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Sunday, July 19, 2015


When I visited The Vatican many years ago, I was, of course, in awe of the Sistine Chapel, but what fascinating me the most was the Vatican library with its vast collection of illuminated manuscripts. Our guest, Michelle Markey Butler, knows all about illuminated manuscripts, and she's here today to share some of that knowledge with our readers.

Michelle Markey Butler is a lecturer at the University of Maryland College Park, where she teaches medieval literature and Tolkien. She publishes on medieval and early modern drama, and will someday finish that book about the transition from direct address to soliloquy. Her published fiction includes SF/F stories and her debut novel, Homegoing. Learn more about Michelle and her writing at her website.

The Book of Kells is arguably the most famous book in the world.

The book is stunning! The illuminations, of course, get most of the attention. The almost-unbelievably complex interlacing:
Embellished initials, of which the Chi-Rho (the first two letters of the name of Christ, this elaborated version occurs at the first mention of Christ in the gospels) is the most famous:
Portraits (like this one of the Virgin and Child, or of St. John the Evangelist (top image):
And carpet pages (entire pages of illumination, so called because they look like ornate woven carpets):
We can’t help but wonder how 9th century monks managed to make it when it’s difficult and expensive to produce good quality reproductions of it with 21st century technology.
So how DID those 9th century monks produce this marvelous book?

The Book of Kells was made waaaayy before printing came to Europe—half a millennium before. Papermaking hadn’t made it to Europe yet, either.

If you’re a monk looking to make a book in the 9th century, the materials available to you are:
~Quill (a sharpened feather, to write with)
~Penknife (to sharpen the feather)
~Inks (guess who gets to make them)
~Parchment (if you’re very lucky, someone else makes it)

Quills and the penknife are probably the easiest to acquire. Feathers are not too difficult to come by, and the work of hardening and sharpening the tip into a quill is not arduous.
Parchment and ink are a different story. They’re the result of some serious work.

The good news: books written on parchment last hundreds of years. Longer than microfilm facsimiles. Longer than paper facsimiles. The Book of Kells is over a thousand years old. To paraphrase Yoda, when we are a thousand years old, we won’t look nearly as good as the Book of Kells.  

Assuming, that is, the library doesn’t catch on fire. The edges of the Beowulf manuscript are charred from a fire in 1731. Let that soak in for a moment. Beowulf almost went up in smoke. Sadly, the manuscript of another Old English poem, The Battle of Maldon, did perish in that fire. We know this excellent poem now only from a transcription made in 1724.

Fire wasn’t the only danger to medieval books. We almost lost the Book of Kells, too, due to theft. In 1007, the book was stolen from the abbey at Kells. It was found, mercifully, a few months later, but without its golden-and-bejeweled cover.
Back to the bad news: parchment making is laborious and stinky. (Here’s a video about the process.) Parchment also requires an animal’s death. Books require lots of animals’ deaths. Roughly 600 cows were needed to provide the parchment for the Book of Kells.

Parchment was not the only costly and time-consuming material you needed to make a medieval book. Lapis Lazuli, the material that provides the striking blue ink in illuminated manuscripts, had to be brought from Afghanistan. It was wildly expensive and highly prized—as much if not more than gold.

By the way, the scribe who would write the words and the illuminator who painted the gorgeous images were usually different people. Specialization is not really a modern invention!

If you want to know more about how medieval books like the Book of Kells were made, the Getty Library has a nice video.

If you want to try it…

I doubt your neighbors would appreciate you trying to make a medieval book from scratch, given the high-level stenchiness of parchment making. But if you want to try your hand at medieval calligraphy, The Historical Source Book for Scribes provides step-by-step instruction. If you’d like to try copying a page from the Book of Kells, you want the “Insular Half-Uncial” chapter.

There also are excellent children’s books about medieval bookmaking. The Ink Garden of Brother Theophane  and Marguerite Makes a Book  are particularly good ones.

Happy illuminating!

Homegoing is medieval-inspired historical fantasy, the plot of which revolves around bookmaking, archives, and the dangers of not keeping old books. A major plot point involves the rare blue ink mentioned above.

Disowned. Disgraced. Discarded. I had been Princess of Bruster, then Queen of Ferrant. Now I was neither. I built a new life, in a new land. The clerk of my adopted lord. I wanted to copy books and build his library. Quiet and unremarked amongst parchment and ink. Then the great ship came. It delivered a letter - to a land where almost no one could read. By the time the letter came to my hands, the ship had departed. We had no way to tell them we had never heard of them. They gave us one year, but how could we meet their demands when we did not know what they meant? War was coming. Unless I could prevent it.


Angela Adams said...

Medieval Literature! Sounds like an awesome topic for a college course!! Thank you for sharing those great photos!!

Writer of Wrongs said...

Thank you for a great post! We don't often think of manuscript writing as craft, but it truly is. I've been fortunate to see the Book of Kells. It is inspiring. So inspiring it prompted me to pursuing my medieval studies degree. I think I may have been the only police officer ever with that degree...

I also second the recommendation of Marguerite Makes A Book. Charming!

Thank you again. Very interesting.

stanalei said...

Amazing pictures and information on the manuscripts, Michelle. Thanks for sharing. Best of luck with your story.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

I was fortunate enough to see the Book of Kells as exhibited in Trinity College, Dublin. Magnificent. Thanks for a great post!

Michelle Markey Butler said...

Thank you for your comments!

I probably should have mentioned as well that a full-color (and very expensive--15,000 Euros!) replica of the Book of Kells was stolen last year: http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/valuable-replica-of-book-of-kells-stolen-from-co-meath-church-1.1994011

Not an isolated incident, sadly; with the economic downturn there's been a rash of antiquities thefts in Ireland.