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Durham Liber Vitae Project


David Rollason, University of Durham

A major project to produce an innovative computerised edition of the medieval Durham Liber Vitae (London, BL MS Cotton Domitian VII), with full supporting scholarly material, is now underway in partnership with the British Library. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

This Liber Vitae, or "book of life" was one among several put together in Europe during the Middle Ages. As the name suggests, these books were modelled on the one envisioned in the biblical book of Revelation, hence to be inscribed therein was, at least originally, a highly meaningful act. The Durham Liber Vitae originated in the mid-ninth-century as a list of several hundred names of persons associated with a Northumbrian church, probably Lindisfarne, but possibly Monkwearmouth/Jarrow. (These names, written in alternating gold and silver, are arranged according to the status and functions of the persons who bore them and have the potential to provide remarkable insights into a 'dark age' of English history.) A few more names were entered in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Then, around the year 1100, the book began to be used to record the names of all the monks of Durham, as well as a very large number of lay people—some great, others so humble that nothing else is known of them. Family groups also appear, especially the families of the last monks of Durham before Henry VIII dissolved the cathedral monastery in 1539, when the book ceased to be used.

The kinds and arrangements of these names raise several important historical questions. Why, for example, were the names listed in this way? What light can they shed on the political, social and cultural history of medieval England, e.g. the emergence of Scandinavian and Norman names in the eleventh century? What can be learned from the innumerable examples of handwriting which the book contains? What patterns are discernible in the development of the languages (Old English, Middle English, Scandinavian, Britonic, Irish) in which the names are written?

Despite its great historical importance, the Durham Liber Vitae has not been studied as widely as it deserves because access to the manuscript itself has been limited, and because it has been impossible to edit by conventional means. The multiplicity of entries and the disorder of the lists of names in the eleventh-century and later sections (as well as the disorder of those added to earlier sections) pose almost insuperable problems to conventional editions, above all the problem of referencing commentary to individual entries because of the complexity of the page layouts. On occasion, that layout is itself significant and requires commentary of a type impossible to provide by conventional means. Hence the current project to design an electronic edition that will not only provide high-definition images of all pages but also make possible as complete a presentation as possible of all that is known about the manuscript and its contents. The edition will represent a major step forward in the digital reproduction of medieval manuscripts. Publication by British Library Publications is anticipated in 2006/7, but in the meantime the project is publishing a collection of papers arising from one of its colloquia; The Durham Liber Vitae and Its Context, edited by David Rollason, Alan Piper, Margaret Harvey and Lynda Rollason, will be published by Boydell and Brewer in July 2004.

The Durham Liber Vitae project is led by Professor David Rollason and Mr Alan Piper (AHRB Centre for North-East England History, University of Durham) and by Dr Willard McCarty and Mr Harold Short (Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London). The major part of the work is currently being undertaken by the project's researcher, Dr Andrew Wareham (King's College London) and Mrs Lynda Rollason (University of Durham), and by the technical officer (Dr Gabriel Bodard, King's College London).

For further information, visit the project's website at http://www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/dlv/ or contact Professor David Rollason, Department of History, 43 North Bailey, Durham DH1 3EX, UK, email david.rollason@durham.ac.uk.