One Page from the Book of Kells and What It Can Tell Us

kells1One just has to walk into the room where now the Book of Kells is kept to realise its importance and the reverence with which it is held. Bathed in low light, guarded and surrounded by a huge glass case, the presentation is almost religious as visitors pass by with hushed silence.


Such is the power of the book, the pinnacle of monastic work, whose elegant beauty and sublime colours still evoke wonder in all today. Less readily known, of course, is the series of typos and mistakes in transmission within the text of the book itself.


The elaborate techniques used to utilize the space of the pages effectively. The common occurrence of lines being placed aboveproceeding ones. To look at the book is to see its beauty, to study it is to realise the number of difficulties in its text and its conception.


Few books have such a hold over a culture’s heart. To many Irish it would be unbelievable that the pinnacle of their monastic ancestors achievement is not the accepted version of the New Testament that Christianity has today; that even some of the most beautiful pages have within themselves mistakes which forced the scribes to work lines around the art.


The Book of Kells itself is believed to have been written around 800AD, perhaps at Iona but its precise location is not certain. It contains the four gospels of the New Testament based on the Vulgate text of St Jerome, certain older Latin translations, canon tables, summaries of the gospels and prefaces characterizing the evangelists. It is made of Vellum, a form of prepared calfskin, written in a script known as insular majuscule and contains 340 folios, many highly decorated.


The original focus of this topic was to try to identify the “pater noster qui in caelis es” from the Biblia Sacra Vulgata of Stuttgart in the corresponding passage from the Book of Kells. The Our Father is one of Christianity’s most well-known prayers.


Surprising so, that when we look at this prayer within the Book of Kells we find a different transmission, “pater noster qui es in caelis”. The difference is small, simply “our father who is in heaven” as opposed to “our father who in heaven is”.


However, how do we suppose which is the correct transmission? When it comes to the word of god, precision is the key. Schisms have developed over such issues; the Catholic and Orthodox Churches had once split because of missing lines from a treaty. Indeed the Irish and Roman Churches argued over the correct date of Easter among other topics and this division continued until the Synod of Whitby, though the practice continued for at least another hundred years at Iona.


The Biblia Sacra Vulgata is a relatively new edition of St Jerome’s translations. It was first published in 1969 and it also contains all the variant readings of Jerome’s New Testament from the diverse publications that have survived. Its aim is to recreate the early or original text, free from scribal errors and mis-transmission.


Why the differences of transmission within the Irish Book of Kells from the accepted version?


It could be due to simple errors, as any mistakes made could not be easily removed without much work being involved. It may also be that the priests themselves were working from memory rather than a distinct text in front of them. Or these mistakes could be deliberate, perhaps another example of the differences in belief that developed between the Celtic and Roman Churches.


Another interesting issue is that of the art within the Book of Kells itself.


kells2Although undoubtedly the source of the books fame and beauty, it was not without difficulty that this art was included. This is clearly seen from the page we have to view here. The final decorated “P”, of the “pater noster…” has here forced the scribe to begin the line at the logical point where the ‘P’ begins. However, to achieve this, a considerable gap was left above this line.


Rather than waste vellum, which is an expensive product to produce, the scribe simply begins the second line above the first. To denote this, an illustration is included to designate that the next line begins here.


Words are squeezed-in, in a number of places, too, such as the last word “terra”. This could be evidence of course that each scribe had a certain amount to fit on each page, and as such, space was valuable and all sorts of tricks were used to save and use any excess space.


One of the tricks we see used within the text to save space, and perhaps time, is the use of a number of abbreviations. So the word “sanctifectur” is abbreviated to “scificetur” and we see it again in the bottom line with the final three words, were the “et” is abbreviated. Luckily the use of abbreviations is common (supposedly this form of shorthand was invented by Cicero’s slave Tiro) and as such we have an idea of what they stand for. Though their use implies anyone using the book would have to be familiar with them.


The sheer beauty of the text, the abbreviations used, lines juxtaposed, tells us that this book was not for everyday use. It is commonly accepted that it was used rather for special occasions such as Easter or Christmas services. The power of this book was not in its words but the mesmerising beauty of the way they were presented.