Category Archives: Medieval Manuscripts

Margaret Stokes: a Scholar from Howth

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.

Fig. 1 Margaret Stokes. © Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.
Fig. 1 Margaret Stokes. © Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

Continue reading Margaret Stokes: a Scholar from Howth

Vellum and its Reaction to Environmental Changes

Parchment is one of the oldest writing supports in history, and was already in use some centuries before the birth of Christ. Parchment generally refers to mammal skin, treated with lime, de-haired, scraped and dried under tension.

Fig. 1 The parchment maker is scraping a hide stretched in a wooden frame. From J. Amman, The book of trades, 1568. [Membranarius. Der Bermenter. (The Parchment Maker) / Panoplia omnium illiberalium mechanicarum ... (Book of Trades)]. Source
Fig. 1 The parchment maker is scraping a hide stretched in a wooden frame. From J. Amman, The book of trades, 1568. [Membranarius. Der Bermenter. (The Parchment Maker) / Panoplia omnium illiberalium mechanicarum … (Book of Trades)]. Source

Continue reading Vellum and its Reaction to Environmental Changes

The Devil’s Caves…

The Book of Dimma (now TCD MS 59) and its shrine were purchased by Mr. Henry Monck Mason from a Dr. Thomas Harrison of Nenagh (Tipperary) in the early 19th century. They first came to public attention in 1816 when Monck Mason, librarian at the King’s Inns in Dublin, brought them to be exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries in London (then at Somerset House; fig. 1).

In 1824 William Darton (Junior) wrote a guide to London: A Description of London: Containing a Sketch of Its History and Present State, and of All the Most Celebrated Public Buildings, &c.
Fig. 1 W. Darton Jr, A Description of London: Containing a Sketch of Its History and Present State, and of All the Most Celebrated Public Buildings, &c. (London, 1824). Source.

On May 24th 1819, when Monck Mason presented the manuscript and its shrine at the Royal Irish Academy, he explained that, according to Dr Harrison, Continue reading The Devil’s Caves…

Sir William Betham and Early Irish Manuscripts

Sir William Betham (b. 1779, d. 1853), an English antiquarian who came to Ireland in 1805, played a significant part in the ‘discovery’ of a number of early Irish manuscripts. Indeed, he was an assiduous collector of manuscripts and owned the Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59); he also studied closely the Book of Armagh (TCD MS 52) and the Misach (National Museum of Ireland).

Portrait of William Betham, lithograph after Daniel Maclise, from the Athenaeum Portraits, no. 20, 1836. London, The British Museum, 1870,0514.1788.  Creative Commons. Source.

In 1821, he offered 100 guineas for the Book of Dimma and its box to its then-owner, Henry Monck-Mason, but only succeeded finally secured them in February 1825 for £150. The great collector Sir Thomas Phillipps1 was interested in purchasing them in 1827 for £250 on the condition the payment would be spread over three years. Betham rejected the offer and in 1830 auctioned them through Evans in London but they did not find a buyer and were bought in by his nephew Walker. Phair wrote that it was only in 1842 that Trinity College purchased them from him for £200,2 but it would appear from the Trinity College Board Register that the acquisition took place much earlier, in 1836, and for the lower sum of £150.3

Betham is also responsible for bringing the Cathach Psalter4 to light in the early 19th century. In his 1826 Irish Antiquarian Researches pt. I, he described how, braving ancient superstitions, ‘Regardless of the injunctions and threats of ignorance, which for more than a century had hermetically sealed it up,[…] the box [i.e. the Cathach shrine] was opened and examined in the presence of Sir Capel Molyneux, Mr. O’Donell, and myself, without any extraordinary, or supernatural occurrence, except, indeed, a heavy shower of hail which a strong northwest wind drove against the windows of my study’.5

In the same year, he brought the Cathach, the Book of Dimma and the Misach to England and was very proud to report to a friend on July 14th: ‘I returned this morning. I exhibited my precious relics in London to many of the learned who have unanimously surrendered the palm of honourable antiquity to Ireland.’6

Fig. 2 Saint Matthew, from the Book of Dimma. From Sir William Betham, Irish Antiquarian Researches pt. 1 (Dublin, 1826), ill. facing p. 50. Out of Copyright.

In his capacity as Ulster King of Arms from 1820, he compiled abstracts of numerous official documents, including wills, marriage licenses, etc. which today prove especially valuable in cases when the originals have been lost. 7 He was esteemed for his early publications, such as his Irish Antiquarian Researches in 1826 and 1827. However, his writings became increasingly speculative and fanciful, in particular his theories attempting to connect the Irish language and culture with the Orient, ultimately discrediting him in the eyes of serious scholars in later years.

His large collection of Irish-language manuscripts was bought by the Royal Irish Academy in 1850, while the rest of his collection was auctioned at Sotheby’s at his death.8

Catherine Yvard, Research Fellow

Conservation on the Book of Mulling

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.

Fig. 1 Example of extensive rebuilding of the back margin of f. 2r carried out as part of the 1977 conservation campaign in Trinity College Dublin © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

After removal of this unsuitable structure, the Conservation Department carried out rebinding following extensive repairs to the leaves of the manuscript. Continue reading Conservation on the Book of Mulling

Usseriani sed non Usseriani

Two of the manuscripts that form the subjects of our study are connected to the name of Ussher. TCD MS 55 is commonly called Codex Usserianus Primus, while TCD MS 56, also known as the Garland of Howth, has been designated as Codex Usserianus Secundus. The adjective ‘Usserianus’ therefore associates these two Gospel Books with the eminent scholar and ecclesiastical politician  James Ussher  (b. 1581, d. 1656).

James Ussher, by Cornelius Johnson, 1641 © Jesus College, University of Oxford; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. Source.

Ussher played a key role in the assembly of the collection of the Library of Trinity College Dublin.  Belonging to the first generation of students educated at the recently-founded College, which he entered in 1594, aged 13, he went on to become one of its first scholars and remained there as a member of staff until he was elevated to the bishopric of Meath in 1621. Four years later, he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh.

In the early 17th century he was responsible, together with Luke Challoner, for buying books to build the Trinity College holdings. They went on ‘shopping trips’ to England and liaised with numerous eminent scholars and  collectors of the time, such as Sir Robert Cotton, whose library would later be one of the foundation collections of the British Museum, now held at the British Library.  Ussher himself also assembled a great library, estimated at c. 10,000 volumes,1 most of which made their way into the collections of Trinity College Dublin.

The  association of the two early manuscript Gospel Books (TCD MSS 55 and 56) with the famous  scholar would have been a prestigious provenance,  especially since their numbering, as Primus and Secundus, would imply that they were among the first volumes received from his library. This provenance, however, cannot be verified and seems rooted in tradition rather than fact. According to William O’Sullivan, former Keeper of Manuscripts at the Library,  Thomas Kingsmill Abbott gave them this name because both manuscripts had been placed with Ussher’s manuscripts.2

We will come back to the question of the manuscripts’  actual provenance in future posts.

For more on James Ussher, see HERE.

Catherine Yvard, Research Fellow



Behind the Lens

The Garland of Howth (TCD MS 56) has not yet received all the attention it deserves, partly owing to the fact that hardly any images exist of it.  This is about to change dramatically, as we recently began full digitisation of this manuscript.

Fig. 1 The Garland of Howth, 8th-9th century, TCD MS 56, f. 10r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

For this project we are utilising a piece of book cradle technology (Grazer KT5242) which simultaneously cradles the binding, isolates and applies a gentle vacuum suction to the fore edge of the open page (fig. 2). Photographing a manuscript is a methodical process Continue reading Behind the Lens

Pocket Books

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’.

Fig. 1. The Book of Dimma, late 8th century (TCD MS 59, p. 107) © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

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.

The main characteristics of pocket Gospels are as follows: Continue reading Pocket Books


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

The Book of Dimma

The Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59) is a small volume that contains the four Gospels as well as a few later additions, and was probably made in the late 8th century at Roscrea, a monastery founded in the 7th century .

Just as the Book of Mulling was not  written by Mulling (see previous post), the Book of Dimma was not written by Dimma.

The Book of Dimma, late 8th century (TCD, MS 59, p. 104) © The Library of Trinity College Dublin.
The Book of Dimma, late 8th century, TCD MS 59, p. 104 © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The name Dimma appears on several pages at the end of three Gospels (pp. 29, 52 and 148), but in each case it was written  over an erasure. The reason for the alteration would have been to enhance the holy nature of the book by connecting it to an episode from the life of Saint Crónán (d. 619), the founder of the Roscrea monastery. According to the legend, Crónán asked a scribe called Dimma to produce a copy of the Gospels for him, demanding it to be ready by the next day. Dimma succeeded in this impossible task, as the sun miraculously did not set for the next forty days.

Whoever wrote the name of Dimma over that of the original scribe wished to transform this manuscript into the famous Gospels; the alteration was probably made at Roscrea in the late 10th or 11th century. Luckily, one colophon was left intact, on p. 103, revealing the original name of Dianchride, a name that occurs in the genealogy of the Uí Chorcrain, who had a branch based in the northern part of Tipperary.

Catherine Yvard, Research Fellow