Check out this 8th century manuscript!

Sometimes I feel that I do nothing on this blog but shill for the British Library. Perhaps they should pay me! If you are interested in the Middle Ages at all, I really suggest that you open the link embedded in this Tweet.

The article is described as “A Decorated Letter, in a Collection of Irish and Breton Law Books.”  From the description:

Thought to have been compiled in the early 8th century, the ‘Collectio Canonum Hibernensis’ (‘Irish Law Collection’) represents one of the earliest efforts to organise all laws from foreign and native Christian authorities. This manuscript has a copy of it, along with other early legal writings: ‘Book From the Law of Moses’, letters of St Patrick, ancient Breton laws, ‘Law of Adomnan’. Made in Brittany (early 10th century), it later belonged to St Augustine’s, Canterbury. Its origin and later history tell part of the story of early medieval church law. Scholars think that Irish missionaries took the collection the Continent, where it became the basis of Carolingian church law collections. Manuscripts of the Irish collection, copied in northern France, went thence to Anglo-Saxon England. In 1731, it was severely damaged in the tragic fire at Ashburnham House.”

Why should you  other looking at it? Click on the “Interactive zoomable image” a number of times. It will to you right down to where you can actually see the text of the vellum. What is vellum? According to St. Wikipedia,

Vellum is derived from the Latin word “vitulinum” meaning “made from calf”, leading to Old French “Vélin” (“calfskin”). The term often refers to a parchment made from calf skin, as opposed to that from other animals.[2] It is prepared for writing or printing on, to produce single pages, scrolls, codices or books. The term is sometimes used with a more general meaning referring to finer-quality parchments made from a variety of animal skins.

Vellum is generally smooth and durable, although there are great variations depending on preparation and the quality of the skin. The manufacture involves the cleaning, bleaching, stretching on a frame (a “herse”), and scraping of the skin with a crescent shaped knife (a “lunarium” or “lunellum”). To create tension, scraping is alternated with wetting and drying. A final finish may be achieved by abrading the surface with pumice, and treating with a preparation of lime or chalk to make it accept writing or printing ink.”

In the zoomable image, you can literally see the cells of calf skin! When I was a graduate student at Duke University, Professor Ronald Witt was preparing an edited volume of the Renaissance manuscript by Coluccio Salutati, De Fata et Fortuna. I am not an intellectual historian nor a Renaissance specialist by any means, but the thrill of actually holding parchment (pigskin) in my hand has remained with me my entire career and I just love document handling and analysis.


About George Vascik, Historian

A 1988 graduate of the University of Michigan, I have taught history at Miami University since 1992. I maintain blogs on teaching Western Civilization and on Great War. My research focuses on anti-Semitism and rural politics in northwest Germany. I am completing a monograph for Bloomsbury Press, Anti-Semitism and Rural Politics. You can follow my project at Along with Mark Sadler, I have published a book of primary documents on the Stab-in-the-Back Myth (Dolchstoßlegende). I also invite you to visit my profession web page at
This entry was posted in British Library, Digital History, HST 121, Medieval Europe and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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