Book of Kells

Published in Issue 4 (July-August 2013), Letters, Letters, Volume 21

<p?Sir,—In his article on the Book of Kells (HI 21.3, May/June 2013) Roger Stalley mentioned my suggestion ‘that the actual text of the book could have been written in as little as 60 days, assuming good weather and satisfactory working conditions’. This calculation, however, refers to the Book of Durrow and was published originally in Bernard Meehan’s study of that manuscript in 1996. Establishing writing times for medieval manuscripts will always remain speculative, but a body of evidence based on the marginalia of medieval scribes and the practice of experienced contemporary calligraphers seems to point to a writing speed of about 180 words per hour. This roughly corresponds to five hours’ work for a double-column page in a manuscript such as the Book of Ballymote or Leabhar Breac. The Book of Kells, as both Roger Stalley and Thomas O’Loughlin point out, is in a class of its own in terms of decoration. Its script is also unique and Denis Brown, probably one of the few living calligraphers who could replicate it, mentions in Bernard Meehan’s study (p. 219) that 60 to 90 minutes would be needed to write the seventeen lines of one of its text pages. The time taken for the design and execution of the complex full-page illustrations and the drawing and painting of the multiplicity of decorated capitals throughout is almost impossible to calculate. When one adds in the vagaries of the weather and the threat of raids and warfare, only the bravest of art historians, I think, would venture to construct a timescale for the production of the Book of Kells.—Yours etc.,

TIM O’NEILL
Sandymount
Dublin 4

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