exhibition, we have tried to bring out the contacts and connections that existed between Anglo-Saxon England and Ireland and continental Europe. - [Beth] This exhibition is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see all of these manuscripts together. What a treat to be here, in the British Library today. Thank you. - [Claire] Thank you. (upbeat piano music)