Anglo Saxon Biblical Literacy? (@pmphillips)


Image used by permission Lindisfarne Gospel Project

In the Summer, the Lindisfarne Gospels will be coming to Durham. Come up – see the Gospels – meet me and Bex! Talk Bible!

As part of the event, there are a series of lectures here in Durham and last week I attended one on Aldred’s Anglo-Saxon Gloss on the Gospels by Professor Eric Stanley. Basically, if you look closely at the pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, you will find some interlinear writing – a kind of early graffiti – it’s Aldred, “unworthy and lowest priest” within the community of the Lindisfarne Islanders now living among the ruins of Roman Chester-le-Street, who has translated the Latin original into his own Northumbrian version of early English (hit of’gloesade on Englisc).

It was a fascinating lecture. I learnt so much about Aldred and his purpose for writing the gloss, this early artistic vandalism! His interlinear translation is written in faded brown ink or even, eventually, in red ink. On the one hand, his translation ruins a priceless piece of art. Surely, people will be coming to Durham to see the beauty of the Gospels, the illuminations, the cover, the Anglo-Saxon art. It is irreplaceable. But Aldred scribbles over it. There is something here which is much more important to him than the visual beauty of the book.

When we have been involved in the various preparation meetings for the Gospels event, we have, on occassions, noted that the emphasis seems to be wholly on the visual aesthetic of the text. Aldred points to the artistry: Eadfrith’s initial work on the Latin text, Aethelwald’s binding, Billfrith’s work on adorning the text with gold and jewels and gilded silver (he gismioðade ða gihrino ðaðe utan on sint, & hit gihrinade mið golde & mið gimmum, æc mið sulfre of’gylded). Visual culture, visual art, visual worship was as important then as it is now.  Only the other week, the Society of Religion Conference speaker, David Morgan (his classic text is Sacred Gaze), emphasised the role of the visual in every aspect of religion.

But Aldred was keen to ensure that his fellow community members in Chester-le-Street went beyond the visual – that they actually understood the text itself and the theology which that text contained.

Indeed,he goes to some lengths to ensure that the text is understood in the very context of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. When Mary is introduced, Aldred provides four glosses to explain Joseph’s relationship with Mary prior to the birth – brothed, entrusted, troth-plighted or pledged (biwoedded, beboden, befeastnad, betaht) – desperate to avoid any sense that Jesus was Joseph’s natural child. In fact, so desperate that contemporary Anglo-Saxon scholars can’t see the specific differences between those four words.

John Incipit - web[1] copy

Image used by permission Lindisfarne Gospel Project

Aldred’s gloss is often woodenly verbatim and precise. But occassionally, he has to make sure that you understand the text precisely. So, amidst the wonder of the Prologue, Aldred points out to the reader that the Word is none other than God’s son (in fruma uœs uord & uord Þæt is godes sunu uœs mið god feder god uœs uord). What is crucial is that Alred’s contemporaries understand the implications of the text and get the translation just right.

So his translation is an amplification, a commentary, a clarification of the text.  Often highlighting the knowledge and understanding which must have been part and parcel of Aldred’s Norrthumbrian community – there were no northern yokels. The community which was yet to found its seat of learning and scholarship in Durham, was clearly sophistacated and knowledgeable. These are not dark age savages!

Intriguingly, in one place Aldred seems to make a huge mistake. The Beatitude in Luke 6:22 warns that “men shall cast out your name as evil for the son of man’s sake”.  Aldred glosses ‘evil’ as “yfel / apoltre” (evil or apple-tree). He seems to have forgotten that the Latin word for ‘evil’, ‘malum’, is not the same as the Latin word for ‘apple’, ‘mãlum’ (with a long ‘a’). Is Aldred being lax? Or is he being too clever – creating a literary link between evil and the fruit tree, the apple tree, in Genesis and the Fall, the source of all evil? Does he expect his reader to recognise the schoolboy error but to see the over-clever pun beneath?  It’s interesting that one of the few middle English songs to come down to us explores the role of the apple in salvation:

Adam lay ybounden
Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter,
Thought he not too long.

And all was for an apple
An apple that he took.
As clerkes finden,
Written in their book.

Ne had the apple taken been
The apple taken been,
Ne had never our ladie,
Abeen heav’ne queen.

Blessed be the time
That apple taken was,
Therefore we moun singen.
Deo gracias!

For me Aldred reminds us that there is a beauty which goes beyond the visual. A reminder which is much needed in contemporary society. We are all visual. We learn, speak, work, relax, play through the visual medium. Some much of our conversations are communicated through visual markers – gestures, expressions and body language. It is no wonder that the emphasis has been placed on the visual beauty of the Lindisfarne Gospels. But Aldred vandalises the visual beauty because he sees something much more important in this text – the verbal meaning, the gospel message, what the text itself is saying.

Within our visual culture, we need to be open up to the meaning of the word; to persevere, moving beyond the surface into the depths; to find the wisdom at the heart of the message.

How do we ensure that our fascination with the visual, our dependance on the visual, ENHANCES rather than DISPLACES the meaning of the text?  Or is that a distinction without any meaning at all?


p.s. If you want to follow a great reflection on the journey of Aldred’s Community from Lindisfarne to Durham – see Richard Hardwick’s fantastic blog:

p.p.s. There are several podcasts available (currently seems to be a glitch but I’ve asked them to repair if possible!) based on other lectures in the series…

About pmphillips

Pete Phillips Bio: I'm into the New Testament (especially John's Gospel), technology, literary theory, postmodernism, football and that kind of stuff. I am married to Theresa and we have three great kids (and a Westie called Grace). I'm a Christian and love the whole church thing, which is good because I also work for the Methodist Church in the UK. My formal job titles are: Director of Research for CODEC at St John's College, Durham University and Secretary to the Faith and Order Committee of the Methodist Church.