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.
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
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.
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).
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.
Last week, scholars and enthusiasts of Insular art and manuscripts gathered at the Trinity Long Room Hub for many stimulating papers and lively discussion at our conference – The Wandering Word: the travels of Insular manuscripts.
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.
We are pleased to announce that all four of the Gospel books that are part of the Early Irish Manuscripts Project will be on display for a short period on Friday, 6 May. Delegates of The Wandering Word conference will have the rare opportunity to see Codex Ussherianus Primus, the Book of Dimma, the Book of Mulling, and the Garland of Howth.
Colleen Thomas, Research Fellow