Tag Archives: Codex Usserianus Primus

Enshrining the Book

As we pointed out in a previous post, three of the Gospel Books under examination were formerly kept in book-shrines. The shrines are extant for the Book of Dimma (TCD; fig. 1) and the Book of Mulling (National Museum of Ireland), while the damage visible on Codex Usserianus Primus implies that it was also kept in a metal box for some time (see more on this HERE).

Fig. 1 The Misach, late 11th century and 1534, National Museum of Ireland © National Museum of Ireland.

The practice of enclosing books in ornate boxes probably stems from the use of book caskets during religious ceremonies in early Christian Rome. The Gospel, considered to be the Word of God, needed to be housed in an appropriate manner:  lavish bindings and boxes were devised to protect the Scriptures and assert their importance through the use of precious materials.

Continue reading Enshrining the Book

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



Re-mounting Codex Usserianus Primus

As we stressed in our previous post, the binding and mounting system adopted in the late 19th or early 20th century to accommodate the folio fragments of Codex Usserianus Primus (TCD MS 55) proved  unsuitable over time. The main problem was that the card in which the fragments had been pasted resisted the natural curling movement of the vellum, causing strain on the already fragile leaves.

Fig. 1 Codex Usserianus Primus, TCD MS 55, f. 25r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The binding was thus removed and it was decided that each fragment should be released from its buckling card mount in order to be re-mounted in a manner which would improve its preservation. The following method was adopted. Continue reading Re-mounting Codex Usserianus Primus

Usserianus Primus and its Modern Binding

The fragments of Codex Usserianus Primus (see previous post for background) were, until a few years ago, kept in a late 19th- or early 20th-century binding (fig. 1). Unfortunately, we have no recorded description of how the manuscript was kept prior to this.

Fig. 1 Former binding of TCD MS 55, late 19th or early 20th century © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The binding, quite elaborate, was covered in a greenish -brown  Morocco goatskin, Continue reading Usserianus Primus and its Modern Binding


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

Codex Usserianus Primus

I will start by introducing you to the four manuscripts which are the focus of the project.

Codex Usserianus Primus (TCD MS 55), containing the four Gospels, is a controversial citizen of the Library, as scholars do not  agree on when it was made, and the where  is also much debated. One might say  that this is true of nearly  all  Insular manuscripts, but this particular one is a case in point in that expert opinions differ by several  centuries.

Codex Usserianus Primus, TCD MS 55, f. 149v © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

For a long time believed to have been made in the early 7th century in Ireland or  Bobbio, the abbey founded in  614 by the Irish missionary Columbanus, David Dumville has more recently argued in favour of a 5th-century date and a continental origin. 1 The dating and localisation of the manuscript are largely based on  palaeographical and codicological evidence, as  the manuscript, in a fragmentary state, only contains one extant decoration in the shape of a framed cross marking the end of Saint Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of Saint Mark’s (see fig.).

The modern mounts were far from satisfying: too heavy, they obscure certain parts of the text, and do not allow the parchment enough flexibility. Each one of the 182 leaves is  therefore currently being remounted in our Conservation studios using a system which will greatly improve the manuscript’s preservation and legibility.  The manuscript  has now been fully re-photographed and published online.

Catherine Yvard, Research Fellow Save