Lindisfarne Gospels

 ‘Too Cold to Hold a Pen’ The Spirituality of the Lindisfarne Gospels

As we in the North East celebrate   the Lindisfarne Gospels being home again, I gave this talk to open  our own little Festival of  creative  arts based on the Gospels. This talk makes no claim to scholarship or originality - but maybe will be of some interest.
(Originally it included  illustrations - but I am unable  l to place them here on the website. Sorry).


 "While I wrote I froze, and what I could not write by the beams of the sun I finished by candlelight."

So wrote  an anonymous early medieval scribe , scribbling in the margin of his text, as he struggled to complete his task for God and for Christ’s Church. He was not working on Holy Island but could well have been and his quiet little grumble opens to us the world that lies behind the beauty of the Lindisfarne Gospels.  What I want to do this evening  is to reflect with you on the physical and spiritual cost of creating the astonishing work that we name the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Four names will be in the forefront of our thoughts this evening, four men who gave their lives to producing, the Lindisfarne Gospels; four  men who believed that this work, costly, time consuming, hugely demanding both spiritually and physically was not only worthwhile in itself but of eternal significance; four men, Eadfrith, Aethelwald, Billfrith and Aldred  who  believed that their all but anonymous work was a God-appointed means  to declare Christ even to the end of the known world; four men , and their community that became Cuthbert’s Folk, who worked so that we might reflect on the Gospels and on Christ whom they proclaim.

 The Lindisfarne  gospels do not spring suddenly out of nowhere. Behind them lies a whole story of the proclamation of the gospel  and the work of the Church in the first six or seven centuries not only to preach Christ but to teach Christ – to do theology, to reflect, to contemplate and so to grow in faith and understanding and holiness. For Eadfrith, Aethelwald, Billfrith and Aldred  true theology is prayer – the contemplation of God so that all may know God ever more fully. Such theology needs huge intellectual effort – and why not , for does not Christ bid us love God with “all our minds and strength” as well as with our emotions?

 So behind the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels lies a long story of the educational work of the Church – first in the old Roman Empire, mainly in the East in Greek, later in the west in Latin.

Christian education arose from both Jewish and Roman roots. The Roman system- based on huge amounts of rote learning  because of the expense of producing written texts (each child would be expected, for example to learn Virgil’s Aeneid by heart, just for starters) provided much of the contents and most of the method of Christian education. The Jewish contribution came through the scriptures – the Old Testament.  Bishop Eadfrith ,as he creates the Lindisfarne Gospels, wants us to know that the only true way into deep theological, contemplative understanding of the Gospels, of Christ, is through the Hebrew scriptures.

 Very early on, Christian leaders, bishops, - Clement of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, the great Augustine of Hippo and many others – established catechetical schools. This was one of the reasons why a bishop to this day has a cathedra – a chair. Teaching was given orally, the teacher sitting, so as more easily to hold open the scroll of biblical text which he was expounding. His students sat around with wax tablets taking notes in Latin shorthand , notes which become manuscripts of biblical text and holy teaching for the building up of Christ’s people.

By the end of the sixth century the Roman empire was in collapse. It was the shocking event of the sack of Rome that brought to birth Augustine of Hippo’s great work, the De Civitate Dei, as he reflected theologically on the implications of so great a catastrophe.  But in the chaos the Church came to the rescue of civilisation. There were just sufficient literate scholars, with just sufficient learning, to preserve the great culture and literature of the Greco-Roman world. It is a matter of real thankfulness that the Church, and largely the church alone through the monasteries and cathedral schools that preserved for us the work of Virgil, Pliny, Cicero, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid and many more.

Greta Christian schools were established in Ireland very early on – Bangor, Kells and others.  Many of the English travelled to Ireland others came here – so Maildulph came from Ireland to establish a  great monastic school at Malmesbury – a  school where the Anglo-Saxon scholar-bishop, Aldhelm received his first training. Augustine of Canterbury, founded a great school in that city ; a school which other great Archbishops  Theodore  and Hadrian – Latin speakers though Greek by birth – built up to be a place of great learning admired throughout the Western world. Young men went to  Canterbury to be trained as priests, as missionaries and apologists, as learned men.  The primacy was given to the Scriptures and the commentaries on the Scriptures given through the work of the Latin church fathers,  but emphasis was placed  also on poetry and metre, on astronomy and arithmetic – for these men would need to be able to calculate the dates of the feasts of the year and also to proclaim the Gospel in such a way as to win others to Christ.  This was no mere academic training for this was true theology –so the whole  was undergirded with prayer- for this was formation into Christ.

St. John of Beverly , first Bishop of Hexham , received his early training at the Irish-influenced school of Lindisfarne and then spent time in Canterbury , discovering as many did that the hospitality of the schools and the enthusiasm for learning meant that all were welcome and provided with food and drink – as well as sustenance for mind and soul.

With the first  brief  attempt of founding a  church at York, when King Edwin of Northumbria was baptised there, along with the future St. Hilda at Easter 627, Bishop Paulinus came north with Queen Ethelburgha , baptised many in Northumbria, but was then forced to retreat to Rochester. The faithful James the Deacon, stayed in Northumbria, hiding out in the woods near Catterick, and training a number of boys as priests. We may date the foundation of the school at York to this period – a school where the great  Alcuin was later to teach before he had reluctantly  to move , by order of the Emperor Charlemagne, to teach at the palace school at Aachen. Alcuin in a letter to Ethelbert Bishop of Hexham, speaks of the supreme importance of education, declaring that salvation without teachers , is impossible.

Nearer to home the twin foundations of Wearmouth-Jarrow give us Benedict Biscop who so provided his monasteries with so many books that Bede was able to write and research and become a flame of Christian learning that has never been extinguished. And Bede's great hero? Cuthbert of course, monk, hermit and bishop .

We remember Bede for the History of the Church – though that in his eyes was the least of his works. At the end of the History Bede provides us a list of his works – an astonishing list- mainly of lengthy, detailed, scholarly commentaries of Holy Scripture as well as two large volumes of commentaries on the Gospel lections for the Church year. These commentaries show us just how much the library at Jarrow was able to provide Bede information on geography, astronomy, biology, botany, music, poetry and so on – a truly astonishing quantity of learning, enabling Bede to open up the scriptures not only to the brethren of his own house but to so many more. That is why the scribes set to work –so that others could read and learn too.

From the schools such as Jarrow others went out to spread the word, to teach, to live the Christian life through education. Alcuin, very possibly  having been taught by Bede himself (whom he revered) , went to York and then the continent; Boniface having been trained in the south,  travels to the Continent to work among the savage Frisians and to establish monasteries and schools in modern Belgium Germany and Holland. Boniface, and earlier Cuthbert himself, never travelled without a pocket copy of at least one of the Gospels, usually st. John, provided for missionary use by the scribes of the scriptoria, scribes without whom the Church’s mission could not have gone forward. We know that when Boniface met his end, hacked to death by pagan tribesmen, he instinctively held the little copy of st. John over his head as the sword blow fell

What needs reflecting upon is the spiritual and intellectual demands and costs of Christian education – an education which made possible, while itself being part of,  the production of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

 Take for example St. Aldhelm. Aldhelm was in Malmesbury in Wiltshire – but was in correspondence with King Aldfrith of Northumberland who may himself have been a student at Malmesbury.  The Lindisfarne gospels were, from the start, a cosmopolitan book – not merely one produced on an isolated island but a work that owes its origin to the true  catholicity of the church.

Aldhelm helps us go deeper into the spirituality that produced the Gospel Book. He was a man of life-long learning. An English speaker who wrote, learned and taught in Latin. And such complicated Latin! Very far removed from the earlier classical forms, much influenced by the Irish love of words for words sake. You may know that lovely poem Pangur Ban, a scribe’s white cat  and beloved companion, a poem written in Irish in the ninth century at the Irish monastic school of Reichenau. The anonymous scribe, takes us deep into the spirituality of the monastic scribes.  Words are important – for is not Christ the Word made flesh? Learning is important simply for its own sake– for words open us to the Word and so to the very mind of the Creator. The hard task of study, learning, reflecting, writing is all an offering of praise to God.

 I and Pangur Ban my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.


 Aldhelm loved learning as a means of holiness and prayer and writes from the Canterbury school  to his Bishop, Hlothere  of Winchester, to excuse himself from being home  for Christmas  for there is just so much to do : Roman  Law, verse, music, astronomy, astrology, mathematics – as well as the daily round of the eightfold praises of God, daily practical manual work and personal prayer. The letter to Hlothere was written in about 671 when Aldhelm was approaching middle-age – so truly a scholar believing in life-long learning.

We must not think that the learning and teaching of the Church was for men only. Aldhelm , in a work written for them  tells us of the nuns of Barking in Essex, praising their learning. They too studied the books of Holy Scripture.10 They too knew the works of the Fathers. They to read and wrote history and studied grammar, metre and music. And they too were creative for their especial contribution came through wonderful needlework – all offered to God.  Wonderfully, Aldhelm greets them so we know the names of these women, quietly doing their but for Christ and his church: Abbess Hildilith and the sisters: Justina, Cuthburga, Osburga, Adgitha, Scholastica, Hidburga, Berngitha, Eulalia, and Tecla.

We need to come closer to Lindisfarne.

Benedict Biscop’s establishment of the great library at Jarrow enabled Abbot Ceolfrith to have three great pandects – huge complete Bibles of the Vulgate,  the Latin text of Jerome (and remember this was in the vernacular!)  – made for use elsewhere. Ceolfrith himself set out to Rome , on a never to be completed journey, bearing with him what we now call the Codex Amiatinus  as a gift for the Pope- 19¼ inches high, 13⅜ inches in breadth, and 7 inches thick, and weighs over 75 pounds. At first this text resided in the monastery of Amiata (hence its name); today it is in Florence. Almost certainly Bede himself was involved in the production- and we may begin to glimpse another aspect of the cost involved for we are told that to produce these three texts 2000 animals had to be killed for their hides to be formed into vellum. Codex Amiatinus is of 1040 leaves.  So think: the time, the concentration, the sheer physical and mental labour –and yes, the financial cost to the monastic community. That’s how much this meant to them all.

This is how much it meant to Eadfrith, Aethelwald , Billfrith and Aldred. .

 Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne 698-721, is  the spiritual giant who, single-handedly wrote and illustrated all but the whole of the Lindisfarne Gospels , all in honour of St. Cuthbert. It would appear that illness, frailty or death overtook Eadfrith before he could finish the illustrations- and there was still some need for the application of red ink – ruber- to key texts, to enable readers better to find the set passages for the day when being read at Mass.

Aethelwald, who succeeded Eadfrith as bishop (721-740) took on the task of overseeing the final stages , the rubrification of the text, the sewing and the binding in the original cover  (the one we see now is much , much later, a British Museum, nineteenth century replacement for the lost original). Aethelwald had trained and been formed at Melrose – where Cuthbert himself began his monastic observance- then became a hermit on the Inner Farne (probably living in Cuthbert’s cell) and finally was compelled to be abbot and then Bishop. Why? Because of his undoubted holiness, the way in which he embodied the Rule of Columbanus and Benedict; the way he modeled Christian prayer and life. Its worth reflecting that the two men who did the greatest amount of sheer hard, time-consuming slog to produce the Lindisfarne Gospels were both Bishops, both expected to carry out their ministries of worship, teaching and pastoral care. So why ask them to take on this additional, enormous burden? Precisely because they were spiritual leaders.

 Billfrith is another anchorite or hermit, of whom we know very little – after all, a hermit does not become a hermit for the cause of self publicity or praise but solely, silently, alone to praise God , to offer the hours of each day to God on behalf of those whose ways of life preclude such worship, and to strike a blow against evil every day, every time prayer is offered, every time temptation is overcome, a blow against evil that is the individual’s participation in the saving work of Christ. Billfrith, probably in common with both Eadfrith and Aethelwald was not only a learned man but also skilful in the creative arts, in his case metal work. His role in the creation of the Gospels was to produce a cumdach. This is a metal book-shrine – a case, if you like, in which the Gospels were placed and in which they were brought into church in solemn procession on the great festivals of St. Cuthbert; a  beautiful and intricate metal shrine, most probably wrought in precious metals and stones, possibly , like St. Cuthbert’s coffin, depicting images of the saint . Billfrith’s book-shrine, long since lost, helps us understand better the point and purpose of the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels.  Some texts – such as Codex Amiatinus- were produced primarily for scholarly reference, for theological contemplation and study. Some were produced for daily use in church for the reading of the sacred  Gospels as all stood around eager to hear Christ’s Word to us this day. The Lindisfarne Gospels were not, it is thought, created primarily for either of these purposes but rather as, what Professor Michelle Brown calls,  a prayer portal.

When Harry Potter and his friends need to travel from a to b they can do so by “port-keys”. They take hold of the port-key, a kettle, shoe, whatever, which transports them  to their new destination. The Lindisfarne Gospels were designed –as perhaps all Christian worship is designed – for much the same purpose. Remember , not all who could see the gospels could read them , not all could speak or understand Latin. It is very possible that many , even of the monks of the Lindisfarne Community, were all but illiterate. Later, after the Viking destruction of Holy island, when the Cuthbert Folk, the community that gathered around Cuthbert’s holy remains,  now buried in Durham, were wandering through northern England, we know that the large majority were “ordinary” lay people. By the time the Cuthbert Community settled for some long time in Chester-le-Street no more than 3 or 4 were monks. Some would have been priests, probably married incidentally, but the greater majority are likely to have been non literate, non-Latin-speaking .  They knew the psalms by heart, they knew much of the Bible, especially St. John  by heart ,as did many of the earlier Egyptian desert fathers but this was a true heart-learning; not merely rote learning but a deep memorization, a deep knowledge of scripture that took the Word of God down into the very being and soul of the individual thus forming them to be truly part of the Body of Christ, truly individual and human, truly one with the community which is the Mystery of Christ.

The whole Lindisfarne-Northumbrian community was awash with holy scripture.  Holy Scripture was the beginning , middle and end of their life and spirituality. Each monk had to know the basics of the psalms and scriptures by heart – for no community could provide the luxury of every individual having his own Office Book. In addition  to 3-4 hours of daily corporate  worship – all of it being scriptural texts- each monk was allocated another 3 to 4 hours daily for Lectio Divina – slow meditative rumination of the scriptural text. In Lent yet another hour was added on- so  that monks and nuns would have so much scripture stored within them that when working in the garden or bakehouse the scripture text would continue to occupy their minds and hearts while their hands were occupied with the task before them. Corporate worship and individual scriptural reflection together makes up the Opus Dei –the  work of God- which is both a precious opportunity for personal and community encounter with God and also a shared contribution in Christ’s ongoing work of salvation. The monk, the nun saw themselves as useful to God on behalf of the world. Aethelwald, Eadfrith and the others worked on the Lindisfarne Gospels as their practical contribution to the life of the wider church –on top of daily worship and lectio – each day another three hours or so painstakingly writing, binding and presenting the Gospel which is Christ himself.


Those who saw the Lindisfarne Gospels saw first, St. Cuthbert.  And why was Cuthbert a saint? Because in his life people had been able to see Christ. Bring Billfrith’s book-shrine into church and you are transported to the mystic prayer and holiness of Cuthbert, reminded and encouraged that you too can be filled with Christ’s grace as Cuthbert was on this earth, encouraged that Cuthbert is even now praying for your protection and sanctification. And on many occasions that was probably all you saw of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Most of the time they would have been safely stored within Billfrith’s bookshrine.

 Incidentally this metal casket served another purpose. Vellum books, because originally animal skins, have a tendency over time to seek to curl, to return to a natural animal shape. Hence all medieval books were kept in book presses, lying flat. The shrine would have achieved this – and ,sadly, we can see what happens when, its original cover lost and now stored on a shelf as we would store books today, how vulnerable  the Gospels are – for at some point water trickled over the front pages, from the top towards the bottom and the marks are there still.

Most of the time the Lindisfarne gospels Book would have been safely stored within Billfrith’s bookshrine. But on very great festivals the book would have been opened. What would the illiterate have made of that?  Dear Bishop Eadfrith planned from the start that this would not only be a book in honour of Cuthbert but, more importantly, a book in honour of Christ  our Lord. So open the book and there are great icons, carpet pages displaying Christ’s cross. There are the great icons of the four Gospel writers; and each page, each illustrated letter, speaks of God’s creation and of Christ through whom all is made, in whom all exist, to the glory of God the Father.

So the illiterate could see Christ through the Gospel Book. But how could they hear who do not have an interpreter? This brings us to Aldred, a member of the Chester le Street community  who set about the task of beautifully and neatly glossing the text in Old English  – thus providing a vernacular English translation. A colophon – added note- to the Durham Ritual, tells us that much of Aldred’s work was done while on the move – travelling with his Bishop in the day to day work of proclaiming the gospel of Christ and caring for Christ’s community. So we are told that Aldred was writing yet another vernacular gloss , this one for the Durham Ritual,  in the tent of Bishop Aelfrige of Chester-le-Street, who had then based his operations at Oakely down in Dorset. This helps us understand the importance of Billfrith’s book-shrine in practical terms – the Gospels were being carted around England! It also gives a  very different picture form the one we might assume concerning the working conditions of Aldred and the others! It also reminds us afresh that the Golden age of Northumbria was no narrow parochial  affair between Tyne and Tees!  The Anglo-Saxon Church  was truly catholic – engaged with the widest possible intellectual and spiritual community. Aldred himself probably trained in Glastonbury with Dunstan and others and may well have been brought into the Cuthbert Community  to assist them with spiritual revival – for all church communities constantly need such.

The work of translation into the vernacular  was considered very important – remember, Bede’s last work before death, was to complete a translation of St. John’s Gospel into English.  Writing to bishop Acca of Hexham , Bede says, “ those who translate or copy in the Spirit, continue the work of those originally inspired”. Similarly the Matthew page shows a figure, who may be Christ himself, opening the curtain of the Old Testament so that Matthew can reinterpret, translate if you like, the Hebrew scriptures into their true meaning as a revelation of Christ.

Similarly again, the Gospels open with 16 “canon pages”  which enable literate readers to gain a deeper insight into the Gospel. For the illiterate the Canon pages speak of the book being opened much as we might come from the nave of a church into the sanctuary through a set of arches. Here we come to Christ. For the literate the Canon pages, based on the work of the fourth century scholar Eusebius of Caesarea, provide a set of references by which each Gospel passage may be cross-referenced between one Gospel and another   so that the deeper Mystery may be revealed.

The “look” of the Gospels also speaks in the vernacular and to the illiterate in a way now almost  lost to us , namely through the style of the script itself. The Gospel pages  use both Roman script and Greek  and Runic style lettering of the variety found on the high crosses. Hence the script itself speaks of the tradition of handing on the gospel from and to the Christian communities of Greece, Egypt, Ireland, the Continent, and Northumbria  itself – this is God’s word made word, here for you, proclaims the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Matthew page and the canon pages make a very important point: Eadfrith, , Aethelwald and Billfrith , as well as Bede and the others, see themselves as charged with the responsibility of receiving the Word of God and handing it on to others, just as Cuthbert’s life had embodied something of Christ the Word once made flesh and now alive in the Spirit through His Body the church. Aldred’s role of translation was very much part of this evangelisation. He sees himself as one of four, himself, Eadfrith, Aethelwald and Billfrith, who continue the sacred work of proclaiming and living Christ’s Gospel just as the four evangelists, Matthew, mark, Luke and John had proclaimed and lived Christ.

This is why the Cuthbert Community was prepared to spend so much time, effort and money in producing the Lindisfarne Gospels.

 The Lindisfarne Gospels are made up of 259 vellum folios. Start then with 150 very high quality large sheets of calf-skin. To achieve this many more animals would have had to be slaughtered for too often imperfections in growth or coloring or preparation would have rendered them unusable for Aldred’s’ task. So perhaps as many as 200 yearling animals - each animal being a cost to the community, of course.  I am told that an average calf today costs in the region of £150 so in our terms £30,000 just for the skins, before preparation.

 The vellum was prepared so that the spine ridge runs horizontally across each page – which minimizes the curling effect I mentioned earlier. Once prepared 4 full sheets of vellum are folded in half to form a quire of 8 leaves, each Gospel having its own discrete set of quires - placed so that the originally hairy side of the vellum (now scraped, of course but still slightly rougher) was on the outside  of the quire  and that hair side faced flesh side – this would help Eadfrith in his task because the main areas of text writing now come on the smoother sides. Some of the major carpet and other illustrated pages were inserted later- and its very probable that Eadfrith  did all the writing first before adding any of the illustrations. That way when doing the colouring he could work on more than one page at once  waiting for each colour ink to dry and so avoiding colours running together.

Now comes the bit I find almost incredible. To achieve his intention Eadfrith must have planned the whole thing from the start as a complete whole!  So each block of text is ruled out after the quires had been folded, each block surrounded with a margin, each block containing precisely so much text – all of which Aldred planned in advance. Each block of text then ruled with a lead or hardpoint stylus , knife and awl and  ruler and the text so laid out that rarely if ever is there an issue in aligning text with length and width of page.

 He also planned in advance the illustrations   –and this becomes even more extraordinary. Each illustrated page and letter was pricked out from the reverse with a tiny awl and then, still from the reverse marked with lead. The whole was then reversed and, working with whatever light he could get (did he place candles underneath the work?) Aldred proceeded to paint form the “correct” viewing side. This way it was possible to retain extraordinary minute detail of the drawing which would otherwise have been obscured as the coloring process began.

Eadfrith’s illustrations take us deeply into Anglo-Saxon spirituality. All – the world around us, the Word of God in Christ, the daily round of prayer – all is offered to God and all is a portal of prayer through which God reveals God’s Mystery  to us in Christ.

 Thus the five carpet pages reveal Christ’s Cross. Each page being designed mathematically according to Greek geometries’ “Golden mean” for in such mathematics is revealed   the quest for understanding of Wisdom, of God Creator, of humanity as made in the image of God and the wonderful order of creation held in being through Christ, through the cross- with geometric shapes  representing Mary and John, the Christian community at the foot of the cross and angels hovering around Christ’s head – all creation offered to God through Christ. These carpet pages may also  have reminded the Cuthbert community of their prayer mats – once used by Coptic and other Christians as a mobile “chapel”  and introduced to the West through the Good Friday devotion of the Veneration of the Cross.

The animal initials show not only birds and beasts – but also the vine scroll  that speaks of Christ the true vine. The animals in the Prefatory cross   show birds and animals in solemn procession   from Cross to sepulchre to the Holy of Holies – all gives praise and it is humankind’s vocation to voice that praise. At the four corners are little dogs resting their chins in sorrow and solemnity as the Mystery and joy of Easter is revealed – cross and resurrection.

The curvilinear trumpet spirals  speak of  Celtic iron work – of the skills of human art used to the glory of God.

The inks and colours remind us of the material gifts of God – red lead, ochre, verdigris, plant dyes – and even of human science for the ink is made from carbon, iron salts and gall to such a good recipe that unlike many other contemporary manuscripts the Lindisfarne gospels have remained clear and fresh down the centuries.

It is most  likely that  Eadfrith did this whole process single handed: the preparation of  the vellum,  the planning, the lay out, the lettering, the preparation of inks and colours  (all from natural materials ), the illustrations. This was Aldred’s opus dei, his work for God, his daily prayer, possibly executed as a semi-anchorite on Hobthrush island when the Lindisfarne tide was in so as to minimize interruption. A contemporary scribe tells us that such demanding and intricate work can be done for no more than about 3 hours a day – and the classic early medieval Benedictine house would have provided  Eadfrith with almost exactly this amount of time daily for personal prayer and contemplation. Furthermore the same modern illustrator reckons that such a work would have taken a minimum of 5 years and more likely nearer 10 – this is Eadfrith’s life work for God and Christ’s Church. A life’s’ work offered as prayer for, as Cassiodorus had written in his Institutiones “each word written by the monastic scribe is a wound on Satan’s body”.  The scribe, largely anonymous and hidden was nevertheless a soldier for Christ.

Eadfrith never  quite  finished his great work. So it was up to Aethelwald to take on the task of completion.  The whole would need to be collated and then sewn together – no mean task in itself . each quire sewn onto leather cords which are then threaded through drills onto wooden boards and all held in place by tiny wooden dowels, the whole being neatly concealed by a vellum membrane pasted down with cow gum.

So a huge cost to individual and community – all gladly offered in praise . But even scribes are human . The eyes tire, the back aches, the mind wanders- and , yes, from time to time, the spirit grows faint and Ruler of this World whispers other possibilities into the ear: is it all worth it. Even Bede himself could write to Bishop Acca of Hexham :

“I have subjected myself to that burden of work in which,  as in  innumerable bonds of monastic servitude which I shall pass over, I was myself at once dictator, notary and scribe.”

Other and perhaps lesser scribes provide us with a whole set of comments which reveal to us the human cost of producing their works. Examine many of the great medieval texts and you will discover little school-boy type notes scribbled naughtily in the margins – perhaps never meant originally to be seen but somehow never finally erased with pumice and knife and so left to us to chuckle at –and to learn from. Here are a few, at random from many  texts:

"New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more.

"That's a hard page and a weary work to read it."

Commenting on an earlier scribe’s hurried work:  "This page has not been written very slowly."

Grumbling about the materials:  "The parchment is hairy." "The ink is thin."

And looking ahead to a rest:  "Thank God, it will soon be dark."

And the sheer physical, emotional and spiritual cost:  "Oh, my hand."

"Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides."

"While I wrote I froze, and what I could not write by the beams of the sun I finished by candlelight."

"As the harbour is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe."

And a realisation of mortality that comes to us all as we grow older in the Lord’s work:

"This is sad! O little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, 'The hand that wrote it is no more'."

As the Lindisfarne Gospel Book  comes to our area for  too brief a visit can we marvel not just at an astonishing work of art but at a profound spirituality which brought that art into being? a spirituality that enabled Bede, Ceolfrith, and Hildilith,  Eadfrith, Aethelwald, Billfrith and Aldred and so many others to work on, as winter  darkness drew in and the temperature made holding a pen all but impossible – but still the labour was done for God. One last marginal inscription from an unknown scribe : "I am very cold."