A few weeks ago I heard this story on NPR about the St. Cuthbert Gospel, Europe’s oldest intact book, which the British Library recently paid $14 million to acquire.
The book is thought to date from seventh-century England and is in astonishingly good condition. This may be due to the fact that for four of its many centuries the book was not in anyone’s hands, but rather tucked away inside the coffin of Saint Cuthbert. From Wikipedia:
The book takes its name from Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, North East England, in whose tomb it was placed, probably a few years after his death in 687. Although it was long regarded as Cuthbert’s personal copy of the Gospel, to which there are early references, and so a relic of the saint, the book is now thought to date from shortly after Cuthbert’s death. It was probably a gift from Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey, where it was written, intended to be placed in St Cuthbert’s coffin when his remains were placed behind the altar at Lindisfarne in 698. It presumably remained in the coffin through its long travels after 875, forced by Viking invasions, ending at Durham Cathedral. The book was found inside the coffin and removed in 1104 when the burial was once again moved within the cathedral. It was kept there with other relics, and important visitors were able to wear the book in a leather bag around their necks.
Image: Miniature from Bede’s Prose Life of St Cuthbert (late 12th century), depicting the discovery of St. Cuthbert’s incorrupt corpse, via Wikipedia.