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: eight such Irish reliquaries dating from the early 9th century to 1536 have survived to this day, though most have been subjected to later refurbishments.1 The Library of Trinity College Dublin, in addition to being the home of the Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59), also preserves the box in which it once was kept (TCD, fig. 4). It is entirely made of metal, but these shrines could also have a wooden core clad in metal sheets (silver, copper alloy, etc).
This treatment was reserved for manuscripts believed to have belonged to a revered cleric or a saint, Saint Crónán in the case of the Book of Dimma, (see earlier post): the book, through its association with a holy figure, became a relic and lost its original function, as the box was generally not designed to be opened.
A hole surrounded by a green halo appears on certain leaves at the beginning and at the end of Usserianus Primus, certainly the trace of a copper-alloy nail used in the structure of the shrine: it is for instance visible on folio 169, at the foot of the letter R (fig. 5).
The fact that this manuscript was once enclosed in such a shrine indicates that it was associated with a venerated holy figure. Unfortunately, we now have no way of knowing who this was.
- The 1536 Shrine of St Caillin of Fenagh was untouched until 2009 when it was badly damaged in the Christmas Day fire at St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford. It is currently undergoing conservation. Some scholars are of the opinion that it may have been a container for saints’ relics rather than a book shrine. It nevertheless has all the characteristics of the latter.