Posted by: kljolly | July 12, 2013

Lindisfarne Gospels Colophon

I just finished reading a recent article exploring Aldred’s colophon to the Lindisfarne Gospels in as great a detail as I did in my book (which the article authors only saw right before they published) and going further than I did in elevating Aldred as an ingenious and well-read writer.


Francis L. Newton, Francis L. Newton, Jr and Christopher R. J. Scheirer. “Domiciling the evangelists in Anglo-Saxon England: a fresh reading of Aldred’s colophon in the ‘Lindisfarne Gospels.’”  Anglo-Saxon England 41 (2012):  101-144.

They fight a valiant battle against the naysayers:  those who think of Aldred as sort of a hack writer, someone who marks up other manuscripts, or worse yet, an unthinking simoniac (because of the usual reading of the 4 “ores” of silver paid for his admission to Chester-le-Street).

There is much to like here, some of which I wish I had seen (but then my focus was more on Durham A.IV.19 than the Lindisfarne Gospels).

LGcolophonBLFirst of all, they treat the colophon as a unified whole, a “ring composition,” and work to show how the parts fit together to reveal that Aldred was a literary genius, a poet in his own right.  The image they tease out of it is that the manuscript as a whole is a building, to which Aldred is opening the door by offering the gloss.  They repeatedly emphasize not just the integrity of the colophon, but Aldred’s integrity, which is something I have tried to explore in my fictional account.

Second, they highlight some hitherto unidentified sources and poetic echoes, most notably in the littera me pandat verses, from Ovid’s Tristia as well as Alcuin and Theodulf.  They translate the two verses as first John speaking, then Aldred:

[St. John]: Let the letter, faithful servant of the word, throw me open.
[The Gloss]: To all my brothers, O nourishing one, grant a greeting [from] your voice.

Third, they emend previous erroneous transcriptions and translations.  In particular, they re-examine the elusive verb gihamadi to show that he was not “making a home” for himself (hine) but for  John and the other three Gospels, that is, by translating them into the local language of Old English.  They further take apart the notion that Aldred paid 8 ores of silver to make a home for himself (usually understood as his being admitted to the community at Chester-le-Street) by translating “ora” not as Danish money but “borders” of silver, arguing  that Aldred added silver borders to pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels that are now missing due to cropping by book binders (yes, that happened ALL the time).  This new understanding also means that Aldred did not necessarily arrive recently at Chester-le-Street.

Fourth, they add to the fourness (yes, I made that line up as my fourth point!) imagery and structure of the colophon the idea of four altars in the building, which I can see using in  my reconstruction of the Chester-le-Street church.  They have a chart showing all of the fours, very similar to mine but perhaps easier to read.

I do disagree in two areas, though.  These two lines of argument are I think inconsistent with the overall thrust of the authors’ argument about the brilliance and integrity of Aldred.

First is the authors take on the section of the colophon identifying the original three makers of the Lindisfarne Gospels, Eadfrith, Ethilwald, and Billfrith. The authors agree with Nees’ article that Aldred was not relying on a source for identifying these three men, but pulled their names as likely candidates out of other sources.  But to me, this goes against the integrity argument, undermining their contention that Aldred knew what he was about.  Why would he make this up?  Why falsify a Lindisfarne origin?

The authors then disagree with Jane Roberts’ explication of a lost set of verses embedded in the colophon that support the identity of the three makers as a known tradition, on the grounds that this use of someone else’s verses undermines Aldred’s originality and poetic genius.  But earlier in the article they demonstrated that Aldred was a genius for doing exactly that:  taking fragments of Ovid’s or someone’s else’s verses and incorporating them into his own structure.

Furthermore, later author Symeon of Durham cites the three makers without mentioning Aldred:  this suggests that Symeon had access to the same or a similar source as Aldred, and was not using the colophon as his source (either that, or Symeon really didn’t like Aldred and purposely excluded him while accepting his testimony about the three Lindisfarne makers).  Also, on their point about no mention of prominent Lindisfarne Saint Cuthbert in Roberts’ reconstructed verses:  the absence of Cuthbert’s name doesn’t mean the original source didn’t mention Cuthbert, but only that Aldred borrowed just that section on the three makers from the source and then added Cuthbert elsewhere in the colophon.]

The implication of the authors’ argument, following Nees in claiming Aldred fabricated the three earlier makers, is that there is therefore no basis for believing that the Lindisfarne Gospels were produced at or came from Lindisfarne, but that Aldred needed to establish this connection to Lindisfarne (although Michelle Brown, with whom they disagree frequently, has other evidence tying the manuscript to Lindisfarne).

Second, they argue that Aldred was exiled in a sea of Latin illiteracy like Ovid, impelling him to translate the Gospels into Old English for his Latin illiterate brothers.  Aldred’s glosses are not translations for Latin illiterate readers, they are glosses for bilingual readers.  It is word-for-word, not syntactic Old English.  The only way to read it is with the Latin in a circular fashion, and some Latin literacy is presumed.  As the Durham A.IV.19 manuscript shows, Aldred used this strategy consistently as a form of devotion, scholarly reflection, and pedagogy.

So I would emend their intriguing argument about Aldred’s  homelessness and “exile” as well as his ties to Lindisfarne.  What I really see is that Aldred is establishing Chester-le-Street as the new home in exile for the Lindisfarne Gospels and the community as a whole.  That is what is colophon achieves:  just as they built a shrine for St Cuthbert and the other relics brought from Lindisfarne, so Aldred has constructed this shrine around the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The three authors are to be commended for bringing Aldred out of his literary exile and into the canon of Anglo-Saxon poets and scholars.


  1. Your charity in keeping silence about the work of Michelle Brown and Richard Gameson is exemplary.

    • Standing on the shoulders of giants, I prefer building to tearing down.
      This ASE article definitely takes us in some new and exciting directions, while correcting some previous problems.

  2. […] as “making a home” in the Lindisfarne community of St. Cuthbert (see Newton, et. al. and my blog response). Perhaps it is a play on words, that Aldred’s household is now the religious community, his sex […]

  3. […] of John, for God and St. Cuthbert (although see a different interpretation of the silver ores here, as silver […]

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