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MacGabhann (2014 Congress)

Donncha MacGabhann
(Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London)
“Half-Uncial a and Uncial a at Line-Ends:
The Division of Hands in the Book of Kells and an Insight into the ‘Calligraphic Imagination’ Evident in the Script”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, May 2014)

Session on “Individual Style or House Style?  Assessing Scribal Contributions, Artistic Production, and Creative Achievements”
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Mildred Budny
2014 Congress Accomplished

[First published on our first website on 16 March 2014]

Regarding the Book of Kells the palaeographer Erika Eisenlohr has stated that ‘the similarity or dissimilarity of hands has so far mainly been based on more general impressions of the scripts’ (1994).  My PhD research attempts a more comprehensive investigation of the evidence that might enhance our understanding of the division of hands.  This examination encompasses the illuminated pages, the script and illumination of the canon tables, the layout of the pages, and elements of text including punctuation, display scripts, decorated initials, standard script, and also elaborations to that script.  It is one of these latter features that is the focus of the second part of this paper — uncial a at line ends.  The first part deals with half-uncial a which is the form most commonly used in the manuscript.

The paper begins with a brief summary of scholarly opinion on the division of hands in the book.  Next I signal the similarities and differences that occur in the forms of half-uncial a in a range of Insular manuscripts, and in particular the variations that occur in the work of different scribes working within the same manuscript as found in both Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 197B, and the Barberini Gospels.  A detailed examination of half-uncial a throughout the Book of Kells shows a remarkable consistency, regardless of features such as size or ink colour.  This examination does not appear to support the proposals by Françoise Henry (1974) and Bernard Meehan (1990) for the division of hands as three and four hands respectively.  The evidence suggests rather that these letters are the work of a single scribe, in agreement with the conclusions of Peter Meyer (1950) and Julian Brown (1972), the latter describing the script in the Book of Kells as the work of ‘one great scribe’.

Next a detailed examination of uncial a at line-ends in Kells reveals a range of these letterforms which are subject to constant variation.  There is a consistency in these variations which does not suggest that they are the work of different individuals.  Rather they appear to reveal the ‘calligraphic imagination’ of a single scribe who seems determined to incorporate variation at every opportunity.  This use of uncial a is one of the features at line-ends cited by Julian Brown as showing ‘an impressive consistency’ in support of his suggestion that the script in Kells is the work of an individual.  The evidence for both half-uncial a and uncial a at line-ends leads to conclusions that appear to confirm Brown’s and Meyer’s proposal for a single scribe in the Book of Kells.

*****

Note: This paper draws on three years of PhD research on the division of hands in the Book of Kells under the supervision of Prof. Michelle Brown.  It was the first paper in the series of Mr. MacGahbann’s papers on “The Division of Hands and an Insight into the ‘Calligraphic Imagination’ Evident in the Script” of the Book of Kells presented at conferences in 2014.  The next were:

  • “The Division of Hands in the Book of Kells: An Examination of the Letters with Extended Curved-Concave Elaborations in the Book of Kells” at the conference on “Liminal Networks:  Western Palaeography to c. 1100” at King’s College, London on 3 June 2014.  (Abstract here: Curved-Concave Elaborations)
  • “The Letter M in the Book of Kells:  The Division of Hands and an Insight into the ‘Calligraphic Imagination’ Evident in the Script” at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds in July 2014 (IMC 2014)
  • “The Et-Ligature in the Book of Kells:  The Division of Hands and an Insight into the ‘Calligraphic Imagination’ Evident in the Script” at the 7th International Insular Art Conference at the National University of Ireland, Galway in July 2014 (Timetable)

 

Donncha MacGabhann:  donmachabhann@live.ie

One thought on “MacGabhann (2014 Congress)

  1. […] Donncha MacGabhann (School of Advanced Study, University of London), “Half-Uncial a and Uncial a at Line-Ends: The Division of Hands in the Book of Kells and an Insight into the ‘Calligraphic Imagination’ Evident in the Script” Abstract / MacGabhann (2014 Congress) […]