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Shedding Light on the Durham Collection of Medieval Manuscripts

A. Beeby, A.R. Duckworth, R. Gameson, C.E. Nicholson (Durham University)
R. Clark (University College, London), A.W. Parker (Rutherford Appleton Laboratory), and B. Meehan (Trinity College, Dublin))

A team lead by Profs. Andy Beeby (Chemistry) and Richard Gameson (History) have been using Raman spectroscopy to study the inks and pigments used in some of the medieval manuscripts now on display alongside the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The multidisciplinary group have been given unprecedented access to a series of books belonging to Durham Cathedral Library and Durham University Library which between them house some of the finest medieval books the UK. The selected volumes were mainly written or owned in Northumbria by the Community of St Cuthbert in the Middle Ages and spanned the late 7th Century though to the 12 century, allowing a coherent study of the changes that occurred in the local texts though time. This allows them to map the changes in writing technology with the migration of the monks from Lindisfarne to Chester-le-Street and then on to Durham, and to see the influence of the Norman invasion.

The project arose from a chance meeting and conversation between an alumnus, Rob Shepherd, with Profs Beeby and Gameson and, thanks to a generous gift from Rob and his wife Felicity, the project was born. At an early stage in the project it was realised that moving the priceless manuscripts to the Department of Chemistry was not possible, and so in mid-May a state-of-the-art Raman spectrometer was moved from the Science Site to Palace Green Library to be located in a 15th Centrury ‘dungeon’ for the measurements. Interest in the project spread quickly and other experts were recruited to offer guidance and expertise – from other Universities as well as from other Durham Departments, including archaeology, physics, earth sciences, along with the digitisation and conservation unit within the Library itself.

The work has quickly thrown up many surprises. Our first measurements were on the Durham Gospels (A.II.17), a book believed to have been written at Lindisfarne a decade or so before the Lindisfarne Gospels was started. In this we have found widespread use of red lead and orpiment, along with a green pigment derived from copper, and an as yet unidentified purple dye. The last appears throughout the Durham Gospel and could be either Tyrian Purple (a dye derived from sea-shells) or orcein (a dye obtained from lichen). The study reveals some subtle differences between the Durham and Lindisfarne Gospels, providing hints as to how the technology of the time was developing.

Raman spectroscopy being used to investigate the pigments used in the illumination of medieval manuscripts. In this example a folio of DCL A.II.16, a Gospel written ca. 780 AD is being investigated. The letter under the lens is illuminated by a 633 nm laser. The spectrum of the scattered light is analysed, revealing that the deep yellow pigment used here is orpiment, As2S3

An examination of Symeon of Durham’s ‘Libellus de exordio’, a book written in the early 12th Century describing the history of the community from its origins on Lindisfarne to what became Durham, reveals a sea-change in the pigments used. Symeon was believed to have trained in Normandy and came to the North East after the Norman Conquest. He brought with him rich new colours, including Lapis Lazuli a semi-precious stone that at the time was only found in the Himalayas in what is now Afghanistan. We can only imagine the journey that this deep blue stone made to Durham where it was used to embellish the page describing the arrival of William de Calais to the see of Durham – the Bishop who started the construction of the present Cathedral.

An example from Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius, hoc est Dunelmensis, Ecclesie (The Little Book on the Origins and Progress of this Church, that is of Durham) by Symeon. This book normally resides at Durham, University Library, Cosin V.II.6 and is on show as part of the Lindisfarne Gospels in Durham exhibition at Palace Green Library

The project has grown out of all expectation. Despite limited time being available for the study of the books prior to the exhibition, it has provided a wealth of new and significant data on this important series of books. Further work is planned, both to increase the depth of work on the books studies so far, and to expand the work to include other important books of this period. It is even hoped that we can make a Raman spectrometer a permanent feature of the University Library Conservation Laboratory – a fine example of inter-faculty research.