Medieval Martyn Turners, dragons and a giant hymn book

There’s more to Irish medieval manuscripts than The Book of Kells. Here’s how to explore more

Four ancient Irish manuscripts have been conserved to their former glory by Trinity College. This video focuses on the Garland of Howth, a ninth century parchment associated with St Nessan's monastery on Ireland’s Eye. Video: TCD

 

In a third-floor room in Ireland’s oldest university a dragon balancing on two bouncing balls fires a ribbon from his mouth at a nun examining a caped man-seahorse hybrid with a traffic cone on his head. This curious scene is not part of a new surrealist student drama, still less a rag week after-party. It takes place in the confines of a 14th-century copy of the psalms, one of eight remarkable manuscripts that will be introduced to the public next month through an exciting new project entitled Beyond The Book of Kells.

Irish and international experts will introduce the public to these eight rarely-seen medieval texts through a free monthly public lecture series commencing on Tuesday, October 3rd in Trinity Long Room Hub. In addition, the eight manuscripts have been digitised in full to coincide with the series and will be published online shortly before each lecture to allow the public to examine them at their convenience.

For many, Trinity is synonymous with the Book of Kells. But that ninth-century manuscript is only part of the story. Ranging in date from the fifth century to the 16th and in origin from across western Europe, Trinity’s 600 medieval manuscripts contain languages from Latin and Greek to Old Irish, Old English, Welsh, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Provencal and Vaudois. These riches are Trinity’s mostly thanks to James Ussher, a Dublin native who was one of the first scholars after the foundation of the College in 1594, and who rose to become primate of Ireland as archbishop of Armagh. Unlike other manuscript collectors like the self-described “vello-maniac” Thomas Phillipps, who often bought everything they could lay their hands on, Ussher worked more like a stamp collector, eager to have one of every type. As a consequence, Trinity’s collection of manuscripts is unusually coherent, embodying in microcosm the entire gamut of medieval thought.

Beyond the Book of Kells

Unlike copies of the latest bestseller, all identical thanks to the printing press, manuscripts are bespoke products, each unique. Produced by hand by scribes who knew the people they were making the books for, made at least until 1400 from the skins of animals, sometimes still showing puncture marks from the insects that had feasted on them, and often freely annotated or defaced by generations of readers, each manuscript has a multiplicity of stories to tell about those who contributed to its production.

The dragon, the nun and the caped man-seahorse hybrid is one such story. Such grotesque imagery is hardly what the 21st-century reader expects to find in the margins of a book of the Bible, particularly a copy from the supposedly more pious Middle Ages. But like the gargoyle leering down at worshippers in many a medieval church, these extraordinary images are found with surprising frequency in manuscript margins. And far from being the tangential doodles of artists with too much time on their hands, they usually provide an erudite and imaginative commentary on the centre from the periphery: a medieval Martyn Turner, if you will.

The other seven manuscripts digitised have stories just as individual to tell. There’s the gigantic 15th-century choir book over half a metre high from Kilkenny Cathedral, so large because before the invention of printing made producing copies for individual singers economical, everyone literally had to sing from the same hymn sheet. There’s the Book of Leinster, an extraordinary collection of early Irish culture, which was compiled in Terryglass, Co Tipperary by a man his contemporaries called primsenchaid Laigen, Leinster’s premier historian. There’s the historical manuscript made for a late medieval Anglo-Irish family with its notes about how the text illustrates the treachery of their colonial subjects. There’s the manuscript of one of medieval Europe’s foremost medieval historians, the Venerable Bede. There’s the late medieval translations of the Bible into English, controversial if not illegal at the time, which predate Vatican II’s rejection of Latin in the 1960s by almost 600 years. There’s the copy of the sprawling Middle English poem Piers Ploughman with a biographical note at the end, without which its author William Langland would be little more than a name.

But perhaps the most important of the newly digitised manuscripts is The Book of Armagh, a manuscript which though not acquired by Ussher himself, fits well in a collection assembled largely through the energy of the former archbishop of that diocese. Copied on the orders of Torbach, abbot of Armagh, in the early ninth century by a scribe called Ferdomnach, it contains a suite of texts about St Patrick without which he would hardly be known, the presence of which gives the Book of Armagh some claim to be even more important than the Book of Kells. Thanks to its digitisation, just as many people will now get to enjoy it virtually as see Kells in the flesh.

Tired of his confines, the dragon menacing the nun is therefore escaping from Trinity’s third-floor manuscript reading room and on to the world wide web. To those unwilling to do battle with him and his kind alone, the monthly public lectures over the coming year provide an introduction to eight of the manuscripts and their very individual stories.

  • The Beyond the Book of Kells lecture series will commence on October 3rd in Trinity Long Room Hub at 6.30pm with Dr Laura Cleaver, Ussher lecturer in medieval art, on TCD MS. 92: An Illuminated Psalter and Hours – a lavishly illustrated manuscript that offers a window into complex religiosity of the late medieval English aristocracy. The lecture series is led by Dr Mark Faulkner, Ussher Assistant Professor, School of English, Trinity College Dublin, in association with the Trinity Long Room Hub, the Faculty of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, and the Library of Trinity College Dublin. For further information see here
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