Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Cats, Bibles and More at the British Library

Over the weekend, I made a trip to the British Library and got to see an amazing exhibit: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. This exhibition is open until 19 February 2019 and features some amazing manuscripts:
Treasures from the British Library’s own collection, including the beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, sit alongside stunning finds from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard. The world-famous Domesday Book offers its unrivalled depiction of the landscape of late Anglo-Saxon England while Codex Amiatinus, a giant Northumbrian Bible taken to Italy in 716, returns to England for the first time in 1300 years.
Here is a 30-second promo for the exhibition:

As exciting as that exhibition is, I am sure that all of our readers would be interested in another exhibition, Cats on the Page, because who doesn’t love cats? This one is free, and best of all, if you are coming to the UK for the Birmingham Colloquium on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (4–6 March 2019), you can make it to this exhibition. It is open until 17 March 2019.

Source: I took this photo
(no photography permitted in the exhibit)
To be clear, Cats on the Page did not feature any manuscripts with paw prints on them, but the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog has a recent post about those manuscripts, with several images. There is also this book, if you need more cats and manuscripts. The exhibition did feature an anti-witchcraft pamphlet from around 1579 with something about a cat in it. There were also a few bizarre recordings that you could listen to, including one of a musical duet featuring two singers meowing at each other, and another that was just sounds of a cat hissing. Fun for children though, for sure.

Does anyone know if there are any manuscripts of the Bible with cat prints on them? Has CSNTM digitised any?

I went to the Cats on the Page exhibit mainly because we had to wait a little while before we could go to the Anglo-Saxon exhibit (and also because cats). If you only have time for one—as much as I’m sure you would be tempted to see the cat exhibit, you should definitely skip it in order to see Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.

We booked our tickets to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms on the train on the way down, and it had sold out by the time we arrived at the British Library. It truly is an amazing exhibit. If you are remotely in the area, it is absolutely worth a trip. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It took me over an hour to get through, and that was because I had to rush through a lot of it due to having two small children with us. I could have easily spent two hours or longer there.

The exhibition has some of the “greatest hits” of manuscripts connected to the British Isles from way back when. You are met in the first room with The St. Augustine Gospels, one of the books Augustine of Canterbury brought with him on his mission to the English in 597. Other famous Bibles on exhibit include the Lindisfarne Gospels, the St. Cuthbert Gospel, the Harley Golden Gospels, the Coronation Gospels, the Utrecht Psalter, and its copy, the Harley Psalter, the **massive** Codex Amiatinus. There are even a couple of folios of purple parchment from the Stockholm Codex Aureus. You can imagine how I was about as excited as a 4-year-old in a candy store when I turned the corner to see purple parchment. The mood was somewhat dampered when my actual 4-year-old decided to argue with me on the grounds that it was more reddish than purple. In the end, I conceded her point.

Codex Amiatinus (good stuff from the BL here) is especially significant. It was produced at Wearmouth-Jarrow (up near Newcastle) in the early 8th-century—one of three massive single-volume Bibles. It is the only one that has survived, and this is the first time it’s been back to Britain in 1300 years, having been excellently cared-for in Italy through the centuries. What I was shocked to see, however, was that in the middle of the room a few feet from Codex Amiatinus was a less-imposing display of a few pages. These were the Middleton leaves (BL, Add Ms 45025)—some of the few folios that remain of one of the other two volumes made with Codex Amiatinus. Not only do we have Codex Amiatinus in Britiain for the first time in 1300 years, but we have it on display next to the remains of one of its two siblings.

St. Cuthbert Gospel;
source: Wikipedia (but I saw it with
my own eyes 
and this is really it)
There is also an element of shock to see the tiny St. Cuthbert Gospel and the massive Codex Amiatinus next to each other. Two copies of the Scriptures made near to each other in time and location, yet their outward appearances look nothing alike.

The exhibition features not just biblical manuscripts, either. You can also see the only copy of Beowulf, the earliest copy of the Rule of St. Benedict, and the Great Domesday Book (as well as the Exon Domesday). A number of non-book items are of interest as well, but again, I had to rush through parts of it.

Perhaps one my unexpected favourites of the exhibition was another manuscript. I will post more on it tomorrow morning as it deserves its own discussion.

My only criticism (and I feel guilty for having any criticism at all for this excellent exhibit) is that I would have liked to see f. 1 of BL, Cotton MS Titus C XV. The other four folios are from the 6th-century purple codex N022, but f. 1 has a papyrus fragment of Gregory the Great’s Forty Homilies on the Gospels in Latin that dates right to around the time of the composition of the work itself. Robert Babcock wrote a delightful article a few years ago in which he identified the fragment and speculated (reasonably in my opinion) that it might have been one of the other books Augustine of Canterbury brought with him to Britain in 597. It would have been nice to see it next to the St. Augustine Gospels (though there is a nice image of the fragment on p. 21 of the exhibition catalogue).

It is also always a treat to see some of the treasures of the British Library that are on permanent display, like Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest complete copy of the New Testament.

In summary, drop what you’re doing and go see this amazing exhibit, but be sure to book in advance.

More to come tomorrow.


  1. The "Cats who Edit" page is still available online, although it hasn't been updated for a while. A number of these felines have New Testament associations:

    Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is a great exhibition, and if you can't visit in time (or it is sold out), there is a very extensive catalogue for only £25:

  2. Hm, maybe getting a cat would help me finish my project. And maybe deal with those mice...

  3. This sounds amazing. Wish I could go. Thanks for the report, Elijah!