By John Banville
The story of the Book of Kells, of the mystery surrounding its provenance and the anonymity of the master scribes and artists who executed it, is a splendid romance. Few emblems of medieval European civilisation have caught the imagination of the international public to the same degree. Every year tens of thousands of visitors to Dublin file through the Long Room of Trinity College to view its intricately decorated pages. The artistry, colour, exuberance and wit that went into the making of this illuminated version of the four Gospels, described in the 11th-century Annals of Ulster as “primh-mind iarthair domain”, “the most precious object of the western world”, are an enduring source of awe and admiration. Here is a spark of brilliant light shining for us out of the Dark Ages.
The “Book of Kells” is probably a misnomer. Certainly the book was kept at Kells, a pleasant town in County Meath some 40 miles northwest of Dublin, from the beginning of the 11th century until it was sent to Dublin in the early 1650s for safe-keeping. It is not known for sure, however, where it originated. The best scholarly guess is that it was composed, or at least that its composition was begun, by Columban monks on the small, fertile island of Iona, off Mull on the west coast of Scotland, around the year 800.
The book, or codex, the more precise term for a manuscript volume, was from the start closely linked with the name of Columcille. The Annals of Ulster, for instance, refer to it specifically as “the great Gospel of Colum Cille”. This saint – Columcille translates as the “Dove of the Church” – is a potent figure in medieval Insular history, that is, the history of Ireland and Britain. He is Christian Ireland’s St George, but without the great-sword, and the pious counterpart, for generations of Irish schoolchildren, of the legendary warrior-hero Cuchulainn.
Columcille, or Columba, as he was known to the Latin-speaking world, was born in 521 or 522 into the aristocratic family of the O’Neills of Tír Connaill, roughly present-day Donegal. At the beginning of the 560s he travelled with 12 companions, in echo of Christ and his apostles, on a mission to Scotland to convert the Picts. In 563 he settled on Iona and founded a settlement there, which was to endure for centuries. Members of the community would go on to set up other monastic houses, including one on the great rock of Lindisfarne in Northumberland, established by the Ionan monk Aidan in 635.
At the close of the 8th century the tranquil life of Iona was violently disrupted by the arrival of the Viking longships. Raids were recorded in 795; in 802, when the settlement was “burned by the heathens”, as the Ulster annalists put it; and in 806, when 68 inhabitants were slaughtered. The following year a part of the monastic community transferred to Kells, where there was a royal hill-fort owned by the southern branch of Columcille’s family. The annals speak of Kells at this time as the “noue ciuitatis” of the Columban monks. The word “ciuitatis” means place of refuge, the circumference of which, according to one historical source, could be measured by an angel with a reed in his hand – it must have been a small fort indeed – which possibly accounts for the depiction in the Book of Kells of a number of angels holding what are probably reeds.
This last is one of many fascinating conjectures put forward by Bernard Meehan in The Book of Kells, a sumptuous – it is the only word for it – volume containing more than 80 pages from the manuscript reproduced full-size and in full, ravishing colour, as well as five comprehensive chapters on the historical background, the elements of the book, the manner of decoration, the work of the scribes and artists involved, and the physical features of the book.
Meehan, head of research collections and keeper of manuscripts at Trinity College, is surely the world’s foremost contemporary authority on the Book of Kells, which he has lived with and worked on throughout his professional career. His new book is a triumph of scholarly investigation and interpretation. Although he maintains an appropriately sober tone throughout, it is clear that he finds this marvellous artefact – indeed, this work of art – as fascinating and compellingly mysterious today as he did when he first set himself to unravelling its secrets some 30 years ago.
One of the endearing features of this version of the Gospels is that it is not particularly accurate. “While the scripts of the Book of Kells have a unique verve and beauty,” Meehan writes, “its text is erratic, with many errors resulting from eyeskip (where the scribe’s eye has jumped from a word to its next appearance, omitting the intervening text or letter).” This calls down a rare but stern professorial rebuke: “There is considerable carelessness in transcription.” Reading this, one’s deplorably feckless imagination wanders back through the smoke of the centuries to that frail little isle afloat in the wild Atlantic, where in a stone beehive hut a lonely scribe, hunched with quill in hand over his sheet of vellum, halts suddenly as he spots a mistranscription, claps a hand to his brow and utters whatever might have been the monastic equivalent of “Oh, shit!”
Those poor scribes – there were four of them, “prosaically termed A, B, C and D”, as Meehan sympathetically remarks – had their work cut out for them. The Book of Kells was made from 180 calf skins – an indication, by the way, of the comparative wealth of the monastic community, for in those days cows were money – and of the complete work, 680 pages remain, some folios as well as the original binding having been lost or destroyed. The scribes, employing broad quill pens held at right angles to the page, wrote with surprising speed, at an estimated rate of about 180 words per hour; the illustrator-artists, of course, would have worked much more slowly.
An elegant playfulness is evident throughout, with contingencies often being turned into occasions of bravura inventiveness. Meehan points out that to achieve an evenly justified right-hand margin, sometimes the final letter or letters of a word had to be inscribed below the remainder, and offers the example from the bottom of the verso of folio 276, where the final t of the word dixit is placed below the rest of the word, forming a flamboyant cross with the second stroke of the x. Elsewhere, too, necessity offered opportunity. The major illustrated pages would have taken very much longer to execute than script pages, and in order not to delay the process of transcription, the reverse sides would have been left blank to be filled in later with text. “Having to guess how much space to leave on these occasions,” Meehan writes, “the scribes normally erred on the conservative side, knowing that space could be filled with decoration if necessary.” Send in the artists.
The Irish have a weakness for puns, and this is as evident in the Book of Kells as it is in Finnegans Wake, although in the former the puns are for the most part visual, for no monk would think to tamper with the Gospel texts. A delightful example of visual punning occurs on the recto of folio 63. Meehan cites another scholar, George Henderson, identifying an insect on this page as a fly, “consistent with its place in the text, at Matthew 12.24, where the Pharisees say, ‘This man casteth not out devils but by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils’, for the name ‘Beelzebub’ is glossed in the list of Hebrew names in the Book of Kells as meaning ‘having flies’ or ‘Lord of flies’.”
Matters of doctrinal dispute, too, give rise to the occasional sly squib. The early Irish Church had its differences with Rome, for example on the thorny question of the dating of Easter, which led to a “great dispute” and a resulting Irish hostility towards St Peter, the founder of the Roman Church. According to the Venerable Bede, the Columbans had been persuaded in the early 700s to adopt the Roman method for fixing the date for Easter, but as Meehan points out, evidence in the Book of Kells points to a lingering resentment among the scribes and artists of Iona. Thus on the recto of folio 180, a line of text referring to Peter’s denial of Christ incorporates the figure of a hare, an animal known for its timidity.
An even more ingenious leporine dig is spotted by Meehan, with equal ingenuity, on the verso of folio 87. “The hare here, forming the S of Simile, gazes back overleaf to folio 87r, where Peter expresses doubt about following Jesus. It is precisely on the other side of the leaf from the pet of petrus, suggesting a deliberate association, to Peter’s disadvantage, between the words petrus and Simile and the animal, Peter being ‘like to’ a hare.” We should look with indulgence upon these harmless sallies. After all, as James Joyce pointed out, the Church of Rome was built on a pun, when Christ chose Peter (Petrus) as the rock (petra) of its foundation.
The Book of Kells is endlessly fascinating, boundlessly inspiring. “For many in Ireland,” Meehan remarks, “it symbolizes the power of learning, the impact of Christianity on the life of the country, and the spirit of artistic imagination.” So it is for many in the world at large, also. You do not have to be a Christian to appreciate the book’s beauty and power, expressing as it does our love of the natural world and at the same time the pathos of our yearning towards transcendence. In the beginning was the word, declares the Gospel of St John, and thereafter, we might add, came the transcribers of that word.