A Life of Copying
In the days before photocopiers and scanners, the only way people could copy a book was the hard way — by hand. Every book at a monastery, from the Bible to the textbooks used in the schools, had to be hand-copied. This took up much of the monks' time. Monasteries lent books to one another for the purpose of copying; often the borrowing monastery would make two copies, one for themselves and one for the lending monastery.
The early monks didn't write on paper, but on parchment, which is made of dried sheepskin. The most important texts sometimes got transcribed on vellum, which is made from dried calfskin.
How Irish Monks Saved the Classical Tradition
The Irish monks, copying away in their monasteries, didn't realize that their work would have lasting implications for all of European history. But they did, in fact, preserve classical learning for posterity.
After the Roman Empire fell, the state of education fell along with it. The Romans and the Greeks were consummate scholars and wrote learned treatises on all manner of topics — history, science, and literature. In the early medieval period, much of that literature was in danger of being lost forever. People on the Continent didn't know its importance, and many of them were too busy fighting barbarians. In Ireland, though, peace prevailed.
The Irish monks even transcribed their own local epics in Irish. These texts, including Irish epics such as the Táin Bó Cuailnge, are some of the earliest examples of vernacular literature.
Medieval monks, like modern people, sometimes didn't have pen and paper when they wanted them. Once a group of monks asked St. Molaissi of Daiminis if they could copy the beautiful book he carried, but no one had a pen. The saint raised his arms to heaven, and a feather fell from a passing bird into his hand.
Illumination in a Dark World
The Irish monks weren't content to simply copy texts. They had to embellish them, to make them into works of art. They were fascinated with the shapes of letters and experimented with ways of making them more beautiful. They invented a script called Irish miniscule that was easier to read and write than many other medieval scripts had been; it was so successful that monasteries across Europe adopted it.
Monks also used color and drawings to decorate their texts, in a technique called illumination. They took their inspiration from ancient Celtic art, the spirals and zigzags that decorated the tombs at Newgrange and myriad metal objects. Using paints made from various pigments, including insects, they applied brilliant colors to their complicated drawings to create books that would dazzle the eye of the reader. Letters themselves became fabulously embellished; sometimes an entire page would be filled with a fabulously decorated single letter. Sometimes artists even decorated their pages with gold leaf that would catch the light and literally “illuminate” the text.
Ireland is home to several famous illuminated books that survive today:
The Book of Kells
The Book of Durrow
The Book of Armagh
The Book of Dimma
Each of these is a masterpiece by the standards of any day, full of illustrations and text painstakingly planned and executed.
Visitors to Dublin can see the actual Book of Kells in the Trinity College library. Usually two volumes are on display at a time, one showing an illumination and one showing text. The caretakers open them to a new page every day. The Book of Durrow is there, too, and is also well worth seeing.
The Book of Kells
The Book of Kells is probably the most famous illuminated manuscript in the world. Its several volumes contain the four gospels and supplemental texts. The reason for its fame is the extraordinary art that graces almost every one of its pages.
The history of the Book of Kells is murky and full of legend, but the most common story is that it was written around 800 at St. Columcille's monastery on Iona, off the coast of Scotland. Vikings started hitting the monastery at about this time, and the monks fled with the book to Kells in Ireland. The first written reference to the book is a report from the year 1007, noting that the great “Gospel of Columkille” had been stolen and found soon after, buried in the ground. At some point, the metal shrine containing the book disappeared, perhaps stolen by Vikings. Along the way, the book lost about thirty of its folios.
In 1661, the Book of Kells ended up at Trinity College in Dublin. It wasn't always cared for properly and was occasionally mistreated; in the eighteenth century, a bookbinder actually trimmed its pages, which caused irreparable damage. It was rebound into four volumes in 1953. Its modern keepers have been much more diligent about protecting it from light and moisture and keep it in strictly controlled conditions. Astonishingly, given all the book has been through, it is still mostly intact, and the colors are still bright.
Today, the people of Kells want their book back. The librarians at Trinity College aren't sure that it would be cared for properly, but they have considered the possibility of returning the book to its medieval home. Meanwhile, it still resides in Dublin.