Ink of the West

[This is taken from David N. Carvalho's Forty Centuries of Ink, originally published in 1904.]

Book of Kells



THE ancient history of the art of writing in more northern sections of the Western world, William Nicolson, Arch-Deacon of Carlisle, author of “The English Historical Library,” London, 1696, tells very quaintly:

“The Danes register’d their more considerable transactions upon Rocks; or on parts of them, hewen into various Shapes and Figures. On these they engrav’d such Inscriptions as were proper for their Heathen Alters, Triumphal Arches, Sepulchral Monuments and Genealogical Histories of their Ancestors. Their writings of less concern (as Letters, Almanacks, &c.) were engraven upon Wood: And because Beech was most plentiful in Demnark, (tho Firr and Oak be so in Norway and Sweden) and most commonly employ’d in these Services, form the word Bog (which in their Language is the Name of that sort of Wood) they and all other Northern Nations have the Name of Book.  The poorer sort used Bark; and the Horns of Rain-Deer and Elks were often finely polish’d and shaped into Books of several Leaves. Many of these old Calendars are likewise upon Bones of Beasts and Fishes: But the Inscriptions on Tapestry, Bells, Parchment and Paper, are of later use.

“Some other Monuments may be known to be of a Danish Extraction, tho they carry nothing of a Runic Inscription. Few of their Temples were cover’d; and the largest observ’d by Wormius (at Kialernes in Island) was 120 foot in length, and 60 in breadth.

“The next Monument of Age is their Edda Islandorum; the meaning of which Appellation they that publish the Book hardly pretend to understand.  As far as I can give the Reader any satisfaction, he is to. know that Island was first inhabited (in the year 874) by a Colony of Norwegians; who brought hither the Traditions of their Forefathers, in certain metrical Composures, which (as is usual with Men transplanted into a Foreign Land) were here more zealously and carefully preserv’d and kept in memory than by the Men of Norway themselves.  About 240 years after this (A. D. 1114) their History began to be written by one Saemund, surnam’d Frode or the wise; who (in nine years’ travel through Italy, Germany and England) had amass’d together a mighty Collection of Historical Treatises. With these he return’d full fraught into Island; where he also drew up an account of the affairs of his own Country. Many of his Works are now said to be lost: But there is still an Edda, consisting of several Odes (whence I suspect its Name is derived) written by many several hands, and at different times, which bears his Name.  The Book is a Collection of Mythological Fables, relating to the ancient State and Behaviour of the Great Woden and his followers, in terms poetical and adapted to the Service of those that were employ’d in the composure of their old Rhymes and Sonnets.

“There is likewise extant a couple of Norwegian Histories of good Authentic Credit; which explains a great many particulars relating to the Exploits of the Danish Kings in Great Britain, which our own Historians have either wholly omitted or very darkly recorded. The former of these was written soon after the year 1130, by one Theodoric a Monk, who acknowledges his whole Fabrick to be built upon Tradition, and that the old Northern History is no where now to be had save only ab Islendingorum antiquis Carminibus.

“ ‘Tis a very discouraging Censure which Sir William Temple passes upon all the Accounts given us of the Affairs of this Island, before the Romans came and Invaded it. The Tales (says he) we have of what pass’d before Caesar’s Time, of Brute and his Trojans, of many Adventures and Successions, are cover’d with the Rust of Time, or Involv’d in the Vanity of Fables or pretended Traditions; which seem to all Men obscure or uncertain, but to be forged at pleasure by the Wit or Folly of their first Authors, and not to be regarded. And again;

I know few ancient Authors upon this Subject (of the British History) worth the pains of perusal, and of Dividing or Refining so little Gold out of so much course Oar, or from so much Dross. But some other Inferiour People may think this worth their pains; since all Men are not born to be Ambassadors:

And, accordingly, we are told of a very Eminent Antiquary who has thought fit to give his Labours in this kind the Title of Aurum, ex Stercore.  There’s a deal of Servile Drudgery requir’d to the Discovery of these riches, and such as every Body will not stoop to: for few Statesmen and Courtiers (as one is lately said to have observ’d in his own Case) care for travelling in Ireland, or Wales, purely to learn the Language.

“A diligent Enquirer into our old British Antiquities would rather observe (with Industrious Leland) that the poor Britains, being harass’d by those Roman Conquerours with continual Wars, could neither have leisure nor thought for the penning of a Regular History: and that afterwards their Back-Friends, the Saxons, were (for a good while) an Illiterate Generation; and minded nothing but Killing and taking Possession. So that ‘tis a wonder that even so much remains of the Story of those Times as the sorry Fragments of Gildas; who appears to have written in such a Consternation, that what he has left us looks more like the Declamation of an Orator, hired to expose the miserable Wretches, than any Historical Account of their Sufferings.”

Palgrave asserts that reading and writing were no longer mysteries after the pagan age, but were still acquirements almost wholly confined to the clergy.

The word “clericus” or “clerk,” became synonymous with penman, the sense in which it is still most usually employed. If a man could write, or even read, his knowledge was considered as proof presumptive that he was in holy orders. If kings and great men had occasion to authenticate any document, they subscribed the “sign” of the cross opposite to the place where the “clerk” had written their name. Hence we say, to sign a deed or a letter.

Books (MSS.) were extremely rare amongst the Scandinavian and northern nations. Before their communication with the Latin missionaries, wood appears to have been the material upon which their runes were chiefly written: and the verb “write,” which is derived from a Teutonic root, signifying to scratch or tear, is one of the testimonies of the usage.  Their poems were graven upon small staves or rods, one line upon each face of the rod; and the Old English word “stave,” as applied to a stanza, is probably a relic of the practice, which, in the early ages, prevailed in the West. Vellum or parchment afterwards supplied the place of these materials. Real paper, manufactured from the pellicle of the Egyptian reed or papyras, was still used occasionally in Italy, but it was seldom exported to the countries beyond the Alps; and the elaborate preparation of the vellum, upon which much greater care was bestowed than in the modern manufacture, rendered it a costly article; so much so, that a painstaking clerk could find it worth his while to erase the writing of an old book, in order to use the blank pages for another manuscript.  The books thus rewritten were called “codices rescripti,” or “palimpsests.” The evanescent traces of the first layer of characters may occasionally be discerned beneath the more recent text which has been imposed upon them.

In Ireland, first known as the Isle of Saints, was founded in the seventh century a great school of learning which included writing and illuminating, which passed to the English by way of the monasteries created by Irish monks in Scotland. Their earliest existing MSS. are said to belong to that period. In the Irish scriptoriums (rooms or cells for writing) of the Benedictine monasteries where they were prepared, so particular were the monks that the scribes were forbidden to use artificial light for fear of injuring the manuscripts.

Most interesting and entertaining are the observations of Falconer Madan, a modern scholar of some repute. Of the history of writing in ink during the “Dark Ages” he says:

“In the seventh and eighth centuries we find the first tendency to form national hands, resulting in the Merovingian or Frankish hand, the Lombardic of Italy, and the Visigothic of Spain. These are the first difficult bands which we encounter; and when we remember that the object of writing is to be clear and distinct, and that the test of a good style is that it seizes on the essential points in which letters differ, and puts aside the flourishes and ornaments which disguise the simple form, we shall see how much a strong influence was needed to prevent writing from becoming obscure and degraded.  That influence was found in Charles the Great.

“In the field of writing it has been granted to no person but Charles the Great to influence profoundly the history of the alphabet. With rare insight and rarer taste he discountenanced the prevalent Merovingian hand, and substituted in eclectic hand, known as the Carolingian Minuscule, which way still be regarded as a model of clearness and elegance. The chief instrument in this reform was Alcuin of York, whom Charles placed, partly for this purpose, at the head of the School of Tours in A. D. 796. The selection of an Englishman for the post naturally leads us to inquire what hands were then used in England, and what amount of English influence the Carolingian Minuscule, the foundation of our modern styles, exhibits.

“If we gaze in wonder on the personal influence of Charles the Great in reforming handwriting, we shall be still more struck by the spectacle presented to us by Ireland in the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries. It is the great marvel in the history of writing. Modern historians have at last appreciated the blaze of life, religions, literary, and artistic, which was kindled in the ‘Isle of Saints’ within a century after St. Patrick’s coming (about A. D.  450); how the enthusiasm kindled by Christianity in the Celtic nature so far transcended the limits of the island, and indeed of Great Britain, that Irish missionaries and monks were soon found in the chief religious centres of Gaul, Germany, Switzerland, and North Italy, while foreigners found their toilsome way to Ireland to learn Greek! But less prominence has been given to the artistic side of this great reflex movement from West to East than to the other two. The simple facts attest that in the seventh century, when our earliest existing Irish MSS. were written, we find not only a style of writing (or indeed two) distinctive, national, and of a high type of excellence, but also a school of illumination which, in the combined lines of mechanical accuracy and intricacy, of fertile invention of form and figure and of striking arrangements of colour, has never been surpassed. And this is in the seventh century—the nadir of the rest of Europe!

“It is certain that Alcuin was trained in Hiberno-Saxon calligraphy, so that we may be surprised to find that the writing which, under Charles the Great, he developed at Tours, bears hardly a trace of the style to which he was accustomed. En revanche, in the ornamentation and illumination of the great Carolingian volumes which have come down to our times, we find those constant, persistent traces of English and Irish work which we seek for in vain in the plainer writing.

“This minuscule superseded all others almost throughout the empire of Charles the Great, and during the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries underwent very little modification. Even in the two next centuries, though it is subject to general modification, national differences are hardly observable, and we can only distinguish two large divisions, the group of Northern Europe (England, North France, Italy, and Spain). The two exceptions are, that Germany, both in writing and painting, has always stood apart, and lags behind the other nations of Western Europe in its development, and that England retains her Hiberno-Saxon hand till after the Conquest of 1066. It may be noted that the twelfth century produced the finest writing ever known—a large, free and flowing form of the minuscule of Tours. In the next century comes in the angular Gothic hand, the difference between which and the twelfth century hand may be fairly understood by a comparison of ordinary German and Roman type. In the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries the writing of each century may be discerned, while the general tendency is towards complication, use of abbreviations and contractions, and development of unessential parasitic forms of letters.

“The Book of Kells, the chief treasure of Trinity College, Dublin, is so-called from having been long preserved at the Monastery of Kells, founded by Columba himself. Stolen from thence, it eventually passed into Archbishop Ussher’s hands, and, with other parts of his library, to Dublin. The volume contains the Four Gospels in Latin, ornamented with extraordinary freedom, elaboration, and beauty. Written apparently in the seventh century, it exhibits, both in form and colour, all the signs of the full development and maturity of the Irish style, and must of necessity have been preceded by several generations of artistic workers, who founded and improved this particular school of art. The following words of Professor Westwood, who first drew attention to the peculiar excellences of this volume, will justify the terms made use of above: ‘This copy of the Gospels, traditionally asserted to have belonged to Columba, is unquestionably the most elaborately executed MS. of early art now in existence, far excelling, in the gigantic size of the letters in the frontispieces of the Gospel, the excessive minuteness of the ornamental details, the number of its decorations, the fineness of the writing, and the endless variety of initial capital letters with which every page is ornamented, the famous Gospels of Lindisfarne in the Cottonian Library. But this MS. is still more valuable on account of the various pictorial representations of different scenes in the life of our Saviour, delineated in a style totally unlike that of every other school.’ “




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