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The Codex Amiatinus: Britain's Lost Treasure

One of the grandest, certainly one of the largest, manuscripts produced in the medieval West, the Codex Amiatinus is often overlooked as an Anglo-Saxon treasure. Conor O’Brien shows how its makers used it to assert their identity and to establish their place firmly within the Christian world.

Many of the great artistic wonders of early medieval Britain, especially of Anglo-Saxon England, are well known and much loved: the intricate illuminations and mesmerising figures of the Lindisfarne Gospels or the glittering gold and blood-red garnets of the treasure from the Sutton Hoo ship burial. But the Codex Amiatinus, one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon contributions to European culture, rarely inspires widespread affection, or even recognition. Familiarity is key: while the Lindisfarne Gospels and Sutton Hoo treasure can be seen in Britain (albeit in London, rather than the regions with which they are associated), the Codex Amiatinus left the island 1,300 years ago, never to return.

It is a truly awesome book – and an influential one. While the books of Durrow, Kells and Lindisfarne only include the four gospels, the Codex Amiatinus consists of a complete Bible; indeed, it is the oldest complete Latin copy of the Bible in existence. Writing out a full Bible remained an unusual activity throughout the early Middle Ages because it required substantial resources in time and livestock. At least seven scribes worked on the Codex (the uniformity of their handwriting shows their high level of training) and the book consumed parchment from more than 500 calves to produce over 2,000 pages. At the time of its creation it may well have been the largest book ever made, weighing more than 75 pounds and requiring the strength of two people to be carried. Most of this monumental volume is dedicated to the words of scripture written in a clear and well-spaced script (word spaces were still unusual in Latin when the Codex was written, so other manuscripts from the period are rarely as easy to read), but there are also a number of marvellous pages of colourful illumination, using inks in a dozen colours, as well as large quantities of gold and silver leaf.

The Codex Amiatinus was assumed for centuries to be an Italian work, possibly a product of papal Rome. After all, the manuscript had spent hundreds of years at the Tuscan monastery of San Salvatore on Monte Amiata (after which it is named) and displayed a high level of sophistication redolent of Late Antique Italy. That such an impressive and sophisticated Latin Bible could have come from anywhere other than the centre of civilisation was scarcely conceived of for centuries. It was only in the late 19th century that the English origin of the Codex was established and the Anglo-Saxon monastery of Wearmouth- Jarrow, at the northernmost corner of the old Roman Empire, proved to be the site of its creation.

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Wearmouth-Jarrow was in effect actually two monasteries: St Peter’s in modern Sunderland at the mouth of the River Wear and St Paul’s at Jarrow on the banks of the Tyne near today’s South Shields. This dual monastery was founded in the 670s by an aristocrat and retired warrior called Biscop, who had taken the Christian name Benedict. Benedict Biscop clearly had money to burn. He indulged in the early medieval equivalent of the Grand Tour (or perhaps an upmarket weekend shopping spree in New York), visiting the main religious sites of Christian Gaul and the western Mediterranean, acquiring cosmopolitan tastes and all the things required to stock his own monastery: relics, liturgical vessels and garments, specialist stone masons and glaziers and, most importantly, numerous books from Rome and elsewhere in the early medieval West. Monasteries were the status symbol par excellence for early medieval elites and Benedict Biscop built one of the finest of his time.

Biscop’s deep pockets helped him gather what was probably the largest library ever collected in Anglo-Saxon England, housed in elab-orate stone buildings with multicoloured glass in their windows. Indeed, the stained glass found at Wearmouth-Jarrow is very likely the oldest in Britain. The grand surroundings in which the monks of Wearmouth-
Jarrow lived, and in which Biscop’s books were housed, stood in sharp contrast to most Anglo-Saxon settlements; at this time even kings still mostly lived in wooden structures of native design, stone remaining an unusual and impressive building stuff. 

Biscop’s European spending spree contributed not only to his monasteries’ external appearance but also to their internal life, which was fuelled by learning and religious practices from across the Christian world. A young boy who arrived at Wearmouth-Jarrow in the 680s and was educated there grew into the greatest intellectual of his generation, nourished by the riches of the monastic library. The Venerable Bede (d.735) wrote dozens of influential books on science and theology, but he remains best known as the author of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, making him the so-called Father of English History. He remains the only Englishman to become a Father of the Church.

This, then, was the environment in which the Codex Amiatinus was created. Biscop died in 690, succeeded as abbot by the priest Ceolfrith, probably his cousin and certainly a man of similar tastes. Ceolfrith had accompanied Biscop on his sixth and final shopping trip to Rome some years before he became abbot and, while there, he had bought a large Italian Bible, known as the Codex Grandior (literally: ‘the bigger book’). This book, we now know, had been created a century earlier on the orders of a Roman aristocrat and government official turned monk called Cassiodorus. The Grandior is now, alas, lost but Cassiodorus’ descriptions of it still survive. It clearly was a massive and impressive book in its own right, the ‘bigger’ of its name a reference to its size in relation to Cassiodorus’ other Bibles; Ceolfrith must have been quite taken with it because after becoming abbot he decided to have the communities at Wearmouth-Jarrow produce their own series of Bibles modelled on it. 

The Grandior was a Latin Bible but the Anglo-Saxon monks recognised that it was based upon earlier Greek translations of the Old Testament, rather than St Jerome’s direct translation from the Hebrew original into Latin (known as the Vulgate). Jerome’s version had so much authority at Wearmouth-Jarrow that Bede actually called it the ‘Hebrew Truth’, as if it were equivalent to the original words themselves. So Ceolfrith and his brethren decided to improve upon the Grandior by creating new Bibles based upon its design but with Jerome’s more correct text, the ‘Hebrew Truth’, as their preferred version of scripture. This in itself was an achievement of not inconsiderable scholarship as the monks at Wearmouth-Jarrow had to work from dozens of other manuscripts to piece together their Vulgate text. In the era before printing there was no standard text of the Bible, as each manuscript could differ from every other manuscript in ways both small and great; when the ‘official’ version of the Vulgate was produced during the Counter-Reformation (it continued to be used by the Catholic Church up until the 20th century), the Codex Amiatinus was a key source because of the age and excellence of its version of Jerome’s text.

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This Wearmouth-Jarrow ‘edition’ of the Vulgate formed the basis for three complete Bibles made at the monastery: the Codex Amiatinus and two others, which no longer exist in their entirety. The handful of pages which have survived from them (now held in the British Library) suggest that these books were slightly less massive than the Codex Amiatinus, though they still would have been quite impressive in their own right. We know that they were intended to sit upon the altar in the two main churches of the dual monastery: St Peter’s at Wearmouth and St Paul’s at Jarrow. Their massive size would have limited their practical use (they could hardly have been carried around without great effort and the risk of back injury); our written sources suggest they served as reference works for monks to check a scriptural passage if they needed to, though it would have been easier to slowly read through them page by page than to flip from one end to the other. But their primary function was probably symbolic; they made real the devotion to the Word of God which lay at the heart of the monastic life, linking the two churches both with each other and with Rome, the spiritual centre of Wearmouth-Jarrow’s faith. 

For it was to Rome that the Codex Amiatinus was to be sent. Its intended role as a high status gift probably explains the Codex’s slightly larger size than its sisters, as well as its elaborate and beautiful introductory pages and images, which do not appear to have been included in the other manuscripts. One thing which certainly did not exist in those Bibles was the poem which Ceolfrith had put into the Codex explaining its intended purpose. The abbot’s verses dedicate the book to the body of St Peter, ‘the head of the Church’ (caput ecclesiae), emphasising the centrality of Rome in his understanding of the Christian world. If Rome was the centre, then Wearmouth-Jarrow was definitely the periphery: Ceolfrith declared that he sent the book ‘from the farthest lands of the English’ (Anglorum extremis de finibus). In other words, he clearly saw himself in Roman terms as dwelling at the very edge of the world but bound by a common faith to its centre.

Since the Anglo-Saxons had never been subject to the Roman Empire such an attitude may seem a little odd, but in fact it makes perfect sense when one looks at the centuries of Latin culture to which the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow were heirs. The ancient Romans had considered Britain to be a remote and strange land, ‘another world’ in Virgil’s words, whose northern limits constituted the very end of the habitable universe. Educated Anglo-Saxons in the early eighth century had to master a foreign language early in life as the only way to access any learning worth having. Consequently, they had no self-important convictions of living at the centre of the world, for the books they read all confirmed their peripheral status at the edges of civilisation. No surprise then that the dedication verses of the Codex Amiatinus repeat such ancient tropes; but the Bible itself subverts these very ideas, its Roman appearance, deep Christian learning and cosmopolitan sources all asserting the Anglo-Saxons’ participation in the wider word.

Hence the importance of a Late Antique Italian manuscript such as the Codex Grandior as the Amiatinus’ model: proof that the Anglo-Saxons could make a Roman manuscript just as well as the Romans. Hence Ceolfrith’s decision to have three Bibles made which directly linked Wearmouth, Jarrow and Rome, making clear that the Bible itself constituted a bond between the abbot and St Peter, a bridge between Northumbria and the papacy. Hence also the references to the great biblical scholars of the past, Saints Jerome and Augustine, in the opening pages of the manuscript: indicating that the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow were heirs of the great Latin Fathers of the Church. Scripture, correctly interpreted and expressed in a Roman style, formed the link which brought centre and periphery together. The Codex Amiatinus itself proved that ‘the farthest lands of the English’ were capable of a truly universal sophistication and learning. Ceolfrith and his brethren knew not only that they dwelt in a remote land, but also that their Christianity allowed them to transcend distance and participate in a unified Catholic world.

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No part of the Codex Amiatinus reveals this message in as much detail and complexity as the magnificent diagram of the Tabernacle, which takes up two whole pages in the opening section of the manuscript. This is the largest image in the entire Codex and the loving attention which the monks gave to it justifies the focus which I, too, shall devote to it here. The picture is spread across an entire opening of the Bible and portrays the Tabernacle which Moses built in the desert to accommodate the Ark of the Covenant, as described in the book of Exodus. For Christian readers of the Bible the Tabernacle represented the Church. As Bede put it: ‘The Tabernacle that Moses made for the Lord in the wilderness … designates the state of the Holy Church universal.’ Since the Codex Amiatinus was all about the Anglo-Saxon monks’ membership of the universal Church, the decision to open the manuscript with a picture symbolising that very body made sense. Within the walls of the Tabernacle the cardinal directions were carefully labelled, placed in the shape of a cross. The cardinal points appear on other early medieval images of the Tabernacle, too, but always written outside, not inside, the holy enclosure; by choosing to place them within the Tabernacle the monks of Warmouth-Jarrow were making a deliberate statement. Their Tabernacle had expanded to enclose North, South, East and West, just as the Church which it represented had spread to the four corners of the world, now enfolding the once peripheral Anglo-Saxons within its embrace.

The Tabernacle page of the Codex Amiantinus

The cardinal directions actually make this point on two levels. While the artists used Latin for all the other text in the diagram, they wrote the cardinal directions alone in Greek, a highly unusual choice in a time and place where very few people, even the most educated, had much knowledge of that language. The Greek names for the directions were Arctos, Dysis, Anatol and Mesembria: their initial letters spelling out Adam. While this might seem like a sheer coincidence to us, it had great significance for early medieval theologians, because it constituted ‘proof’ that the biblical Adam was the father of the entire human race, scattered though it might be to the four corners of the earth. While, then, Ceolfrith, Bede and their brethren did not know a lot of Greek, they knew the significance of the cardinal directions and deliberately chose to draw attention to it in their diagram of the Tabernacle. Arctos, Dysis, Anatol and Mesembria stood out the moment a reader glanced at the image in the Codex Amiatinus: the letters were highlighted in gold and much larger than any of the other text on the same page. The Amiatinus Tabernacle literally contains all of Adam, just as the Church that it represented contained the entire human race descended from the first man. When the pope received the Codex and turned to the picture of the Tabernacle, he was expected to receive one message loud and clear: ‘the farthest lands of the English’ belonged to the global Church. 

He also may have noticed, as he looked longer at the image, that the Northumbrian monks had produced something which looked a lot like other images of the Tabernacle, produced in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Greek cardinal directions (if not their location) form just part of the decoration of the Northumbrian image, which borrowed from the iconography of Byzantine manuscripts of an eccentric work called the Christian Topography by Cosmas Indicopleustes. Cosmas is notorious for having believed that the earth was flat (an unusual viewpoint in the Middle Ages) and indeed that Moses’ Tabernacle provided an accurate guide to what the universe looked like. Consequently, his Christian Topography included numerous pictures of the Tabernacle, which often bear a striking resemblance to that in the Codex Amiatinus. So the very design of the Amiatinus Tabernacle reveals Wearmouth-Jarrow’s connections with a vast Christian world: Cosmas was probably a Greek-speaking Egyptian who had visited India. Students in the monastic school at Canterbury in the late seventh century had heard of Cosmas, thanks to their teacher, Theodore of Tarsus, a Byzantine monk who served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 668 to 690. Theodore came to England in the company of Wearmouth-Jarrow’s founder, Benedict Biscop, so some connection between the work of Cosmas and the home of the Codex Amiatinus may have been possible via this route. We also know that Cassiodorus’ Codex Grandior included an image of the Tabernacle based upon some of Cosmas’ eccentric ideas. So even if direct contact with the East was rare in Anglo-Saxon England, Italy provided a link between Wearmouth-Jarrow and the Byzantine world. The love of Biscop, Ceolfrith and the other Northumbrian monks for Rome gave them access to a whole world of strange ideas and they revealed this to the pope by sending him a remarkably Eastern image in their remarkably Roman book.

Clearly the Tabernacle in the Codex Amiatinus makes a grand statement about the universal spread of the Church to all peoples (including the recently converted Anglo-Saxons themselves) and all ends of the earth; it declares Northumbria to be part of the Catholic Church, despite its apparent distance from the Church’s centre in Rome and its birthplace in the Eastern Mediterranean. To modern eyes the manner in which it does so might seem esoteric and painfully abstruse; no doubt the monks at Wearmouth-Jarrow who worked on the image were being self-consciously (and probably a little smugly) intellectual. They wanted to impress their papal audience with their learning, thereby further proving that they had overcome their barbarically peripheral location to fully integrate into the Christian world. The symbolism of the Amiatinus Tabernacle was, however, no more esoteric in its context than is the use of Star Wars in Steve Bell’s cartoons in the Guardian newspaper, where figures from British politics are modelled on characters from the film series. Bell can be as confident that his readers understand the symbolism of giving Tony Blair a black cloak and red light saber as the Northumbrian monks could be that the pope would understand what the Tabernacle or the Greek cardinal directions signified.

We can have no doubt then that Ceolfrith designed the Codex Amiatinus with a message for the papacy: the Anglo-Saxons, that distant people at the ends of the earth, who had only received Christianity a little over 100 years previously, were now truly part of the Christian world. By around the midpoint of the year 716 the manuscript was complete and preparations began for the journey to Rome. The monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow reacted with shock when, at the start of June 716, Ceolfrith announced that he himself would lead the group carrying the Bible to Rome – and did not intend to come back. The 74-year-old abbot knew himself to be sick and possibly dying; his dream was to see Rome again before the end and to be buried there, near the relics of the great saints, ‘at the thresholds of the apostles’. The sources describe the last days of Ceolfrith’s preparations for his departure as being marked by floods of tears from both the abbot and the monks. He could not be persuaded to change his mind, or to delay: the abbot left the monastery on June 5th and set sail shortly thereafter for the Continent. Ceolfrith never made it to Rome, dying and being buried at Langres, in the modern Champagne-Ardennes region of France, on September 25th, 716. 

While some of his companions remained with the body of their abbot, others pushed on to Rome, met the pope (Gregory II) and brought a papal letter back to Wearmouth-Jarrow for their new abbot. In it Gregory praised Ceolfrith greatly and acknowledged receipt of a ‘gift’ from the dead abbot; he did not specify that this gift was a book but some details of his letter make the connection to the Codex Amiatinus very likely. The pope compared Ceolfrith, leading his monks towards heaven, directly to Moses and Aaron leading the Israelites towards the Promised Land – such explicit use of the Exodus story to understand the Anglo-Saxon’s life probably subtly referred to the image of the Tabernacle from Exodus, which stands at the front of the Codex Amiatinus. On Ceolfrith’s final journey to Rome, which had indeed become a journey to heaven, he had borne a glorious image of the Hebrews’ journey through the desert: what more appropriate imagery could there be with which to sing the praises of the English abbot and his magnificent gift?

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By the end of 716, then, the Codex Amiatinus was probably in Rome, or very close to being there. After that the Bible’s journeys remained limited to Italy, having by the 11th century been given to the Tuscan monastery perched high upon Monte Amiata, an establishment rather like Wearmouth-Jarrow itself, possessing great wealth and a fine library. The monastery at Amiata produced its own line of giant Bibles under the influence of the Northumbrian Codex, many of which still survive. The fame of the monastery’s massive and ancient Bible spread and in the 1570s the Vatican tried to have it sent back to Rome; not permanently it must be said, but to be used as a reference text for a new edition of the Vulgate, which the Catholic Church felt it necessary to produce in the wake of the Reformation. Much Protestant scriptural scholarship attacked the Church for relying upon a Latin version of the Bible, rather than the original languages; the Vatican would not give up the Latin but it could establish that the Bible used by Catholics was itself a truly ancient one and, for that, ancient copies of the Vulgate were required. There was none more ancient than the Codex Amiatinus. Unfortunately, the monks of Monte Amiata, indeed the entire local community, were rather attached to their magnificent book and would not trust the Romans to return it, if they ever got their hands on it. It took 15 years from the original request for the Codex before the Bible arrived in Rome, accompanied by Tuscan monks under orders to keep a close eye on it at all times. The book remained at the Vatican for two and a half years as cardinals and popes struggled to reconstruct Jerome’s original Latin translation; the Codex Amiatinus proved central to their work, as it still is today for modern scholars working on the history of the biblical text.

Eventually, only pressure from the great Medici family proved enough to rescue the book and have it safely returned to Monte Amiata in 1590. Its final move to its current home involved a much shorter journey. When the monastery was closed in 1782 its library was taken to Florence, where the Codex Amiatinus now dwells in the beautiful Laurentian Library, with its entrance hall designed by Michelangelo. Such grand surroundings are, no doubt, worthy of the magnificent book but they have contributed to its comparative neglect in the popular image of Anglo-Saxon England. Out of British sight, the Codex Amiatinus is also out of British mind to a large extent. Hopefully that may not always be the case, for in July of this year a complete and full-sized facsimile of the manuscript arrived in England for permanent exhibition at the place where it was first created. When the magnificent Bede’s World centre and museum in Jarrow re-opens, the reproduction of the Codex will play a starring role in its galleries, enabling visitors to get a real sense of the original book’s extraordinary beauty, its monumental size and its designers’ cosmopolitan learning. At last, 1,300 years after it left these shores, the Codex Amiatinus’ place as one of early medieval Britain’s greatest treasures is to be recognised. 

Conor O’Brien is Junior Research Fellow in History at Churchill College, Cambridge and is the author of Bede’s Temple: An Image and its Interpretation (Oxford University Press, 2015). 

The Codex Amiatinus: Britain's Lost Treasure

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