24 November 2015

New find could change our understanding of an Irish national treasure

A fragment from the new discovery which could shed light on 'The Book of Kells'
A fragment from the new discovery which could shed light on 'The Book of Kells'

Fragments of a mediaeval manuscript hidden in the spine of a book for hundreds of years could shed new light on Ireland's greatest cultural treasure, 'The Book of Kells'.

The pieces, discovered in a German library, bear “remarkable similarities” to the Irish national icon and could even pre-date ‘The Book of Kells’.

‘The Book of Kells’ is thought by scholars to have been produced on the island of Iona, in Gaelic Scotland, around AD 800, although conflicting views have suggested that its origins could lie in English Northumbria or in Pictland in eastern Scotland.

The ‘new’ manuscript fragments were found by a retired German professor who realised their significance and passed them to an eminent American palaeographer to try to establish their origin. He in turn sought the expert help ofProfessor David Dumville, a professor in history, palaeography, and Celtic at the University of Aberdeen, who assembled an international team of scholars in the Granite City to analyse scans of the fragments.

Professor Dumville said: “Manuscripts were often chopped up and reused once they were no longer useful or did not fit with the predominant religious taste of the time. Fragments do turn up quite regularly, but this find is something special.

“Not only is it remarkable that they survived, but by a great stroke of luck the three fragments are adjoining vertical portions and so provide a crucial insight into the scale of the manuscript they came from.

“It was immediately obvious that they bear a striking resemblance to ‘The Book of Kells’ because they were written in a very similar type of Insular script.”

‘The Book of Kells’ contains the four Gospels in Latin and is written in a high grade of Insular script, originally developed in Britain and Ireland and which spread to continental Europe during the early Middle Ages.

Insular script comprises a hierarchical family of varying scripts used for different functions and ‘The Book of Kells’ stands at the very top of this spectrum, with illustrations and ornamentation which surpass that of other Insular Gospel-books of the period.

Manuscripts were often chopped up and reused once they were no longer useful or did not fit with the predominant religious taste of the time. Fragments do turn up quite regularly, but this find is something special" Professor David Dumville

Scholars from the US, Netherlands, Ireland, and the UK gathered in Aberdeen to ‘begin the journey’ into understanding the history and significance of the fragments discovered and their relationship to ‘The Book of Kells’.

Professor Dumville added: “When we put the fragments together it became clear that we were looking at the parts of a quite remarkable book. It is bigger in physical size than ‘The Book of Kells’, and it required significant investment for books of this scale to be produced in the period.

“In terms of both decoration and script, the new discovery is not as elaborate but is still of a high level. It is close in date to ‘The Book of Kells’: it may pre-date it and could have been a step along the way to creating a more polished version as the style of writing is remarkably similar.

“We can date it to a period between AD 750 and AD 850 as there was a step-change in the quality of Insular script at this time but we cannot yet narrow that date-range.

“Some scholars within the group thought it likely that it was produced before ‘The Book of Kells’, but equally it is possible that it belongs later in the period as resources began to decline.

“What it certainly offers us is another window into early mediaeval Insular book-production. The finding of these fragments demonstrates that there were other manuscripts of the same scale as ‘The Book of Kells’ being made at around the same time.

“This raises questions about how much of this was done. It looks as though there was in Britain and Ireland a period around AD 800, just before the Viking Age began to bite, when the human and material resources became available to permit great religious and intellectual projects to be conceived and carried to fruition.

“That was almost certainly the case at Iona Abbey in the Hebrides, and we must remember the archaeological evidence excavated at Portmahomack in Easter Ross which coheres with this analysis.

“It was an era of great cultural flowering in the various different countries of Christian Western Europe. In Britain and Ireland it was brought to a juddering halt by a heathen Scandinavian invasion, one reaction to which was the creation of the kingdoms of Scotland and England.” 

Notes for Editors

Issued by the Communications Team
Directorate of External Relations, University of Aberdeen, King's College, Aberdeen
Tel: +44 (0)1224 272014

Contact: Joanne Milne
Issued on: 24 November 2015


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