Illuminating a Dark Age: Early Christian Manuscripts

Advanced computer technology with use of sophisticated digital techniques and internet is assisting art historians, archaeologists, palaeographers and others to explore and discover early connections of Christian scholars to a globalised world embracing the Roman Empire and beyond. Codices are being decoded and the science of recovering lost writing has made big strides amongst scholars East and West alike.
Earliest of the surviving fully illuminated insular Gospel manuscripts of Irish influence is the Book of Durrow. The presence of the manuscript in the monastery of Durrow, near Tullamore, Co. Offaly (founded in the sixth century by Colm Cille), is attested from the tenth century onwards, though it was not written there. On the strength of several elements it is said to have been executed at a monastery in Northumbria founded by Colm Cille and his successors. Following suppression of the monastery of Durrow, the book remained in the area; in the sixteenth century a local farmer was using it to cure sick cattle by dipping it in the water that was then offered to the cattle to drink. Henry Jones, Protestant Bishop of Meath, obtained possession of it in the seventeenth century and in 1652 presented it to Trinity College, Dublin.
A masterpiece of medieval illumination is the Book of Kells containing the Latin text of the four Gospels scripted by at least three scribes. It was found in Kells, an ancient Christian centre and heritage town north-west of Dublin, in the eleventh century as attested by church transactions copied into it. The manuscript may have been taken there in the early ninth century by monks of the Scottish island of Iona Columbanus (Colm Cille) community seeking refuge from Viking raids. While its date and place of origin remain controversial, the Book of Kells is on protected public display at Trinity College Library, Dublin where it was brought in the 1660s.
Early Christian Manuscripts
An Irish-born monastic, writing in the late seventh century, shows a remarkable knowledge of the Middle East, including Nile and Alexandria. Gilla Adomnan, a priest from Durrow who was appointed abbot of Kells, also describes a church on the river Jordan, marking the site of Christ’s baptism, so precisely that Jordanian archaeologists are still making use of his account. The abbot presents all his knowledge as information gleaned from a wandering pilgrim who washed up on the shores of the Scottish island of Iona.
In September 2010 the National Museum of Ireland added to the list of clues with an exciting announcement that traces of Egyptian papyrus had been detected in the binding of a 1,200 year old psalter discovered in the bogs of Tipperary in 2006 by a surprised turf-cutter. While not certain, the scraps of evidence lend weight to the idea that Celtic scribes labouring in their rainswept refuges were not so much saving Roman civilisation as participating in a spiritual movement inspired by the desert hermits of Egypt; a movement that was conceived, in part, as a revolt against civilisation.
Penned a century earlier Saint Patrick’s memoirs do not say how he felt about the process of writing but the spirit of self-discipline was similar; and his monastic mission to Ireland was preceded by monastic training in what is now France, possibly on the Lérins islands (off the Riviera) where the early Egyptian tradition was followed.
In East and West alike scholars can trace how the role of the written word shifted over time. Books became holy objects or talismans. Irish tribes carried them into battle; a Greek Christian writer called a completed Gospel a “presence” which somehow sanctified its environs without being opened. Yet books had practical as well as ritual purposes; they were intended to be read aloud in church or at monastic dinner-tables. And when practical needs changed, old writing was (nearly) erased.
Silent reading also developed at both ends of Christendom. Ambrose of Milan, a Latin writer who was well known in Ireland, impressed Augustine of Hippo with his quiet perusal of a text. From another Christian writer, Isaac of Syria … the noiseless contemplation of the written word was balm to the soul. By giving the reader extra time and space to absorb the text and its many layers of meaning “the very absence of the human voice could render … communication all the richer”. A similar passion for the written word, the process – the product and the effect on the reader – can be detected in Western scribes like Columba of Iona and Bede of Northumbria.
Ita Marguet, May 2012
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in this text, including The Economist, December 18th 2010 (pp.133-135). It follows texts by the author on Irish Christianity and St. Gallen, Switzerland: Turning Darkness into Light, and Irish Christian history and art: A European legacy (2003 – 2004).