This week I did a presentation on the topic of “Insular illuminated manuscripts and their presence in an oral society”. The Anglo-Saxons were a largely oral people. Literacy was confined to “those of the aristocratic stratum of society, and those who chose to enter a monastic or regular religious life” (Treharne xxv). Works such as Beowulf and Cædmon’s Hymn were recited and committed to memory. They were transmitted orally before they were written as text. The creation of a manuscript was an expensive and time-consuming process, therefore the texts that were transformed to codex form were generally considered to be important in terms of social and cultural advancement. In his translation programme for educational reform, Ælfred included only those texts which he considered “most necessary for all men to know” (Keynes and Lapidge 126). These included texts that were thematically Christian or historical in nature. It is evident, then, from examining the genre of texts in circulation in Anglo-Saxon England that religion played an important role in society. Hence, it is not surprising that the most elaborate and lavishly decorated manuscripts of the period consisted of religious content.
Insular illuminated manuscripts, created between the sixth and ninth centuries, are those that contain what is termed “insular art”. The word “insular” comes from the Latin insula, meaning “island” (O.E.D). This type of art is a distinct style that was common in Britain and Ireland during this period. The earliest insular example is the Durham Gospel Book (Meehan 23). However, what survives of the Durham Gospel Book is in poor condition. The Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells are associated with both Ireland and Iona; their place of origin cannot be definitively decided upon. The Book of Durrow contains a copy of the four gospels in 248 folios, “accompanied by pages of ornament by an artist who produced some of the most striking images in insular art” (Meehan 9). Its decoration is closely related to that contained in the Book of Kells, although they were composed at opposing ends of the period in question. Bernard Meehan suggests that “both the extent of its decoration and the sophistication of its execution” (9) are evidence that the Book of Durrow was not the first manuscript of this type to be produced. These manuscripts are carefully preserved today and considered to be works of art. It is evident from the amount of work taken to produce them that they were also considered works of art when they were created. For example, the codex of the Lindisfarne Gospels – which contains the Latin script of the gospels of the four evangelists, as well as intricately illuminated carpet pages, incipit pages and illustrations – was remarkably created by just one man. Normally manuscripts of the time would have been created by a team of about eight monks. The Lindisfarne Gospels would have taken up to ten years to create.
However, Werner Kebler believes that the gospels have no place in an oral society: “How can it be both removed from and committed to orality?” (217). Laymen could only learn to read and write by joining a religious order, and aristocracy was “the sector of medieval society in which one would expect to find the only readers and writers” (Avrin 207). Kebler argues that the gospels “go against the grain of basic and oral impulses” (207). Yet the insular illuminated manuscripts are very much about the visual aspect. Such elaborate illustrations hint that they were designed to be viewed. Pope Gregory the Great said that “pictures are for the illiterate what books are for the literate” (Green 126). The manuscripts can also be understood in terms of exegesis and the four levels of interpretation – literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical. In his Preface to his translation of GenesisÆlfric mentions the “gastlice andgit” (ghostly significance) of allegory and alludes to exegesis (Wilcox 117). The elaborate and symbolic artwork is especially open to this type of interpretation. In both the Book of Durrow and the Lindisfarne Gospels, the “evangelists themselves appear with their symbols rather than as symbols alone” (Avrin 242). Art such as this may be interpreted by both the literate and the illiterate, and by those who were proficient in the language of the manuscripts (Latin) and those who were not.
Walter J. Ong supports the view that oral and literary traditions existed simultaneously in the Anglo-Saxon era. He believes that “even after the introduction of writing, oral mindsets and ways of expression have persisted in literary works everywhere, from antiquity to the present day” (Textualization, 1). This is opposed to Kebler’s argument that “preservation of oral tradition is not a primary function of writing” (207). It is also evident from Ælfric’s Preface to his First Series of Catholic Homilies that the oral tradition and the literary tradition could work together in his society, as he expected his translations to be transmitted “either by reading or hearing it read”(Wilcox 127). This is what Ong terms “secondary orality”, that is reading to be heard aloud (technologizing, 6).
Ong also makes the point that “[s]uch experience of physically matching printed books, together with our late typographic habit of silent reading, has subtly altered our sense of the text by dissociating it notably, though never of course entirely, from the oral world, making the book less like an utterance and more like other visible and tangible ‘things’” (Textualization,2). This emphasises the fact that illuminated manuscripts held an important place in an oral Anglo-Saxon society. More importantly, George Henderson states that Pope Gregory had “strong views on the usefulness of images in teaching Christianity to pagans”, and he believes it likely that Pope Gregory sent books over to England that were “enriched by art” as part of his plan for conversion of the pagans (14).
While Ong believes that a modern society cannot fully understand the function of books in an Anglo-Saxon context, by examining the lavish illuminations that remain it can be inferred that these manuscripts held and important place in an oral society. It may not be known to what extent they could be used by the illiterate but the fact that they were preserved in monasteries and remain largely intact to this day is evidence for their revered status in an oral society.
Avrin, Leila. Scribes, Script, and Books: the Book Arts from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Chicago: American Library Association, 1991. Print.
Green, Dennis Howard. Medieval listening and reading: the primary reception of German literature, 800-1300. Cambridge University Press, 1994. Print.
Henderson, George. Losses and Lacunae in Early Insular Art. Vol. 3. York: University of York Medieval Monograph Series, 1982. Print.
Kelber, Werner H. The oral and the written Gospel: the hermeneutics of speaking and writing in the synoptic tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q. Indiana University Press, 1983. Print.
Keynes, Simon, and Michael Lapidge. Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1983. Print.
Meehan, Bernard. The Book of Durrow: a Medieval Masterpiece at Trinity College Dublin.Dublin: Town House, 1996. Print.
Ong, Walter J. Orality and literacy: the technologizing of the word. Routledge, 2002. Print.
Ong, Walter J. “Orality, Literacy, and Medieval Textualization.” New Literary History 16.1 (1984): 1-12. Print.
Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989. Print.
Treharne, Elaine M. Old and Middle English: C. 890 – C. 1400 : an Anthology. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.
Wilcox, Jonathan, ed. Aelfric’s Prefaces. Durham: Durham Medieval Texts, 1994. Print.