Priceless Medieval Sacred Text Reveals Its True Origins
Arguably the world’s most famous medieval manuscript, the wonderfully illustrated Book of Kells, was “created in 2 parts over 50 years,” Dr Bernard Meehan of Trinity College, Dublin, told reporters at The Independent.
Around 561 AD, Colum Cille (also known as Columba and Columbus) sailed from Ireland with 13 followers and landed on Iona, an isolated Scottish island off the south-western tip of Mull. There, he established a scriptorium and a monastic confederation which would become an intellectual powerhouse of the medieval world. The Book of Kells was created around 800 AD and contains the four gospels written in Latin calligraphy on calfskin leaves, decorated with elaborate and colorful illustrations. Glorifying life of Christ, this book is regarded as shadowing all other artistic and cultural achievements of the early Middle Ages.
Facsimile copy of the Book of Kells (CC BY NC-ND 2.0)
Until now, it was believed that a group of 9th century Irish monks at Iona composed this world-renowned copy of the gospel, in one go, but Meehan claims the “last part of the book was written first.” Talking to reporters at The Independent, Meehan said, “St John’s Gospel and the first few pages of St Mark, was written and illustrated by a monk at the monastery of St Colum Cille on the Scottish island of Iona, during the last quarter of the eighth century AD and the Gospels of St Mark, St Luke and St Matthew were produced 50 years later at a new monastery at Kells, in County Meath, Ireland.”
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The Book of Kells, (folio 292r), circa 800, showing the lavishly decorated text that opens the Gospel of John. (Public Domain)
Meehan first identified that the monk who prepared the Book of John “had a very particular style which made it stand out from other parts of the text.” Having completed St John's Gospel “this particular monk's work suddenly stops at the end of chapter four, verse 26, of St Mark’s Gospel,” Meehan added. He speculated that this may have been “intended as the start of another separate, standalone work” or that monk may have been killed during Viking raids on the island of Iona, which began at the turn of the ninth century. It was also possible the monk had fallen victim to an “outbreak of disease, possibly smallpox, that hit the monastery in the early part of the ninth century” added Meehan. In 806 AD Vikings raided the island killing 68 of the monastic community, and the surviving monks fled to a new monastery at Kells, County Meath, Ireland with the Book of Kells. It eventually came to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1661 AD, and is still on display there today.
Gospel of Matthew from the Book of Kells is now thought to be the work of a different scribe (Public Domain)
Although Dr Meeham’s new observations are grabbing today’s headlines, the Book of Kells was but one publication in the literary tradition of Iona, which itself was far greater and more expansive than any one book. When Columbus established his Celtic church and scriptorium in the 6th century the island was called Innis nam Druidneach, The Isle of Druids (priests of the pre-Christian Celtic religion). Written histories and folklore alike tell of Columbus doing battle with local Druid elders, who fled here the 5th century escaping persecution from Imperial Rome. A 2006 Scotsman article reveals that in the century before Columbus arrived the “Druids founded a library on Iona” and because they never wrote their traditions down, as far as we know, “the impact that finding this library would have on our interpretation of history would be explosive.”
Another literary legend on Iona speaks of another priceless cache of books, this time originating in “the greatest library in Europe.” Scottish History is murky for the first half of the first millennium, yet several chroniclers recorded King Fergus II uniting with Alaric the Goth to fight the Roman Empire during its fall. According to historian and author Dr E Mairi MacArthur, in the Scotsman article, King Fergus was said to have “recovered many books from the plundered Roman libraries, including rare religious manuscripts from ancient Greek and Persian philosophers and scientists.” These priceless volumes of ancient knowledge and lost wisdom are said to have been taken to Iona for safekeeping in “the secret druid library.”
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Trinity College in Dublin is the current home of the original Book of Kells. (CC BY 2.0)
The Book of Kells survived, but it is generally held by historians that all the other books associated with Iona were destroyed in the 9th century Viking raids, but Dr E Mairi MacArthur is not so sure. She told the Scotsman “it is much more likely that the books travelled between Iona and Ireland, or perhaps even further afield. Or there is the possibility that they were hidden for safekeeping."
What with all this talk of secret Druid libraries, priceless ancient books from Rome and now the possibility that further manuscripts, maybe even finer than the Book of Kells, are hidden on this remote Scottish Island, in 2012 I took a documentary film crew to Iona and we surveyed the sacred island from a helicopter. We aimed to establish any overlooked architectural features hidden in the fields surrounding the Abbey which may point towards the presence of a subterranean chamber. Our project on Iona was featured in a somewhat sensational article in The Scottish Sun , and if you think my treasure hunting endeavors are a flight of fancy, then so too were the efforts of a 1950’s team of archaeologists from the University of St Andrews.
Book of Kells, Arrest of Christ. (Scanned from Treasures of Irish Art 1500 BC to 1500 AD) (Public Domain)
Having pieced together clues from written and oral records, as did I, they conducted a series of digs on the Treshnish Islands, near to Iona, specifically in search of the lost books. Claiming that if they found the books “it would undoubtedly be the single most important historical find of our time,” they ultimately failed. Since this 1950’s archeological project I am the only historian who has systematically set out to locate this potentially history changing treasure, and I return to Iona every few years chanting “Today’s the Day” in the tradition of treasure hunter Mel Fisher who in 1998 discovered the 1622 wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, with its half-billion dollar treasure hoard.
Dr Meehan's findings are being published this week in a new guide to the Book of Kells.
By Ashley Cowie