07 November 2009

Lindisfarne Priory

As mentioned in our last post, Nana and I went to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne last Saturday. Why "Holy Island," you ask?

Well, it turns out this tiny little tidal island off the coast of Northumberland was a major center of Christian civilization in northern Europe from about AD 650-800, and later (after about AD 1000) an imposing branch of the Bishopric of Durham.

To Lindisfarne we owe the spectacular Lindisfarne Gospels, which, besides being incredibly beautiful, are a unique example of the contemporary hybrid Anglo-Saxon-Celtic culture of North Britain. Here's a scan of the incipit (highly decorated opening page) of the Gospel of Matthew:

The Lindisfarne Gospels, along with the Book of Kells (Celtic, circa 800) and the Book of Durrow (Celtic, circa 700), is utterly invaluable to the study of Celtic Christianity, the unique, ascetic, mystical form of Catholicism that dominated the British Isles during the Middle Ages.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are also a key example of the insular script, which has been reborn (in modified form, of course) as graphic shorthand for anything vaguely Celtic. The following familiar font if based on the insular script--which is, oddly enough, a whole lot easier to read than later medieval scrips, such as blackletter.
Anyway, the Lindisfarne Gospels were actually produced by monks at Lindisfarne, as part of their regular devotional duties and, in some cases, as penance. Alas, the gospels are currently at the British Library in London, so visitors to Lindisfarne can't view them today.

But Lindisfarne Priory is famous for reasons other than the Gospels. It was founded by St. Aidan, an Irish monk from the abbey at Iona, a small island off the island of Mull in what is now western Scotland. (Ireland and western Scotland were, politically and culturally, hard to tell apart in those days, as we learned on our visit to the Isle of Skye.) Aidan isn't just the namesake of scores of American yuppie babies: he's largely responsible for converting the English (or, more accurately, the Anglo-Saxons) to Christianity.

Lindisfarne was also home to St. Cuthbert, whose cult was one of the major defining features of Celtic and later medieval Christianity, and who founded or was associated with most of the major medieval abbeys of southern Scotland and northern England. He also seems to have really loved his ducks, and even passed a law protecting them, which some claim was the first bird protection law in history.

All those guys did their work in the old Lindisfarne Priory, an austere wooden building after the Celtic Christian style, which was abandoned around AD 700 after incessant Viking raids.

The ruins of the "new" Lindisfarne Priory (dating from about AD 1000) are what visitors to Lindisfarne see today.  This building was constructed in the image of Durham Cathedral (which Nana and I had the pleasure of visiting a few years ago), as you can tell by the distinctive zigzag patterns (see below), which, along with the rounded (as opposed to pointed) arches, mark the building as a Norman-style church.

The building wasn't just a place of worship, however: priories in those days were also centers for commerce and government. The Lindisfarne Priory has very large outer square, which served as a market in good times and as a safe haven from enemies in bad.

And the monks who inhabited Lindisfarne weren't quite like the monks of today: they were the general white-collar bureaucrats of their day, and in fact it's from "cleric," the same root as "clergy," that we get the modern "clerk." They weren't even remarkably religious for their time--in a time when many people were very religious, they were distinguished more by their education than their faith.

Hence two of the most important rooms in any good priory were the

and the

Not to mention the bakery. The Priory was an outpost, a safe-haven, and in a pinch it needed to provide every necessity--ale included.

Of course, having a magnificent stone building on a stunningly beautiful little island couldn't hurt.

Anyway, as you can see, Lindisfarne really captured our imaginations (and we haven't even talked about the castle yet!), and if you ever have the chance to visit, I'm sure it would capture yours. Do yourself a favor, and if you do visit, spring for admission to the excellent little priory museum.

Coming soon: Lindisfarne Castle; the Causeway; and SHEEP!

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