Hidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers by Mary Wellesley - review by Linda Porter

Linda Porter

Spirit of Parchment

Hidden Hands: The Lives of Manuscripts and Their Makers

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The Lindisfarne Gospels are among the best known of all English manuscripts. The production of such works was normally a collaborative undertaking, involving a team of artists and scribes. What is remarkable about the Lindisfarne Gospels is that they are the work of one man, a talented artist-scribe named Eadfrith, who probably worked on them in the first two decades of the eighth century on Lindisfarne Island in Northumbria. Christianity had come to northern England earlier than to southern England, brought across the sea by Irish missionaries, and Eadfrith was to become bishop of Lindisfarne. Nearly three hundred years passed before another monk wrote a short note at the end of the text, explaining that ‘Eadfrith, bishop of the Lindisfarne church, originally wrote this book, for God and for St Cuthbert and – jointly – for all the saints whose relics are in the island’. The original jewelled binding of the work has been lost but the text, a copy of St Jerome’s fourth-century translation of the Gospels into Latin, has endured. The original can still be seen in the British Library and its full beauty is now available to everyone with a simple click of the mouse. It is so compelling, as Mary Wellesley points out, because ‘word becomes visual masterpiece, and letters artworks’.

The interactions of most historians with manuscripts are more prosaic but the results still have the power to enrich and entertain. People tend to assume that we gravitate towards original sources at every opportunity. In fact, historians are divided between those for whom archival research and working with original

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