Extreme survival

The binding of St Cuthbert’s Gospel, now preserved at the British Library

The survival of texts and other cultural artefacts through time tends to increase as it approaches two extremes: maximum oblivion and maximum use. That a manuscript, a piece of pottery or a building survives through use is quite obvious. An artefact which is constantly in use doesn’t go away, it gets transmitted from generation to generation, and even if it suffers transformations, a scholar may recover its evolution through time and trace it back to its origin. On the other hand, one may not easily see how neglect can lead to survival.

And yet, the most forgotten objects tend to be those who are best preserved. This is particularly true of items which, though lost, do not suffer damage just by the mere passage of time. A manuscript kept in a dry area, a clay pot buried underground are more likely, once retrieved, to be preserved.

Many of the world’s greatest discoveries are objects long forgotten, whose disuse and incarceration ensured their pristine survival. The oldest European book complete with binding and covers is also the best preserved and least used. It is also one of the most neglected. Made in the 8th century, the Cuthbert Gospel was placed in a coffin in 698 and it remained there until 1104. As a relic, it was not meant to be used as a book, which in practical terms it meant neglect. Had it been used as a Gospel book, it would have long disappeared from use, like tens of thousands of such liturgical books which, after daily or weekly use, would have been replaced by newer and better copies. We owe the survival of books such as St Cuthbert’s Gospel to sacred oblivion. Disconnection from history doesn’t always mean death.

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