Medieval Writing
Early Bibles and Gospels (2)
The 12th century traveller and writer, Gerald of Wales, once examined a beautiful gospel book in Kildare which he described as the work, not of men, but of angels. His comments have been traditionally associated with the Book of Kells, but not for any particularly good reason except that this is the most beautiful and complete early gospel book surviving from Ireland. The arguments against the association include that an international sophisticate who had been to the University of Paris would not have found the figure representations in the Book of Kells inspiring; that details of his descriptions of the illustrations are inaccurate; that he got the date of its production wrong; that he did not mention the history of the manuscript. None of these are especially convincing. After all, many of Gerald's descriptions are inaccurate, and who are we to second guess his aesthetic preferences? What does ring a bell of doubt is that he saw the manuscript in Kildare, which is not where the Book of Kells resided. Who knows how many exquisite ancient gospels from Ireland have succumbed to the ravages of time and circumstance?
Virgin and Child Information on the Book of Kells has been obtained from B. Meehan 1994 The Book of Kells London: Thames and Hudson and from Sir Edward Sullivan 1952 The Book of Kells London and New York: The Studio Publications, from which the illustrations on these pages also are derived. Trinity College, Dublin sells a CD-ROM containing the only authorised digital images of the work. The approximations on these pages, jpeged from imperfect colour photographs are just to give an idea of what it is all about. They are not, and cannot be, a truly accurate rendition.
Full page miniature of the Virgin and Child, f.7v of the Book of Kells, Trinity College, Dublin. (Click on image for a larger version.)
Is the sample above the work of angels, or crude figural representations drawn from Classical and Byzantine models? In the Book of Kells, the work of the angels is in the detail, and in the ethnically Celtic decorative motifs.
The text of the Book of Kells derives partly from the Vulgate version of the Bible, and partly from the Old Latin versions, although the work dates from the end of the 8th or early 9th centuries. There are some whole passages which are not included in the Vulgate. The script is mostly an insular half uncial, or insular majuscule, of large, rounded and imposing form. There also are some examples of pointed insular minuscule.
insular half uncial
A segment of text from f.104r, Mark xiii. 17-22, showing the script of the Book of Kells and a couple of the many decorative initials. This is a section where the text differs from the Vulgate.
There are doubts about the exact date of the work, and also about where it was produced. It may have been written on the island of Iona, off western Scotland, or in Ireland at the monastery of Kells. This may be a significant debate if you are a Scottish or Irish nationalist, but in historical terms it illustrates another facet of society entirely. These linked monastic communities formed their own intellectual and spiritual society which drew from the ethnic roots of those around them, but made its own connections across cultures. It really doesn't matter whether it was written in Iona or Kells, because these were part of one closely intertwined monastic culture.
Kells cross
An ancient carved cross at Kells, indicating the significance of the place to early Christianity in Ireland.
Eusebian canons

Because these books were service books for use in the liturgy, they contained some extra material above the simple Biblical text. The gospels themselves were preceded in the Book of Kells by the Eusebian canon tables: a kind of concordance laid out as a table which listed corresponding passages in the four versions of the gospels. These tables had their own conventions of representation, under architectural canopies with arches with decorative canopies.

A page of the Eusebian canons, f.5r. (Click on image for a larger version.)
The gospel texts are preceded by the breves causae, or chapter headings, and the argumenta, or summaries of each of the four gospels. There are some missing leaves, including the end of the gospel of St John, which also means there is no colophon to give some clues about the history of the manuscript. Some blank leaves after the canon tables have been filled with some charters in the Irish language relating to the abbey and church of Kells, dating from around 1024 to the 12th century. It is a known early practice from the period before the full establishment of written record for property transactions that such matters be recorded in the spare leaves of a sacred book.
Chi-Rho page It has occasionally been suggested that this work is so lavish that it was probably more of a sacred object than a working text, and most likely not actually used in church. This aspect is emphasised by the story that it once had a magnificent jewelled cover, like a reliquary. The whole was stolen in the medieval era, and only the book recovered. It has also been pointed out that certain passages are contained in decorative pages that are so elaborate, with complex heading scripts, intricate interlace, and a puzzle-like arrangement of letters, that the priests could hardly have been expected to read from it.
The so-called Chi-Rho page, the beginning of Matthew i. 18, f.34r. (Click on image for a larger version.)
The page reads XPI b generatio (Christi autem generatio), most of the page being taken up with the intricately decorated XPI, or chi-rho symbol for Christ.
The decoration, however, has been associated with the important readings for significant festivals of the church, notably Easter. The Chi-Rho passage illustrated above represents the first short reading for the mass on Christmas Eve. This might suggest that the book may have been utilised, with great ceremony, on some of the most significant occasions of the church calendar. As for the legibility of the passages, any priest who did not know these highly significant passages for special occasions by heart would not have been worthy of the name.
While the Book of Kells represents the Irish national masterpiece, other less elaborate, or more fragmentary, early Irish gospels have survived the centuries. The script and decorative schemes of these works spread far afield through Northumbria and then south, and across to continental Europe as Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks set up establishments through France and Germany to as far afield as Switzerland.
Gospels of MacRegol
A few lines from the Gospels of MacRegol, of c.800 (Bodleian Library, Auct. D. 2. 19). (From Thompson 1912)
The above example is a relatively late specimen of the insular half uncial script, which was replaced for these works with the more compact but still elegant insular minuscule.
Book of Armagh Segment from the Book of Armagh, dated 807. (From Thompson 1912)
The Book of Armagh, containing portions of the New Testament, among other things, was written in a tiny, compressed and abbreviated, pointed insular minuscule, designed to fit as much text into a page as possble. This is the earliest dated example of this script, indicating that the change from large rounded letters to narrow compressed ones was not a gradual evolutionary process, but the solution to a problem.

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