Four’s A Company: The Unlikely Collaborator Aldred in the Lindisfarne Gospels

Four’s A Company: The Unlikely Collaborator Aldred in the Lindisfarne Gospels – by Jelle Zuring, Utrecht University

 MS Cotton Nero D, IV, better known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, is one of the British Library’s most treasured illuminated manuscripts. Its great age (ca. 698), wealth of Insular illuminations and illuminated initials, and its excellent state make it a great artefact of English religious history.[1] But there is more than sheer beauty in this manuscript; the texts preserved in this thick codex are of great scholarly wealth, also for those who research collaboration.

The codex contains Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the four Gospels and some accompanying texts by Jerome that occur slightly less often. Most importantly for this post, however, almost every Latin word has an interlinear translation into the Old-English dialect of Northumbria, and there is a colophon by the glossator on the final page of John’s Gospel.

To have a glossator collaborating in the production of such a codex is not unusual. What is unusual though, is that this treasure of a book was glossed approximately 250 years after its original production. The colophon sheds some light on the production of the codex, and also of some pieces now lost:[2]

“Eadfrith, Bishop of the Lindisfarne Church: he wrote this book originally […] And Ethiluald of the Lindisfarne islanders, bound and covered it on the outside […] And Billfrith, the anchorite: he forged the ornaments which are on it on the outside […]

And Aldred, unworthy and most miserable priest, over-glossed it in English with the aid of God and Saint Cuthbert.”[3]

It has been argued by some scholars studying this colophon that Aldred imagined himself as the fourth maker of the codex, as a means of mirroring the four Evangelists who had written the Gospels initially.[4] Aldred, who was as we can see, still a priest while glossing the Gospels, was actually quite an ambitious man; later sources prove that he was the community’s provost around 970, when they resided at Chester-le Street.

In the century during which the community spent in this location, almost all literary activity consisted of glossing rather than book-production, implying that a good glossator would have been held in high esteem. The fact that a priest was allowed to gloss such a treasured manuscript suggests that Aldred was renowned for his skill at the craft. The glossator was an important collaborator, one to be included among those other makers of beautiful works of book-production.

Interlinear and explanatory glosses, f. 34r

Interlinear and explanatory glosses, f. 34r

Section of the colophon describing Aldred, f. 259r

Section of the colophon describing Aldred, f. 259r

[1] For a full description of MS Cotton Nero D IV, see Brown, Michelle. The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe. London (2003).

[2] The original cover, and therefore with it the ornaments, have been lost. In 1852, a new binding was ordered by bishop Edward Maltby, in which the silversmith attempted to recreate some of Eadfrith’s motifs.

[3] Translation by Jolly, Karen Louise in her monograph The Community of St. Cuthbert in the Late Tenth Century. Columbus (2010) p. 53.

[4] For a recent and informative discussion of the research into this colophon, as well as a fully translated transcription, see Nees, Lawrence. “Reading Aldred’s Colophon for the Lindisfarne Gospels”. Speculum 78, no. 2 (2003) pp. 333-377. About Aldred as one of the four makers, see p. 345.


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