The Early Irish Manuscripts Project is pleased to announce the launch of the digital version of Codex Usserianus Primus (TCD MS 55). This is the fourth and final early medieval Gospel Book to be digitized on this project. Usserianus Primus is special because it is one of the earliest examples of a Gospel Book, thought to have been made in Ireland, to have survived to the present day. While it has generally been dated to the seventh century, a controversial assessment has identified the manuscript as the product of the fifth century, an extraordinarily early date for a Christian book to have been made in Ireland.
Compared to the other Gospel Books in this project, Usserianus Primus is particularly fragile. While the manuscript has retained 182 folios with scriptural text, these have suffered damage rendering many of them fragments. In addition, the late nineteenth-century binding of the volume caused stress on the vellum resulting in distortion of the leaves (see previous post). Conservation has involved both dis-binding the volume and remounting the leaves in a painstaking process that has taken months to complete (see previous post).
The analysis of the Book of Mulling has now been completed using the two techniques we have available in the Conservation Department, Raman spectroscopy and XRF. As posted before (see previous posts here and here) these are complementary techniques that together can help with the identification of pigments.
The only surviving image in Codex Usserianus Primus is situated on folio 149v at the end of the Gospel of Luke (fig. 1). The image is a cross set inside three frames of red and black ornament. The cross is formed by an outline of black dots and filled with red color. At the terminals, additional sets of curved dotted lines model the shape of the cross and give it a more three-dimensional appearance.
While analysing the manuscripts we have examined the parchment to look for evidence of the working methods employed by the artists and scribes. As previously described the tell-tale signs are difficult to find due to the great age of the manuscripts and the many interventions they have had since leaving the scriptorium. However we have been lucky to discover some marks which indicate working practice.
It was usual for the scribe to prepare the parchment with guidelines to ensure the script was evenly spaced across the page within left and right margins and kept parallel to the top and bottom edges. This was typically established by leaving small incisions in the left and right margin to locate the lines equal distance apart, and a guide line scored into the skin with a sharp tool, such as a metal stylus, for the scribe to follow. The wedge shaped marks of a scribes’ knife can be found in the margin of folio 38v in The Garland of Howth which establish the even distance of the lines.
The Book of Dimma still exhibits the line markings scored into back of the page decorated with the symbol of St John. Typically, although not always, the pages with the portraits and symbols of the evangelists are kept blank, possibly because the artists relied on the semi-transparency of the sheet to aid with the planning and preparation of elaborate design elements, and also to create a break between the ending on one Gospel and the beginning of a new Gospel.
Lines were also scored or drawn on the vertical plane to establish the position for columns of text or border designs.
Compasses were used to create accurate circular design elements. On page 103 of Dimma we can see that the halo surrounding the head of the eagle and the lines that mark the position of the borders for page 104 are evidence of this practice.
In the same manuscript the Portrait of St Mark has been placed on the back of a page of script. The markings for the ends of lines no longer exist and if the lines were scored the impression is no longer visible, however the slight unevenness in the placement of the script suggests they may not have been applied. The artist/scribe has been more particular with the symmetry of the illumination, clearly marking the centre line for the placement of the figure.
In the Book of Mulling on folio 73r a faint line can be found that marks the position of the right column of text.
Christopher de Hamel, Medieval Craftsmen. Scribes and Illuminator The British Museum Press 1992
Susie Bioletti, Keeper of Preservation and Conservation
Described by Francoise Henry and Geneviève Marsh-Michele as ‘disconcerting’ the illumination of folio 1r of the Garland of Howth presents particular iconographical puzzles.
The folio contains the opening letters of Matt. 1.18 ‘χρι autem gener’ (see previous post).1
The lettering of the χρι is formed by fine interlace strands at the top left of the page, with the subsequent letters, in rectilinear display script, organised within along the right side of the page. The remainder of the page is dominated by four figures contained within a cross-shaped framework – a seated figure with a book, a seated figure with a sword, and two angels above. Most scholars have concurred that the figure on the bottom left is ‘probably Matthew’, but have expressed uncertainty about the figure on the right, while Isabel Henderson has suggested that the figures represent David and Abraham below, and Isiah and the Angel above, so acting to illustrate the missing text of the genealogy of Christ that opens Matthew’s gospel.2
The three pronged approach to the Early Irish Manuscript project has afforded us the opportunity to focus our attention on key modern disciplines in relation to manuscript study; conservation, research and digitization, all of which require close scrutiny of the material and content. In addition we have taken full advantage of the extended time period working with each of the manuscripts to search for clues of their past life and attempt to answer such questions as: where and when was it written; how was it used; and what did it look like when it was first bound (this is a familiar question for early medieval books, as less than a handful of insular manuscripts are still contained inside their original bindings)? There are quite often subtle and not so subtle clues to assist in answering these and other codicological questions if you know what you are looking for.
Sewing (fig. 1): How the quires of early medieval manuscripts were sewn together varied geographically and chronologically and even though the original sewing has likely long since been replaced, often more than once, evidence of its existence, such as holes in the backfolds of the quires or even ghost traces of impressions in the vellum can yield useful clues, such impressions might even inform us of the thickness and make-up of the thread. If you are really fortunate, original thread fragments may remain trapped under a later sewing.
The material aspects of our project manuscripts can give us insight into the writing and reading culture of early medieval Ireland. Size, script, organization, and wear all give indications of how they have been used and treated over the centuries.
Already we have seen that an indication of writing practice was illustrated in the quill that Matthew holds above an inkpot (fig. 1) in his portrait in the Book of Mulling (see previous post).
Parchment is a very durable material and even if it is quite sensitive to humidity (see previous post) it can withstand a lot of wear and tear. This characteristic has made it a favoured writing material for several thousand years. It replaced papyrus when the first multi-quire codices came into use because its flexibility and resilience allowed the centrefold of the several gatherings to be sewn together into text blocks without tearing1; and when paper became the most widespread writing and printing support, parchment still continued to play an important role in bookbinding as a covering material.
Nevertheless parchment can be damaged when documents are heavily used or misused. Tears, splitting and losses can result (figs. 1 and 2).
A moth ate words. To me it seemed
a remarkable fate, when I learned of the marvel,
that the worm had swallowed the speech of a man,
a thief in the night, a renowned saying
and its place itself. Though he swallowed the word
the thieving stranger was no whit the wiser.
This short verse was recorded in Old English in the tenth century Book of Exeter (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501).1 Riddles such as this likely served a host of functions in Anglo-Saxon culture, from educational to performative.2 In the case of our example, the riddle alludes to a problem inherent in the organic properties of medieval book-making materials (see previous post). Manuscript texts were vulnerable to wear or damage from natural processes and environmental factors, not to mention handling (see previous post).
The use of colour in Early Irish Manuscripts can give clues about the resources available during the creation of the manuscripts, the skills of the illuminators, and the traditions of the community.
As we continue with our pigment analysis we have now commenced X-Ray fluorescence analysis of the illuminations and elaborated initials in our four manuscripts. This technique like Raman spectroscopy (see previous post) can, with the right equipment, be used in-situ directly on a manuscript without risk of damage, and similarly has a long history of use for the identification of pigments.1