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Lindisfarne Gospels return to the North-East

June 21, 2013

In what has to be the most hyped regional event in the English North-East, the Lindisfarne Gospels are on display in Durham – after four centuries of absence.  BBC Radio 3 had an entertaining program (still downloadable from iPlayer) in which children’s novelist David Almond expresses his reactions to seeing them.

Here is Gillian Reynold’s take on the broadcast:

The Gospels Come Home (Radio 3, Sunday) was one of those documentaries you tell friends not to miss. But, let’s be frank, listening to Radio 3 on a Sunday night is not exactly the nation’s favourite pastime. Therefore I did much advance personal urging last Saturday, duly rewarded by large verbal bouquets of thanks on Monday morning. That’s why I urge anyone who missed it to find it on the BBC iPlayer.

It really was a special programme, about the return to the North East next month of the Lindisfarne Gospels, the 1,300-year-old gem of the British Library’s collection. The presenter was Tyneside-born author David Almond, whose prize-winning novel, Skellig, has been translated into 30 languages and who did the Radio 3 Anglo-Saxon Portraits essay on Caedmon.

Here, magically, he captured the unique spirit of the North East, proud, historically conscious, grimly reflective, passionately connected to landscape and language. With producer Beaty Rubens he unfolded the story of the Lindisfarne Gospels in waves of interleaved memory, reaction and fact, building with every sentence the significance of why they will soon be at Durham Cathedral.

Lindisfarne is an island in the cold North Sea. In the seventh century a small monastic community was founded there by a Northumbrian king. In 722, its Abbot, Eadfrith, died having written the text and decoration of the four Gospels. The whole community had assisted: the parchment came from the skins of 130 calves; the ink from charcoal, hawthorn, oak galls; the pens from goose feathers (from the left wing for a right-handed scribe, the right for the left handed). We know Eadfrith copied it from an Irish manuscript because there are spaces between each word. (Latin manuscripts didn’t have spaces.) The decorations embrace Lindisfarne birds, each stroke of the pen an act of devotion as Almond conjured images of “the writing season” between long dark cold winters.

In the 10th century, long after Viking raids had forced the Lindisfarne community to move inland first to Chester-Le-Street, then to Durham, another monk added an Anglo-Saxon gloss above each Latin word. To a 20th-century cradle Catholic like Almond it shines back into the Golden Age of Northumbrian art, entwining the now and then of being North Eastern.

With it in Durham, also on loan from the British Library, will be the oldest intact book in Europe, the “pocket gospel” of St John, also from the 7th century. Almond’s wonder at it, (postcard sized, original sewing intact, colours glowing) was plain. What gave this programme such impact was not its reverence for the past but its sense of how words set down long ago connect us to it. Two thousand people have already booked to go on this summer’s pilgrimage across the sands to Lindisfarne. Record numbers are expected to go to Durham. “Come and see,” said Almond. Who, after this, could resist?

I’d like to remind everyone of the convenient tool Radio Downloader for downloading BBC iPlayer programs and transcoding them to mp3.

If you are not familiar with the Lindisfarne Gospels, I can recommend this web page; or even better, Michelle Brown’s British Library book (which is only $26 if ordered from bookdepository.co.uk through a UK proxy).

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