Seminar CCXXXVIII: digital eyes on the Lichfield Gospels

Those who keep track (not something I expect) may remember me posting about a field trip I did in my first year at Birmingham in which I took a small group of budding Anglo-Saxonists to Lichfield Cathedral, whose staff were absolutely marvellous with showing us round and with photographic permissions and so on, and which I thoroughly recommend as a place to visit. You’d have to have an unusually keen eye to have spotted that I borrowed one of the images there, of a page in the Lichfield Gospels or St Chad’s Gospels, from the website of a project run by Dr William Endres, but all the same I did, and so when he came to Birmingham on the 2nd April 2015 to present a paper called “The St Chad Gospels: a rare witness to early Anglo-Saxon England and beyond” to the Centre for West Midlands History Research Seminar, I thought that perhaps I’d better be there.

The Gospels, on display in Lichfield Cathedral

The Gospels, on display in Lichfield Cathedral, albeit with special access for our 2014 visit

The St Chad’s Gospels have had a complicated history. There were once two volumes of them, made probably in Mercia in the 730s, but the work seems to have been stolen, for which Vikings usually get the blame, because there is a vernacular inscription in the surviving volume by a man by the name of Geili who had bought the two books (possibly still one then) and was now giving them to the Welsh cathedral of Llandeilo Fawr. This inscription means that among its other distinctions, the volume contains the earliest written Welsh. By the tenth century it was back in Lichfield, because Bishop Wynsige of that city 963-975 has signed it, and both volumes were still there in 1345, but by the time of the English Civil War (which the manuscript survived in hiding) there was only the current one, which has been safe in the cathedral since 1673. And since 2009 Dr Endres has been digitising it.1

The Welsh marginalia in Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, fo. 141r.

Screen capture of Reflective Transformation Imagery picture of the Welsh note in the Gospels, which is, I should say, Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, fo. 71r.

You may think that project is taking a long time even for one man, but the truth is that by now he has digitised it several times. In fact, he told us, he has photographed each page in 13 different spectra, all of which his website allows you to display either overlaid or singly, sliding from one to another. This is very helpful for tracking colour change and deterioration, of which there is thankfully little. Dr Endres has also added historical photographs of the Gospels from two old sets from 1887 and 1969, so there is a long-term check of some kind built in. But he has also started doing 3D photography of the pages, with pictures overlaid for which the lighting was set at different angles, allowing a kind of artificial tilting of the page under the light. I’d seen this done before but it’s always impressive, and in particular it had allowed Dr Endres to detect erasures and marks made by pens without ink, including dry-point glosses, which were mostly personal names, including those of three women in the margin of the magnificat of the Virgin Mary. That looks like selection, but the custom as a whole is hard to explain: why did people get to write their names invisibly in an old Bible? Dr Endres’s suggestion was that the names were meant to be read in Heaven, and I don’t have a better idea, I have to admit.

3D visualisation of Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, fo. 113v

3D visualisation of fo. 113v, swung so as to make visible the dry-point name at bottom centre near the marker

For me this was the most exciting part of the paper, as a lot of the rest was either about the philosophy of digitisation or was context to situate this Gospel Book in the context of others like the Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels, of which more people have heard, and that was not so new to me.2 There was also more hypothetical stuff about the volume’s history and use. Some of the suggestions in my notes are quite high-flying, and I would particularly like to have got a reference for the half-joking one that it shows that St Augustine invented peacock jerky. Unfortunately, for reasons I now forget, I couldn’t stay for questions, but it was still nice to hear about this project, which I’d seen one side of on the web, from the inside, and I was able to express genuine pleasure to have been there to Dr Endres when I subsequently met him later in the year. It’s possible to look at this manuscript in great detail on the web at varying degrees of intensity, and it’s all been done on relatively little money. Once again we see how the lone interested person can often achieve nearly as much as a massive multi-institution project for a fraction of the cost, and wonder why there aren’t more projects like this one!

1. Jennifer Howard, “21st-Century Imaging Helps Scholars Reveal Rare 8th-Century Manuscript” in Chronicle of Higher Education, December 5 2010; William Endres, “More than Meets the Eye: Going 3D with an Early Medieval Manuscript” in Clare Mills, Michael Pidd & Esther Ward (edd.), Proceedings of the Digital Humanities Congress 2012 (Sheffield 2014), online here; Bill Endres, “Imaging Sacred Artifacts: Ethics and the Digitizing of Lichfield Cathedral’s St Chad Gospels” in Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture Vol. 3 (Stockholm 2014), pp. 39-73, online here.

2. On which see most obviously George Henderson, From Durrow to Kells: the Insular Gospel-Books 650–800 (London 1987).

2 responses to “Seminar CCXXXVIII: digital eyes on the Lichfield Gospels

  1. Can not agree more with your last statement. Clicking on the pictures and seeing what can be done – fantastic!

  2. Allan McKinley

    The reason there’s not more projects like this is that the assumption is any project will be expensive and difficult to arrange I’d guess – remember, for all we happily use it historians are not necessarily aware of how easy computer technology can be applied.

    Oh, and it’s a lot more fun to write papers speculating about something or applying new theories than actually do the leg work to find out something new, at least going by a lot of what I’ve read recently…

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