Early Insular Illuminated Manuscripts: Merging of Oral and Literate Cultures

by Elizabeth Howie

Most of what we know about the Celts comes from classical authors, mainly Posidonius, a Greek geographer (MacCana, 14). What they tell us is slanted by their perceptions of the Celts as barbarians. Because the Celts were an oral culture, they left no written records. However, because of the confluence of Celtic and Christian cultures, some aspects of Celtic culture permeated early Christian written material. This essay will examine the very earliest Insular manuscripts produced under Irish influence for traces of Celtic culture, primarily in terms of the clash of orality and literacy. Werner Kelber states that in the gospels, particularly the gospel of Mark, it is evident that oral and literate traditions are antithetical. He adds that "the gospel’s reserved attitude toward sayings, its displacement of all oral authorities…and the silence it ascribes to the risen Lord are all features that go against the grain of basic oral impulses,"(Kelber, 207). The gospels were illuminated by artists from a traditionally oral culture, producing a style of decoration that reverberated throughout Europe.

Early Celtic society was defiantly oral (Duddy, 9). The druid class comprised the most highly educated segment of Celtic society (MacCana, 14). According to Duddy, they had a "professional commitment to orality, resulting in a principled resistance to writing." Evidence exists, including inscriptions on coins and swords, pottery bearing graffiti, and calendars, suggesting that the learned and merchant classes of Celtic society were literate (Duddy, 14-15). Furthermore, the Celts used a ceremonial form of writing called ogam consisting of incised lines (Duddy, 15). Ogam is believed to be derived from magical symbols (MacCana, 40). The druids saw writing as threatening to their power: writing down their sacred knowledge would make it vulnerable to misuse, and their powerful positions as holders of knowledge would be threatened (Duddy, 15-16); so although they were aware of writing, they did not use it to document their history or their beliefs.

The power of the learned classes revolved around the issue of truth, not just in the sense that what was said should be factual, but also in terms of the effects it had:

"The Celts had a magical conception of truth...a kind of magical pragmatist theory of truth. They believed that a false utterance by a king, druid, or poet...such as a false story, an unjustified satire, or an unwise judgment or prophecy...would have physical and social consequences, and lead to misfortune. A false story, prophecy, or judgment would have unfortunate consequences not because the gods or spirits would be angry but because a falsehood itself directly jeopardized or unhinged reality. To utter a falsehood was to alter the scheme of things not just notionally but also in fact."

The poet therefore had power over and responsibility for the temporal scheme of things; the druids and filid had power over time itself (Duddy, 17). Writing threatened this power. The stability of Celtic culture depended on the might of the spoken word (Duddy, 18). This emphasis on the power of the word would have a significant impact on the development of Insular manuscripts.

There is some speculation that the Celtic upper classes, including the learned druids, became monks under the influence of Christianity, instead of simply disappearing or being driven away. An anecdote about St. Columba provides a tantalizing suggestion of this possibility: he was asked to "adjudicate whether the poets in Ireland could continue composing vernacular songs, to which he answered in the affirmative — an example of the perseverance of pagan tradition in literature as well," (Nordenfalk, 8). Druids were responsible for settling disputes (Duddy, 16). The other members of the learned classes were the filid, poets or bards who also had civic power: "They had mastered the obscure and complex geneologies and legal lore in which a custom-based legal system depended, and this mastery of memorial and narrative skills placed them in powerful consultative positions within an aristocratic culture," (Duddy, 17).

Christian contact with the Irish occurred by the first decades of the 5th century (Ó Cróinín, 13). The Ireland found by the first Christians was incredibly homogenous, and it had a standard vernacular language (Ó Cróinín, 11-12). Its political organization, in contrast, was fragmentary; Ireland was a land of many kings. It was very rural and localized, and while upper class people could travel about, tribesman rarely left their own areas because of risk of injury or death, according to St. Patrick (Ó Cróinín, 12). Palladius, deacon of the church at Auxerre, France, was the first official bishop of Ireland. St. Patrick was sent by the British church (Ó Cróinín, 13). Roman organization of territorial dioceses did not comfortably graft onto rural, fragmented Irish society. This conflict contributed to the development of monasteries. The monasteries were not confined by strict boundaries as the kingdoms had been. Many early monasteries were founded by family groups who were often members of the families of local kings (Ó Cróinín, 14). St. Columba (Colum Cille) founded Iona in 563 CE, accompanied by family members. This monastery inaugurated the missionary tradition of Celtic monasticism (Nordenfalk, 8). In 635, the monastery of Lindisfarne was founded in England by Aidan, a bishop from Iona (Nordenfalk, 9), establishing a pattern of [interaction] between English and Irish Christians (Ó Cróinín, 14). In 590 CE, Columbanus left for the continent, a journey which resulted in the founding of monasteries in France (Luxeuil, Fontaine, and Annagray), Switzerland (St. Gall), and Italy (Bobbio.) The spread of Irish monasticism spread Irish decorative styles, and allowed for cross-pollenization of styles, including Anglo-Saxon influence such as metalwork, and Frankish influence, such as animal interlace (Ó Cróinín, 15). The issue of Anglo-Saxon versus Celtic influence has been the subject of much debate. It is more useful perhaps to consider a combined Celtic and Anglo-Saxon response to Mediterranean styles (Alexander, 9). St. Augustine arrived in Canterbury in 596, bringing Roman traditions, which were to collide with Insular Christianity at Northumbria. Debate ensued about the date of Easter and what type of tonsure was to be worn by monks. At the Synod of Whitby in 664, Roman proponents won (Calkins, 30-31). But by the end of the 6th century, a distinctive Irish script had evolved, the scriptura Scottica, or Insular script. It was adopted by the English as well, who imitated it so skillfully that it is difficult to tell whether a manuscript was made in England or Ireland (Ó Cróinín, 14).

In the 2nd to 4th centuries CE, the papyrus roll had begun to be replaced by the Codex. The relationship of illustration to text shifted as the finite space of the page developed. Alexander suggests that because the Insular artists were new to book illumination, they were freer than the tradition-bound Mediterranean artists to expand the possibilities of the relatively new Codex format. The limitation of the page was a perfect foil to the infinity of Celtic patterns (Alexander, 10). The bound codex presents the viewer with a "two-page format, the symmetrical curvature of the two leaves bending away from the center fold," (Calkins, 9). "Although the manuscript presents itself two pages at a time, it is not a static object. One must turn the pages to receive the full effect of its material, format, glitter of decoration, and particular choice of ornament and sequence of illuminations," (Calkins, 9.) Like traditional Celtic art, which emphasized kinetic patterns, the codex was a movable work of art.

Christians encountering the Celts enlisted their artistic traditions in the service of Christianity (Nordenfalk, Celtic Illum., 7). Thus Celtic traditions seeped into Christianity as its roots in Ireland were laid down. Literate "historic" Christian culture was superimposed onto oral "prehistoric" Celtic culture. The traditions of the two merged and complemented each other in the illuminated manuscripts produced in early Christian Ireland and Britain. Alexander states, "Christianity is a religion where revelation is enshrined in written texts," (Alexander, 9.) The Gospel Books were the masterpieces of the book illumination of this time (Nordenfalk, 8.). The Gospels were the most important text to the early Christians, and during services were placed on the altar as its "foremost adornment," (Nordenfalk, 7). Their importance was in the reading of lessons during mass. Many early gospel books did not contain miniatures; the Rossano Gospels, from 6th-century Syria, is the earliest surviving illustrated Gospel book (Calkins, 25). A great number of surviving Insular manuscripts are Gospel books, "reflecting the Evangelical role of the early church in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, …England, and…the Continent," (Alexander, 9). The Celtic oral tradition, which like other oral traditions placed great value on the power of the word, utterly changed the possibilities of writing. Word became powerful symbols and talismans (Nordenfalk, Celtic Illum., 8). The impact of this shift echoed throughout Europe.

Why did the collision of the oral Celts and literate Christians create such profound changes in manuscript illumination? Walter Ong writes, "Oral peoples commonly, and probably universally consider words to have great power," (Ong, 32). This concept of the "magical potency" of words is important to consider when examining the confluent forces that produced Insular manuscripts. In Insular manuscripts, powerful words are visually elaborated and become talismans. According to Ong, people from typographic cultures tend to think of words as things which are not easily associated with magic, since they are dead, unlike the spoken word. Furthermore, oral cultures "commonly think of names (one kind of words) as conveying power over things,"(Ong, 33). In Insular manuscripts, the Chi Rho symbol for the name of Christ, and the Incipits to the Gospels, which serve to identify the section they begin, were among the first letters to become ornamental.

In oral cultures, creativity comes not from making up new stories, but from communicating known stories successfully to a particular group, and introducing variations as appropriate to the audience (Ong, 42). This approach to narrative is perfect for manuscript artists, who are literally copying a known story, but for a new context and purpose, whatever that may be as determined by the patron of the manuscript. Appropriate embellishments are acceptable, but the text stays basically the same. Furthermore, in oral culture new styles "are seldom if ever explicitly touted for their novelty, but are presented as fitting the traditions of the ancestors," (Ong, 43). In a similar vein, Insular manuscripts adopt the decorative traditions of Celtic culture. In oral culture, knowledge is assimilated to what Ong calls the "human lifeworld," (Ong, 42-3); similarly, in Insular decoration, writing is adapted to the known world by the addition of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures in familiar decorative patterns.

In addition, memory in oral culture is aided by methods whose descriptions seem analogous to decorative techniques. Information is retained through the use of "mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence…thought must come into being in heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions or antitheses, in alliterations and assonances, in epithetic and other formulary expressions, in standard thematic settings,…in proverbs which are constantly heard by everyone so that they come to mind readily and which themselves are patterned for retention and ready recall, or in other mnemonic forms," (Ong, 34). It is easy to see the analogies between this patterned system of mnemonic devices and the repetitive ornamental patterns, familiar to Celtic culture, that flourish in Insular manuscripts. Furthermore, Proinsias MacCana describes the Irish Celts’ "capacity for combining unity with diversity, centripetal with centrifugal forces," (MacCana, 20). He is describing a parallel between cultural/political… and mythology, but this description could be applied to manuscript decoration as well.

Celtic mythology abounds in animal imagery, and zoomorphic and anthropomorphic images are interchangeable in Celtic mythology and in art. This fluidity between human and animal, seen also in the concept of the shamanistic shape-shifter, seems to be echoed in the early manuscripts. Animal interlace embellishes the Book of Durrow, among others. In a slightly later illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells, shape-shifting occurs amongst the Evangelist symbols. Luke’s symbol, the ox, is depicted with the body of an eagle on one page, while later it has the body of a lion. Similarly, Mark’s symbol, the lion, has the body of a calf on one page, while on another page it has the body of a lion and the head of a calf (Cronin, 1994). It has been suggested that this shape-shifting is a way of demonstrating the harmony of the Gospels (Henderson, 137), but it also echoes the shape-shifting of Celtic tradition. While the Insular artists did not develop the evangelist symbols, it seems worth addressing the possibility of whether there could be any connection between the evangelist symbols and the Celtic tradition of shape-shifting in decoration. Alexander notes that the Book of Durrow's evangelist symbols do not carry books, which is unusual. He suggests that in this case, perhaps the images function less as symbols of the evangelists than as their personifications, animal representation of humans (except for Matthew, the Man.)

Celtic number symbolism may have influenced early Christian manuscripts as well. Cronin writes, "Hiberno-Saxon exegesis of the mid 7th to early 9th century was heavily orientated towards number symbolism. Often Irish and Irish-trained exegesis began their commentaries and introductions on the gospels with a prologue in which their commendation and justification of the number four was illustrated by means of a summary of various quartets (evangelists, cardinal virtues, the four rivers of paradise representing the four gospels irrigating Ecclesia,)"(Cronin, 115). Celtic art is full of decorations in which numbers, in the form of repeating patterns, play a large role. Perhaps this trend in Hiberno-Saxon exegesis is an influence of Celticism. Even the very simple illustration of the Codex Usserianus carries the traits of number symbolism.

Early Insular manuscripts are incredible documents of the transition from orality to literacy. The highly developed visuality of the Celts was adapted to Christian texts with stunning results that affected manuscript illumination for hundreds of years. Aspects of orality that are known from thte study of present-day oral cultures allow for the analysis of oral features that have survived in these manuscripts, providing valuable clues to the lost Celtic culture.


Catalogue Entries:



click to return to the Main Latin Resources page