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The E-Sylum: Volume 3, Number 35, August 27, 2000, Article 6


Asylum Editor E. Tomlinson Fort writes:

"While doing some research upon another topic I came across the following document. It is an Old English record of the presentation of a work now known as the Golden Gospels to the monks of Christ Church Canterbury:

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. I, Ealdorman Alfred and Wærburh my wife obtained these books from the Viking army with our pure money, that was with pure gold, and this we did for the love of God and for the benefit of our souls and because we did not wish these holy books to remain longer in heathen possession. And now we wish to give them to Christ Church to the praise and glory and honor of God, and in gratitude for his Passion, and for the use of the religious community which daily raises praise to God in Christ Church, on condition that they will be read every month for the sake of Alfred and Wærburh and Ealhthryth, for the eternal remedy of their souls, as long as God has foreseen that the Christian faith will continue at that place. Moreover I, Ealdorman Alfred and Wærburh beg and implore in the name of Almighty God and of all his saints that no man be so presumptuous as to give away or remove these holy books from Christ Church, as long as the Christian faith may endure. [Witnesses] Alfred Wærburh Ealhthryth their daughter

The gospel book is an English work dating from the eighth century. How and where a Viking army acquired them is unknown, though they were probably taken in a raid on a monastery or church. This record is not dated, but the ealdorman Alfred is presumably the one whose last will and testament dates from sometime between 871 and 888 [The will mentions both King Alfred the Great of Wessex, who came to the throne in 871, and Archbishop Æthelræd of Canterbury, who died in 888]. Thus, Ealdorman Alfred must have made his grant during the last quarter of the ninth century.

Alfred's notice that he paid for the book in gold coin is unusual since such had not been produced in western Europe since early in the reign of Louis the Pious (814-840). One wonders if the gold may have been a part of the hoard of Roman gold coins recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle [s.a. 418] and which may have inspired the types struck between c.874 and c.885 by Alfred the Great and Ceolwulf II of Mercia.

Today, Ealdorman Alfred's Golden Gospels are in the Royal Library at Stockholm in Denmark. When the library acquired them is not known. But it is likely that the book was lost to Christ Church during the Reformation and that it somehow made its way across the North Sea to Denmark.

By the way, the giving of books to churches and monasteries was not uncommon in the early Middle Ages. Simon Keynes, "King Athelstan's Books" in Learning and Literature in Anglo- Saxon England, ed. M. Lapidge and H. Gneuss (Cambridge, 1985), pp.143-202, records that King Athelstan of England (924-939) was not only a bibliophile, but also that a number of the books which he owned or donated still survive."

Wayne Homren, Editor

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