THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

18 December 2013

Put It In Your Pocket

This small format copy of the Gospels (one of our most recent uploads to Digitised Manuscripts) is about the size of a modern pocket dictionary and was produced in Ireland in the late eighth or early ninth century.  The original work contained initials with interlace decoration and miniatures of the Evangelists, of which only the portrait of  St Luke remains (see below).  The stylised image of Luke is within a framework containing zoomorphic patterns characteristic of Irish decoration in this period.

Add_ms_40618_f021v
Evangelist miniature of St Luke, Ireland, 750-850, Add MS 40618, f. 21v

To make the book small and portable, a tiny pointed Irish minuscule script has been used, written with a very fine quill pen, and there are numerous abbreviations throughout.  Some are based on the shorthand devised by Cicero’s secretary, Tiro, in the Classical period, and revived for use in the copying of scholarly and religious texts in the 8th century.  For example, on line 1 of the right hand column below, ‘÷’ stands for est in factus est.

Add_ms_40618_f050r
Text page with decorated initials 'In P'(rincipio), Ireland, 750-850, Add MS 40618, f. 50r

This Gospel book from Ireland was still in use in England in the 10th century and was ‘modernised’ at this time. The original interlace initials were scratched off with a knife, and Anglo-Saxon style initials with zoomorphic decoration were painted over.  Of particular interest is that this is the earliest surviving example of the use of lapis lazuli in a manuscript in Britain (see Michelle Brown (2007), p. 17).

At the same time, two miniatures painted in the mid 10th century were inserted.  One is of St Luke again, this time in profile, seated on a large cushioned throne with an ox (his Evangelist symbol) emerging from the drapery above his head, holding a golden book.

Add_ms_40618_f022v
Added miniature of St Luke, England, 920-950, Add MS 40618, f. 22v

The style of this miniature and the one of St John below is characteristic of Canterbury manuscripts; they are richly painted, with a generous use of gold and brightly coloured pigments. However, the copious hanging drapery visible in both images is more a feature of Carolingian style and these examples are unique in Anglo-Saxon illumination.

Add_ms_40618_f049v
Added miniature of St John, England, 920-950, Add MS 40618, f. 49v

The last page of St John’s Gospel was re-written, as the colophon on f. 66v states, by an Anglo-Saxon scribe, Eduardus diaconus, probably at the same time that the decoration was added.  It has been suggested that there are stylistic and technical links with additions to other manuscripts created on behalf of King Athelstan, such as those in the Athelstan Psalter (Cotton MS Galba A XVIII).

Add_ms_40618_f066r
Added final page of St John’s gospel with scribal colophon, England, 920-950, Add MS 40618, f.66r

- Chantry Westwell

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