Book Reviews

RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage reviews books, reports, new periodicals, databases, websites, blogs, and other electronic resources, as well as exhibition, book, and auction catalogs pertaining directly and indirectly to the fields of rare book librarianship, manuscripts curatorship, archives management, and special collections administration. Publishers, librarians, and archivists are asked to send appropriate publications for review or notice to the Reviews Editor.

Due to space limitations, it may not be possible for all books received to be reviewed in RBM. Books or publication announcements should be sent to the Reviews Editor: Jennifer Sheehan, jsheehan@grolierclub.org, The Grolier Club, 47 E. 60th Street, New York, NY 10022-1098.

Bernard Meehan. The Book of Kells: An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity College Dublin, fully revised and updated edition. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2020. Paperback, 96p, $19.95 (978-0-500-48024-3).

This is a beautiful book. It is fantastic for students and novices just learning about manuscripts, those learning codicological description, and anyone who wants an overview of the Book of Kells. The volume contains just a short taste of one of the most famous medieval manuscripts, and any of the sections could easily have been expanded further; indeed, I am rather impressed with how much information each section includes while still remaining concise. The information is also accessible to a wide variety of interests and knowledge levels and, in my honest opinion, is worth the price for the illustrations alone.

Dr. Bernard Meehan was Head of Research Collections and Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College Dublin until his retirement from the position in 2016. He has written widely on insular manuscripts, including other works on the Book of Kells, as well as on the history and manuscripts of Scotland and northern England from the Norman Conquest to circa 1200 AD. There are few people I would trust to write an analysis of the Book of Kells as much as I trust Dr. Meehan.

The Book of Kells was produced circa 800 AD and is one of the best known and most easily identifiable medieval manuscripts in existence. In many ways, it embodies Irish creativity and national pride. Its imagery is sumptuous and vivid, combining both textual ornaments and expressive illustration. It is also a highly uneven manuscript with the hands of a number of scribes and artists with varying degrees of skill evident in different sections of the manuscript. Far from detracting, this unevenness adds to its value as an artifact through which we can better understand insular manuscript production.

This volume is a short but thorough introduction and analysis of the Book of Kells. It is a fun book for manuscript scholars who are already familiar with medieval manuscript production, but I believe this volume shines for what it can provide to those just starting out in the field. Dr. Meehan writes concisely and clearly in a way that makes the information in this book available to people who might not be comfortable with a more academic writing style. More than that, Dr. Meehan describes and expands upon details and concepts in both manuscript production and art history in a way that will teach those unfamiliar with the concepts but not patronize those who do. When I think back to my early studies when I was just cracking into the basics of medieval manuscripts and their production, a study like this would have been invaluable. The general breakdown of the content could be used as a general outline for how to go about describing manuscripts and the more technical aspects that Dr. Meehan describes would be easy to research further.

There are 98 full-color illustrations, many of them full-page, which serve both as examples tied to descriptions in the text and to give a visual overview of the manuscript as a whole. The content is organized into four parts: Historical Background, Structure, Decoration, and Scribes and Artists.

The first section on the historical background of the manuscript discusses its creation, what we know about its provenance, an examination of the possible and probable provenance history where facts are unknown, and a history of the manuscript during its tenure at Trinity College. This section also provides a description of some of the codicological aspects of the manuscript, such as spelling, as well as an explanation about translations and page citation conventions used in the manuscript (for example, f. for folio) for those unfamiliar with manuscript description. The portion on provenance, both known and possible, is especially interesting for the rich history it conveys and the clear way Dr. Meehan describes what could have been a very confusing logical path.

The structure section discusses the contents of the manuscript (canon tables, the image of the Virgin and Child, list of Hebrew names, Breves Causae and Argumenta, and the four individual Gospels) as they appear in the manuscript. This portion also gets into details about the physical structure of the manuscript, including which leaves are lacking. The images included here are extremely helpful in illustrating the explanations in this section. There is also some discussion on the interplay of text and image, which is one of the topics in this volume that could easily be expanded and take up its own book.

The section on decoration discusses the style, symbols, and themes of the manuscript as a whole, including anecdotes and influences with other manuscripts. Themes and symbols highlighted are: the Cross, the Eucharist, the lozenge shape, angels, the Evangelists, animals, scenes from the Gospels, and textual allusions (for example, two lions representing both Christ and the devil). These symbols and themes are discussed in regard to how they specifically appear in the Book of Kells as well as their general appearance in manuscripts, which is again very useful for those who are not familiar with medieval manuscript illustration. One slight disappointment is that there is no thorough discussion on the decoration of insular manuscripts in general.

The final section on scribes and artists includes a description of the script, writing conventions used, and noncontemporary corrections to the text. The illustrations tied to the scribal hand descriptions are enormously helpful in understanding how the hands differ and I truly wish all paleographic descriptions used illustrations in this way. There is also a discussion of the artists and their various roles (goldsmith, portrait painter, and illustrator) and the materials and tools (vellum, pigments, inks) used to create the manuscript.

I cannot reiterate strongly enough how valuable I feel this book is for early scholars and for teaching manuscript studies. The general organization of the contents, the descriptions and explanations of concepts, and the sheer breadth of how much Dr. Meehan covers in a short volume all provide so much potential for learning and teaching. I can see this volume working well in a teaching collection as well as on a course syllabus, especially with its low price point. Teaching purposes aside, this is a fun volume for any collection.—Diana La Femina

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