June 21, 2017

The $14 Million Book

Stephen Nichols
The $14 Million Book


A $14 million book sounds expensive, right? Believe it or not, that’s not the most expensive book of all time. That honor goes to Leonardo Da Vinci’s codex, a seventy-two-page notebook that sold for $30.8 million at auction; it was purchased by Bill Gates. There are other books that are pretty expensive too. In 1987, a Gutenberg Bible went up for auction at $5 million, and if you have $6 million just lying around and you don’t know what to do with it, you could purchase a first folio of Shakespeare. There have been some other medieval manuscripts that have gone for significant money. There was a text called The Gospels of Henry the Lion. Henry the Lion was the Duke of Saxony. He commissioned this particular edition of the Gospels; it was a very elaborate book with a very elaborate cover. He commissioned it for the altar at the Brunswick Cathedral in Germany. It’s a twelfth-century manuscript of the four Gospels and it sold for $11 million.

But the book we’re talking about is known as the St. Cuthbert Gospel. This is a book from the late seventh or early eighth century. It’s a rather simple book. It’s only five and a half inches by three and a half inches, and it has a stamped leather cover over a wooden board binding. Its pages are cord bound and its pages are vellum. Vellum was a bit of a technological advance over papyrus; it is the skin of animals, in this case calfskin. Vellum is very durable and very smooth and it provides a great surface for writing. This particular text is a gospel of John. It was found in 1104 inside the coffin of Cuthbert.

Now, who was Cuthbert and why were they looking in his coffin? Cuthbert was a monk and also bishop in the Lindisfarne area of England and he died in 687. He was buried at the monastery at Lindisfarne. When the Vikings came along, they took all sorts of things from Lindisfarne, including Cuthbert’s coffin. It was finally returned and ended up being installed at the Durham Cathedral in 1104. When his coffin was opened, tucked away inside there was this little, leather gospel of John—the St. Cuthbert Gospel.

The book sort of disappeared from that point. It was in personal hands until the 1700s, when it ended up in a Jesuit monastery in Belgium. In 2012, the British Library purchased it for £9 million, or $14 million. You can see the book at the British Library site. There is actually a CT scan of it on the site and every single page is digitized.

The text is laid out in a single column, and it is very simple. The scribe was very careful. Occasionally, there is an adorned capital letter, and sometimes you will find a letter painted in red. It begins simply, “In principio erat Verbum”—“In the beginning was the Word.” There are no chapters, there are no verse numbers, there is no table of contents; it just starts right in and goes right through the gospel of John. There are nice margins, and there is a clean crisp text.

This text is Europe’s oldest intact book, and so it reminds us of the beginning of book publishing, which of course at that time was done carefully by hand. But it also reminds us of the role that the Gospels have played and it reminds us of the role that the gospel of John has played in the history of the church.

So, there we have it—a $14 million book. And what’s fascinating about that book, of course, is the content, because in there are not just simply words of value; there are words of eternal value.