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.