Set of writing-tablets

Tools of the Trade – Writing in Early Medieval Ireland

Now that the recent find of more than 400 waxed writing tablets from Roman London has been published,1  it is an appropriate time to turn our attention to the evidence of writing culture in early  Medieval Ireland.

Writing was an important part of monastic life.  The biographies of many holy figures include direct or incidental reference to writing and copying sacred texts.  Adomnán of Iona recorded several episodes when the monastery’s founder, Columba, performed scribal tasks, including copying the famous Cathach Psalter.  Increased prestige and sanctity was conferred on our project manuscript, the Book of Dimma, through a spurious claim that the scribe of Saint Crónán copied the text at the request of the saint (see previous post).  Similarly, the colophon in the Book of Mulling  (see previous post) names the scribe of that text as Mulling who came to be identified as St. Molling (see previous post).  It was meaningful for a holy text to have been inscribed by a saint; equally, the act itself of copying scripture acquired devotional qualities.

Learning to write was a skill most likely taught at a monastic scriptorium.  From Irish accounts of the lives of saints, we know that new scribes were trained to write by copying the handwriting of their teachers.  The beginning text from which most novice writers learned to form letters was that object of daily devotion, the   Psalter.2

Fig. 1 Wax surface on Springmount Bog Tablet, National Museum of Ireland (No. S.A. 1914: 2). Source.
Figure 1 Wax surface on Springmount Bog Tablet, National Museum of Ireland (No. S.A. 1914: 2). Source.

Parchment like that found in our project manuscripts was a luxury and too valuable to use for writing practice.  Instead waxed tablets served as a copy book for scribes in training.  The Springmount Bog Tablets (figs. 1-2), discovered in County Antrim in 1914 and now in the National Museum of Ireland, offer us a glimpse of this stage of scribal education.3  Wooden supports held smooth wax surfaces which could be inscribed easily.  Texts could be erased by simply smoothing the wax again.

Figure 2 Springmount Bog Tablet, National Museum of Ireland (No. S.A. 1914: 2). Source. .
Figure 2 Springmount Bog Tablet, National Museum of Ireland (No. S.A. 1914: 2). Source.
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In the case of the example from the Springmount bog, six tablets have been preserved in a group, held together by a leather thong.  The text inscribed in the wax has been identified as that of Psalms 30 and 31.  There is general agreement that the inscription was made by an instructor so that his pupil could copy it.

Figure 3 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 3 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.

The tool used for inscribing text on wax was likely a metal stylus.  Repeated exercises with these pointed instruments on wax surfaces would be the precursor to writing with pen and ink.  Typically, pens were made from the quills of birds.  Before they could be used, the quill had to be cured to allow the shaft of the feather to dry out and become hollow.4

Figure 4 Pen and Ink pot detail, 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 4 Pen and Ink pot detail, Book of Mulling, 2nd half of 8th century, TCD MS 60, f. 12v © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

So significant were these tools that a short vignette in the biography of St. Molaisse tells of a time when a bird flying overhead dropped one of his feathers so that the holy man could have a pen.5  An image of a quill pen can be seen in the portrait of Matthew in the Book of Mulling (fig. 3).  The Evangelist holds the pen in his right hand, poised above an ink pot (fig. 4).

Footnotes

  1. For more on the Roman tablets, see R.S.O. Tomlin, Roman London’s First Voices: Writing Tablets from the Bloomberg Excavations, 2010-2014, Museum of London Archaeology Series, 72 (2016).
  2. M. McNamara and M. Sheehy, ‘Psalter Text and Psalter Study in the Early Irish Church (AD 600-1200), Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 73 (1973), 201-298.
  3. E.C.R. Armstrong and R.A.S. Macalister, ‘Wooden Book with Leaves Indented and Waxed found near Springmount Bog, Co. Antrim,’ The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 2 (1960), 160-66.
  4. T. O’Neill, ‘Book-Making in Early Christian Ireland,’ Archaeology Ireland, 3 (1989), 96-100.
  5. C. Plummer, Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae (Dublin, 1997), p. cxiv.