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).
One of the most intriguing features of the Book of Mulling is the well-known circular device drawn on its last page (TCD MS 60, f. 94v; fig. 1). Approximately contemporary with the rest of the manuscript, it consists of two concentric circles accompanied by crosses with captions and indications of directions in Irish including the four cardinal points.1
The eight crosses around the outer circle are arranged in four pairs, each combining the name of an evangelist with the name of a prophet: from the top, clockwise, ‘cross of Mark’, ‘cross of Jeremiah’, ‘Matthew’ and ‘Daniel’, ‘cross of John’ and ‘Ezechiel’, and ‘cross of Luke’ and ‘cross of [Isaiah]’ (see figs. 2a-b). The inscriptions accompanying the four crosses contained inside the circles are partly illegible but one can still read, from top to bottom, ‘cross of the Holy Spirit’, ‘… with gifts’, ‘…with angels from above’ and ‘Christ with his apostles’.2
Strong green copper staining particularly apparent on the first leaves of the volume indicates that the manuscript was kept for a long time in direct contact with its enclosing shrine (see previous post) without the protection of a binding. This explains why this last leaf (f. 94) is so discoloured and damaged: it got torn in various places and some parts of it were sewn back together (fig. 1). The poor state of the leaf makes the interpretation of the circular device even more arduous.
Hugh Lawlor, in 1895, saw it as a ‘map or plan of some sort’, pointing out the presence of cardinal points.3 He proposed, on the suggestion of Thomas Olden, that the diagram could actually represent the ecclesiastical site of St Mullins (Co. Carlow), with the crosses marking the location of monastic buildings or crosses, while the circles could ‘represent the Rath of St Molling [sic], within which were his ecclesiastical buildings; the concentric circles perhaps indicating a double or even triple rampart’.4 A few years later, he attempted to superimpose the diagram with a plan of the actual site, but he admitted that this was inconclusive: ‘It leaves Mr Olden’s suggestion nearly as it was before – a hypothesis highly plausible in itself, not indeed altogether free from difficulties […], but by no means improbable – yet still only a hypothesis: a theory which is not, perhaps cannot be, either proved or disproved.’5
In 1983, Larry Nees, while not rejecting entirely the plan hypothesis, added another layer of interpretation, arguing that it probably functioned closely with the preceding liturgical text (on the same page).6 He stressed that the pairing of evangelists and prophets had its roots in Carolingian art (see fig. 3) and that the scribe must have had at his disposal a Carolingian model when designing the circular device, which he considered as closer in function to a ‘colophon drawing’.
The hypothesis of a Carolingian model would mean that this part of the manuscript could date to as late as the mid-9th century.
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.
Codex Usserianus Primus (TCD MS 55) has reached us in a fragmentary state, as it now consists of the remains of approximately 182 folios: some are substantial, other ones parchment snippets. The pattern of damage, concentrated around the edges and affecting more severely the beginning and the end of the volume (figs. 1-3) indicates that the manuscript must have been kept unbound in a metal box for a very long time.
The practice of enclosing books in sealed book-shrines or cumdachs seems to have been common in Ireland in the Middle Ages: Continue reading Fragments→