Unorthodox Treatment of Manuscripts

There is no doubt that 19th-century antiquarians played an essential role in the appreciation and preservation of medieval artefacts which, in some cases, would not have come down to us if it were not for them. Their enthusiasm however sometimes proved to be quite destructive…A0148--Shrine-of-the-Cathach

Fig. 1 Shrine of the Cathach, late 11th century, late 14th century and later additions © National Museum of Ireland, Dublin.Sir William Betham (b. 1779, d. 1853), as we saw previously, was an important actor in the rediscovery of early Irish medieval manuscripts. When he came across the shrine of the Cathach (fig. 1), it was still sealed and the psalter it contained had not yet been exposed. The ornate box, according to an inscription on the reverse, had originally been commissioned sometime between 1062 and 1094 by Cathbarr Ua Domnaill, king of the Cenél Lugdach, and Domnall mac Robartaig, coarb of Kells.1 It was henceforth kept in the custody of the O’Donels and had been in France for over a century when it was brought back to Ireland in 1802 by Sir Capel Molyneux, brother-in-law of Sir Neal O’Donel. Betham obtained the permission to open it, in the presence of Capel and Con O’Donel, son of Neal.

Fig. 2 Frontispiece to Sir W. Betham, Irish Antiquarian Researches pt. 2 (Dublin, 1827). Out of Copyright.

He described the momentous event: ‘By inserting a wire into it I felt what I thought were the edges of a MS. I ventured to draw out two or three of the holy pins and lifting up the lid found the MS. But closed it instantly’.2 He made the observation after levering the Cathach out of its shrine that it also contained ‘a thin piece of board covered with red leather, very like that with which eastern manuscripts are bound’.3 He appears to have ignored or discarded this fascinating fragment of what is likely to have been the original binding of the Cathach, with a description very close to that of the bindings of the Cuthbert Gospel (London, BL, Add MS 89000) and the Stowe Missal (Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS D.II.3).

What they found inside the box was a very damaged unbound manuscript, but the antiquarian was resourceful and proceeded to inflict on the saturated leaves a radical treatment, as he explained in his Irish Antiquarian Researches (fig. 2): ‘It was so much injured by damp, as to appear almost a solid mass; by steeping it in cold water I was enabled to separate the membranes from each other, and by pressing each separately between blotting paper, and frequently renewing the operation, at length succeeded in restoring, what was not actually decayed, to a legible state.’4 One would certainly hesitate today to adopt such a method, curing evil with evil… 5

A later instance of objectionable practice carried out on a manuscript is encountered when Rev. Hugh Jackson Lawlor (b. 1860, d. 1938), attempting to transcribe the non-Biblical texts added to the Book of Mulling (TCD MS 60) notes: ‘At the last moment, however, an unexpected difficulty has arisen: I have been unable to apply chemicals to the manuscript – as I had hoped to do – and have been obliged to content myself with what my eyesight could reveal to me, assisted only by good light and some little patience’. 6

Lawlor however did not give up and was allowed by the Board of Trinity College to apply sulphide of ammonium to the faded areas on f. 94v of the manuscript: ‘Professor Emerson Reynolds brushed the page with this application – usually so potent – and Professor Gwynn kindly undertook to watch the effect’. The result was however disappointing, only revealing ‘somewhat doubtfully’ a few more letters.7

Fig. 3 Popular Mechanics (January 1915). Copyrighted material. Source.

I approached John Gillis, Senior Conservator in the Preservation & Conservation Department here at the Library of Trinity College Dublin to try and learn more about this pratice. Here was his reply: ‘This was something that was applied to faded, typically iron gall ink in order to make it legible again. It consisted of an ammonium or potassium solution to react with the iron component in the ink. Diluted tannic or gallic acids were also used for the same purpose, these being basic elements of the ink itself. The problem was the solution, although clear when applied eventually turns very dark and obliterates the very information it was used to recover.[…] I believe the practice was started in the late 18th century and was already a matter of concern in the late 19th century, being raised at a manuscripts conference in St. Gallen in 1898’. Charles Graves, in 1846, used ‘a weak solution of gallic acid in spirits of wine’8 to decipher an important inscription on f. 53va of the Book of Armagh (TCD MS 52), which has now caused it to be almost entirely illegible.

Fig. 4 ‘Restoring Faded Writing on Old Manuscript’, in Popular Mechanics (January 1915), p. 131. Copyrighted material. Source.

John directed me to a 1915 issue of the Popular Mechanics Magazine (fig. 3), containing a  similar recipe. The article entitled ‘Restoring Faded Writing on Old Manuscript’ is incongruously found between one dedicated to ‘Turning Cams on a Lathe’ and another entitled ‘Homemade Engine-Driven Tire Pump’…(fig. 4).

Catherine Yvard, Research Fellow


  1. A coarb in the medieval Irish church was an important ecclesiastical figure, considered to be the spiritual heir and successor to the original founding saint of the monastery.
  2. Quoted by P. B. Phair, ‘Betham and the Older Irish Manuscripts’, in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. 92, no. 1 (1962), pp. 75-78 (76-77), who does not provide his source.
  3. Sir W. Betham, Irish Antiquarian Researches (Dublin, 1826), p. 110.
  4. Betham, Irish Antiquarian Researches, pp. 110-111.
  5. The psalter within, now dated to the late 6th century or early 7th century, was deposited by the O’Donel family at the Royal Irish Academy in 1843. It is now Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, MS 12 R 33, while the shrine is kept at the National Museum of Ireland.
  6. H. J. Lawlor, ‘Notes on some non-Biblical matter in the Book of Mulling’, in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1895), pp. 11-45 (p. 13).
  7. J. Lawlor, Chapters on the Book of Mulling (Edinburgh, 1897), p. 145.
  8. C. Graves, ‘On the Date of the MS. Called the Book of Armagh’, in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 3 (1844-1847), pp. 316-324 (p. 319).