Aug 21, 2014

Books and bones

I’ve already written about the survival of the St Cuthbert Gospel (London, British Library MS Additional 89000), an eighth-century copy of the Latin gospel of John with its original binding, preserved in excellent condition because it was kept in the coffin of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne for centuries and afterwards treated as a relic. But the coffin and its history are at least as interesting as the book itself.

London, British Library MS Yates Thompson 26, fol. 83r. Image: British Library.
[Image: London, British Library MS Yates Thompson 26, fol. 83r, 12th century. This miniature, illustrating Bede’s prose life of St Cuthbert, shows Cuthbert’s arm emerging from his coffin to touch and heal a paralysed man.]

Take the activities of Alfred Westou, an eleventh-century sacristan of the church in Durham. The monastic community of Lindisfarne had relocated to Durham in 995, bringing with them the coffin of their beloved saint, Cuthbert, and the reputedly incorrupt body inside.

The main sources for stories about Alfred are the late eleventh-century writings of Symeon of Durham and the twelfth-century Libellus of Reginald of Durham, both of whom, like many others, had a weakness for highly improbable miracle stories about Cuthbert, so it’s up to you how much you want to believe. Alfred seems to have taken very seriously his duties as the guardian of Cuthbert’s body: according to Reginald, he regularly opened the coffin in order to trim the dead saint’s hair and fingernails. When Alfred neglected to close the lid properly before leaving on a trip, Reginald says, a pregnant weasel got into the coffin and had a litter at the corpse’s feet, so that the annoyed Cuthbert somehow called the sacristan back to Durham to deal with the nuisance. Not even a dead saint likes to have baby weasels chewing on his toes. Cuthbert does not seem to have objected, however, to Alfred taking some of his hair trimmings and showing his friends that, when put into fire, the hair turned to gold.

This little barber-trick by Alfred is in keeping with another of his enthusiasms, which was to acquire (or, more bluntly, to steal) relics from other institutions and bring them back to Durham. His usual practice was to have a vision in which a saint buried in another location would plead with him to exhume his or her remains to be properly venerated, after which Alfred would travel to that location in obedience to the vision, and then translate those bones, or as many of them as he could get away with, to Durham. In this way he reportedly acquired for Durham the bones of hermits Balther and Billfrith, bishops Acca and Alchmund, king Oswin, abbesses Ebba and Ethelgitha, Cuthbert’s mentor St Boisil, and, most triumphantly, the bones of the Venerable Bede. Symeon suggests that Alfred was quite coy about how he managed this last feat of pious banditry, so his methods must have been rather shady; Bede’s bones would have been especially valued and it is doubtful that Alfred asked the permission of the monks of Jarrow.

Whatever one thinks of these stories about the haircuts and the weasel, it is a fact that, when Cuthbert’s coffin was excavated in the nineteenth century, a large number of miscellaneous human bones were discovered along with the coffin fragments. These were most probably taken from surrounding reliquaries and put into the receptacle containing Cuthbert’s coffin when the shrine of Cuthbert was dismantled at the Dissolution in the sixteenth century. From a very early date, however, even before Alfred’s relic-collecting, the head of St Oswald and the bones of some other Lindisfarne bishops had probably already been placed in the Anglo-Saxon coffin, possibly for ease of transport when the monks of Lindisfarne were fleeing the Vikings in the ninth and tenth centuries.

the St Cuthbert Gospel was deliberately placed where it would be surrounded by the remains of dead people
Sometime in the Middle Ages, probably at the translation ceremony when Cuthbert’s remains were installed in the new cathedral in Durham in 1104, the St Cuthbert Gospel was taken out of the coffin and kept separately as a relic of the saint. After the Dissolution it made its way to the collection of a Jesuit school, Stonyhurst College, from which the British Library purchased it in 2012. So the book has been separated from its bony company for a long time, most likely since the sixteenth century. Yet, for a much longer time, the St Cuthbert Gospel was deliberately placed where it would be surrounded by the remains of dead people. Perhaps this is appropriate, given that the only direct evidence for how it was used before it was buried with Cuthbert are four late seventh-century annotations in its margins, indicating passages to be read during offices for the dead.

London, British Library MS Additional 89000, fol. 20v. Image: British Library.
But the history of Cuthbert’s coffin and its contents shows us that medieval people such as (the possibly overenthusiastic) Alfred Westou did not think of these objects as signs of death but of an active afterlife. One of the passages marked ‘pro defunctis’ in the St Cuthbert Gospel (fol. 20v, outer margin) is John 5.21: sicut enim pater suscitat mortuos et vivificat, sic et filius quos vult vivificat, ‘as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he wishes’. Whoever made that seventh-century book, and the people for whom it was made, believed that the dead could be given life. Medieval people were perhaps more likely to think of resurrection as miracle and modern people are perhaps more likely to think of it as metaphor, but this is an area where the difference between miracle and metaphor is somewhat fuzzy. For Alfred, a saint’s bones or hair were physical signs of a continuing spiritual vitality. And, in some ways, so were medieval books: made of the skins of dead animals, recording the words of people who were dead or who were going to die, a book continually brings those words back into the world of the living. When I first learned how the St Cuthbert Gospel was preserved, in the coffin of a dead monk, my anachronistic modern mind thought of the book as having been taken out of circulation. But medieval people would not have seen it that way: books or bones, even in coffins, always had the potential to participate in life.

Yin Liu

References and Further Reading

Battiscombe, C. F. , ed. The Relics of Saint Cuthbert. Oxford: Oxford UP for the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral, 1956. Battiscombe on Alfred Westou is entertaining: ‘Relic stealing was a popular pastime among clerics of the Middle Ages and the profession of holy burglary was a quite respectable profession’ (40).

Bonner, Gerald, David Rollason, and Clare Stancliffe, ed. St Cuthbert, His Cult and His Community to AD 1200. Woodbridge: Boydell P, 1989.

Brown, T. Julian, ed. The Stonyhurst Gospel of Saint John. Oxford: Roxburghe Club, 1969.

Colgrave, Bertram, ed. and trans. Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert: A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1940. Rpt. New York: Greenwood P, 1969.

Cronyn, J. M., and C. V. Horie. St Cuthbert’s Coffin. Durham: Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral, 1985.

Marner, Dominic. St Cuthbert: His Life and Cult in Medieval Durham. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2000.

Meehan, Bernard. ‘Symeon of Durham (fl. c.1090–c.1128).’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. [, accessed 19 Aug 2014.]

Raine, James. Saint Cuthbert. Durham: George Andrews, 1828.

Story, Joanna, and Richard N. Bailey. ‘The Skull of Bede.’ Antiquaries Journal 95 (2015): 325-350. Story and Bailey note that, although Symeon’s story of Alfred stealing Bede’s bones might be scandalous, it is also probable.


  1. Great story! looked many times at Cuthbert's coffin and grave goods in Durham Cathedral, did not know this.

    1. Cuthbert's afterlife is like his coffin: lots to unpack, if you don't mind human remains.