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 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.
When the Book of Mulling (TCD MS 60) was received in the Conservation Department of Trinity College back in 1977, it was sporting a binding that had been carried out by the British Museum in the late 19th century. The style of binding was similar to that employed for Codex Usserianus Primus (TCD MS 55) (see previous post) and involved the now individual vellum folios being glued around their edges and set into paper panels, before being gathered together and sewn into a leather binding.
From the late 7th to the early 12th century, Gospel Books were, with Psalters, the most common type of illuminated manuscript produced in Irish foundations in Ireland and across Europe. The surviving copies broadly fall into two categories: lavish illuminated Gospel Books, such as the Book of Kells (TCD MS 58), the Lindisfarne Gospels (London, BL, Cott. MS Nero D.IV) or the Lichfield Gospels (Lichfield, Cathedral Library, MS 1), and more modest volumes, of small proportions and with fewer illustrations, commonly known as ‘pocket Gospel Books’.
The Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59; fig. 1) and the Book of Mulling (TCD MS 60) belong to the latter group. Codex Usserianus Primus and the Garland of Howth, however, fall outside of this typology, belonging neither to one category nor the other, being too large to be called ‘pocket’ books,1 and too scarcely illuminated to constitute luxury volumes.