Reading books in early Medieval Ireland

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).

Figure 1 The Book of Mulling, 2nd half of 8th century, TCD MS 60, f. 12v © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 1 The Book of Mulling, 2nd half of 8th century, TCD MS 60, f. 12v © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

Our manuscripts also show evidence of later veneration by having been kept in shrines (see previous post).  While the shrines of the Book of Mulling and Book of Dimma survived, a shrine for Codex Usserianus Primus can only be inferred.  It is the wear at the edges of the manuscript leaves that can be taken as signs of previous enshrinement (see previous post).

Likewise, portability, may be inferred by the size of our project manuscripts (see previous post).  The Book of Mulling and the Book of Dimma are comparatively compact and would have been easy for missionaries to carry (fig. 2).  It may also be appropriate to think of the books as the right size for handling.

Figure 2 Portrait of Evangelist holding book in the Book of Mulling, 2nd half of 8th century, f. 81v, TCD MS 60 © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 2 Portrait of Evangelist holding book in the Book of Mulling, 2nd half of 8th century, f. 81v, TCD MS 60 © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

A luxury volume like the Book of Kells, by virtue of its large size, elaborate decoration and commanding script form has been considered a book intended more for display than for reading (fig. 3).  By contrast, the pocket Gospels are small enough to hold and written in Insular minuscule script which is better read in close proximity to the manuscript (fig. 4).

Figure 3 The Book of Kells, early 9th century, TCD MS 58, f. 16v © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 3 The Book of Kells, early 9th century, TCD MS 58, f. 16v © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

Private reading may have been an intended use for the bijoux manuscripts.  Evidence for this practice in early medieval Ireland, though, is limited.  In the colophon for the Book of Durrow (TCD MS 57), for example, the scribe requests to be remembered in the prayers of ‘whoever holds in his hand this little book.’1 While this demonstrates that the smaller codices were meant to be held, whether reading them was done privately or as part of a group is another question.

On the topic of personal reading, there is an example found in a fourth-century text written by Augustine.  There he recounts the manner in which Ambrose of Milan used books.  ‘When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.’2  That Augustine took note of Ambrose reading silently may demonstrate what an unusual sight it was.

Figure 4 The Book of Dimma, 2nd half of 8th century, TCD MS 59, ff. 106-107 © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.
Figure 4 The Book of Dimma, 2nd half of 8th century, TCD MS 59, ff. 106-107 © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The practice of reading aloud is perhaps better attested.  More than one piece of Irish monastic legislation describes mealtimes as opportunities to hear sacred texts. One states, ‘It is the practice of the Céli Dé that while they are at dinner, one of them reads aloud the Gospels and the Rule and miracles of the saints, to the end that their minds be set on God, not on the meal.’3 It may be that a small, hand-held volume best-suited the mealtime performance of Gospel reading.

Footnotes

  1. For more on the Durrow colophon, see B. Meehan, The Book of Durrow: a medieval masterpiece at Trinity College Dublin (Dublin, 1996), pp. 26-28; D. Howlett, ‘The Colophon in the Book of Durrow,’ Hermathena, 168 (2000), 71-75.
  2. Augustine, Confessions, VI.3, R.S. Pine-Coffin, trans. (London, 1961), p. 114. Online text available here.
  3. Rule of the Céli Dé, XXXI, in W. Follett, Céli Dé in Ireland: Monastic Writing and Identity in the Early Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2006), p.180.