Posted by Elizabeth Biggs on 21st February 2018

The Terrific Tudors!

The Terrible Tudors is a fabulous book in the Horrible Histories series, but I like Durham Cathedral’s version better- the Tudors were terrifically interesting. There’s a new exhibition just opening at the cathedral to show off some of the amazing objects in their collections while also explaining why the Tudor dynasty were so very important for the history of the region. Go see the exhibition- it has some of my very favourite things in it! Details are here.   One of the questions I’ve been asking myself recently is what effect would the immense changes of the sixteenth century have on people living in County Durham. I’ve been trying to think through the scraps of information we have to see what the vast changes did to people’s lives. There’s been lots written about charity and changing attitudes to the poor during this period, which would massively have affected people’s social safety nets. When Henry VIII got rid of monasteries, he was also getting rid of the almonries operated by monks, which provided care for people who needed it, often the sick and the elderly. At Durham Cathedral the almonry fell into disrepair quite quickly and removed one possible source of help in the city. Did other unofficial groups grow up to fulfil the need that the almonry had addressed? Did the new canons try to help? I don’t know the answer, but it’s a question I’d like to think more about.   In addition to practical needs, I’ve also been thinking about the purpose of a cathedral. What did the orders from London about the Reformation do to people’s experiences of worship, both in the parish churches and at the cathedral? In 1536 the cathedral bought new service books with a slightly different order of service- could worshippers probably standing in the nave hear the difference in the Latin texts? Possibly not. From 1534 onwards, the bishop preached throughout the diocese against the Papacy. People would have heard about the new religious settlement, but it was not yet part of the common experience of worship. The Bible in English followed in 1536, as did the first of the dissolutions of the monasteries. St Cuthbert’s shrine was pulled down in 1538, what did that mean for visitors? After 1541, the cathedral would have felt very different with half of the monks gone, and the rest no longer wearing monastic habits in their new roles as cathedral canons. But the services would still have sounded much the same.   It was at some point after 1549 that Cranmer’s new Book of Common Prayer was introduced in Durham. That would have marked a completely different experience of worship- it was all in English, and it rearranged the material of the older services. It would have felt, I think, like a complete break from the past at that point. Mary’s reign from 1553 to 1558 saw a return to the old Latin mass books. Durham Cathedral didn’t bother to dig out their old copies, but instead bought completely new sets, maybe because the old ones had been burned or given away. Elizabeth’s regime went back to the Book of Common Prayer in 1559. As much as anything else, the 1549, 1553 and 1559 changes in the service books would have marked out to listeners in churches the changes in religion that were mandated by Henry VIII’s very different children.   If you do go see the exhibition in Durham Cathedral, stop by John Brimley’s tomb in the Galilee Chapel. He was master of the choristers from the 1540s until his death in 1576, and would have taught them very different music during each of the four reigns that he saw. We have payments for music to be bought for him and his singers from Westminster in Henry VIII’s reign. I would love to be able to ask him what he thought about the Tudors kings and queens and their impact on the city that he lived in.
Posted by Richard Higgins on 18th February 2018

Just what is a Priory library book then?

The most common question arising about the Durham Priory Library digitisation project is “So how many books are you digitising?” and my response always starts with “roughly …”. There are several reasons for this. One of the largest books, the Bible of Hugh of Puiset, shelfmark DCL MS A.II.1 is, in spite of that shelfmark, not one but four of the largest volumes in the project. Two of the incunables, in spite of having shelfmarks Inc.26 and Inc.40 are bound in a single volume (this bizarre decision always leads to a moment of panic when fetching the one that is not shelved where it would be expected to be). To further complicate matters, people will keep identifying new Durham Priory books.

Statistics aside, this raises a far more interesting question for the project – what is a Priory library book? On one level the answer to this has been simple: all books, manuscript and printed, are listed in Andrew Watson’s Supplement (1987) to Neil Ker’s Medieval libraries of Great Britain A list of surviving books (second edition 1964). The proportion of the Supplement taken up by Durham is impressive: 19 of the 74 pages listing books and 16 of the 39 pages naming donors. Those few of you who do not have your own copy immediately to hand can view the data online at or restrict it to Durham Priory books alone.

There are a few problems with this list, though. Firstly, it has quite rigorous criteria for identification, some of which are not always appropriate and others which just do not cover the required scope. One means of identifying where a book was produced is the liturgical content, local saints and religious commemorated in calendars can indicate the location where it was written. This holds more weight early in the medieval period though, when fewer books were being produced by fewer scribes. Does the presence of local saints, priors and bishops of Durham in a 15th century manuscript make it a Durham Priory or just a Durham region book? BL Harley MS 1804 has these, but for it to be a Durham Priory book we also have to accept that a monk would own a book of hours, which seems less likely. My main problem with the list as it stands though is that it is too narrow. The most obvious example of this is that it omits DCL MS B.IV.46, a collection of 14/15th century catalogues of Durham Priory Library books which is packed with internal evidence of Durham Priory provenance.

There is a significant body of material omitted from MLGB3, particularly because it is classed as archival, so the project has included digitisation of most of the volumes produced by the monks, cartularies, registers and catalogues, as they represent a significant part of their scribal activity. A particular case in point is DCL MS C.IV.24 (in MLGB3) and the Priory Registers and DCD Locelli III.40 (which are not). DCL MS C.IV.24 includes a formulary of letters, the Priory Registers contain letters and Locelli III.40 is also a formulary of letters. MS C.IV.24, being stored with the rest of the book manuscripts in the Library, counts as a library book. We know from an entry in Priory Register II that in the early 15th century there was a shelf of books in the Chancery of the Prior of Durham which included C.IV.24 and the registers together.

There is another interesting feature of Locelli III.40 that becomes obvious in the photograph below

It is not a book but a roll, a format extremely familiar to the monks of Durham but now less associated with libraries and more with archives (which is where this item now lives). It too has been digitised, and is a fortunate survival showing that the working library of a Durham monk was not just books on shelves.


Posted by Matthew Hoskin on 26th January 2018

Late Antiquity in Medieval Durham

I have come to the study of medieval canon law from the study of late antique papal letters and their transmission — a transmission that is almost entirely through medieval manuscripts, and usually (but not always) manuscripts used as material for canon law. Canon law, whether seen as a scientia of its own or as a realm of knowledge subsumed within theology, mines the late antique church for its material sources. For the purposes of this post, I will take a long-ish view of ‘late antique’, say, Marcus Aurelius to Mohammed (following, then, Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity) — as far as these manuscripts are concerned, that would be Tertullian to Isidore of Seville. At a certain level, medieval Christianity could be seen (up to certain stages of late scholasticism) as one long reflection and reception of late antique Christian thought.


Already on this blog I have highlighted this late antique, or ‘patristic’, presence in Durham’s manuscripts. In my Christmas post, I discussed Paul the Deacon’s Homiliary of patristic sermons. In my discussion of canon law, I talked about DCL B.IV.18, a collection of largely late antique excerpts not only of canon law but also of theology. Nowhere do we better see the patristic heart of Benedictine intellectual life than in the donation list of William of St Calais.


Another book list written by the hand of Symeon of Durham is likewise central to Benedictine life and likewise patristic — this is the list of books to be read at Collatio in DCL B.IV.24:

DCL B.IV.24, front endpaper ii v

  • Vitae Patrum
  • Diadema Monachorum
  • Effrem cum Vitis Egiptiorum Paradisus
  • Speculum
  • Dialogus
  • Pastoralis, eximius Liber
  • Ysidorus de Summo Bono
  • Prosper de Contemplativa Vita
  • Liber Odonis
  • Johannes Cassianus
  • Decem Collationes


Most, but not all, of these texts are late antique — lives of the Desert Fathers, Ephrem the Syrian, Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, Gregory’s Book of Pastoral Rule, Isidore of Seville’s De Summo Bono, Prosper of Aquitaine’s On the Contemplative Life, John Cassian’s Conferences (or Collationes in Latin — whence, in fact, comes the name of collatio in Benedict’s Rule).


Of course, the absolutely most important late antique book in any Benedictine monastery is the Rule of St Benedict itself — its importance at Durham is highlighted by its presence not only in the original Latin but in an Old English translation as well. It is found, along with the list of books to be read at Collatio, in the Durham Cantor’s Book.


Many other late antique texts could be discussed (Chrysostom, Augustine, Isidore) but I’ll mention only one more, and that is a book that pre-dates the refounding of the community by William of St Calais in 1080 — the Durham Cassiodorus, DCL B.II.30. This manuscript is a copy of Cassiodorus’ commentary on the Psalms. It is one of a few pre-Conquest Durham manuscripts that were believed by some of the monks to have been written by the Venerable Bede. While Bede was probably not one of the six scribes to work on this text, it is nevertheless a manuscript that probably came from the twin monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the second quarter of the 700s — so within Bede’s lifetime at Bede’s monastery.


Cassiodorus’ Psalm commentary was very popular in the Middle Ages, which only makes sense. Benedictines sing the whole book of Psalms every week. A commentary like Cassiodorus’ would help them focus their minds on the true interpretation of the words their lips recited. In this manuscript, then, we have the convergence of Benedictine psalm-singing, late antique commentary, and Northumbrian manuscript culture. It is, in a way, a codex microcosm of Durham Priory’s ideal self.


These are but a few of the late antique texts stored in Durham Cathedral Priroy’s manuscripts. I have only scratched the surface. What is probably a more interesting story is how these manuscripts were used by the monks in their own lives and thought. That question is more difficult, of course, and both are inevitably frayed at the edges — for, even if we have so many Durham manuscripts, there are still others we lack.

Posted by Elizabeth Biggs on 15th January 2018

Parker on the Web is here!

I came back from the holidays last week to the exciting news that another digitisation project is complete- the Parker Library on the Web is now freely available. It’s a fabulously beautiful collection, with lots of really stunning manuscripts, so it’s well worth a virtual browse through their books.


Durham, oddly is only represented by a single book in the Parker collection. This is weird because Matthew Parker, the sixteenth century archbishop of Canterbury who put the collection together, was extremely interested in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Durham Cathedral today still has quite a large collection of its Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, such as the Durham Gospels. While I’m very grateful that Parker did not plunder Durham’s collections, he pretty systematically bought up or was given the books that survived from other former monastic collections that matched his interests in church history and liturgy among other things. The one manuscript that is in the Parker Library fits exactly with those interests. It’s a spectacular book commissioned by Æthelstan, King of the English in the mid tenth century, to be given to the monks formerly of Lindisfarne and then of Chester le Street, who would finally settle in Durham in the next century. It contains the life of St Cuthbert, extracts from Bede, and most usefully for the monks, the order of service for Cuthbert’s feast day. Its frontispiece shows the king offering up the book itself at the saint’s shrine.


How did this book end up in Parker’s hands? Unfortunately, we can only speculate. It doesn’t have any signs of ownership before Parker, and all the annotations seem to me to be later. The Cathedral Library at Durham was unusual in that it seems to have protected and maintained its books quite carefully in the sixteenth century. By the time Parker was buying up books in the 1550s and 1560s, most of the former monasteries in England had been dissolved for more than twenty years. Their books had been scattered and sold. At Durham, in contrast, the cathedral seems to have not sold books in the 1540s and 1550s. The books that left in this period went with former monks. Most of the manuscripts that left Durham seem to have gone later in the early seventeenth century. I’m going to do more digging to try to identify if Parker specifically requested or was given his Durham manuscript by the cathedral, or if this manuscript is evidence that books were being taken from Durham earlier than most of the other evidence suggests.

Posted by Matthew Hoskin on 22nd December 2017

Christmas in the codices

Durham Cathedral Library, B.II.2, folio 2v. Provided by Durham Priory Library Project – a collaboration between Durham University and Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral Library B.II.2 is a homiliary — a book that has gathered together a selection of patristic (that is, ancient/late antique Christian) homilies. This particular selection of homilies is a collection put together by Paul the Deacon (720-799), who is more famous for his historical writings, The History of the Lombards and Historia Romana. Like our friends at Durham Priory, Paul was a Benedictine. A homiliary was used to provide guidance or even the actual form and content of preaching. All of Paul’s works were edited in 1861 in the massive Patrologia Latina series, vol. 95, alongside the Venerable Bede.


The beginning of the manuscript is lost, but where it now starts is the Feast of the Nativity — Christmas. After some Bible readings for the feast, on folio 2v we meet a homily of St Isidore of Seville (d. 636), often considered the ‘last’ of the Latin Fathers:


Natalis domini dies ea de causa a patribus uotiuae solennitatis institutus est quia in eo cristus pro redemptione mundi nasci corporaliter uoluit.

The birth-day of the Lord was instituted for the cause of a solemnity that was vowed by the fathers because on it Christ wished to be born corporally for the redemption of the world.


The passage from Isidore runs to a bit of the way along the second column of 2v, followed by Pope St Leo the Great whose homily runs to folio 3v, where another Leonine homily starts. After Leo, we have Christmas homilies from Fulgentius of Ruspe (1 homily) and Maximus of Turin (4 homilies). On 9r, the Feast of St Stephen (Boxing Day) has a homily from St Augustine of Hippo, and the homilies continue in order of the feasts of church year until Holy Saturday. The selection is not precisely what the edition of Paul the Deacon has, making many omissions, but also adding the Fulgentius homily.

The patristic foundations of medieval spirituality are quite clearly demonstrated in this manuscript; the authors included are Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, the Venerable Bede (often considered a Father of the Church in the Middle Ages), John Chrysostom, Fulgentius, Gregory the Great, Jerome, Isidore of Seville, Leo the Great (more than anyone else, in fact), Maximus of Turin, Origen, and Severian.

Back to the subject of Christmas. As a scholar of Leo the Great, I am glad to see that he is represented twice in the Christmas homilies. This makes sense, since Leo’s great contribution to the history of theology was the establishment of two-nature Christology as the dogma of the imperial (later Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) church. This theology comes out most frequently in his Christmas sermons, where he demonstrates his skills as an orator.

As I wish you a merry Christmas, let me close with my ad hoc translation of the start of the homily on fol. 2v:

Dearly beloved, our Saviour was born today — let us rejoice! For there is no acceptable place for sadness where it is the birthday of life. Life which, with the fear of mortality consumed, brings us happiness from the promised eternity. No one is separated from participation in this cheerfulness; one happiness, common to all, is the reason — because our Lord, the destroyer of sin and death, just as he rediscovers no freedom in sin, so also he comes for everyone to be freed. Let the holy man rejoice because he approaches the palm; let the sinner be glad because he is invited to indulgence; let the gentile be animated because he is called to life. For the Son of God, according to the fullness of time which the height of inscrutable divine counsel arranged, has taken up the nature of the human race to be reconciled to its creator so that the inventor of death, the Devil, may be conquered through that which he conquered.

This is the Christmas hope that warmed the hearts of Durham’s monks in the long nights and cold days of medieval winter. May you and yours have a festive and joyous Christmas season as well!