The arrival of Christianity in Ireland in the 5th century led to a period of cultural flourishing known as the ‘age of saints and scholars’ that soon spread to the British Isles and into much of Europe. It marked the beginning of the literate age for those that had remained beyond the Roman frontier and re-established it where the empire had collapsed. These few generations of Christian monks left a legacy of great manuscripts and artefacts now labelled as ‘insular art’. Often celebrated as a golden age, their manuscripts are held up as examples of the stability and continuity of civilisation. But the lived experience of those creating these great works of art was one of cultural conflict and existential threat from multiple directions. This is an essay drawing on the written words of those who lived through this period.
Ceolfrid was keen to have a close relationship in subordination to Rome but many of his predecessors and contemporaries had other ideas. The major area of contention was how the date for Easter was chosen It’s a particularly complex mathematical problem as it must take into account both solar and lunar rhythms which are not harmonious. Modern mathematicians still have not perfected it and the Catholic and Orthodox churches still disagree. Many of the Irish were sceptical of the Roman system at the time, correctly believing it to be inaccurate.
Letters survive from as early as the 6th century from prominent Irish monk Columbanus challenging a succession of Popes and Frankish bishops about their Easter calculations. ‘Let us see which is the more true tradition – yours or that of your Irish brothers in the West’. He also appears to cast doubt on the wisdom of their strict hierarchy in comparison to Ireland in a barbed apology for his tone, ‘the freedom of my country’s customs, so to speak, was in part the cause of my boldness. For among us it is not who you are but how you make your case that counts.’
The confidence of this loose confederation of monasteries with little political and no military influence in Europe is impressive. Their many achievements still have a profound effect on our literate culture. ‘Distinctiones’, the spaces between words which allowed the development of silent reading, are an invention of the medieval Irish scribes as well as the concept of vernacular literacy which opened the way for the English language and all others beyond Latin captured in Roman letters to exist.
The Carolingian renaissance in Europe, which saw a period of great cultural flourishing and unity, often credited to the military success of Charlemagne, was carried out for the most part by the administrative efforts of monks from the British Isles. The Northumbrian monk Alcuin reformed the various writing scripts to the standardised Carolingian minuscule based on the style taught at a continental Irish monastery. This script carried European learning into the Middle Ages and its influence on modern handwriting is still visible. Nobles from all over Europe sent their offspring to Irish schools famous for the quality of their teaching, and no medieval royal court was complete without Irish philosophers who collected and copied pagan classical literature as well as Christian teaching.
A culture under attack
But from at least the year 664 this was a culture that was under attack from numerous directions. In that year at the Synod of Whitby the Irish lost the political argument with Rome on the dating of Easter, leading to expulsion from major monasteries for those who refused to sign up to Roman practice, so undermining Irish influence and creating a rift with a more unified Europe. Then in the same year a pandemic landed on the shores of England.
The first historian of the British, the Venerable Bede, who lived through the second wave of bubonic plague in 687, described it as ‘the pestilence that carried off many throughout the length and breadth of Britain’. In the monastery of Ceolfrid, who had just won his battle over Easter, ‘all those who could read or preach or were able to sing the antiphons responsories were carried off by plague except the abbot himself and one small boy’.
The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones credits the monk Eadfrith with being Britain’s first great artist for his work ‘Cotton MS Nero D IV’, better known as the Lindisfarne Gospels. Lindisfarne Abbey was devastated by the pandemic and embroiled in the argument over Easter, losing its abbot and other monks that would not conform in 664. Eadfrith lived into old age and died in 721 as Bishop of Lindisfarne, a role he was appointed to in 698, meaning that he is likely to have worked on the manuscript earlier in his career.
This put the creation of the greatest Anglo-Saxon work of art in a period of apocalyptic chaos … the pandemic response for our early mediaeval ancestors appears to be almost entirely spiritual.
This puts the creation of the greatest Anglo-Saxon work of art in a period of apocalyptic chaos. The best Anglo-Saxon metalwork can also be attributed to this period. Over 250 calf hides were needed to produce this one volume, and 1,030 went into the Codex Amiatinus which was one of three Bibles created consecutively under the leadership of Ceolfrid. On the basis of resource deployment, the pandemic response for our early mediaeval ancestors appears to be almost entirely spiritual. They had no concept of treating the disease as a problem to be solved; strengthening the culture that prepared the individual for death was the optimal response.
What is now the greatest Book of the English inspired the greatest Book of the Irish, the Book of Kells, produced at the turn of the ninth century. The book of the four gospels takes innovations found in Lindisfarne and expands upon them to an incredible degree, suggesting that there was a vibrant century of innovation between the two manuscripts, evidence of which has mostly been lost. The level of technical skill on display within the Book of Kells has never been matched. It still isn’t fully understood. The chemical knowledge required to create pigments that remain stable after 1,200 years is centuries ahead of what we thought they were capable of. This, coupled with the mathematical ability required for drafting the designs, and the scriptural familiarity needed to skilfully add the appropriate marginal characters to bring the text to life, shed light on an incredibly vibrant culture of learning and sharing.
We still can’t be certain where the Book of Kells comes from exactly but the leading contenders are all islands and remote peninsulas, which turned out to be the worst place to be staying for the next apocalypse that came to Britain and Ireland from the north, first striking Lindisfarne in 793. In the Book of Armagh, a manuscript contemporary with Kells, the name of the Abbot of Iona, ‘Cellach’, appears next to an ominous passage from the Gospel of Mark: ‘For those days will bring distress such as has never been until now since the beginning of the world that God created – and will never be again’
During Abbot Cellach’s primacy the monastery was ‘burned by the heathens’ several times, including an attack in 806 which killed 68 of the community. Even if not at this site, this is the societal backdrop to the creation of the Book of Kells; for those that lived through it it was nothing short of apocalyptic. The main archaeological contender for the origin of Kells also suffered a Viking assault that ended its parchment-making industry. In the monastic graveyard at Portmahomack several bodies show evidence of injury from sword attack, mostly but not all fatal. The archaeology survives in a layer of burning with smashed up Christian statues and the parchment makers’ tools abandoned.
The Book of Kells emerges from a culture enduring a time of profound loss and upheaval. Recent research by Dr Donncha Macgabhann has even found evidence of struggle within the manuscript itself. He demonstrates that it is the work of two great scribes, initially collaborating in a first campaign of illumination before a break in the work for an unknown reason. Much later one scribe returns to try and finish the project alone but this time impaired in some way, possibly even by dementia, as later additions don’t just display the loss of fine motor skills but often appear confused, as if the artist is getting lost within the artwork while struggling to complete it before death.
These great manuscripts are often held up as evidence of the durability of civilisation, historic literacy being the metric by which we define our time within the civilised world. For the artists that created them, they were an investment in the space beyond civilisation and life itself. Created in a context in which the very survival of the Christian western project did not seem certain, the artists of this period were on a pilgrimage, creating icons as portals to the divine. Whereas we question or get questioned as to what the purpose of art is when facing apocalypse? They were confident that the function of art was to face the apocalypse.
We question what the purpose of art is when facing apocalypse. They were confident that the function of art was to face the apocalypse.
The surviving remnants
Ceolfrid’s ‘furthest ends of the earth’ no longer exist in the physical world. The edge is now a state of mind, or a statement of intent. Geographical boundaries are redundant, as the machine is everywhere if you want it. You can still get phone signal on the tidal monastic island of Inishkeel off the coast of Donegal. This monastery was set up by Conall Ceal in the 5th century; his bell was kept on site for over 1,400 years before being ‘acquired’ by the British Museum in the 1889. But the thread of continuity remains intact as the Turas, the pilgrim routes throughout Ireland, are still travelled, with the faithful still circling the well on the island on holy days at low tide.
In rational terms I’m not exactly sure what making an insular manuscript will achieve in current circumstances; clearly the practical argument is fairly thin. I’m sure something could be cobbled together about sustainability and its impressively light carbon footprint, but at the end of the day it’s a book that’s already been published in much easier formats and you can access for free; so culturally and economically what’s the point? It’s not like the Gospels are a fragile indigenous origin legend about to be snuffed out by progress. But it is one of our deepest held ancestral reactions to the ending of a way of being, a kind of ritual pilgrimage into the story that has carried our culture through the literate epoch, a story that has an ending.
The scribes of the originals firmly believed they were going to die and that their world had an ending, and I’m not convinced most of us do, either on a personal or societal level. Death was a real place that they were going to inhabit, a destination that life is a journey towards. Being a healthy westerner under 40, the contemplation of death remains a pathetic conjectural pursuit at this stage of life. For me it remains a piece of abstract data sitting at the far end of a bell curve, a medical inconvenience to be delayed if it tries to arrive ahead of schedule. Even climate change manifests itself as data; if I really deeply understood it would I even be typing this? Societally we seem to associate accepting death with giving up, our faith is in solutions only.
But I’m going to try and make the Book of Kells anyway, partly out of practical curiosity, partly pilgrimage. There’s something very clinical about explaining it, a list of pigments and tests, theories and comparisons. But the experience of being involved in manuscripts is intense for everyone I’ve met involved in all aspects of the subject. These objects take up years of your life, no matter what your angle is. They have captured a cohort of supporters in every generation for more than a millennium; that’s the only reason they are still here.
Contemporary conservators, librarians and curators of these objects fill roles that have in some cases been in existence since before the Norman conquest. Objects of this status have a long paper trail; institutions record their whereabouts and any mishaps. The Book of Kells’ first appearance in the records in 1007 is ironically when it went missing for ‘two months and twenty nights’ according to the annals of Ulster, which goes on to describe the manuscript as ‘the most precious object of the western world’. For all that has passed between us and the author of that description, it still holds true. A million visitors queue up to see it each year.
You can follow my attempt to make a folio from the Book of Kells as the original artist would have done, from making parchment and pigments to the geometric designs here
and see some of the research that has led to this project here www.scribalstyles.net
If successful the artwork will go on display at the Tarbat Discovery Centre in Portmahomack. on the site of the monastery that may well have produced the original before being destroyed by Viking attack.
‘This Pen in My Hand Is A Splinter’, an artist’s print from Issue 12 by Thomas Keyes is available here: https://dark-mountain.net/product/this-pen-in-my-hand-is-a-splinter-artists-print/