Friday, 2 September 2016

The Care of Books in Early Irish Monasteries

September 3 is the feast of the bookish Saint Lon-garadh. Below is a 1909 paper from the journal, Library, on the traditions associated with Irish saints and books. It is an interesting read and includes many episodes from the Lives of our native saints, including the story of the book-satchels falling on the death of Saint Lon-garadh. The original volume includes footnotes which I have not been able to reproduce. We are dealing here with scholarship which is now over a century old, so I daresay not all of this paper's contentions would still be upheld by specialists in this field. There is still much to enjoy though for those of us interested in the saints of Ireland:


DURING the past fifty years much has been written about the learning and artistic skill of the monks of early Ireland. The evidence of this culture consists of records of the learning of particular Irishmen from the sixth to the ninth centuries, of the relics of their skill, and of the attraction Ireland had at this time for English students. The English crowded the Irish schools, although the Canterbury school was not full. The city of Armagh was divided into three sections, one being called Trian-Saxon, the Saxon's third, from the great number of Saxon students living there. Bede's account of the visits of Englishmen to Ireland, and of the willingness of the Irish to receive, feed, and lend them books is too well known for quotation here.

In some respects the evidence of book-culture in Ireland in these early centuries is inconsistent. The well-known quarrel over the Cathach Psalter, and the great esteem in which scribes were held, suggest that books were very scarce; and the practice of enshrining them in cumdachs, or book-covers, points to the same conclusion. On the other hand Bede's statement that the Irish had enough books to lend English students by no means indicates a scarcity of them; nor does the fact that the ' Annals of the Four Masters ' record the deaths of as many as sixty-one eminent scribes, forty of whom belong to the eighth century. In some of the monasteries a special room for books was provided, for the ' Annals of Tigernach ' refer to the house of manuscripts ; an apartment of this kind is particularly mentioned as being saved from the flames when Armagh monastery was burned (1020). Another fact suggesting an abundance of books was the appointment of a librarian, which sometimes took place. Although a special bookroom and officer are only to be met with much later than the best age of Irish monachism, yet we may reasonably assume them to be the natural culmination of an old and established practice of making and using books.

Such statements, however, are not necessarily contradictory. Manuscripts over which the cleverest scribes and illuminators had spent much time and pains would be jealously preserved in shrines ; still, when we remember how many precious fruits of the past must have perished, the number of beautiful Irish manuscripts still extant goes to prove that even books of this character existed in fair numbers. 'Workaday' copies of books would be made as well, maybe in comparatively large numbers, and these no doubt would be used very freely. Besides books properly so called, the religious used waxed tablets of wood, which might be confounded with books, and were indeed books in which the fugitive pieces of the time were written. A story about St. Ciaran tells us that he wrote on waxed tablets, which are called in one place ' polaire-Chiarain ' (Ciaran's tablets), while in two other places the whole collection of tablets is called 'leabhar', i.e. a book. Considering all things Bede was without doubt quite correct in saying the Irish had enough books to lend to foreign students.

We know little of the library economy of the early Irish if, indeed, such a term may be applied at all in connexion with their use of books. But fortunately relics of two of their means of preserving books survive satchels and cumdachs.

They used satchels or wallets to carry their books about with them. We are told Patrick once met a party of clerics, accompanied by gillies, with books in their girdles ; and he gave them the hide he had sat and slept on for twenty years to make a wallet. Columba is said to have made satchels. When these satchels were not carried they were hung upon pegs driven into the wall of the monastery chamber. One story in Adamnan's 'Life of Columba ' tells us that on the death of a scholar and book-miser named Longarad, whose person and books had been cursed by Columba, all the book- satchels in Ireland slipped off their pegs.

A modern writer visiting the Abyssinian convent of Souriani has seen a room which, when we remember the connection between Egyptian and Celtic monachism, we cannot help thinking must closely resemble an ancient Irish cell. In the room the disposition of the manuscripts was very original.
'A wooden shelf was carried in the Egyptian style round the walls, at the height of the top of the door. . . . Underneath the shelf various long wooden pegs projected from the wall ; they were each about a foot and a half long, and on them hung the Abyssinian manuscripts, of which this curious library was entirely composed. The books of Abyssinia are bound in the usual way, sometimes in red leather, and sometimes in wooden boards, which are occasionally elaborately carved in rude and coarse devices : they are then enclosed in a case tied up with leathern thongs ; to this case is attached a strap for the convenience of carrying the volume over the shoulders, and by these straps the books were hung to the wooden pegs, three or four on a peg, or more if the books were small : their usual size was that of a small, very thick quarto. The appearance of the room, fitted up in this style, together with the presence of long staves, such as the monks of all the oriental churches lean upon at the time of prayer, resembled less a library than a barrack or guard-room, where the soldiers had hung their knapsacks and cartridge boxes against the wall.'
The few old satchels which are extant are black with age, and the characteristic decoration of diagonal lines and interlaced markings is nearly worn away. Three of them are preserved in England and Ireland : those of the Book of Armagh, in Trinity College, Dublin, of the Irish missal, in Corpus Christi, Cambridge, and of St. Moedoc's Reliquary, in the museum of the Royal Irish Academy. The Cambridge wallet is decorated with diagonal lines and circles ; leather straps are fixed to it, by which it was slung round the neck. The Armagh wallet is made of one piece of leather, folded to form a case a foot long, a little more than a foot broad, and two-and-a-half inches thick. The Book of Armagh does not fit it properly. Interlaced work and zoomorphs decorate the leather. Remains of rough straps are still attached to the sides.

The second special feature of Irish book-economy was the preservation of manuscripts in cumdachs, or rectangular boxes, made just large enough for the manuscripts they are intended to enshrine. As in the case of the wallet, the cumdach was not peculiar to Ireland, although the finest examples which have come down to us were made in that country. They are referred to several times in early Irish annals. Bishop Assicus is said to have made quadrangular book-covers in honour of Patrick. In the 'Annals of the Four Masters' is recorded, under the year 937, a reference to the cumdach of the Book of Armagh. 'Canoin Phadraig was covered by Donchadh, son of Flann, king of Ireland.' In 1006 the 'Annals' note that the Book of Kells 'the Great Gospel of Columb Cille' was stolen at night from the western erdomh of the Great Church of Ceannanus. This was the principal relic of the western world, on account of its singular cover ; and it was found after twenty nights and two months, its gold having been stolen off it, and a sod over it.' These cumdachs are now lost; so also is the jewelled case of the Gospels of St. Arnoul at Metz, and that belonging to the Book of Durrow.

By good hap, several cumdachs of the greatest interest and importance are still preserved for our inspection. One of them, the Silver Shrine of St. Patrick's Gospels which, by the way, did not belong to Patrick is a very peculiar case. It consists of three covers : the first, or inner, is of yew, and was perhaps made in the fifth century ; the second, of copper, silver-plated, is of later make ; and the third, or outermost, is of silver, and was probably made in the fourteenth century. The cumdach of the Stowe Missal (1023) is a much more beautiful example. It is of oak, covered with plates of silver. The lower or more ancient side bears a cross within a rectangular frame. In the centre of the cross is a crystal set in an oval frame. The decoration of the four panels consists of metal plates, the ornament being a chequer-work of squares and triangles. The lid has a similar cross and frame, but the cross is set with pearls and metal bosses, a crystal in the centre, and a large jewel at each end of the cross. The panels consist of silver-gilt plates embellished with figures of saints. The sides, which are decorated with enamelled bosses and open-work designs, are imperfect. On the box are inscriptions in Irish, such as the following : 'Pray for Dunchad, descendant of Taccan, of the family of Cluain, who made this ' ; ' A blessing of God on every soul according to its merit'; 'Pray for Donchadh, son of Brian, for the King of Ireland'; 'And for Macc Raith, descendant of Donnchad, for the King of Cashel.' Other cumdachs are those in the Royal Irish Academy, for Molaise's Gospels (c. 1001-25), for Columba's Psalter (1084), and those in Trinity College, Dublin, for Dimma's book (1150), and for the Book of St. Moling. There are also the cumdachs for Cairnech's Calendar and of Caillen ; the library of St. Gall possesses still one more silver cumdach, which is probably Irish.

These are the earliest relics we have of what was undoubtedly an old and established method of enshrining books, going back as far as Patrick's time, if it be correct that Bishop Assicus made them, or if the first case of the Silver Shrine is as old as it is believed to be. It is natural to make a beautiful covering for a book which is both beautiful and sacred. All the volumes upon which the Irish artist lavished his talent were invested with sacred attributes. Chroniclers would have us believe they were sometimes miraculously produced. In the life of Cronan is a story telling how an expert scribe named Dimma copied the four Gospels. Dimma could only devote a day to the task, whereupon Cronan bade him begin at once and continue until sunset. But the sun did not set for forty days, and by that time the copy was finished. The manuscript written for Cronan is possibly the book of Dimma, which bears the inscription: 'It is finished. A prayer for Dimma, who wrote it for God, and a blessing.'

It was believed such books could not be injured. St. Ciarnan's copy of the Gospels fell into a lake, but was uninjured; St. Cronan's copy fell into Loch Cre, and remained under water forty days without injury; even fire could not harm St. Cainnech's case of books. Nor is it surprising they should be looked upon as sacred. The scribes and illuminators who took such loving care to make their work perfect, and the craftsmen who wrought beautiful shrines for the books so made, were animated with the feeling and spirit which impels men to erect beautiful churches to testify to the glory of their Creator. As Dimma says, 'they wrote them for God'.




  1. Very very nice article, congrats Marcella.
    I've been wondering how these books were catalogued, organized or... Maybe the "miracle" of Longarhad was a way to classify them, from which came the "confusion" of books after his death. It's a matter of much room let to the imagination, don't you think? I link both entries to my Wordpress blog (

    1. So glad you enjoyed the article and found it of interest. Thank you for linking to it and also for all your support. Beannacht Dé leat.