Dexter Cattle at Bede's World

Cows, Calves and Vellum at Bede’s World – then and now

In February shock-waves vibrated through the British Heritage Business: Bede’s World had filed for bankruptcy. In March the Council of Tyne and Wear announced that a solution had been found. The question, though, is: what solution?

Codex Amiatinus exhibited in Paris
Codex Amiatinus exhibited in Paris

In AD 674 the Northumbrian king, Egfrid, donated land to Monkwearmouth in order for a monastery to be established there. Soon after, In 679 – 80, the abbot of Biscop, travelled together with Ceolfrith, the later abbot of Jarrow, to Rome. Here they purchased what must have been a magnificent pandect of the Bible, the Codex Grandior. Back in Northumbria, they persuaded the king to grant even more land in Tyne and Wear, on which the monastery at Jarrow was built. Then they set about copying this stupendous work and not only once, but three times. In June 716, Ceolfrith once more set out on his last journey to Rome in order to present this magnum opus to the pope. Miraculously, his gift survived. Apart some fragments preserved in the British Library, the Codex Amiatinus survived. Today, it is one of the most valued treasures in the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence.

For obvious reasons, this pandect is of immense importance. In itself, it is a relic of the world in which Bede lived; Bede himself may even have penned parts of it when he was a young boy. But it is also a powerful witness to the scriptorium being one of the heart-chambers of the early medieval monastery with the monastic life of prayer as no more or no less than the other half of this institution, summed up under the epithet, “ora et labora”.

The Materiality

The materiality of the Codex tells us that it runs up to 1030 folios and that it measures nearly 70 cm x 53 cm. It weighs more than 34 kg. It has been calculated that about 515 calves shed their skin in order to provide the raw hide to prepare the vellum. Let’s now imagine that the same amount of calf skins were needed to produce all the three copies of the Codex Grandior. This means that inside 26 years the two monasteries each year (on average) slaughtered 59 calves. As the three grand codices were not the only manuscripts produced in the scriptoriums of the twinned monasteries, it is perhaps pertinent to remember the expression by J. L. Nelson: “No scriptoria without sheep and cows” [1].

The Countryside of Bede’s World

River Don upstream from Jarrow
River Don upstream from Jarrow. Source: Wikipedia

How much land and how large a herd, does this require? First of all, it should be remembered that on average a modern cow does not have more than 10 – 12 calves in her lifetime. Let’s say 10. This means that every tenth calf would have to be kept alive in order to supplant the stock of cows needed to reproduce the size of the herd. We now have the size of any heard during summertime, which was needed just to produce the Amiatinus and its sisters: 66 calves and 66 cows = 132 animals. To this should be added bulls and heifers (at least 12+), not counting animals needed for furnishing the material for other projects in the scriptorium, like for instance the St. Cuthbert Gospel. These numbers are minimum, since any herder would know that illness, barren cows and other mishaps would have to be part of the equation.

These herds would have consisted of robust cattle herded in smaller flocks through a landscape characterised by a mixture of open grassland, meadows, forests of the open variety. Modern estimates from wild grazing projects calculate the need of 2 – 5 ha per animal [2], depending on the mixture of calves, heifers and full-grown animals. To maintain a flock this size – which is a minimum of what the monasteries would need to have access to – requires 300 – 700 ha or 3 – 7 km2; counted is not the land needed for sheep and swine plus the additional calves needed for other projects in the scriptorium, of which we know nothing.

In itself, this does not sound as much. However, one important feature of any landscape hosting a herd of this size, is the need for sufficient water.

The Location of the Monasteries

Google map with Jarrow, Wearmouth and Bede's worldEspecially Jarrow would thus be a prime site for locating a scriptorium of the kind, Biscop and Ceolfrith had experienced on their travels to Rome. Jarrow ilies at the conjunction of the river Tyne and the river Don, with its more than twelve tributaries. We must imagine the cowherd, Cædmon, driving such herds up and down the river-banks with occasional digressions into the open forestry landscape spreading out between the minor affluents and streams.

St. Peter’s at Wearmouth, on the other hand, might very well have been assigned a somewhat different role with its natural harbour located right at the coast (but with a less favourable location in terms of grazing). It should be mentioned, though, that also Jarrow would have had an important role to play as gatekeeper of the communication and transport system up and down the river Tyne.

This is extensively demonstrated in a recent book by Sam Turner, Sarah Semple and Alex Turner: Wearmouth and Jarrow. Northumbrian Monasteries in a Historic Landscape. Here they attempt from an archaeological point of view to determine what caused the exact location of the two monasteries in the wider landscape and what that landscape might have looked like from the foundation in AD678 and up until our time.

Wearmouth and Jarrow coverIt is obvious that the location at natural harbours has been given priority in the arguments presented by the authors. However, another decisive factor was obviously also the location of quarries, which had been used by the Romans, and subsequently reopened by the builders of the churches at the two monasteries. Detailed analyses of the original fabric of the two churches demonstrate that stones were quarried at both the old Roman fortifications and camps as well as in the form of green stones. The churches were thus partly build by stones furnished the old Roman Arbeia. It is speculated that quarrying here was part of the royal gift presented by king Egfrid in AD 674. Another feature pointed is the obvious dependence on fresh- and salt-water fish, shells and crustaceans of all sorts as has been detected archaeologically. The writings of Bede hold many vignettes telling stories of the monks and their use of the waterways in the yearly round of wringing a life out of the surrounding landscape. However, the dependence on grazing opportunities for the original location seems to be somewhat superficially treated, even though this was perhaps just as important.

It is perhaps pertinent that in the description of the local open-air museum, Bede’s World, we are told that “The oxen … on site are Dexter bullocks, black or brown in colour and smaller than most modern cattle. They are about the same size and shape as the cattle of the Anglo-Saxon era and similar to the animals which would have worked daily on an Anglo-Saxon farm to pull ploughs or carts.”

However, it is highly unlikely the cattle, which belonged to the monastery was foremost prized for its strength to pull a plough. Obviously the prized skins used in the production of vellum and probably the dairy played a much more important role.

Valuable Heritage?

Ezra as pictured in the Codex Amatinus. Source: Wikipedia
What would Bede think? Ezra as pictured in the Codex Amatinus. Source: Wikipedia

In 2011 the Twin Monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow was put forward by the UK as candidate for listing on the World Heritage List. This application failed for a number of reasons, but a fair summary is that the site in general simply did not appeal to the delegates from ICOMOS, who came to inspect the site and reported their impression of the site to the World Heritage Committee. It cannot be overlooked that both churches are located in the midst of a neighbourhoods marked by derelict industrialisation and urbanisation. As is also evident from the latest indices of deprivation, that the area is marked by a very high percentage of deprived people living in abject poverty. Insofar as locals have any pride in the place, where they live, their history obviously hinges on past glories of steel, coal, sweat and tears and NOT the very sparse visual signs of a 1300-year old world long gone. This is perhaps, as the authors write in the end, a muliti-layered landscape. However, locating the ephemeral signs of Bede’s World in the surrounding countryside is obviously a job for learned specialists.

Perhaps it is significant in all this that the area, where cattle once roamed, today boasts of a “River Don Walk” reaching from St. Pauls at Jarrow and into the Primrose Local Nature Reserve. In our time and place has been reduced to a recreational play-ground for people working in public administrative functions with interests in nature as an uncultivated contrast to the busy life of meetings, reports, note-taking and in general paper-pushing.

It is probably significant that the new contractor, which according to the media, is going to run Bede’s World is Groundwork South Tyneside & Newcastle, which is all about changing places, changing lives – one green step at a time. According to their homepage, they “provide training and create jobs, reduce energy and waste, re-connect people with nature and transform whole neighbourhoods. Step by step we’ll go on changing places and changing lives until everywhere is vibrant and green, every community is strong enough to shape its own destiny and everyone can reach their potential.” According to the press release, the plan for “the site is to remain open for education, training and community. The council feel “this option would protect this valuable place of learning from closure in the long run.” As the director of Groundwork Andrew Watts has said: “To add value to the Bede’s World site, we are investigating new ways to create a wider visitor attraction and community offer, such as craft fairs, summer plays and celebration events.”

One wonders: will they grasp what Bede’s world was and the present museum is all about? Will they work to make the site more palatable to UNESCO? Will they continue to try and raise funds for a reproduction of the Codex Amiatinus? Or will they work to recreate a truly sustainable world filled with grazing cows and slow writing? One wonders…


[1] From: Charles the Bald and the Church in Town and Countryside.
By J. L. Nelson
In Studies in Church History. Vol 16 (1979) p. 103 – 118, at 105). See also:

[2] Effects of year-round grazing on the vegetation of nutrient-poor grass- and heathlands—Evidence from a large-scale survey
By Denise Rupprecht,  Kristin Gilhaus and Norbert Hölzel
Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. Available online 2 March. 2016.doi:10.1016/j.agee.2016.02.015


New Future for South Tyneside Heritage

Groundwork Statement Regarding Bede’s World Site


Bede’s World closes

Issue from 2012 of Medieval Histories about the World Heritage application for Wearmouth and Jarrow


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