Voyages from I to Thou.

Location: Skellig Michel, Ireland

Thursday, December 16, 2004


From How The Irish Saved Civilization
by Thomas Cahill (Doubleday, 1995):

The Irish received literacy in their own way, as something to play with. The only alphabet they'd ever known was prehistoric Ogham, a cumbersome set of lines based on the Roman alphabet, which they incised laboriously into the corners of standing stones to turn them into memorials. These runelike inscriptions, which continued to appear in the early years of the Christian period, hardly suggested what would happen next, for within a generation the Irish had mastered Latin and even Greek and, as best they could, were picking up some Hebrew. As we have seen already, they devised Irish grammars, and copied out the whole of their native oral literature. All this was fairly straightforward, too straightforward once they'd got the hang of it. They began to make up languages. The members of a far-flung secret society, formed as early as the late fifth century (barely a generation after the Irish had become literate), could write to one another in impenetrably erudite, neverbefore-spoken patterns of Latin, called Hisperica Famina, not unlike the dream-language of "Finnegans Wake" or even the languages J. R. R. Tolkien would one day make up for his hobbits and elves.

Nothing brought out Irish playfulness more than the copying of the books themselves, a task no reader of the ancient world could entirely neglect. At the outset there were in Ireland no scriptoria to speak of, just individual hermits and monks, each in his little beehive cell or sitting outside in fine weather, copying a needed text from a borrowed book, old book on one knee, fresh sheepskin pages on the other. Even at their grandest, these were simple, out-of-doors people. (As late as the ninth century an Irish annotator describes himself as writing under a greenwood tree while listening to a clearvoiced cuckoo hopping from bush to bush.)

But they found the shapes of letters magical. Why, they asked themselves, did a B look the way it did? Could it look some other way? Was there an essential B-ness? The result of such why-is-the-skyblue questions was a new kind of book, the Irish codex; and one after another, Ireland began to produce the most spectacular, magical books the world had ever seen.

From its earliest manifestations literacy had a decorative aspect. How could it be otherwise, since implicit in all pictograms, hieroglyphs, and letters is some cultural esthetic, some answer to the question, What is most beautiful? The Mesoamerican answer lies in looped and bulbous rock carvings, the Chinese answer in vibrantly minimalist brush strokes, the ancient Egyptian answer in stately picture puzzles. Even alphabets, those most abstract and frozen forms of communication, embody an esthetic, which changes depending on the culture of its user. How unlike one another the carved, unyielding Roman alphabet of Augustus's triumphal arches and the idiosyncratically homely Romano-Germanic alphabet of Gutenberg's Bible.

For their part, the Irish combined the stately letters of the Greek and Roman alphabets with the talismanic, spellbinding simplicity of Ogham to produce initial capitals and headings that rivet one's eyes to the page and hold the reader in awe. As late as the twelfth century, Geraldus Cambrensis was forced to conclude that the Book of Kells was "the work of an angel, not of a man." Even today, Nicolete Gray in A History of Lettering can say of its great "Chi-Rho" page that the three Greek characters-the monogram of Christ-are "more presences than letters. "

For the body of the text, the Irish developed two hands, one a dignified but rounded script called Irish half-uncial, the other an easy-to-write script called Irish minuscule that was more readable, more fluid, and, well, happier than anything devised by the Romans. Recommended by its ease and readability, this second hand would be adopted by a great many scribes far beyond the borders of Ireland, becoming the common script of the Middle Ages.

As decoration for the texts of their most precious books, the Irish instinctively found their models not in the crude lines of Ogham, but in their own prehistoric mathematics and their own most ancient evidence of the human spirit-the megalithic tombs of the Boyne Valley. These tombs had been constructed in Ireland about 3000 B.C. in the same eon that Stonehenge was built in Britain. just as mysterious as Stonehenge, both for their provenance and the complexity of their engineering, these great barrow graves are Ireland's earliest architecture and are faced by the indecipherable spirals, zigzags, and lozenges of Ireland's earliest art. These massive tumuli, telling a story we can now only speculate on," had long provided Irish smiths with their artistic inspiration. For in the sweeping lines of the Boyne's intriguing carvings, we can discern the ultimate sources of the magnificent metal jewelry and other objects that were being made at the outset of the Patrician period by smiths who, in Irish society, had the status of seers.

Brooches, boxes, discs, scabbards, clips, and horse trappings of the time all proclaim their devotion to the models of the Boyne Valley carvings. But this intricate riot of metalwork, allowing for subtleties impossible in stone, is like a series of riffs on the original theme. What was that theme? Balance in imbalance. Take, for instance, the witty cover on the bronze box that is part of the Somerset Hoard from Galway: precisely mathematical yet deliberately (one might almost say perversely) off-center, forged by a smith of expert compass and twinkling eye. It is endlessly fascinating because, as a riff on circularity, it has no end. It seems to say, with the spirals of Newgrange, "There is no circle; there is only the spiral, the endlessly reconfigurable spiral. There are no straight lines, only curved ones." Or, to recall the most characteristic of all Irish responses when faced with the demand for a plain, unequivocal answer: "Well, it is, and it isn't." "She does, and she doesn't." "You will, and you won't. "

This sense of balance in imbalance, of riotous complexity moving swiftly within a basic unity, would now find its most extravagant expression in Irish Christian art-in the monumental high crosses, in miraculous liturgical vessels such as the Ardagh Chalice, and, most delicately of all, in the art of the Irish codex.

"Codex" was used originally to distinguish a book, as we know it today, from its ancestor, the scroll. By Patrick's time the codex had almost universally displaced the scroll, because a codex was so much easier to dip into and peruse than a cumbersome scroll, which had the distinct disadvantage of snapping back into a roll the moment one became too absorbed in the text. The pages of most books were of mottled parchment, that is, dried sheepskin, which was universally available--and nowhere more abundant than in Ireland, whose bright green fields still host each April an explosion of new white lambs. Vellum, or calfskin, which was more uniformly white when dried, was used more sparingly for the most honored texts. (The "white Gospel page" of "The Hermit's Song" is undoubtedly vellum.) It is interesting to consider that the shape of the modern book, taller than wide, was determined by the dimensions of a sheepskin, which could most economically be cut into double pages that yield our modern book shape when folded. The scribe transcribed the text onto pages gathered into a booklet called a quire, later stitched with other quires into a larger volume, which was then sometimes bound between protecting covers. Books and pamphlets of less consequence were often left unbound. Thus, a form of the "cheap paperback" was known even in the fifth century.

The most famous Irish codex is the Book of Kells, kept in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, but dozens of others survive, their names-the Book of Echternach, for instance, or the Book of Maihingen--sometimes giving us an idea of how far they traveled from the Irish scriptoria that were their primeval source. Astonishingly decorated Irish manuscripts of the early medieval period are today the great jewels of libraries in England, France, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Italy, and even Russia.

(pp 164-169)


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