After 1300 Years Abroad, the Earliest Complete Latin Bible Returns to England

The Codex Amiatinus will go on display at the British Library in 2018

Codex Amiatinus © Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence.jpg
Codex Amiatinus Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

In 716 A.D., monks at the Wearmouth-Jarrow monastery in the medieval Northumbria Kingdom located in present-day northern England, crafted an ornately illustrated Latin Bible that measured about one-foot thick when it was finished. This hulking book, known as the Codex Amiatinus, was soon brought to Italy and it has remained abroad ever since. But according to Mark Brown of the Guardian, an upcoming exhibit at the British Library will see the Codex Amiatinus return to England for the first time in 1,302 years.

The British Library announced in a November 30 press release that it will receive the book on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence. The Codex Amiatinus will be featured in an exhibit on Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which is scheduled to launch in October of next year. It is a particularly exciting acquisition because the Codex Amiatinus is the earliest complete Latin Bible that survives to the present-day.

“It is very exciting,” Claire Breay, the library’s head of medieval manuscripts, tells Brown. “I’ve been to see it once and it is unbelievable. Even though I’d read about it and seen photographs, when you actually see the real thing … it is a wonderful, unbelievably impressive manuscript.”

More than 1,000 animal skins were needed to make the parchment that fills the Codex Amiatinus, which weighs about 75 pounds. According to the British Library’s Medieval manuscripts blog, this large Bible was one of three copies commissioned by Wearmouth-Jarrow’s Abbot Ceolfrith. Two of those copies were kept in Anglo-Saxon England, but they exist in fragments today.

It was Ceolfrith who took the Codex Amiatinus out of England; he hoped to travel to Rome and present the beautiful Bible to Pope Gregory II as a gift. But Ceolfrith died before he reached Italy. The Bible found its way to an abbey in Tuscany. By the 1700s century, the Codex Amiatinus had landed at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, where it has remained for centuries.

At the British Library exhibit, the Codex Amiatinus will be displayed alongside a number of other seminal manuscripts, including the St. Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book. As Anita Singh of the Telegraph reports, the exhibit will also feature the oldest-surviving will left by a woman, which dates back to 1000 A.D. The document lists the woman’s many extravagant possessions: silver and gold, wild horses, a dress made of badger skin and landed estates.

A major theme of the exhibition, according to a second British Library blog post, will be the emergence of both the English language and English literature. The show will bring together, for the first time, four manuscripts that contain the surviving major works of Old English poetry. Three of those texts, which include the British Library’s Beowulf manuscript, are held at various institutions in England. But one of the manuscripts, known as the Vercelli Book, has not been in the country for at least 900 years.

Curators hope the artifacts on display will dispel misconceptions about the Anglo-Saxon period, which is often painted as a “dark age” devoid of advancement and culture. As the aforementioned blog post notes, “the kingdoms in this period included centers of immense learning and artistic sophistication, extensively connected to the wider world.”

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