Norman Manuscript Treasures

Carilef Bible, c. 1096, fol. 166r, Apocalypse. Photo: TMI Publishing London, 2010.

In 1081, William of Saint-Calais (or William of Carilef) was nominated bishop of Durham. The new bishop concerted the community into a Benedictine priory, replacing the canons by monks. Before his nomination, William was a monk and prior of a Benedictine monastery in Saint-Calais, Normandy. He was born in Bayeux (date unknown, he died in 1096) and he was a Norman. He was educated by Odo of Bayeux (1036-1097), half-brother of William the Conqueror (1028-1087), King of England after the battle of Hastings in 1066. After 1066, Odo, who was then Bishop of Bayeux, became Earl of Kent. Odo, the most powerful ruler after the king, commissioned the Tapestry of Bayeux and depicted himself as important spiritual and secular councillor and knight of King.

It is no surprise that in this context William of Saint-Calais also became an important councillor and advisor to King William I and his successor and son William Rufus (c. 1060-1100). King William reorganized and unified England, replaced Anglo-Saxon nobility and bishops by Normans and reformed the administration. The new regime reinforced the authority of documents  (the Domesday Book). The Normans knew how to rule, with Normandy as continental and Sicily as contemporary examples. The kingdoms in Denmark, Sweden and Norway became also important centres of secular power and ecclesiastical estates and bishoprics. The bishop played a prominent role in worldly and spiritual affairs and Norman bishops were keen to show it in works of art. It is not a coincidence that Odo died in Palermo, in Norman Sicily. Although it is disputed whether there existed a ‘Normanitas’, a common Norman culture across Europe, it shows the strong and long lasting Norman relations throughout Europe.

Anglo-Saxon culture and monasteries were centres of high culture from the sixth century onwards. Illuminated books from this period are among the most appreciated treasures. The Normans introduced continental Romanesque art from the continent however. Norman artists also crossed the channel. William of Saint-Calais not only initiated the building of the cathedral of Durham, he also supported the use of documents and production of spiritual books.

The Carilef Bible, the second and only surviving part of a two volume bible, was given to Durham cathedral by William of Saint-Calais. The manuscript is one of the finest products of Romanesque book-making and art.  More books survive from the medieval library of Durham Cathedral than any other pre-reformation foundation in England.  (Source: R. Gameson, Manuscript Treasures of Durham Cathedral. London, 2010).