Surviving Vikings, rodents, and war

Artist Helen Campbell d’Olier’s reproductions of decorated capitals from the 8th century Book of Kells. The Book of Kells was stolen in 1007 but retrieved after being buried in the ground and stripped of its gold covers. The monks who created it, probably on the island of Iona, relocated to Kells in Ireland after a series of devastating Viking raids.

In my most recent lecture for MA Poetics of Imagination at Dartington Arts School, I considered the production of medieval books. I hope some of the students are now busy making their own writing surfaces, inks and pigments.

To survive into the 21st century these medieval books had to run the gauntlet of flood, fire, war, revolution, rodents, Vikings, and Nazi looters.

Looted art found at the Nazi mountain refuge in Obersalzburg included two of the most important medieval manuscripts in the world, the Duc de Berry’s Tres Riches Heures and the Book of Hours of Queen Jeanne de Navarre.

I found Christopher de Hemel’s excellent book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts to be a key resource on this fascinating subject.

Hugo Pictor’s self-portrait, making a book in the 11th century. 
The enormous 8th century Codex Amiatinus is approximately the weight of a 12-year-old child, with 2,000 parchment pages made from 515 sheep and goat skins. It was created by a team of scribes working at the Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey in northern England where Bede lived.

Many medieval manuscripts have been digitised and can be explored online. Here’s a selection:

12th c Copenhagen Psalter 

Bibliotheque National de France Digital Library 

Book of Kells

British Library Digitised Manuscripts 

Carmina Burana

Digital Bodleian 

National Library of Wales Digitised Manuscripts

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