The relic within the library

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While tens of thousands of medieval pilgrims mobbed Thomas Becket's shrine in Canterbury Cathedral, they hoped for a swab of miraculous water that, after centuries of dilution and sale by the monks, had no conceivable contact with the saint's blood. The archbishop's books, which he had actually commissioned and read and touched, were neglected on the open shelves in the slype in front of the cloister.

Before the end of the Middle Ages, many had been lost or thrown away. . . This wasn't ignorance: the monks knew they were Beckets, but they didn't care. . .

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A 12th century mosaic in Monreale, Sicily showing Becket with a jeweled book

A few years ago I took the biblical historian Eyal Poleg to lunch at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge and then had a chat over coffee with something along these lines: It always struck me as strange that, unlike clothes, the books of saints were in the Middle Ages England was not considered a relic.

Dr. Poleg said he was aware of a medieval reference to a clearly unique exception. He tapped his laptop and brought back an entry from 1321 on the list of sacristies in Canterbury Cathedral that described a precious but never redrawn manuscript among the cathedral's treasures.

It was likely used in the liturgy around the Thomas Becket shrine in Canterbury, he explained. (The sacristan was the official in charge of relics.) The description begins in Latin: “Object, Textus cum psalterio Sancti Thome, argento deaurato coopertus gemmis ornatus. . . "," Subject, a binding with the Psalter of St. Thomas, bound in silver gilded with jewels. . . ”

And I had one of those sudden, heartbreaking shudders of recognition that make our life as historians worthwhile, because I remembered seeing those words before. They appear almost exactly in a late 10th or early 11th century psalter in the Parker Library, a few hundred yards from where we were sitting in the college's Old Combination Room.

We gave up our coffee and hurried across the yard to the library, and I got MS 411 out of the vault. We sat in the reading room and looked at it together. We were trembling with excitement.

The manuscript is known. It is one of the notable Anglo-Saxon books brought to Corpus Christi College in the estate of Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury 1559-75.

The Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, CambridgeThe 16th century inscription in Becket's Psalter confirms his ownership

At the very bottom of the text is a Latin note from the 16th century, probably from Parker's lifetime. The translation reads: “This Psalter, in silver-gilt tablets adorned with jewels, was once that of the & # 39; N & # 39; Archbishop of Canterbury (and) eventually came into the hands of Thomas Becket, the late Archbishop of Canterbury as it is recorded in the ancient inscription. "

This claim has always been dismissed as a piece of gullible antiquarian fantasy, as in the recent catalog of illuminated manuscripts at Cambridge Colleges (2013) which is "almost certainly a complete fiction."

In fact, Becket had gone so out of fashion in Elizabethan England that it would have been an unromantic and unlikely fiction to have invented her at the time.

This is an edited excerpt from the book in the Cathedral (Allen Lane, £ 9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £ 9)).

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