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MORE THAN 1300 years ago, Benedictine monks in Anglo-Saxon England put together illuminated manuscripts of the Bible. Around 700 A.D., three of these immense handwritten tomes were produced at the Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, just east of Newcastle upon Tyne, about 280 miles north-northwest of London. The Codex Amiatinus is the sole survivor of the three, its travels making it a Bible with legs. In fact, the tale calls for two parts here at SimanaitisSays, today and tomorrow.

Three monks, Benedict Biscop, Ceolfrith, and The Venerable Bede, are remembered in this tale recounted in Christopher De Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World.

Christopher De Hamel is a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, until recently librarian at the university’s Parker Library, and with a long career at Sotheby’s. He writes with erudition, enthusiasm, and charm. For example, of the tale that follows, he says, “If Ceolfrith had lived another two months, Amiatinus (certainly not called that) would have reached Rome and very likely would no longer exist.”

Here are tidbits from De Hamel’s book, together with my usual Internet sleuthing, about this Bible with legs.

A Trio of Medieval Monks. Benedict Biscop was ahead of his medieval time. While most folk spent their entire lives in the villages of their birth, Biscop made five trips to Rome from Northumbria, in north-central England. His second trip was specifically for book-buying, and he returned with an estimated 250 illuminated manuscripts on scriptural, classical, and secular topics.

Benedict Biscop (pronounced “bishop), aka Biscop Baducing, c. 628–690, Anglo-Saxon abbot, traveler, book collector.

In 674, Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria, granted Biscop land for a monastery, the first in Britain to be built of stone; its use of glass, a seventh-century novelty thereabouts.

Biscop found a friend and able coworker in Ceolfrith, who became abbot of the St. Paul’s Church on the monasterial grounds. On Biscop’s fifth and final trip to Rome, Ceolfrith accompanied him.

Around 680, a seven-year-old boy named Bede was placed in Abbot Ceolfrith’s care. Bede matured to become a great scholar, teacher, and author. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written about 731, was to earn him fame and an honorific as The Venerable Bede.

Saint Bede the Venerable, c. 673–735, English Benedictine monk, scholar, teacher, and author.

Copies of the Vulgate Bible. In 692 Abbot Ceolfrith commissioned the production of three copies of the Vulgate Bible. His student Bede was likely involved in the writing of these manuscripts, completed around 700.

The Vulgate Bible, a late-fourth-century Latin version compiled from various sources, was so named as the versio vulgata, “the version commonly used.” It was to be the Roman Catholic Church’s official version from its adoption in 1592 and remained so until 1979 with promulgation of the Nova Vulgata.

A Gift for Pope Gregory II. In 716, Ceolfrith set out for Rome with one of the Bibles to be given as a gift to Pope Gregory II. This was no mean feat, as the illuminated manuscript contained more than 1000 parchment leaves, which, according to De Hamel, “would have utilized skins of 515 calves or young cattle.” As it exists today, the Codex Amiatinus measures 19 1/4 in. high, 13 3/8 in. wide, 7 in. thick—and weighs more than 75 lb.

The Codex Amiatinus, still in a single volume, rebound in calfskin in 2001. Image by Remi Mathis in

Alas, Ceolfrith made it only as far as Langres, Burgundy, in central France. He died there en route to Rome on September 29, 716.

But, as we’ll learn tomorrow in Part 2, his bulky gift was to end up being known as the Codex Amiatinus, named for an Italian monastery in Tuscany, about 110 miles short of its intended Rome destination. This Bible with legs does some added traveling as well. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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