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The "Architecture" of Early Latin Gospel Books (400 CE – 800)

In 1961 Patrick McGurk issued Latin Gospel Books From A. D. 400 to A. D. 800. Of the approximately 1566 codices that survived from this period McGurk identified and studied 138 Gospel books in European libraries, and one in St. Petersburg. McGurk's study grew out of his 1954 doctoral disseration which was titled The Architecture of Latin Gospel Books before A. D. 800, and some of the most useful aspects of his 1961 book were his general observations on the structure of Gospel books— what he called "architecture." I quote some of his more interesting observations below:

"Those Gospel books that survive from the two hundred and fifty years between A. D. 400 and A. D. 650 are uniform both in their appearance and in their scribal traditions. They are nearly all written in that clearly set book hand, uncial, and their gatherings are noramally quaternions. Had they been written one, two or three centuries earlier, they would probably have been more varied in their make up and in their script, and would thus have reflected a more formative period in the making of codices; as it is, the range of tentative book hands in which many 3rd, 4th and 5th century classical fragments are written, and the variety of quires and formats found in the Chester Beatty papyri and in the earlier Greek and Coptic Christian books are absent from our 5th, 6th and 7th century uncial Gospels. Because they are so uniform and so numerous, they form the common classical standard by which the deviations of later Gospel books can be measured. (McGurk p. 7)

"Colophons like margins were given generous allowance of space [in the earliest Gospel books]. In the earliest Greek papyrus rolls the colophon was given only a little space; its function seemed either to give a heading to a particular work or else to announce its end; explicitum nobis usque ad su cornua librum. The colophons of the Chester Beatty papyri look reserved and discreet when contrasted with the florid creations of the Codex Alexandrinus. The colophon provided many of the sober uncial manuscripts with the only scope or theme possible for ornament. Again and again, it is found not squeezed at the bottom of a column as in the rolls, but filling a whole page and adorned with dashes and swirls, ropes, ivy leaves and dots. Eventually, the colophon written in large monumental capitals across a single page, acquired the appearance of an inscription; it is the quality that imitations like the incipit pages of the Franco-Saxon school or the description pages of Royal I.E. VI tried to posess. Specifically Christian colophons are found in only three of the earlier Gospel books." (McGurk 9-10)

"The opening of Gospels are not distinguished by the use of a different script; they are marked by a restrained austere intial letter and one or two lines in a differently coloured ink. The initials are not until the 7th century made the subject or ornament or decoration. And with the exception of the Cambridge Corpus Gospels . . . no book survives with illustrations. The Cambridge Gospels possessed at least two cycles of pictures, arranged in compartments in a rectangular box, and these were placed one in the middle (at the end of St. Mark) the other at the end, of the book. In this way, the Cambridge Gospels differed both from the Eastern picture Gospels, which concentrated their illustrations with the Canon Tables at the head of the book, and from books like the Codex Sinopensis or the Virgil Vaticanus, which distributed their pictures throughout a text. In addition, a picture of the evangelist and his symbol, accompanied by more Gospel miniatures, prefaced each Gospel, those for Matthew, Mark and Luke facing the opening page of the Gospel text, that for John facing the first page of the prologue to John, a variant position found in some later books, both Latin and Greek. The Cambridge Gospels, which, in its layout of the uncial script on a page, is as disciplined as the other uncial books, bears witness to the existence of illustration in some early Latin Gospel codices" (McGurk 10)

"The unformity of the uncial books down to about A. D. 650 constrasts with variety and indiscipline of books later than that date, and ilustrates the unifying scribal work of the Roman church. It is true that most of these early books were probably written in Italy and that therefore the uniformity may only reflect an Italian cohesion. But recent work in epigraphy as well as comparison between manuscripts attributed to different parts of the Roman world do not reveal fundamental differences inscript or in methods of arranging apage or making up a book in France and Italy, Africa and Spain. When the Gothic version of the Gospels was sent down in codex form, its arrangement, appearance and structure were the same as those of the codices of the Latin world. The initials, the colophons, the Gospels grouped in sets of quires, the silver ink, the purpose purachement, the very script of the Codex Usaliensis [Codex Argenteus] are those of the Brescia or Verona Gospels.

"The emergence of barbarian scripts—and of the barbarian kingdoms—is reflected in changes in the structure and lay out of the Roman Gospel book. And the surviving numbers of Insular Gospel books, as well as the fact that the finest books of the Carolingian period are made in Northern Europe, reflect a switch in eccleiastrical energy and direction. The changes in the lay out of a page and arrangement of a codex introduced by Insular and Continental scribes had a permanent effect, and the Carolingian books, in spie of their self-conscious classicism, adopted many scribal distinctions which had first made their appearance in the 7th and 8th centuries—distinctions in the use of scripts in the first lines, on first pages, in colophons, and in prefaces. These aspects of Carolingian scribal methods—the earliest copying of classical forms and the conserving of post-classical themes—can be paralelled in Carolingian poetry. The Carolingian Gospel books, like the themes of Gottschalk or the elegiac metres of Alcuin, looked back to a Late Antique world tinged by the intervening centuries of barbarism. If the early purple codices of Verona nd Brescia had not survived, the Carolingian Metz Gospels. . . . would have presented the modern palaeographer with a good approximation of their models. They could never have been more than approximations because the Metz books have the same relation to their models as Italian Renaissance copies of inscriptions have to their originals or the early Humanist hand has to the Caroline minuscule" (McGurk 18-19).

(This entry was last revised on April 13, 2014.)