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).
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
To view the full conference programme, please visit our website. Booking is essential. Online booking is available via our registration page.