The St. Cuthbert Gospel (formerly known as the Stonyhurst Gospel) undoubtedly qualifies as the oldest intact European book. It is currently on display in the British Library on long-term loan by both its private owners and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The history of this book is the most dramatic exhumation of any manuscript known to mankind. Made in the late-7th century, the manuscript contains a copy of the Gospel of St. John, and was buried circa 635–687 with the body of St. Cuthbert, who was the bishop of a monastery off the northeast coast of England.
Two hundred years later, when the Danish invaded the monastery, the monks fled with the remains of St. Cuthbert and finally settled in a new monastery in Durham where the carved wooden casket was opened in September 1104 on the occasion of the shrine’s dedication. The book discovered inside was still perfectly preserved underneath the head of St. Cuthbert. After that, the gospel was left on the high alter of the Durham cathedral for four centuries. A note was added later in the 13th century on the verso: “The Gospel of John which was found at the head of our blessed father Cuthbert lying in his tomb in the year of his translation.”
Around 1540 when King Henry VIII was in power, the volume was once again removed and turned over to private owners. In 1769 the chaplain of the Earl of Lichfield presented it to the Society of Jesus, which explains the added 18th century pasted paper leaf, which records the donation of the gospel-book to the English Jesuit College at Liège. As a result of the new ownership, the book received the new name The Stonyhurst Gospel of the Jesuit College in Blackburn, which was again recently changed to The St. Cuthbert Gospel.
The manuscript is written on parchment codex, and is written in uncial (a majuscule script consisting entirely in capital letters, commonly used from the 3rd to 8th centuries AD by Latin and Greek scribes), with a few initials and red letters. The binding is the original from the late 7th century. The 2.5 mm thick boards covering the same size leaves are believed to be of birch, and are decorated with tooling of interlacing patterns of leaves and fruits, step-pattern crosses, and coloring lines drawn with the tip of a fine stylus. The boards were in turn covered in leather of red decorated goatskin, leaving a crimson stain on the outer surface.
The most intriguing question concerning this enigmatic manuscript is, without any doubt, “What is the book worth?” The only reliable figures to base an appraised value on, however, are those published by auction houses and other sellers voluntarily. Such previous sales will have to be adjusted to account for any applicable rise in price due to lapsed time since the comparable sale, and include any other unique attributes that vary between the two. Since there are no other St. Cuthbert Gospels known to exist today, the task is significantly more complex to accomplish. The lack of close comparables suggests that the process becomes less scientific and more a matter of opinion. It is similar to getting a home appraised with comparative views available only for houses located in another state having a different structure.
Another first, the first book printed in North America, The Bay Psalm Book, will soon be up for bidding at an auction. While it is not quite as important as the manuscript from the 7th century, and is not quite as unique due to the fact that there are 10 others accounted for, it will nevertheless give us a figure to work with coming from a book on religion that is estimated to sell above 10 million dollars. Another copy of this book sold in 1947 should provide a good baseline to factor in the effect of time. The most expensive rare book, James Audubon’s Birds of America, sold in 2010 at an auction for 11.5 million dollars; The Bay Psalm Book is expected to surpass that. As for the St. Cuthbert Gospel, the actual value may never be determined as it will probably never be offered for sale, but the estimated value is guaranteed to make a significant impression even to collectors emerging from the world of painting.