Jarrow and its Saints

Friday, May 15th. We wake up in Jarrow. For a Deep Southerner like me, it’s a name that conjures up ideas of bleak, run-down towns, poverty, boarded up shops, derelict factories. ‘Memories’ of stark events that happened years before I was born: the Jarrow March of 1936, when 200 men marched to London with a petition asking for the reopening of the shipyard, the major employer, which had closed in 1934. Somehow it was an event which moved the nation, and was still a potent folk memory when I was growing up. ‘The North East’ was already a deprived area, not enjoying its share in the wealth it could see in the rest of the country, especially in the South East where all the power was concentrated. How can you not reflect on how little seems to have changed in 85 years? In the Brexit referendum of 2016, South Tyneside voted by 62% to leave the EU; though unlike many other north-eastern constituencies, Labour did succeed in holding Jarrow in the 2019 General Election.

Yet back in the 7th century, Jarrow was a thriving, prosperous seaport and a world-renowned centre of learning. It would have ranked as the Oxford University, or the Sorbonne, of its day. This was because of the twin monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, the homes of two of the most important saints of the Anglo-Saxon church: Benedict Biscop and the Venerable Bede.

Benedict Biscop (628-690) was a well-connected and well-travelled man, who became a monk at Lérins and later an abbot in Canterbury, before returning to his native Northumbria where in 674 he established the first foundation in Monkwearmouth. The monastery buildings were among the first in Northumbria to be built of stone. Biscop also wanted them to have glass windows – a technology as yet unknown in this country – and he brought over expert craftsmen from France to make the stained glass and teach others. Sunderland was for centuries a centre for glass-making and is still the home of the National Glass Centre.

So we begin the day with a visit to St Peter’s Monkwearmouth.

St Peter’s, Monkwearmouth

Just like the last time we tried to visit, we find the door locked. But as we turn away in bitter disappointment, a strangely dressed little man comes round the corner of the church carrying a key. He seems to be wearing some kind of habit, though that can only be our imagination: at most it could be a verger’s cassock. “Let me open the door for you,” he says. “We’ve been expecting you.” He lets us in and waits for us to walk a short distance down the nave; but when we turn to thank him, there’s no sign of him. Probably just slipped off into the vestry. There’s so much we want to ask him, let’s hope we catch him when he comes out.

Interior

It feels a comfortable, prayerful place – perhaps because it carries this imprint of a history we love. We can sit here for a long time with our reflections and prayers, and we do. When we have looked around we leave the church to explore the outlines of the monastic buildings which have been excavated on the south side of the church. Now and again we catch a glimpse of the little man who opened the door for us, but he always seems to be hurrying away round a corner on some business or other.

Outline of the abbey

By the time we’re ready to leave it’s time for lunch, which we enjoy at Bear Natural, where (unusually) we both choose the same dish from the menu, the Keralan curry, “A creamy, aromatic South Indian coconut, chickpea and lentil curry served with lime and coriander rice, and soya mint raita.”

We wander slowly back to the National Glass Centre. We’ve been before, but it’s always fascinating to learn more about Sunderland’s glassmaking history, and wonder at the skill that produced these beautiful objects. It’s a tragedy that religious communities were regarded as places to envy and plunder – by Vikings and Tudors and many others through the ages. So much has been lost through the accidents of time.

But sometimes lost things can be found again, in extraordinary ways. The abbeys of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow produced three manuscript bibles which were supreme works of art. Two of them have been lost. But the third was sent as a gift to the Pope. It too was thought to have been lost, but in 1888 it was established that a copy of the Vulgate in the possession of the Laurentian Library in Florence was in fact the Bible mentioned by Bede, that had been sent to the Pope. For centuries it had belonged to the Abbey of the Saviour at Mount Amiata in Tuscany. (Hence the name by which it is known, the Codex Amiatinus.) It is thought that the party of monks carrying the gift to Rome had been delayed (by winter? illness? death? the threat of robbers along the way?) and those who survived had simply stayed there, along with the priceless manuscript. At some time the inscription on the dedication page, “Ceolfrith of the English” was altered to “Peter of the Lombards”. But the original can still be faintly seen. Ceolfrith was the abbot of that distant Saxon monastery who had commissioned the manuscript and sent it to the Pope.

“Ceolfrith of the English” was altered to “Peter of the Lombards”

It is a huge volume, the oldest surviving complete text of the Latin Vulgate, and still regarded as the definitive text of Jerome’s Latin. We saw a reproduction of it when we last visited Jarrow, but later saw the original when it was on loan to the British Library last year. If only you could actually touch the exhibit… For me that would be something more wonderful than seeing most of the other relics of the saints that Christians have venerated through the years.

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