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Beneath the Words and between the Lines

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.

Figure 1. Book of Dimma, TCD MS 59, f. 137 © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 1 Book of Dimma, TCD MS 59, f. 137 © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The distribution of the holes along the spine folds may also indicate the style of sewing employed, but is often complicated by the reuse of original sewing holes (called stations) during a subsequent re-sewing. Unfortunately the backfolds that hold all this evidence are often lost to us on these early manuscripts as a consequence of severe damage in this vulnerable area of the text block.  We are fortunate that the Book of Dimma retains this original feature and has yielded some interesting clues.

Assembly: How a book was assembled also followed certain criteria and understanding the variations can help to locate a manuscript geographically (fig. 2). The type of animal skin used for the writing surface, the number of bifolia in a quire, the orientation of the outside ‘hair’ side and inside ‘flesh’ side of the skins throughout the manuscript all followed, more or less particular conventions. Having said that, the ignoring of these conventions is almost identifiable as an Irish convention(!) and can be observed in all of our project manuscripts.

Figure 2 Book of Dimma, TCD MS 59, © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 2 Book of Dimma, TCD MS 59, © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

Damage: The use of these manuscripts over a prolonged time period will of course leave evidence in the form of physical damage, remembering they were not always treated with the high degree of care that is afforded to them today. This damage can manifest itself as holes in the skin, soiling and staining on the surface, abrasion to the ink, pigments or substrate and loss of material as a result of grazing from insects or rodents. Trapped debris in the backfolds of pages often reveal interesting matter, such as reed parings from the scribe’s pen, or wax droplets from a candle held over the manuscript while the text was being studied. The severe damage to the vellum of Codex Usserianus Primus (TCD MS 55) suggests its housing in an inhospitable environment over an extended period of time (see previous post). And the small holes with green halos visible on several folia of the Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59) indicate the encroachment of copper nails (fig. 3), possibly used to fix decorative metalwork to its binding, or more likely its book shrine (see previous post).

Figure 3 Book of Dimma, TCD MS 59, f.3 © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 3 Book of Dimma, TCD MS 59, f.3 © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The superior high resolution digital imaging of our project manuscripts allow close-up examination of many features in the finest detail. Next time you are studying an Early Irish manuscript on our Digital Resources and Imaging Services Site, look beyond the words and see if you can spot any clues!

John Gillis, Preservation and Conservation Department