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
One of the most spectacular displays of ornamented text in early Irish manuscripts is the Chi-Rho page in the Book of Kells (fig. 1). These elaborately decorated initials are found not only in luxury volumes such as the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels (fig. 2a), the Codex Aureus (fig. 2b) and the Lichfield Gospels (fig. 2c), but also in Irish pocket Gospels like our Book of Mulling (see previous post) and Book of Dimma (see previous post).
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
As discussed in a previous post , canon tables were intended to be a functional component of a medieval Gospel manuscript.1 That is perhaps one reason for adding canon tables to an existing Gospel text, such as in the Book of Mulling. While the Mulling Gospels were likely copied in the eighth century, the canon tables are thought to have been inserted in a later period. Beyond their usefulness as a concordance, canon tables also demonstrated the harmony of the Evangelists’ texts.2 In some cases, the agreement was expressed with the decoration framing the tables.
The design of canon tables could vary from manuscript to manuscript. They could be quite plain, as seen in the Book of Mulling (fig. 1). The Mulling canons are simply columns of numbers separated by red vertical lines. Corresponding passages are listed in the same row and so the table resembles a modern spreadsheet.
Canon tables form part of the prefatory material of many Gospel books, including our project manuscript, the Book of Mulling (see previous post). They function as an index of Gospel passages. The system was developed by Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century as a means to cross-reference sections recorded by more than one evangelist. Parallels between Gospel versions were thought to reflect the harmony of the texts. The canon table system gave visual affirmation of the agreement among the evangelists’ accounts. 1
To create the canons, all Gospel passages were cataloged on one of ten tables (fig. 1). Canon 1 (I) lists the passages found in all four of the Gospels. Subsequent tables 2-4 (II-IV) list the texts common to three Gospels. Canon II, for example gives parallel passages for Matthew, Mark and Luke. Tables 5-9 (V-IX) show episodes found in two Gospels. The tenth and final canon identifies the remaining texts which were uniquely found in only one account.
Margaret McNair Stokes (1832-1900) claims the attention of the Early Irish Manuscripts Project for the drawings she made of the paintings in the Garland of Howth (see previous post ). These, along with many other illustrations that she produced of Irish painting and sculpture from the early Middle Ages provided scholars with detailed images of Irish material to which they may otherwise have had little or no access. While she is increasingly recognized for her contributions to the study of medieval Irish manuscripts and monuments, her name is far less well-known than it deserves to be.
The event was off to an exciting start with papers from the Trinity College Dublin conservation team. Susie Bioletti, Allyson Smith (see previous post) and Marco Di Bella (see previous post) presented the work they have been doing on our project manuscripts. The application of scientific analysis to manuscripts continued in Bill Enders’ paper where he demonstrated the value of imaging manuscripts over time. Bernard Meehan discussed the bindings of the Book of Mulling (see previous post), and how recent technologies have brought greater clarity to the more damaged pages of the manuscript.
The small format ‘pocket gospel’ book of Dimma (TCD MS 59) was the penultimate manuscript scheduled to be imaged as part of the Early Irish Manuscript Project. The Book of Dimma, like the two manuscripts already imaged; the Garland of Howth (TCD MS 56) and the Book of Mulling (TCD MS 60) was contained in a modern conservation binding. In the case of Dimma the binding was worked by Roger Powell in 1957.
In the past weeks the Garland of Howth (MS 56) has returned to centre stage, this time for careful examination with Raman lasers. This is one of two non-invasive analytic techniques we have available in the conservation department; we will report on the second, x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF), in the coming weeks.
We are using this type of analysis because it can be safely used in-situ to determine which pigments have been used in making the Garland of Howth. The procedure, called micro-Raman spectroscopy, uses lasers of specific wavelengths to excite the molecular bonds in the material. The energy returned to the detectors provides a fingerprint of the constituents under the beam.