The book of Kells is an illuminated book of the gospels written in Latin by monks from the Columban Abbey of Kells, a place north of Dublin. Some of the folios were scribed in Lindisfarne and Iona. The book was probably completed about 800 AD and kept in Kells until the Abbey was dissolved in the 12th century. Now it resides in Trinity College, Dublin.
I saw it there while attending a conference about publishing. We complained, as all authors do, about the difficulties of publishing. The modern author has life easy compared with the difficulties of publishing 1200 years ago
To make vellum for the Book of Kells purchase 100 calves. Slaughter them and skin them. Stretch the skin on a frame called a herse. Clean, bleach, scape and stretch it. Abrade with pumice and treat with lime or chalk.
Each calf will produce enough skin for 3 double sheets, bifolios, and one single folio. The Book of Kells has 340 folios, another 30 or so have been lost over the ages.
Next, make the ink. It is tannic acid, obtained from oak gall mixed with iron (ferrous) sulphate. An old nail kept in vinegar for a while will do. Then add some gum Arabic to make it stick to the page. The ink will be acidic (pH 2-5) but should not be so acid that it erodes the vellum. It writes a pale blueish colour which blackens with exposure to air as the ferrous iron turns to ferric. The first recipe for gall ink was recorded by Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD).
Then mark out your bifolios with horizontal and vertical guide lines for the scribes. Then what about pigments for the illuminations?
Vermillion was from cinnabar, toxic mercuric sulphide. Saffron yellow from crocuses, cochineal red from ground up cochineal beetles. Ochre could be red, yellow, brown or orange. Then metallic gold and silver are required. I am not sure lapis lazuli was available in Europe at the time the book of Kells was scribed. It comes from Afghanistan and was so valuable that it was only used for important figures. In the middle ages, Mary, mother of Christ, usually had a lapis lazuli cloak but less important people like the apostles had to make do with cheaper pigments.
Then the scribes have to write in it. The book of Kells is the four gospels written in Latin in a script called Insular majuscule, ᵹ § are the only similar script letters available on Word. This script was developed in Ireland and used for religious documents there and in English monasteries.
What should the scribes write? They were instructed to copy the four gospels. These were written in Hebrew and Aramaic, Mark’s gospel first about 80 AD. At the Council of Rome in 382 AD Pope Damasus I commissioned St Jerome to translate all the religious texts, including the gospels, into Latin. This document became the Latin Vulgate Bible and was adopted by the Catholic Church as the Official Bible at the Council of Trent in 1505. At some stage the Bible was canonised, that is, the church ruled that it was complete and could not be added to nor anything subtracted from the Vulgate Bible.
It was from the Latin Vulgate Bible that the Columban monks copied the gospels into the book of Kells though some parts are from an earlier text. Over the centuries people have added commentaries and indications of modern chapter headings.
The Abbey of Kells suffered plunder and pillage by the Vikings many times but the book survives. It is now on display at Trinity College Dublin where I saw it recently. You can see it on your computer at this link.
The next time your printer runs out of ink or Word does not work properly for you, think of the Monks and the trouble they took to produce the Book of Kells.
Do you think any publication of ours will last 1200 years? Yes, I nominate the genetic code of man and other living things as the most important and long lasting document. So too, the Periodic Table and Newton’s Laws of Motion. Later, Einstein’s theories. We all owe a debt to Darwin for helping us understand the living world. Have you any suggestions of modern day books that will survive.
Of course these works are not published on vellum but reside in a computer. First take a silicon chip, read and understand Alan Turing’s work, learn how to generate electricity etc…
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