GLAM/Case studies/British Library, St Cuthbert Gospel to Featured Article

by John Byrne / User:Johnbod

The front cover; the original tooled red goatskin binding is the earliest surviving Western binding. Hand-modelling by Claire Breay, the only person normally allowed to handle the book

The St Cuthbert Gospel is a manuscript dating to about 690 which, among other things, is the oldest Western book with its original bookbinding. After having it on loan for many years, the British Library in London arranged to buy it for £9 million, a record price for a manuscript. The BL wanted to have the existing short article in the English Wikipedia expanded to a Featured Article, and ideally to see it on the main page on the day the purchase was announced, which was all achieved on 17 April 2012.

Richard Power of the library's web department, our regular contact, approached Wikimedia UK, who suggested User:Johnbod, who had experience of both medieval art and the Featured Article process. There was a meeting at the library in summer 2011 between Johnbod and Claire Breay, the Senior Curator responsible for the manuscript, and Johnbod agreed to undertake the task. Claire Breay supplied a reading list, some new photographs, and answered queries by email, and Richard Power mailed photocopies of the main monograph on the manuscript. Claire reviewed the completed article and had another meeting with Johnbod to discuss final points, in fact this was after it had already passed the featured article review process or FAC. The article received some 40,000 views on the day it was on the main page, and receives about 20,000 per year ongoing.

Article lead


The St Cuthbert Gospel, also known as the Stonyhurst Gospel or the St Cuthbert Gospel of St John, is a 7th-century pocket gospel book, written in Latin. Its finely decorated leather binding is the earliest known Western bookbinding to survive, and both the 94 vellum folios and the binding are in outstanding condition for a book of this age. With a page size of only 138 by 92 millimetres (5.4 in × 3.6 in) the St Cuthbert Gospel is one of the smallest surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. The essentially undecorated text is the Gospel of John in Latin, written in a script that has been regarded as a model of elegant simplicity.

The book takes its name from Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, North East England, in whose tomb it was placed, probably a few years after his death in 687. Although it was long regarded as Cuthbert's personal copy of the Gospel, to which there are early references, and so a relic of the saint, the book is now thought to date from shortly after Cuthbert's death. It was probably a gift from Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, where it was written, intended to be placed in St Cuthbert's coffin when his remains were placed behind the altar at Lindisfarne in 698. It presumably remained in the coffin through its long travels after 875, forced by Viking invasions, ending at Durham Cathedral. The book was found inside the coffin and removed in 1104 when the burial was once again moved within the cathedral. It was kept there with other relics, and important visitors were able to wear the book in a leather bag around their necks. It is thought that after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541, the book passed to collectors. It was eventually given to Stonyhurst College, the Jesuit school in Lancashire.

From 1979 it was on long-term loan from the British province of the Jesuit order to the British Library, catalogued as Loan 74. On 14 July 2011 the British Library launched a fundraising campaign to buy the book for £9 million (US$14.3M), and on 17 April 2012 announced that the purchase had been completed and the book was now British Library Additional MS 89000.[1] The library plans to display the Gospel for equal amounts of time in London and Durham. They describe the manuscript as "the earliest surviving intact European book and one of the world's most significant books".