For tourists visiting Dublin for the first time, one of the most common stops is at Trinity College to see the Book of Kells, a medieval illuminated manuscript containing the four gospels in Latin. The scribes who copied the scripts—generally believed to be monks who had fled to Iona following the Viking raids in 806 CE—embellished their calligraphy with intricate interlacing spirals as well as human figures and animals.
The Book of Kells is not the only Irish manuscript that is considered a work of art. In 1185 the historian Giraldus Cambrensis visited Kildare where he was shown an illustrated manuscript that made him wonder if it were the work of angels or the work of men.
Many different materials have been used for writing—stone, clay, bark, bones, palm leaves, and papyrus. While papyrus and waxed wooden writing tablets were commonly used in Europe both prior to and during the Medieval period, parchment had become most popular by the Medieval period. Parchment is a generic term for the prepared skin of almost any animal, although sheep was most commonly used. Ireland, however, was well known for its cattle industry and thus vellum (calf skin) was predominant.
Skin provided a tough, durable writing surface which could be sewn into either rolls or codices (what would later become books). While the roll was less cumbersome and easy to consult, for the purpose of promulgating the Christian message the codex worked extremely well. Since most people had no literacy or only limited literacy, the books would be read out loud to the people. The codex allowed the large pages to be turned toward the audience and thus key images and phrases could be emphasized.
Preparation of the parchment for writing is a complex process. The process begins by placing the skin into a bath of lime or excrement for several days. This loosens the hair. If the skin is left in the bath for too long, it becomes susceptible to bacterial attack. This affected some of the leaves of the Book of Kells.
When the skin is removed from the bath, it is thrown over a beam and then scraped with a blunt knife to remove the hair, the epidermal and hypodermal layers and any remaining fat. To dry the skin, it is tensioned on a frame and then using a luna knife (a knife with a half-moon shape) it is again scraped to remove any remaining hair. Care has to be taken not to puncture or tear the skin. The skin is then re-wetted, abraded with pumice to give it a nap, re-wetted again, and finally left to dry. As a result of this process the skin is left with a stiff consistency which is suitable for writing.
The Medieval scribes are often depicted writing with quill pens. Quill pens made from the tail feathers of the goose or swan were, however, only one of the tools the monks used in creating their masterpieces. They also used brushes, the most fine of which were made from martin fur, and knives which were used to scrape away any mistakes. In making the decorated pages they worked with compasses, rulers, and templates. Cow horns, with their sharp ends stuck in the ground, often served as ink-wells.
Inks and Pigments:
The most commonly used ink in the manuscripts was iron-gall ink which was made by combining iron sulphate and crushed oak apples in a binding medium of gum in a solution of water, wine, or vinegar. The iron sulphate caused the ink to etch into the paper.
Black carbon inks were produced by burning animal fats or wood. The black carbon inks do not fade, but they have a tendency to flake off the page.
By the seventh century, the Irish monks were incorporating an orange-red into their manuscripts. This is first seen in the gospel book Usserianus Primus. To produce this color, the monks made a red lead. This was done by heating a prepared white lead, pulverizing it by grinding, washing it, and then returning it to the oven where it was stirred over a period of two or three days.
An illustration from Usserianus Primus is shown above.
In addition to orange-red, the seventh century monks, as seen in the Book of Durrow, were using yellow (derived from orpiment), green (derived from verdigris), and a yellow discoloring to brown (derived from oxgall). Orpiment (yellow arsenic sulphide) was not found in Ireland, but was obtained from Hungary, Macedonia, Asia Minor, or parts of Central Asia. While orpiment has a vibrant yellow, it was difficult to use, being toxic and foul smelling. Orpiment is also chemically reactive to lead and copper-based colors and if used next to these colors results in oxidation and darkening.
Pages from the Book of Durrow is shown above.
Verdigis, formed by the action of acetic acid and heat on copper, tends to be unstable and has not only darkened but also eaten through the vellum in places in the Book of Durrow.
By the time the Book of Kells was created, the monks had access to blues from the oriental plant indigo and from the north European plant woad; reds from kermes and from vermillion; plum red from folium; and white lead. Kermes red was produced from the bodies and eggs of the female of a Mediterranean insect which lives in clusters on the leaves of the prickly kermes oak. The color was extracted in ammonia (urine) and fixed onto an insoluble mineral salt (aluminum hydroxide). Vermillion (red mercuric sulphide), also known as cinnabar, was probably obtained from Spain.
Satchels and Shrines:
The Irish manuscripts were often transported or stored in leather satchels which were hung on pegs in monastic cells. While the satchels were usually individually made for the most important manuscripts, in some instances they were intended to hold more than one book.
If a book was regarded as a relic of a saint, it might be placed in a shrine. When placed in a shrine the book would be less available for consultation as the shrines did not allow ready access.