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:

  • as their name indicates, they are small in size: Dimma and Mulling, for instance,  are respectively 17.5 by 14.2 cm and 16.5 by 12 cm. The Book of Kells, by comparison, is double the size with folios measuring c. 33 by 25.5 cm.
  • they tend not to contain any of the non-Scriptural textual content common in Gospel Books, such as for instance prologues or Canon Tables. When they do, it often proves to be material added later, as in the case of the Book of Mulling where prefatory matter has been added at the beginning (ff. 1r-11r).
  • they feature little illustration, typically just Evangelist portraits and ornate script at the beginning of each section and a few decorated initials (fig. 1).
  • they are usually, though not invariably, written in a compact Insular minuscule (fig. 1) rather than the more imposing majuscule script  used in grander copies (fig. 2).
Fig. 2. The Book of Kells, early 9th century (TCD MS 58, f. 16v) © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

Being portable, it is believed that they were used for private reading as well as preaching, whereas display would presumably have played an important part in the function of large beautiful volumes such as the Book of Kells.

It is worth noting that pocket Gospel Books are a specifically Insular phenomenon, as nothing of this kind was produced at the time in other monastic foundations in Western Europe. 2

Footnotes

  1. Usserianus Primus is in a fragmentary state, but we estimate that its folios would have measured c. 23.5 x 19.5 cm. Garland of Howth folio size: 24.1 x 19.2 cm.
  2. For more on pocket Gospel Books, see: P. McGurk, ‘The Irish Pocket Gospel Books’, in Sacris Erudiri 8 (1956), pp.  249-269; Art and Architecture of Ireland. Volume I: Medieval, ed. by R. Moss (Dublin, 2014), pp. 225-228; B. Meehan, ‘Irish Pocket Books’, in The St Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John, ed. by C. Breay and B. Meehan (London, 2015), pp. 83-102.