The Codex Argenteus - The Mystery of the Gothic Silver Bible Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Codex Argenteus - The Mystery of the Gothic Silver Bible

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Since the invention of printing, books have been readily available and relatively cheap. Since the advent of the Internet, e-books are only a mouse click away. It is hard, therefore, to imagine a time when a book represented something fragile and precious, the loss of which would be incalculable in terms of human knowledge.

Before printing, books existed in manuscript form, each book copied by hand, on papyrus (an early form of paper), parchment (sheepskin), or vellum (calfskin). A manuscript is unique - even a copy of a copy has distinctive features; each page is the product of patient scribal labour. Sometimes, due to the accidents of war, fire and flood, a manuscript is our only link to a particular author or his language.

An example of the importance of such a single manuscript is the Codex Argenteus, the 6th Century Bible said to have been made for Theodoric the Great. Written on vellum dyed imperial purple, the Silver Bible, so-called because of the gold and silver ink (with silver predominating) used for the letters, is one of the oldest sources for the Gothic language in existence today.

The Goths - A Vanished People

The Goths, a tribe belonging to the Eastern Germanic language group, migrated from Scandinavia to the Black Sea region in the 3rd Century AD, where they split into two tribes, the Visigoths (West Goths) and the Ostrogoths (East Goths). The Ostrogoths built a powerful empire in the area around the Black Sea, but population growth caused both Ostrogoths and Visigoths to form a new settlement in the Roman province of Dacia (modern Romania). There they became Christianised in the Arian faith.

In the 4th Century, the Huns invaded and subjugated the Ostrogoths, forcing the Visigoths across the Danube to seek asylum in Roman territory, where their troubles began in earnest. While the Ostrogoths became vassals of the Huns, fighting for them against the Europeans, the Visigoths became mercenaries for the Romans, who continually promised them a homeland which never materialised.

The two tribes were briefly reunited in the 6th Century when Theodoric the Great, an Ostrogoth leader, became Roman emperor. But Theodoric's successors failed to hold the dynasty together after his death, and the Ostrogoth line in effect died out.

The Visigoths continued to rule a large kingdom whose territory covered most of modern Spain and southern France until the early 8th Century.

After the failure of Goth rule in Rome and the fall of the Visigoth kingdom in Iberia, Goth culture and language went underground or was lost completely. The only remnants of their culture, apart from reports of the Crimean Goth minority, which died out in the 18th Century, are references by contemporary historians and a few rare manuscripts.

Wulfila - Religion and Written Language

Wulfila (also called 'Ulfilas', c311 - 383), a Cappadocian priest of Goth ancestry whose name means 'Little Wolf' in Gothic, was appointed 'Bishop of the Goths' in 341 by Eusebius of Nicomedia, archbishop of Constantinople. Wulfila went to work among the Goths in Dacia, where he converted them to his version of Christianity, a form of teaching called Arianism.

Arianism differed from orthodox Christian belief in its Christology. Arians believed that God and Christ were not equal, nor were they the same age. At some time, so Arius taught, God had created Christ as a divine being inferior to himself. In other words, Arians did not believe in the Trinity.

The Nicene Council of 325 condemned Arianism as a heresy, and sent its leaders, including Arius and Eusebius, Wulfila's patron, into exile.

The extreme hostility of Trinitarian Christianity to Arianism explains why there are so few texts left in the Gothic language; writings by 'heretics' were regularly destroyed or erased. Apart from the manuscript under discussion here, Gothic text can only be found in a few palimpsests (erased documents that have been written over, but can still be deciphered), some marginal notes in a manuscript, and one other small fragmentary text.

Working with the Goths, though, Wulfila's first task was to give them a Bible in their own language. And for that, he needed a way to write it down.

Wulfila's Gothic Alphabet

Before Wulfila, Gothic was not a written language. Wulfila's problem was that the sound system of Gothic could not easily be represented in either of the common alphabets of the time, Greek or Roman. So Wulfila devised a writing system based on Greek, the most common language in his part of the world, with some Roman characters. For uniquely Germanic sounds, he added letters from the old Germanic runic alphabet. He ended up with a system of 27 letters.

According to tradition, Wulfila translated the entire Bible, except for the books of Kings. It is said that he omitted these books because they were too martial in nature - the warlike Goths, former worshippers of Tyr (Mars), didn't need any encouragement in that direction.

Although Wulfila reportedly translated almost the entire Bible, the complete translation does not exist. Parts of the Four Gospels, however, are preserved in a unique manuscript from the 6th Century, the Codex Argenteus.

The Codex Argenteus

Around 520AD, a special Gospel codex (bound book) was produced in Ravenna, presumably for the Ostrogothic Roman emperor, Theodoric the Great. This codex, which originally comprised 336 leaves, was lettered on vellum in silver and gold ink. As the silver letters predominate, the codex has always been referred to as Codex Argenteus, or Silver Bible. The vellum on which it was written was soaked in purple dye, as befitted the property of Theodoric, Gothorum romanorumque rex.

Today, the Codex Argenteus is housed in the Carolina Rediviva Library at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, where two leaves and its decorative silver covers are on well-guarded display. That is, most of what is left of it is there. One leaf is in Speyer, Germany, where it was discovered in 1970 among the relics of St Elmo of Formia (of St Elmo's Fire fame, also known as Erasmus of Formiae), and of the remaining 335 pages, only 187 are left.

The Silver Bible's journey from Ravenna to Uppsala was not a straightforward one, and its whereabouts during a thousand years of its history remain a mystery.

The Wanderings of a Bible Codex

Absolutely nothing is known about how Theodoric's Bible came from Ravenna to the place where it was first rediscovered, in Werden an der Ruhr, Germany, in the 16th Century, nor how the codex came to be in such poor condition. That does not, of course, prevent speculation among scholars.

One theory has it that the codex was taken south in Italy when the Gothic empire fell, and ended up in Formia, where one page was bound with the relics of St Elmo. According to this theory, St Liudger, the founder of the Werden monastery, discovered the codex in Formia and brought it to Germany.

Another theory has it that the missing Speyer leaf was taken out of the codex in the 16th Century and sent to a bookbinder in Mainz for a rebinding estimate, then somehow forgotten.

A third theory supposes that Charlemagne brought the Silver Bible from Ravenna to Aachen, whence it made its way to Werden. It is an attractive theory, linking one Roman emperor to a Holy Roman Emperor.

One way or another, the Codex Argenteus was rediscovered in the monastery at Werden an der Ruhr in the 16th Century.

From there it went to Prague by means of another emperor, Rudolf II. We do not know if he purchased the manuscript, or just looted it, but the codex became war booty in 1648, when the Swedes captured Prague in the Thirty Years War. The Swedes brought it home with them, where it was housed in Queen Christina's library in Stockholm.

However, Queen Christina abdicated the throne, and one of the royal librarians, Isaac Vossius, acquired the codex. He took it to Holland, where it was bought by Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, the Swedish Chancellor and Chancellor of Uppsala University, who donated it to Uppsala University in 1669.

And there it stayed. That is, most of it, most of the time. In 1995, two men walked into the library at Uppsala, struck the display case with hammers, and left with a double leaf of the Codex Argenteus and the silver cover. Details are scant, but somehow the missing treasures were returned a month later. New security measures were put in place to protect the Silver Bible, which attracts about 100,000 visitors a year.

A Book Treasure

Why is a fragmentary book, almost a millennium and-a-half old, of interest to us today? First, because of its historical connection with the short-lived Goth rule of the Roman Empire, a significant chapter in history. Second, because of its preservation of a language that would otherwise be almost entirely lost. And finally, because it is the record of a great achievement by one man, Wulfila, who brought to his people a written language.

The Codex Argenteus serves as a reminder that once, long ago, the value of a literary work lay not in its mass-market appeal, but in the care and attention that went into it.

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