I am not one for the scientific explanation of miracles. Other do. Some of their suggestions I find more plausible (temporary blindness and medieval diet), others less (algae, volcanic eruption and the Ten Plagues). It is simply not my way.
That’s why, when recently asked at a paper in Dunfermline whether I thought St Margaret’s Gospel Book (click HERE for images, which I am reluctant to imbed for copyright reasons) had been the object of a miracle, I had to take a moment to think. The medieval account tells that while was the book was transported to facilitate an oath, it fell into a river. The book then laid open on the riverbed, the water playing with its leaves. It was later recovered and miraculously survived intact.
A few months ago I much enjoyed examining the manuscript in person at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. After looking at a few medieval Gospel Books, I was surprised to see how clean this one was. Not only showing no marks of submersion, but also lacking the staining typical of continuous use in oath-rituals (as in the York Gospels). In my eyes three options can explain the state of the book:
1. This is a miracle. Not an option I can take as an historian. But one I did raise at the paper, saying that if the book had emerged in this pristine condition after being fully submerged, this is probably a mircale.
2. The book was thoroughly cleaned during its time in Oxford. This was suggested to me by Richard Gameson (whose article ‘The Gospels of Margaret of Scotland and the Literacy of an Early Medieval Queen’, in Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence, ed. Lesley Smith and Jane H. M. Taylor [London, 1996], pp. 149-71, is a treat), and can explain the nineteenth-century evidence for the cockling of leaves, no longer evident today.
3. However, one part of the story kept bothering me. The leaves turning in the water. Why did the narrator choose to expand upon this peculiar feature? Why was it important to mention that the water reached individual leaves. One explanation is that they might have not. That is – to think of a Scottish Cumdach. These Irish book-shrines (see HERE) are ornate boxes, in which Gospel Books and Missals were often kept. Much like reliquaries, they became a container for sacred objects; and like reliquaries, they limited access to the book itself.
Could it be that the Irish influence on Scotland extended to this custom as well? That St Margaret’s Gospel Book was kept in a shrine, hence surviving its water ordeal and preventing further signs of use? There is no indication for this in our sources. The lack of sources from medieval Scotland, primarily of sacrists records, does not assist in validating this hypothesis. However (having just finished a chapter on sacred books and their bindings in medieval England), our modern reckoning of book binding does not apply to many medieval Gospel Books. Numerous examples from across Europe tell of bindings of gold and precious stones. We even know that Malcolm, Margaret’s husband, adorned her sacred books with gold and jewels as a sign of his love.
There is much to do before any authoritative claim could be made. But I suspect there’s more than meet the eye in this story.