Gaye Mack’s Blog


Posted on by Gaye Mack in Ancient Legends of Great Britain, Gaye's England, Scotland & Wales, Writer's Work 2 Comments

The latter part of England’s twelfth century saw the increasing emergence of bibles, painstakingly created in the wealthiest of religious houses and cathedrals, certainly keeping everyone busy in the Scriptorium.  Among those that have survived time not to mention the sixteenth century Reformation, there is none more spectacular in its production and preservation than the four volumes of what is known as The Winchester Bible.   The largest of any known twelfth century bibles, Winchester’s masterpiece measures approximately 23 x 15 ¾ inches and contains 468 folios of incredibly smooth-appearing parchment pages.  To the untrained eye, it is so beautifully preserved that it appears to have been created ‘yesterday’ not 900 years ago, making the history of its production even more amazing.

 Recalling one of my previous posts (, ‘illuminating’ the practice of making marginal editorial remarks by restless and bone weary monks beavering away in the Scriptorium, it’s difficult to get one’s mind wrapped around the fact that the complete text of this bible was with a few exceptions, written by a single scribe!   However, whomever this scribe was, he actually was part of what we might term today, a ‘production team’, for his carefully written words needed the prepared parchment,  prepared ink, writing tools, colorful illumination and applied gold…techniques each requiring the specialized skills of various artisans.

It’s estimated that due to the size of the pages, an entire calf skin would have been needed to produce four pages, equaling roughly 250 calves at the end of the day.  Next, the preparation process of the parchment was extensive.  Steps included scraping, lime treatment, stretching, drying and washing before the finished product could be purchased from professional parchment makers.  Keeping in mind that parchment was also in demand for business purposes such as contracts, government charters and books produced by other monasteries and nunneries in Winchester, competitive commercial pricing most likely abounded resulting in extreme expense to the buyer.

Once the parchment was prepared, Jan Bartholomew, one of the Cathedral’s curators with whom I met, explained the process used to ensure that each page presented an identical size and shape of text, the ‘hallmark’ of a well-produced piece.  While certainly another laborious process, the finished product forms a consistent pattern of 54 lines set in two columns within precise margins.   She then explained that the illuminators, the artisans who produced the Rubicons and gold leaf, numbered only about six of traveling artists.  Their skills being in great demand throughout Europe, it’s easy to envision them moving from city to city, country to country.  Barcelona today, Winchester tomorrow…not much has changed in 900 years.

 Although the text itself was finished, it’s believed that the production of the artistry, the illuminations, added an additional span of possibly 15 years or more and at that, this was never finished.   Some 900 years later, there remains no conclusive evidence as to whom actually commissioned the Winchester Bible, although it’s highly thought that it might have been Henry of Blois who was Winchester’s Bishop in 1160 corresponding to the dating of the Bible’s layout and script.  Henry was quite the world traveler for his day and a builder.  After he left the great monastery of Cluny in France where he was brought up, Henry I of England placed him as Abbot of Glastonbury where he undertook a massive building program of this phenomenal abbey until his death in 1171.

 As for certainty that he was in fact, the patron behind the production of the Winchester Bible, like many things from the twelfth century, we’ll just never know.

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Possible tomb of  Henry  of Blois in Winchester Cathedral

Above photography©Gaye F. Mack, Inc.

Pages from the Winchester Bible

The Winchester Bible©1993Claire Donovan


Posted on by Gaye Mack in Ancient Legends of Great Britain, Gaye's England, Scotland & Wales, Writer's Work Leave a comment

On my recent trip to the UK as noted in my last post, I spent the better part of a day in Winchester Cathedral.  Although I’ve visited this magnificent structure many times in the past, I’ve learned there’s always something new for me to discover and this visit was no exception.

 Back in Chicago in preparation for writing my next book, A Watch of Nightingales,’ I’d been grappling with making sense of historical reporting versus practicality surrounding the tomb of Henry II’s ‘fair Rosamund’ at Godstow Nunnery.  From past research and experience I was aware of and have seen the many elaborate tombs created for persons of prominence as the United Kingdom’s churches and family chapels are full of them.  For Arthurian enthusiasts, there even exists a detailed description of the massive black marble tomb created for the April 1279 reburial ceremony of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury during the state visit by King Edward I and Eleanor of Castile.

 However, in researching the ‘facts’ surrounding Rosamund’s placement in Godstow’s church and subsequent demand to have her remains moved by Bishop Hugh of Lincoln some 11 years later after her death, something wasn’t making any sense…until I discovered the mortuary chests at Winchester.   My timing couldn’t have been more perfect due to the preparations for an extensive research project underway for the purpose of matching preserved bones to the early monarchs and bishops of the kingdom of Wessex, i.e, early Winchester. 

 To backtrack briefly here, one of the curators with whom I met, explained that when significant people died, their bodies were often left ‘open’ to natural decomposition.  Once the process finished and the bones were the only remains, they were cleaned and then placed in ‘small mortuary chests’.  Considering the non-existence of mortuary science as we know it today, such an approach was a very efficient means of preserving and honoring those who had passed. As to Winchester, this was the custom until Oliver Cromwell and his troops arrived.  As we know from history, Cromwell and his men were ruthless when it came to destroying England’s history.  Priceless artifacts were smashed, destroyed and scattered everywhere…the sacred bones of Wessex’s early leaders were no exception.  In an effort to save what could be saved, the bones were gathered up and basically ‘dumped’ into various chests with frankly, no idea who belonged to what.

 The goal of the current research project is to identify which bones belonged to which monarch and bishop; a formidable task but with the technology available today, perhaps not impossible.  In any case this brings me back to the subject of mortuary chests; discovering their existence and how they were used solves my ‘technical’ dilemma regarding the conflict between Rosamund’s original tomb placement and the outrage of Lincoln’s very pious Hugh of Avalon.  Stay tuned.


Photography©Gaye f. Mack, inc.


Posted on by Gaye Mack in Ancient Legends of Great Britain, Gaye's England, Scotland & Wales, Writer's Work 6 Comments

As I write this post, I’m currently ensconced in one of my favorite English cities, Oxford, where tomorrow I’ll be tramping around what remains of Godstow Nunnery just outside of the city and the setting for book #3 in my ‘Flight Through Time’ historical mystery series.  While I’m looking forward to this, two days ago I had an extraordinary experience at Winchester Cathedral.

 Through connections to the Cathedral, an old friend of mine was able to arrange an opportunity for me to spend some time with one of the Cathedral’s curators who allowed me to privately view the 12th century ‘Sparsholt Chalice and Paten’, on loan to the Cathedral, but not on display.  

We tend to fantasize that such ecclesiastical trappings were always very ornate, made from the most valuable of metals such gold or silver, decorated with priceless gems.  The reality is that in fact, often they were not. 

During a Victorian renovation of Sparsholt’s church which is located about three miles from Winchester and believed to be a site of worship since Saxon times, the chalk grave of a 12th century priest was discovered near the pulpit;  buried with him were a ceremonial pewter chalice and paten.

What surprised me the most was not only its lack of ornamentation and utter simplicity, but the size!  A visual guess puts the chalice at roughly four inches tall with the bowl perhaps six inches in diameter.  The paten is perhaps four inches in diameter.  With the exception of the medieval Christian cross embossed in the center of the paten, both pieces are totally devoid of decoration and although Pewter was considered a valuable metal, it certainly wasn’t in the category of gold and silver.  During a recent conservation restoration, the decision was made not to attempt to repair the crack in the bowl.  Nevertheless, to contemplate something so old in front of you, wondering who might have used it 900 years ago, staggers the mind.

We also forget that the average height of the medieval body was much shorter than modern physical characteristics, so one wonders; even though the pieces were ceremonial, were they proportionally fashioned?

Unfortunately, but understandably, I wasn’t allowed to hold them, but nevertheless it was an extraordinary experience, knowing that characters in my books have been taking the sacraments from items such as these.



Photography©Gaye F. Mack, Inc.