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).
As was detailed in the previous blog we carefully planned in advance the rebinding of MS 59 once the extensive additional repairs to the brittle and damaged vellum of the backfolds had been carried out. The opportunity was taken to photograph the backfolds prior to sewing as valuable clues to previous bindings visible at this stage would be again hidden once the manuscript was resewn and bound.
The traditional sewing frame was set up with the new linen cords attached and tensioned. The cords were fabricated by cabling unbleached linen thread to the required thickness. The sewing commenced with the new front vellum flyleaf followed by each of the six quires of the text block and finally the new back flyleaf. The linen thread was passed into the centre fold of each quire and out and around each of the double linen cord sewing supports. At the changeover point it passed into the next quire and the process was repeated travelling in the opposite direction. The sewing needle was modified by bending the shaft to allow an easier transition between the cords.
Fig. 2 Sewing MS 59 employing techniques practiced for centuries.
Once the manuscript was sewn it was removed from the frame and endbands were sewn at the head and tail with the same cabled linen cord as the endband. The endband thread was passed through a vellum ‘slotted spine’ which protects the backfolds of the quires and gives some resistance to the opening characteristics of the manuscript.
The next stage was the attachment of the new cushioned ‘blue jean’ binding boards. Channels were cut into their inner surface and the sewing supports and endband cores were laced on to give a very robust mechanical attachment between the text block and binding boards. Like the sewing, this work also emulates methods employed in early medieval book making.
The white alum tawed leather was prepared with the minimum of paring using the full thickness of the skin where possible. Starch paste was applied over the surface of the leather apart from the spine. The manuscript was covered, stretching the leather over the boards and turning in over the edges. The binding was then allowed to settle and dry under light weight. In order to attach the covering leather to the spine of the manuscript; a secondary endband combined with a primary stitch through the cover was sewn at the head and tail using two coloured threads.
In addition, a chemise made from linen, similar in form to the modern dust jacket, was sewn up and this will help keep the cover clean. A dropback box designed to apply slight pressure to the closed binding will keep the manuscript in optimum condition.
The finished structure opens with ease and with minimum strain on the thousand year-old vellum folia and the pigments and ink applied to their surface. The information recorded during the disbinding phase will help us better understand how this small ‘pocket gospel’ might have looked when it was first produced in central Ireland in the eighth century. The current binding will hopefully protect the precious contents into the next millennium.
As discussed in a previous post, the decision was taken to remove the modern Roger Powell binding from the Book of Dimma, in order to accommodate digital imaging without undue stress to the brittle vellum and to carry out essential additional repairs to damaged backfolds of several bifolia.
Repairs to the calfskin vellum were successfully executed by bridging splits and areas of loss in the folds using a collagen based material called cecum, the source of which is a pouch connected to the large intestine of mammals. Once processed and degreased this membrane makes an excellent strong and flexible support to the areas of damage without adding bulk. The cecum is profiled to the correct shape and adhered with 11% isinglass, a fish gelatin adhesive.
With all repairs complete the six quires and two new vellum flyleaves the manuscript is now ready for resewing. This is a carefully considered operation as the thickness of the vellum, the number of bifolia in each quire, and the dimensions of the manuscript all play a role in determining the weight of both the sewing supports and sewing thread chosen for the job. All the sewing supports have been created in the conservation department using an unbleached linen thread twisted together mechanically to produce the desired product. The position of the sewing supports on the spine will be dictated by the existing holes in the backfolds of the quires, and no new holes will be made in the vellum. The book will be resewn on five flexible double supports which will be laced into the new binding boards, making for a strong mechanical structure. In effect the method used to sew the manuscript will result in a single length of thread running back and forward in the centre of each quire from the front flyleaf to the back flyleaf. This method of sewing mirrors that of the early medieval craftsman at the time when the Book of Dimma was produced in the eighth century.
The binding boards, traditionally constructed from a hardwood such as oak or beech will in this case be made from a very dense fibreboard laminate made from 100% cotton. This very stable material ensures there is no risk of contamination while being in close contact with the manuscript.
A ‘slotted spine’ of thin vellum will be fitted without adhesive to the back of the sewn manuscript and endbands sewn at the head and tail, with the core of the endbands laced into the new binding boards.
The manuscript will be covered in alum tawed leather, which strictly speaking is not a true leather being prepared in an aqueous solution of aluminum and potassium sulphates. The end result is a white skin that is very durable, although difficult to work. The process is of great antiquity and many examples can be found still adorning medieval books in libraries around the world.
The binding process will not require the legendary forty days and forty nights it took to write the manuscript but will be carried out in individual stages until complete, the last stage of which will be a new protective box. This approach to the rebinding and choice of materials employed will allow the Book of Dimma to be studied and displayed safely for both scholars and public alike.
John Gillis, Preservation and Conservation Department
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).