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St Cuthbert: The Comb and Portable Altar

The last of the treasures from St. Cuthbert's grave

Alas, we are coming to the final instalment of my series on the Treasures of St. Cuthbert, which detail the objects found within the coffin of Northumbria’s famous saint.

In some ways I believe these last two are the best of the objects discovered, but they are by no means the most extravagant. In fact, they are extremely humble and commonplace objects: St. Cuthbert’s comb and portable altar.

The Portable Altar

The mission of the Celtic monks was one of evangelism. Aidan, the first bishop of LIndisfarne, came from the great monastery at Iona in Ireland at the behest of the newly crowned King Oswald of Bernicia. Oswald’s intent was to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, the same faith he had adopted as an exile from Bernicia in the the Christian kingdom of Dál Riata as a child.

The monasteries were seen as training grounds for those who would join the church. To that end they were taught how to read, so they could teach both the Holy Scripture but also to learn and teach the other great works of literature and learning from the Ancient World such as philosophy, science, and mathematics.

But although many of the nobility of the time sent their children to the monastery schools to learn these subjects and perhaps to become monks or nuns themselves, the monks did not rely on their converts coming to them. They were the peregrini, the wanderers, sent on mission by Christ Himself. They saw their travels, both to their new monastic homes and throughout the countryside around the monasteries, as part of their monastic vows of obedience and sacrifice. Christ commanded them to share the Gospel (the Good News of the Kingdom of God) and so they set out from their monasteries to do just that.

The portable altar that they would carry with them was essential to these evangelistic journeys. It was a portable consecrated space that the monk in his role as priest would use to celebrate the Mass when they were travelling. Cuthbert no doubt used this portable altar many times on his own journeys throughout Northumbria in his work as priest and bishop of Lindisfarne.

The silver casing shows the skill of the 7th-century silversmith. Image from Durham Cathedral.

The altar is tiny, basically 12 cm or 5″ square, and now has a sliver casing on it, which would not have been present in Cuthbert’s day. It was added in the 7th-century after his death, by the monks at Lindisfarne who would travel with it as a portable relic to advertise St. Cuthbert and Christianity and promote Lindisfarne (and later, Durham), where Cuthbert’s body lay.

Crosses and the inscription “For St. Peter” are carved on the altar. Image from Durham Cathedral.









The Comb

And at last we come to the final, and most humble item of all. A comb, made out of ivory, with thick teeth on one side and thin on the other. Certainly used by Cuthbert himself. However, this doesn’t speak to his vanity. It, too, was at least in part a liturgical object. Those serving the Mass would not only dress themselves in beautiful vestments, but they also would neaten their own appearance, including combing the hair. Thus they would make themselves ready to be in the presence of the King of Kings. Christ Himself was present in the bread and in the wine, and proper respect would be shown.

The comb is fairly large, 16 cm long by 12 cm wide (approx. 5.5″ x 4.25″) It is made of elephant ivory, and is similar to other combs from Coptic Egypt from the Early Middle Ages. You might wonder how a monk from the backwaters of England got his hands on such an object. But hopefully, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you won’t wonder too long. The Anglo-Saxons and Celts of the time had access to a vast global trading network, and goods came and went between this small North Atlantic island and the rest of the world on a regular basis. It’s not surprising at all that Cuthbert, the bishop of one of Northumbria’s most important centers of learning and devotion, should have such a thing.

The comb itself is first mentioned in the hagiography (saint’s biography) of St. Cuthbert written in the twelfth century by Reginald of Durham. He reports that a tenth-century monk named Elfred was assigned to tidy up Cuthbert’s appearance when visiting dignitaries would come on pilgrimage and the coffin would be opened to show them Cuthbert’s uncorrupted body. Elfred would use the comb to tidy his hair and would also cut his fingernails. Reginald states that at times Elfred would take some of the saint’s hair (caught in the comb, one presumes) and expose it to fire, where it would glisten like gold. Once out of the fire it would revert to its former state. Hmm…well, you can see the appeal to those who travelled far to see the marvellous St. Cuthbert!

Image from Durham Cathedral . The hole in the centre is for the thumb.

The End of the Treasures

Golden hair aside, these last two are my favourite because neither of them would have been particularly flashy or expensive in St. Cuthbert’s day. Just simple, everyday objects that he used on a regular basis in his work as a priest and bishop at Lindisfarne. Humble and practical, like Cuthbert himself. I’m sure he would have been entirely astonished if he had known that we are treasuring these objects some 1,500 years after his death.

More posts in this series: 

St. Cuthbert: The Gospel Book

St. Cuthbert: The Coffin

St. Cuthbert’s Grave: The Cross

St. Cuthbert’s Grave: The Stole and Maniple

Can’t get enough of 7th-century England? Check out my historical fantasy novel set in Northumbria in AD 642, featuring a young man whose shadowed destiny leads him to the past…where he could change our world forever.