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IN PART 1 yesterday, manuscript specialist Christopher de Hamel introduced us to the earliest surviving book known to have been in medieval England, The Gospels of Saint Augustine. Today in Part 2, this manuscript upholds liturgical views of Matthew Parker during the reign of Elizabeth I, then it gets sequestered for 400 years, and in 2010 mends a schism between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. Quite a feat for parchment originating around the year 597.

Matthew Parker, English Church Purist. Whereas Saint Augustine was the first Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker was the seventieth and quite the purist about it. Indeed, in Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World,Christopher de Hamel writes, “As far as Parker was concerned, the development of religion in Europe was irrelevant after 597. Only England, in his interpretation, had managed to preserve the Christian Church in its primeval purity, as Saints Gregory and Augustine had intended.”

Matthew Parker, 1504–1575, English bishop, seventieth Archbishop of Canterbury. This and following images from Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.

In 1568, Parker began appropriating manuscripts, primarily from restructured cathedrals and former monasteries. Eventually, his collection grew to some 600 documents. The Gospels of Saint Augustine, dating from the conversion of England in 597, was the prize of his collection.

The Gospels of Saint Augustine, opened to the portrait of evangelist Saint Luke.

A Canny Bequest. In his will, Parker gave his collection to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, but with an admonishment: Were any volumes ill-maintained, the entire bequest would be forfeit. And, even worse, the collection would then go to Gonville & Caius College, a rival Cambridge institution just up the street from Corpus Christi College.

Saints preserve us.

As De Hamel notes, “For more than 400 years the Parker Library was notoriously (even scandalously) inaccessible to scholars, or at best it was quixotically and inconsistently available.” Back in the 1970s, De Hamel’s access was denied, “and this is still the only library in the world to which I have ever been declined admittance.”

In the late 1990s, the governing body of Corpus Christi College reversed this isolationism and endowed a full-time curator. The chosen curator? Christopher de Hamel.

Not “Illuminated.” De Hamel writes, “the manuscript does not contain gold. Perhaps… deemed too valuable and fragile for a book which was to be carried across Europe. Strictly speaking, the word ‘illuminated’ as applied to manuscripts implies the use of gold, which sparkles and catches the light.”

The Gospels of Saint Augustine; shown here a narrative about the nativity, describing shepherds in the field.

MS 286’s Life Today. The manuscript ordinarily resides in a stout fitted oak box in a burglar-alarmed and air-conditioned vault. When it is brought out for special occasions, De Hamel observes, “… its parchment absorbs moisture and, unless checked, the pages begin to curl up alarmingly under our eyes, as if they were alive….”

“Curiously,” De Hamel continues, “the pages of the manuscript curl towards the darker former hair-side of the skin, precisely the opposite of the natural curl of the skin when it was around the animal. That, I am told by conservators, is because the fibers on the outer surface of any pelt are denser and less flexible whereas those on the softer pliable flesh side expand rapidly as they take in moisture. It is not a permanent curl; a page flattens out again quite harmlessly as we turn to another.”

An Historic Event. In 2010, De Hamel and The Gospels of Saint Augustine took part in an historic event involving the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Benedict XVI. This was only the second time a reigning pope had visited Britain; Pope John Paul II was the first, in 1982.

The manuscript and De Hamel traveled by security car from Cambridge to London on the morning of September 17, 2010. Meticulous rehearsals began at 11:30 a.m. with a modern volume, while the original was temporarily locked in a Westminster Abbey safe. For the actual procession, De Hamel was appropriately garbed in Cambridge Ph.D. regalia. He describes his assignment: “… my brief task was to bring the manuscript forward on its cushion to the Pope, who bowed in front of me and kissed the pages, and then to turn to the Archbishop, who did the same.”

Pope Benedict XVI venerates The Gospels of Saint Augustine, held by Christopher de Hamel, watched by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Westminster Abbey, September 17, 2010.

“My primary worry,” says De Hamel, “was not to slip over on the deceptively smooth medieval stone steps down from the high altar and back again. Tripping up, which I am capable of doing at the best of times, would have made spectacular television but would have been bad for the manuscript.”

Hold the Incense, Please. “Afterward,” De Hamel recalls, “during the singing of the Magnificat, the Dean censed the altar, endlessly waving the smoking thurible back and forth over the open manuscript, and I wondered what I would do if I saw a crumb of smoldering charcoal landing on the parchment.”

Later, De Hamel says, “we could not even smell the incense on the pages.”

I suspect The Gospels of Saint Augustine has seen worse in its 1413 years. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020


  1. Bill
    April 14, 2020

    A memorable observation attributed to Saint Augustine :
    Man is tinder, a woman is fire, and the devil is a mighty wind.

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