the book of kells


One of the endearing features of this version of the Gospels is that it is not particularly accurate. “While the scripts of the Book of Kells have a unique verve and beauty,” Meehan writes, “its text is erratic, with many errors resulting from eyeskip (where the scribe’s eye has jumped from a word to its next appearance, omitting the intervening text or letter).” This calls down a rare but stern professorial rebuke: “There is considerable carelessness in transcription.” Reading this, one’s deplorably feckless imagination wanders back through the smoke of the centuries to that frail little isle afloat in the wild Atlantic, where in a stone beehive hut a lonely scribe, hunched with quill in hand over his sheet of vellum, halts suddenly as he spots a mistranscription, claps a hand to his brow and utters whatever might have been the monastic equivalent of “Oh, shit!” Those poor scribes – there were four of them, “prosaically termed A, B, C and D”, as Meehan sympathetically remarks – had their work cut out for them. The Book of Kells was made from 180 calf skins – an indication, by the way, of the comparative wealth of the monastic community, for in those days cows were money – and of the complete work, 680 pages remain, some folios as well as the original binding having been lost or destroyed.

more from John Banville at the FT here.