Search for Long-Lost Monastery Linked with the Medieval ‘Book of Deer’ May Be Over

Search for Long-Lost Monastery Linked with the Medieval ‘Book of Deer’ May Be Over


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The monastery where the significant Scottish text called the ‘Book of Deer’ was created disappeared from the pages of history about 1,000 years ago. After a decade of excavations looking for the site, archaeologists believe they are finally on the correct path.

According to The Scotsman , an excavation team working with the Book of Deer project have unearthed a hearth, charcoal, pottery, post holes, and a layer of stone near Old Deer in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Carbon dating places the site to between 1147 and 1260, in the medieval monastic period and the stone and post holes suggest a circular building was once located at the site.

Archaeologist Alison Cameron of Cameron Archaeology, who led the dig, called the results of the carbon-dating “extremely exciting”, saying:

“A medieval date for this hand-made pottery suggests the building underneath the layers where the pottery had been found might also be medieval in date. The date for the charcoal is 1147 to 1260 and is extremely exciting because it is potentially the monastic period, so it is dating to the early medieval period when we know the monastery was in the area.”

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A stone hearth was one of the archaeological features uncovered during excavations. ( BBC ALBA )

BBC News reports the recent excavations were aimed at exploring a field near the ruins of Deer Abbey. Focus was placed on that location because a geophysical survey found underground anomalies there. Before the excavations in the field, archaeologists were looking for the monastery in a church graveyard. As Ms. Cameron said : “This is a site that we don’t know anything about. The possibility of locating one building and perhaps more nearby would be of national importance. The team are very excited about this.”

Bruce Mann, an archaeologist for Aberdeenshire Council, expressed his hope for the discovery of the monastery to The Scotsman. He said, “These latest discoveries may at last hint that the mystery has finally been solved. More work obviously has to happen, but regardless of what this finally turns out to be, it is a significant find for not only Old Deer, but Aberdeenshire and beyond too.”

Further clues to the monastery’s location were scribbled in the margins of the Book of Deer in Scots Gaelic. The writings suggest that the monastery was in eyesight of Deer Abbey – the building the monks moved to when they had to leave their home at the monastery. The National reports the monks left the monastery before or during the Reformation, when the building may have already been in ruins.

Deer Abbey in Scotland.

The notes added to the margins of the Book of Deer are what set the text apart. As Ancient Origins previously reported , the Book of Deer:

“is said to be the only pre-Norman manuscript revealing tenth century northeastern Scottish culture's society and religious traditions, and is the earliest known Gaelic document in existence […] the greatest intrigue for those drawn to this ancient text lies within the handwritten notations made in its margins and other blank areas, and not necessarily within the text itself. The notations, also referred to as 'notitiae', are written in the type of Gaelic typically spoken by the upper classes in the early twelfth century region of Buchan […]

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Dr. Michelle Macleod, lecturer in Gaelic at Aberdeen University, explained some of the significance of the Book of Deer:

“There are some deviations in the language from the shared common Gaelic of Scotland and Ireland which had been used in earlier manuscripts. These deviations, of which there are several, are the first written indication that the languages are separating and would be an indication of what people were likely saying. The Book of Deer is a tiny book but it has left a huge legacy for us, not only in the north-east but for the whole of Scotland. We had to wait another 200-300 years after the Book of Deer to find any more evidence of written Scottish Gaelic.”

Folio 5r contains the text of the Gospel of Matthew from 1:18 through 1:21. Note the Chi Rho monogram in the upper left corner. The margins contain Gaelic text.

Anne Simpson, chair of the Book of Deer Project, further emphasized the importance of the book, by saying: “The book is as significant as the Book of Kells in Dublin but it is still amazing how even people locally don’t know about it. We have been looking for the monastery for a long time, so there is a great deal of excitement about the discoveries.”

The Book of Deer Project is a program which began in the 1990s. Apart from the excavations and other research, members of the Book of Deer Project are trying to get the book back from Cambridge University for a year-long exhibition at Aberdeen University. Cambridge University has owned the manuscript since the early 18th century.

Folio 1 verso from the Book of Deer (Cambridge University Library, MS. II.6.32), showing the four evangelists.


Illuminated Manuscripts (c.600-1200)

Note: According to radiocarbon dating tests, the world's oldest illuminated gospel manuscripts are the Ethiopian Garima Gospels (c.390-660 CE) and the Syrian Rabbula Gospels (c.586 CE). See also Early Christian Art (150-550).


God Speaking to Prophet Jeremiah
Winchester Bible (1160-75).

Types of Religious Gospel Manuscripts
The rise of the manuscript coincided with the spread of Christianity, and many of the early texts were produced specifically to aid in the process of conversion. In the Celtic areas of western Europe, the most important kind of text was the Gospel Book. This came in a wide variety of formats. There were the portable 'Pocket Gospels', which missionaries carried with them on their evangelical expeditions there were the scholarly editions, used for study and research in monastic libraries and there were the lavishly embellished types, complete with full-page religious paintings and decorative calligraphy. These were designed to be seen rather than read. In most cases, they were either on open view on the high altar, or displayed during feast days and special processions. Most were written and ilustrated by anonymous medieval artists.


Detail from Li Livres dou Sante (1290)
depicting a Monk tasting wine from a
barrel. By Aldobrandino of Siena.

One of the most famous forms of Medieval art, Irish illustrated manuscripts like the Book of Durrow (c.650-680) and the Book of Kells (c.800), were some of the first decorated Christian gospel texts, dating from the early seventh century CE. In due course, they were followed by Medieval Christian artworks such as Carolingan and Byzantine illuminated manuscripts. Influenced by early illustrated texts from the Coptic Christians of Egypt, these illuminated manuscripts went on to influence Islamic art in the form of painted Persian manuscripts and calligraphic artworks.

This Insular art form of book illustration, which emerged from a fusion of early Biblical art, traditional Celtic culture and design, with Anglo-Saxon techniques, took place as Irish missionaries, monasteries and monastic art spread across Ireland (eg. Kildare, Durrow, Clonmacnois, Clonfert, Kells and Monasterboice), Scotland (eg. Iona) and England (eg. Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumbria) in the seventh and eighth centuries. Ultimately, this Hiberno-Saxon style created some of the most outstanding works in the history of Irish art of the Middle Ages.

These illuminated manuscripts were a mixture of religious text, copied from the bible, illustrated throughout by numerous decorative embellishments, of either abstract or representational art. Historiated letters, Celtic crosses, trumpet ornaments, rhombuses, pictures of birds and animals, were all used. Sometimes whole pages would contain nothing but illustrations. These so-called carpet pages would typically preface each Gospel and usually contained an intricate set of geometric or Celtic interlace designs, sometimes framing a central cross.

These books were not all written in an identical style. Moreover, the artist monks who worked on them displayed varying levels of skill or familiarity with traditional Celtic art as well as Continental and Byzantine art. In general, Celtic artists were less comfortable creating representational art than they were with more abstract art. There is also considerable variation in the colours used both for the text and the illustrations.

Some books were bound in leather, others in wood and leather. The amount of metalwork, in the form of clasps, attachments and other adornments also varied. Some religious manuscripts had none, others (eg. Lindisfarne Gospels) were adorned with gold and silver - even gems. The highly ornate manuscripts were typically used as ceremonial Bibles or Gospels. They would be kept on the altar, rather than in the monastery library, and would be used for reading aloud and in processions on feast days. Because of their religious significance as well as their precious metalwork, many of these books were extremely valuable and great efforts were made by the monks to preserve them from pillage. Some (eg. Codex Amiatinus), were even presented to the Pope.

The golden era of Irish illuminated manuscripts was roughly 650-1100 CE. The more important books, all produced in Irish or Anglo-Irish monasteries, contained the Gospels or other holy scripture from the Bible, all written in Latin. To praise the word of God and to help educate and inspire the monasteries' growing flock of Christian converts these books had to be made as beautiful as possible. However, producing an illustrated book during the medieval era of the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth centuries was no easy feat. Viking raids and freezing temperatures turned the making of these Celtic Christian artworks into an arduous, sometimes dangerous activity.

Religious art of this type was decorated to varying degrees and in varying styles, and displays a wide variety of colour combinations. Some manuscripts used black or purple as a background for their folios (pages), others used lighter colours or no colour. Decorations might be created using different combinations of red, yellow, green, blue, violet, purple, and turquoise blue. Some even used gold text. Although over time much of the colour and beauty of these artworks has faded, they must have appeared dazzling to the monks and people of the day. Even now, the fantastic Celtic intricacy of the decorative spirals, rhombuses, carpet pages and miniature pictures testifies to the outstanding creativity of this early religious art.

There were no printing machines during these medieval times, so each folio or page had to be written by hand, making each manuscript a unique piece of biblical art. Nor was there any paper, so all the text was copied onto animal skins - either vellum (derived from the Old French Vélin, for "calfskin") or parchment (from sheepskin). Lime was applied to the skin to remove its hair, after which it was stretched onto wooden frames to be dried and smoothed, before being cut and folded into sheets.

Once the vellum or parchment was prepared, the monastery's calligraphers and scribes began the laborious task of copying the chosen religious text, word for word. Irish artists from among the monks would then begin the illustrations. Thus one manuscript might be worked on simultaneously by a group of monks, all under the supervision of a chief scribe. Novice monks typically did the mundane tasks of preparing the skins, making the goose quill pens, and mixing pigments for the artist-monks. The more accomplished of them might be permitted to paint basic designs, or to lay gold leaf. After some years of performing these low-level tasks, he would be assigned the responsibility of designing a page on his own.

Meanwhile, the intricate embellishment of the holy manuscript would be undertaken by experienced scribes and artist-monks. It was painstaking work, with elaborate illuminations requiring weeks to complete. The size of the pages varied from book to book, but typically was about 12 by 14 inches. Moreover, the illustrations - especially in the more ornate and highly decorated manuscripts like the Book of Durrow, the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells - were so detailed that they were only just visible to the human eye. Many of the most intricate designs were first sketched on a large wax tablet before being recopied in miniature onto the vellum.

At the same time, other monks would be working on the design work of the book's cover, adding motifs or complex decorative patterns. These decorations would be further embellished by the addition of jewellery or precious metals (gold and silver). Typically, such lavish ornamentation was confined to books containing the Gospels, which would then be used on the altar for ceremonial occasions, or carried in procession on important Feast days during the religious calendar.

When completed and also when being prepared, these valuable illuminated manuscripts were closely guarded within the monastery, to prevent their seizure by Viking and other marauders. Even so, many precious books were stolen or pillaged for their gems and precious metals. Monasteries along the coast were repeatedly attacked, and their devoted inhabitants butchered by Vikings. The danger of this happening often meant that some books (eg. the Book of Kells) had to be kept hidden for long periods, thus preventing them from being completed.

Typical Content of Illuminated Manuscripts

Most Gospel Books contained a certain amount of prefatory material, followed by the four Gospels. The introductory matter would often include a prologue by St Jerome relating to the Latin text. It also covered the arrangement of the Gospels themselves. During the medieval era, the verse and chapter divisions of the Bible had not yet been devised, making it hard for monks and priests to navigate around the text. Early Christian scholars tackled this problem in several ways, producing a variety of synopses and indexes. The most influential of these were the Canon Tables, which divided the text into numbered sections and enabled the reader to cross-refer from one Gospel to the next. The system was invented in the early 4th century by Eusebius of Caesarea, the biographer and personal adviser of Emperor Constantine. From an early date, these Canon Tables were presented in attractively painted arcades, becoming one of the focal points of the manuscript.

Decorations & Illuminations

From the artists of Late Antiquity, the Celts borrowed the format of two of the standard forms of illustration in the Gospel Books. The Canon Tables, as mentioned, were traditionally displayed in an architectural setting, with the references from the Gospels listed between a series of columns. In addition, they adopted the notion of prefacing each of the Gospels with a portrait of the relevant Evangelist. The Celts, with their preference for abstract or stylized art, found it hard to reproduce the illusionist naturalism of either the architecture or the human figures. Instead, they flattened out the forms and rendered them in a semi-ornamental manner. The images lost none of their vigour through being transformed in this way. If anything, they gained a new potency.

In some of the early Gospel Books, the Evangelist was represented by a symbol rather than a portrait. These symbols were based on two prophetic passages in the Bible. One of them described a vision which had appeared to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1, 5-10) and the other referred to a scene from the Day of Judgement. In both cases, the text described 'four living creatures', which early Christians interpreted as a symbolic reference to the Evangelists. They took the form of "four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him and they were full of eyes within and they rest not day and night, saying holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty" (Revelations IV, 6-8).

By convention, these four creatures also referred to Christ's incarnation (the winged man), His majesty (the lion, a regal beast), His role as the Saviour of mankind (the calf or ox, traditionally sacrificial animals) and the Ascension (the soaring eagle). The most widely accepted attribution of the symbols was laid down by St Jerome. He linked Matthew with the winged man, Mark with the lion, Luke with the ox or calf, and John with the eagle. Once again, however, the Celts did not fall into line immediately with this proposal. In the Book of Durrow, for instance, the lion was employed as the symbol of St John.

Celtic artists also portrayed the symbols in a number of different ways. Sometimes, they showed them in a comparatively realistic way while, at other times, they chose to emphasize their divine nature by adding wings and certain human characteristics. Thus, the paws or talons of the animals might be replaced by hands, while the creatures themselves were shown standing upright, in a human posture. In a few rare instances, the symbols might also be combined. The most celebrated example of this occurred in the Trier Gospels, where the four emblems were represented as a tetramorph. This was a composite figure, combining the head of a man with the hind quarters of the other three animals.

The remaining illustrations in the early Gospel Books offered much greater scope for the use of traditional La Tene Celtic art designs. The Carpet Pages, for instance - leaves of parchment given over entirely to ornamental designs - were not invented by Celtic artists, but they became one of the outstanding features of Hiberno-Saxon Insular illumination. The concept was developed in the East, where the artists of several cultures were expressly prohibited from representing any living form, but it also suited the Celtic predilection for abstract patterns.

The same could be said for the decorative calligraphy, which became increasingly elaborate as the ambitions of Celtic illuminators increased. Once again, the practice of highlighting certain sections of text by using an enlarged or ornamental letter was already long-established. In the early Gospel Books, however, this trend evolved beyond all recognition. The scale and complexity of the decorations continued to grow until, in manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells, a complete page might be filled by a single word or a short phrase. In time, these virtuoso passages became associated with specific sections of text. The most spectacular examples of calligraphy were reserved for the Initial Pages - the folios with the opening words of each Gospel - and the Monogram Page (Chi/Rho).

The latter refers to the early passage in Matthew's Gospel, which follows a lengthy list description of Christ's descent from Abraham. This starts with an account of Christ's birth (Matt. I, 18), which many churchmen regarded as the true beginning of the New Testament story. For this reason, artists took pains to make it the most sumptuous page in the entire book. It is commonly termed the Monogram Page, because the text opens with Christ's name, which was normally abbreviated as 'XP' in most manuscripts.

Early Irish Illuminated Manuscripts in Context

Of the wealth of Irish manuscripts which has come down to us from the early centuries of the Christian era (c.500-850), two in particular, the Book of Durrow (c.650) and the Book of Kells (c.800), stand as monuments of decorative art in that critical period in the history of West European culture. The former dates from the dawn of that rich flowering of Christian art in Ireland, the influence of which was to spread so far into continental Europe during the next two centuries the latter, from the time at which this art had attained its fullest and most idiosyncratic development. Neither was completely cut off from what had gone before, nor from what was to follow. Still, no work of parallel quality in similar character to the former has come down to us. Both are distinctly different from the styles of Carolingian Art (c.750-900), Ottonian Art (c.900-1050), and the Italian High Renaissance (c.1490-1530), which stand historically between them and us. And, paradoxically enough, it is just the features which distinguish those two gospel-books from illuminated manuscripts nearer in time to our period that bring them closest to the live art of the present century.

Today we find that the intensity, imagination and freedom with which the script in both these books is handled, the sharp, clear outlines of the illuminations and the epigrammatic concision of image are what particularly appeal to our taste. The characteristics which writers - schooled to a nineteenth-century view - criticized most sharply offer us little difficulty today: little that is aesthetically unfamiliar. For example, as Elfrida Saunders says in English Illumination. There is no attempt at representation of solidity and the colour is quite arbitrary. Hair may be painted blue or even different colours in stripes. An effect of broken colour is aimed at, even in figure representations: the clothes form either a harlequin pattern of patches or stripes of different colours. In these manuscripts, the same awkwardnesses due to an entire ignorance of linear perspective are seen as in early Egyptian tomb-paintings a body is represented in full view while the sides and feet are shown or a side view of the nose is placed on a face which is turned frontwards."

Our present-day acceptance of such a free handling of compositional elements in visual art is the fruit of a struggle carried on during the first half of the 20th-century by artists who realized the importance of breaking from the strait-jacket of representational conventions inherited from the classical and Renaissance worlds, and the possibilities of expression such a liberation would open up. The Irish Abstract artists of the Book of Durrow, the Book of Kells and other related manuscripts came to this freedom of outlook naturally. It was part of their heritage. They had no strait-jacket out of which they had to break. At the western extremity of Europe, they had few links with classical Greece or Rome. Their art was a natural growth by assimilation. We recognize in the spiral designs and "trumpet patterns", so characteristic of it, the influence of their Celtic metal-working forbears. We see in the interlace, the fret and the ecclesiastical iconography, evidence of an acquaintanceship with Syrian and Coptic manuscripts, either brought to Ireland by the missionaries or seen by the scribes abroad. Later, in the interlaced animal motifs, we have an unquestionable response on the part of the Irish illuminators to the same features in Germanic or Celtic decoration - different as they become in their Irish adaptation from both these apparent sources. Basic to all this, and indeed the essential discipline of the Irish illuminator's art, is their scrupulous and individual script which they clearly regarded as an aesthetic expression in itself, not merely as a utilitarian vehicle.

In no other part of Europe and at no other period of European art has script been treated with greater intensity, imagination, and freedom than in Anglo-Saxon Insular book illumination from the seventh to the ninth century. Here alone a level of perfection is reached that can be compared with Islamic or Chinese calligraphy judged by this standard all pre-Carolingian continental book illustration looks poor and clumsy.

"The significance of the Irish script as a cultural symptom", Professor Ludwig Bieler writes in Ireland, Harbinger of the Middle Ages, "emerges most clearly when its genesis is compared with that of other 'national scripts' of the early Middle Ages. All the others - the Visigothic script in Spain, the Beneventan script in southern Italy, the local types of the Merovingian kingdom, the Rhaetian and Alemmanic scripts in the districts of Chur and St. Gall, and the less characteristic scripts of northern Italy and western Germany - can be understood as attempts at normalizing the degenerate cursive script of late antiquity in the hope of thus producing a serviceable book-hand. The Irish script, it seems, was a deliberate creation out of elements of several scripts inherited from antiquity which the earliest missionaries had brought with them."

Professor Luce points out the fusion which the scribes achieved in the assimilation of their heritage and their borrowings: "The script element taken over from the ancient world is integrated in an ornamental style that had been developed to a high point by the Celts of the Iron Age." And he stresses the fact that this ornamentation was an art in its own right and not, like later ornament, a mere accessory to figurative representation.

This is the essential individuality of Irish illumination throughout its great period: the complete integration of every factor in the book, in spite of a jealous discreteness in each detail, given its character by discipline of the script. Even before the Book of Durrow, we have an austere exemplification of this in the Cathach of Saint Columba (c.610-620). This preciously conceived book boasts little ornament beyond simple hollow initials ending in small spirals and surrounded, in certain instances, by lines of dots which introduce each psalm. According to the paleographer Lowe, the Cathach "represents the pure milk of Irish calligraphy". And, while it is generally conceded to be the earliest specimen of national script in Ireland, it already announces in its integrity, its clarity and the concreteness of its detail, the great works (more colourful if no less intense) to come after it.

Today the clarity, intensity and definition of these masterworks of Irish illumination (and of others such as the Book of Armagh, the Stowe Missal, and the Book of the Dun Cow) may come as a surprise to those who associate the term "Celtic" with the vague, the misty and the mystical, as the result of a concept which had its roots in the beginnings of the Romantic revival in the mid-eighteenth century and its exhaustion in the "Celtic twilight" movement of the 1890s.

Chronological List of Selected Illustrated Manuscripts

From 795 onwards, murderous Viking raids on monasteries across Ireland, caused a constant exodus of monks, scribes and calligraphic artists to Christian monasteries and religious centres in Europe. Although this spread the Celtic style of illustration and decoration further afield, by the 11th/12th century, the numbers of Irish-based religious artists had gradually dwindled, leading to a decline in the quality of gospel illumination produced in the country.

Codex Usserianus Primus

Written around 600-610, and believed to be the oldest of all Irish manuscripts, its name derives from James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, hence it is also known as the Ussher Gospels. Its decorations are limited to linear and dot patterns in the colophons, and a single image - a cross outlined in black dots at the end of the Luke gospel.

Cathach of St. Columba

Now kept at the Royal Irish Academy, the Cathach of Columba (Colmcille) was completed around 610-620, and is the earliest surving manuscript of the Celtic Insular style of art. The name derives from the word 'cathach' meaning 'one who fights' and the manuscript was taken into battle as a lucky icon by the O'Domhnaill clan. Part of the text was supposedly written by Saint Columba himself.

Now at Trinity College Library, Dublin, the Book of Durrow (written c.650-80) is one of the oldest books still in existence. Styles of ornamentation employed, include Celtic spirals, tracery and trumpet ornaments. The spherical forms were not used merely as embellishment, but were interpreted in general as being symbols of the world because of the religious movement they illustrated. According to tradition, King Flann considered the Book of Durrow to be such a precious relic that he kept it in a specially made shrine-safe.

Now in the Durham Cathedral Library, the Durham Gospels were written in the late seventh century (c.680-90) by Lindisfarne monks, supposedly the same ones that created the Echternach Gospels.

Antiphonary of Bangor
MS G.S.INF. Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan

The earliest surviving text written in Irish minuscule, it comprises 72 pages of religious hymns and poems, in early Irish half-uncial script, and was produced at the monastery of Bangor about 680-691. It is believed that the manuscript was taken in 811 by Dungal the Divine to the monastery at St Denis in Gaul and later to the Bobbio monastery in Italy from where it was transferred to the Ambrosian library in Milan.

Book of Lindisfarne/Lindisfarne Gospels

Now at the British Museum, London, the Book of Lindisfarne was written between 690 and 720. Originally adorned with gold and silver, it was stated to be the work of Eadfrith, Bishop of the Lindisfarne Church, its later amendments were executed by the same scribes who corrected the Durham Gospels. The Lindifarne Gospels are considered to be second only to the Book of Kells in the quality and amount of embellishment.

Now kept at the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, the Echternach Gospels (also referred to as the Gospels of Saint Willibrord) were written by a Northumbrian scribe between 690 and 715.

Now at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, the Codex Amiatinus was completed in Northumbria about 715. It is stated that Abbot Ceolfrith commissioned three ornamental Bibles to be written - one manuscript being for the monastery in Wearmouth, another for the monastery at Jarrow and a third to be presented to the Pope. The latter was taken by Abbot Ceolfrith on a pilgrimage to Rome in 716. The manuscript was lost during the journey and its subsequent history is largely unknown. However there is no doubting its authenticity. Parts of one of the other pair of Ceolfrith Bibles have also been found and are now lodged at the British Library in London.

Now at Lichfield Cathedral Library, this manuscript (also known as the Gospels of St. Chad or the Lichfield Gospels) was written in Ireland about 730. The Irish connection is evidenced by its similarity with Irish and Northumbrian manuscripts.

Book of Dimma
MS A.4.23 (59) Trinity College Library, Dublin

Now lodged at Trinity College, Dublin, the pocket Gospel Book of Dimma was an early illuminated text, written in the 7th/8th century, with few decorations, mainly comprising illuminated initials and a few Evangelist portraits. It was written at the monastery at Roscrea, County Tipperary. The manuscript is particularly appealing for its ornate colours of yellow, pink, orange, green and blue, and its style which is comparable to the St Gall Gospel Book and the Echternach Gospels which was produced at Lindisfarne Library.

Now in the Kungliga Bibliotek, Stockholm, the Codex Aureus (similar in style to the Vespasian Psalter) was written at Canterbury in about 750, and is noted for its dazzling use of gold text. The unknown chief scribe was clearly a master of Byzantine art but a relative novice at Celtic artwork, although one of his assistants was more skilled at traditional Celtic design.

St Gall Gospel Book
Codex 51, Stiftsbibliothek, St Gall, Switzerland

The mid-8th century St Gall Gospel manuscript was written in Ireland before being taken to the monastery at St Gall by an Irish monk in the 9th century. The text comprises 268 pages and its illumination consists of Evangelist portraits with facing initial pages. It has a fully illuminated Chi-Rho and carpet page, and - unusually - has a last judgment page and a crucifixion page. Its rich abstract decoration (simple interlace, key patterns, spirals and entwined animals) mainly features the colours pink, mauve, yellow and blue.

Gospel of St John
Codex 60. Stiftsbibliothek, St Gall

This 68-page Irish manuscript has a number of similarities with other books. The portrait of St John is like the St Matthew in the Book of Dimma and the eagle above his head is like the portrait of St John in the St Gall Gospel Book.

The Gospel Book of Cadmug
Bonifatianus 3. Landesbibliothek, Fulda

This mid-8th century illustrated text is an Irish pocket Gospel Book created by the scribe Cadmug. Produced either in Ireland or on the Continent, it is comparable with the Book of Mulling.

Mulling/Moling Gospels
Trinity College Library, Dublin

The Mulling Gospels were written at the Monastery of Saint Molling in County Carlow, Ireland, about 790. Produced as a 'pocket' Gospel, for personal rather than ceremonial use, its text is enscribed in a faster, less formal style. The ornamentation suggests that the artist had a good knowledge of traditional Celtic art but was less familiar with continental art. The Book of Mulling was a predecessor to the Book of Armagh and was written in Irish minuscule script the colours employed in its embellishments and portraits include white, blue, green, yellow, ochre, brown, mauve, purple and cherry red.

The Stowe Missal
MS D.II.3. Royal Irish Academy, Dublin

This is a Pocket service book - made at Tallaght or Terryglass during the late 8th century by a scribe named Perigrinus - which contains the texts necessary for the performance of mass, including chants, prayers and readings, plus ceremonial rubric.

Gospel of St John
MS D.Il.3. Royal Irish Academy, Dublin

Also supposedly created by Perigrinus the author of the Stowe Missal, in the late 8th century, it contains eleven pages featuring excerpts from the Gospel of St John. The portrait of St John is framed by the symbol of an eagle with outstretched wings, while panels of knotwork designs and key patterns are arranged on either side.

One of the great masterpieces of Irish art, now kept in Trinity College Library Dublin, the Book of Kells (written c. 800) is regarded as the foremost illustrated text of the period. See Book of Kells.

Book of Armagh
MS 52, Trinity College Library, Dublin

A pocket Gospel Book written in fine minuscule script by Ferdomnagh, a scribe at Armagh, under the supervision of Torbach, the abbot of Armagh (807-8). The text's initials are illuminated with animal heads, birds, fish, interlace and trumpet spirals. In 937 a shrine (since lost) was created for the manuscript by Donnchadh, son of Flan, King of Ireland.

It has been said that nothing is more difficult than to form a clear idea of Irish illumination in the eighth and at the beginning of the ninth century, since the number of manuscripts which can be ascribed with certainty to any definite Irish monastery is very small. But one exceptional example has come down to us: the Book of Armagh. For although no date is entered in the manuscript the name of the scribe Ferdomnach seems to have been subscribed in at least four places. In the Annals of Ulster under the date A.D. 845 appears the obituary record, "Ferdomnach sapiens et scribus optimus Ardamachae ". Ferdomnach is known to have been at Armagh, for a few months only, in 807 and 808. The Book of Armagh is a small volume measuring approximately 20 x 15 x 6 cm. It consisted originally of 222 leaves of vellum. The writing on each side of the leaves is arranged mostly in double columns. It contains copies of documents relating to Saint Patrick (mostly in Latin, but a few are in Irish), the New Testament (Vulgate) - the only copy of the complete New Testament which has been transmitted to our time from the ancient Irish Church - and a "Life of Saint Martin of Tours". The illuminations of the Book of Armagh are fine pen-drawings which suggest familiarity with enamel work, particularly in the Evangelist symbols. The penmanship of the text is of extreme elegance and is admirable throughout for its distinctiveness and uniformity. The character, with a few exceptions, is a miniscule of the type described as "pointed Irish" and is employed for both the Latin and the Irish documents and notes.

Macregol Gospels
MS Auct. D.2.19 (S.c. 3946) Bodleian Library, Oxford

This illustrated manuscript (also called the Rushworth Gospels) was completed in Ireland around 810. According to a colophon on the last page, its scribe and painter was Mac Regol (died in 820), the abbot of Bin in Offaly. There is an Evangelist page and an initial page at the beginning of each Gospel. The colours are mainly golden yellow, bright red, violet, green, black and a shade of brown. It is one of the largest of the Irish Gospel Books.

Written in the early ninth century by unknown authors, the Book of Deer contains simple but beautiful illuminations in traditional Scottish style. Later, (1000-1200 CE) an account in Scottish Gaelic of the foundation of the monastery was added. It includes the story of how Colmcille (Saint Columba) converted Bruide Mac Maelchon (556-584), king of the Picts. The Book of Deer comprises 86 pages: the first six chapters of the Gospel of St. Matthew, the first four chapters of St. Mark's Gospel, the first three chapters of St. Luke's Gospel and the whole of St. John. It also contains the Apostles' Creed. While the manuscript was written by only one scribe, two or more created the illustrations.

Macdurnan Gospels
MS 1370, Lambeth Palace, London

Now at Lambeth Palace Library, London, this Pocket Gospel Book, a little smaller than the Book of Armagh, (also known as the Lambeth Gospels) was written either in Ireland or Iona about 910. Scholars are undecided whether it was produced by Mael Brigte Mac Durnan the abbot of Armagh (888-927) or commissioned by him. Its colours are predominantly purple, green and orange with white for the face, hands and feet of the Evangelists. Like in the Book of Armagh, each of the Gospels begins with a portrait page and a large initial page. The manuscript was given to Christ Church, Canterbury, by King Athelstan who died in 939.

Cotton MS Vitellius F.XI
British Library, London

This manuscript may have been produced at the monastery at Monasterboice, since its imagery shows a noticable similarity to the images carved on the early 10th-century Cross of Muiredach. Badly damaged in a fire in 1731, only 59 pages of the manuscript remain and they feature 137 psalms. The two remaining fully decorated pages of David the Musician and David and Goliath are now bound at the start of the manuscript. The colours, though faded, were originally deep purple, orange-red, yellow and pink.

The Double Psalter of St Quen MS 24 (A.41)
Bibliotheque Municipale, Rouen

This manuscript reached the Benedictine monastery of St Quen in Rouen, probably via an Irish monk travelling to Rome. It contains 310 pages in all, whose script is similar to that of the Southampton Psalter. It has 300 capitals which are all of the knotted wire style, deriving from initials in the Book of Kells.

The Book of Dun Cow MS 23.E.25
Royal Irish Academy, Dublin

Another manuscript which can be dated with some certainty about the end of the eleventh century and of which part can be reasonably ascribed to a specific artist is the Lebor na Huidre (the Book of the Dun Cow), (Catalogue No. 1229) in the library of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, the oldest surviving manuscript entirely in Irish. Sixty-seven leaves of this book survive, measuring on the average 28 x 20 cm (a few are smaller). Except for an interpolated page, it is written in two columns in a regular, fairly legible Irish uncial with the beginnings of some sentences in Irish majuscules. It is felt that there is evidence of the hands of three scribes in the manuscript, though the name with which it is most definitely associated is that of Maelmuire Mac Ceileachair, a member of the Clonmacnoise family of Conn na mBocht, who is known to have died in Clonmacnoise in 1106. For this reason the manuscript is likely to have been written at Clonmacnoise in the last quarter of the eleventh century. Its name comes from Saint Ciaran's pet cow, whose hide was preserved in the monastery of Clonmacnoise, and is mentioned in several texts as a relic which it was felt brought comfort to a soul departing the body. Its relation to the Lebor na Huidre is not clear. Possibly the book had been wrapped in it, or kept in the same building with it and one tradition holds that the sixth-century original from which this manuscript was copied had been written on the hide itself. The Book of Dun Cow is a varied collection of verse and prose inscribed in thick black ink on inadequately prepared vellum sheets. Its main embellishment consists of both a wire-and-ribbon style of decoration with small animal heads as terminals. The colours, now faded, are mostly yellow, purple and red lead. In it the oldest surviving version of the Tdin has been preserved. It represents a transition from the earlier decorated Irish books which are all essentially Latin texts, chiefly gospels and liturgical books, to the decorated books of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries which are nearly always collections of texts in Irish and never books for ecclesiastical use.

Completed about 1125, this manuscript (sometimes referred to as Irish Missal of Corpus Christi, Oxford) was written in the Viking Urnes style and is noted for its very early wooden binding.

Other Illuminated Manuscripts (11th Century Onwards)

MS Rawlinson B502
Bodleian Library, Oxford

Southampton Psalter
MS G.9 (59) St John's College, Cambridge

Psalter of St Caimin
MS A.l. Library of the Franciscan House of Celtic Studies and Historical Research, Killiney, County Dublin

Chronicle of Marianus Scottus
MS Lat. 830 Vatican Library, Rome

Epistle of St Paul MS Lat. 1247
Nationalbibliothek, Vienna

Drummond Missal
MS 627 Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

Liber Hymnorum
MS A.4.2. Trinity College Library, Dublin

Book of Leinster
MS H.2.18 Trinity College Library, Dublin
MS A.3. Franciscan House of Celtic Studies, Dublin

Corpus Missal
MS 282, Corpus Christi College Library, Oxford

Rosslyn Missal
MS 18.5.19, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

Coupar Angus Psalter
Palatine MS Lat.65. Vatican Library, Rome

Corpus Gospels
MS 122 Corpus Christi College Library, Oxford

Legacy of Irish Illuminations

The cultural significance of these Irish gospel manuscripts should not be underestimated. Without the devotion of Irish monks and scribes, who - as well as copying biblical texts - also copied many of the secular Greek and Roman works from classical authors such as Homer, Plato and Virgil, part of the world's great culture from Antiquity might have been lost forever during the Barbarian conquest of the Continent, and the Renaissance would never have happened.

Irish illuminated manuscripts were the third and final type of early Irish visual art, after the Megalithic Passage Tomb artworks of Newgrange during the Neolithic era and the ornamental gold artifacts of the Irish Bronze Age.

Medieval Book Painting: England and the Continent (c.1000-1500)

During the course of succeeding centuries, these beautiful book paintings from Irish monasteries were followed by other Biblical (and secular) illustrated books by artist-monks from the Carolingian and Ottonian courts, and also by Byzantine theologians.

But the best Medieval manuscript illumination was produced in England and on the Continent during the period 1000-1500 CE. First came a number of exceptional Romanesque illuminated manuscripts (c.1000-1150), such as the St Albans Psalter, the Bible of St Benigne, the Egbert Psalter, the Winchester Bible and the Moralia Manuscript.

After this, painters like Jean Pucelle produced the finest Gothic illuminated manuscripts (1150-1350), including The Belleville Breviary (1323-26, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (1324-28, The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art), as well as other works such as: the Psalter of St Louis, the Bible Moralisee, the Minnesanger Manuscript, the Amesbury Psalter, and Queen Mary's Psalter. They were followed, during the era of International Gothic illuminations, by masterpieces such as the Brussels Hours, by Jacquemart de Hesdin (c.1355-1414) Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413, Musee Conde, Chantilly) by the Limbourg Brothers (fl.1390-1416) and works by the great French artist Jean Fouquet (1420-81).

• For more on the history of illustrated gospel texts, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.


Animated video does a nifty job of debunking the popular Viking myths

When it comes to the scope of Vikings, there has always been a tendency to mash up historicity with popular romanticizing of these Norsemen. And while few of these overlapping avenues have fueled further studies on the interesting medieval ambit of Scandinavia, there are also numerous misconceptions that still linger around in popular culture concerning the Vikings (beyond just their horned helmets). Fortunately, this time around YouTube Channel Military History Visualized has taken up the task of dispelling the persistent Viking myths that clash with the actual historical ‘modus operandi’ of these medieval raiders from the north.

And while the animated video does an impressive job of debunking some of the ‘core’ misconceptions about Viking warfare, there are other valid historical points that can be added when it comes to these Norsemen raiders. So here are some of the extra ‘things’ you should know about the Vikings and their warfare (compiled from articles previously covered by RealmofHistory and our sister site HEXAPOLIS) –

1) Shield Walls were more than just a defensive formation –

The Viking shield wall (or skjaldborg in Old Norse) was a pretty conventional tactic used by the Norsemen in land battles. It entailed a roughly phalanx-like formation of warriors who were up to five ranks deep. The front line was composed of the most well-armored troops, and their closely-held, upraised shields faced the enemy onslaught. Judging from this simplified description, one would be inclined to think that the Viking shield wall was a purely defensive maneuver.

Now while initially such a tight formation might have depended on the reactive charge of the enemy, there are other dynamic factors to take into account in a battlefield. For example, practical observations have proven that in hand-to-hand combat, an extra room (elbow length) could turn the tide of engagement, as it endows the warrior with space to swing his ax or melee weapon. So in the case of the shield-wall, the seasoned warriors in the front ranks probably overlapped their shields, and this interlocking ‘facade’ absorbed the first impact of the enemy charge. But once the charge ran out of steam, the Vikings generated their own momentum by pushing off the enemy forces with the help of their shields. This in turn automatically loosened their own formation, and allowed for the elbow-length room that was needed for a good-ole, lusty swing of their axes.

2) Penchant for ‘land battles’ even on water –

As the video explains it, the modus operandi of the Vikings intrinsically related their mobility. Simply put, while conducting their fast campaigns and raids, the Vikings didn’t make exceptions for land routes or for water routes – with the tactical advantage of mobility being enshrined in their military doctrine. In fact, their penchant for fast encounters sometimes involved arraying their ships like land-based army formations. So before the start of the battle, the Vikings arranged their fleets in lines, with the largest ships being roped together gunwale to gunwale – thus resulting in enormous floating platforms. In such a ‘formation’, the biggest and longest ships, commanded by the king and other warlords, were kept in the middle and their prows extended beyond other ships. Suffice it to say, these prows (also called bardi in Norse) faced the thick of the battle, and were therefore reinforced with armor plates and even iron spikes known as skegg that were designed to puncture holes into enemy ships.

These huge floating platforms were obviously supported by smaller vessels on their flanks. They were tactically deployed for additional reinforcements and for pursuing the defeated enemy in flight. Now given the arrangement of the slightly wedge-shaped formation of the platforms, the main battle was conducted with the two naval forces (in their platforms) meeting almost head-on, and then trying to grapple and board their enemy ships. Before such a chaotic action commenced, the archers were handy in peppering the enemy with arrows, javelins and even stones. So simply put, the Vikings didn’t employ (at least intentionally) the classic naval tactic of ramming their prows into the enemy ship’s oars-section. Instead they mainly relied on the ferocity (and mobility) of their crew members for fighting the purely naval engagements – just like land battles.

3) The ‘Great Heathen Army’ was possibly exaggerated in terms of numbers –

As the renowned Anglo-Saxon Chronicle documented, the ‘Great Heathen Army’ (or ‘hæþen here’ in Old English) of the Vikings descended upon the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms starting in 865 AD. Unlike most Scandinavian raiders, these Vikings entailed a coalition of sorts, with the Norse warriors originating from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, fighting under a unified banner. According to some legends, they were commanded by the so-called sons of Ragnar Lothbrok (the very same character portrayed in The Vikings TV series). Now while the contemporary source talks about an army of a substantial size, they don’t really delve into the actual numbers of the invading forces.

However, some modern historians like Pete Sawyer have taken the etymological route in defining what actually constituted an ‘army’. In that regard, one of the law codes of King Ine of Wessex (issued in 694 AD), defines an here or army as consisting of only 35 men! Now historically, as the conflict dragged on – after joined by two other Viking invasion forces in the coming decades, the Heathen Army grew restless with various stalemates in the actual battlefields. Finally in 896 AD, most of their forces dispersed, with one major group making way for the profitable Seine in ships. According to accounts, this group traveled in only five vessels, and thus may have numbered less than 400 men. This once again alludes to the total number of men in the actual invasion force, which may have ranged between just 2,000 to 3,000 men – as opposed to their apparent ‘greatness’ in numbers.

4) Vikings were better traders, ‘later’ plunderers –

Pencil Prelim by Tom Lovell.

Following up on the aforementioned quote, a recent research suggests that the Vikings (or at least Norsemen) already had substantial trade networks connecting Denmark and Norway before the conventional start of the Viking Age in 793 AD (when an English island was raided). According to archaeologists from University of York, the marine-based trade networks were already established by 725 AD, and the nexus was probably centered around Ribe, a bustling center of commerce on the west coast of Denmark. To that end, one of the major economic activities of the zone related to the peaceful trading of handcrafted combs made out of reindeer antlers (the animals were possibly brought to Denmark by Norwegian Vikings).

As Steve Ashby, a lecturer of medieval archaeology at the University of York, makes it clear –

This shows us that merchants and other travelers from the north were visiting Ribe long before the start of the Viking Age as we know it. Even in its early stages, the town was attracting visitors from afar. We have long wondered whether Ribe, and places like it, kick-started the Viking expansion in trade, travel and warfare, but it has been difficult to prove [until now].

5) Hygiene was important to most Vikings –

Our popular notion of filthy, barbaric Vikings (or for that matter, most medieval Norsemen) takes a back seat when it comes to actual archaeological evidences complemented by various medieval sources. To that end, the most common artifacts found from Viking Age graves pertain to combs. The combs were accompanied by other personal grooming items like razors, tweezers and even ear spoons. And if these objects are not enough, the Vikings were also known to use a very strong lye-based soap. However these soaps possibly had greater socio-cultural purposes beyond just cleanliness – since the lye was used for bleaching their beards. In other words, Vikings preferred to be blonds with lighter complexioned facial hair.

As for literary sources, in chapter 18 of Víglundar saga, the titular character asks one Ketilríður to cut and wash his hair before he lives for Norway. After it is done, he promises her to permit no one else to cut and wash his hair as long as she is alive. This affectionate tradition of a woman washing a man’s hair is mirrored in other sagas too – like in Heiðarvíga Saga, a character named Odd is prepared to ride to an adventurous trip with his horse saddled and weapons furnished. Still the final preparation for his journey is completed only when his wife washes his hair as a cleansing ritual.

6) Fondness for skiing –

Canvas print by Woodsy Art / Painting by Knud Bergslien

In terms of chronology, Scandinavians have a history of skiing that goes back to at least 6,000 years. Suffice it to say, Vikings also had a knack for skiing, mostly due to the practical reasons that made this mode of transportation easier over vast expanses of snow and ice. As a matter of fact, depictions (like a Viking archer carved on a rune stone in Sweden) and even evidences of ancient skis had been found in the so-called Fennoscandic territory.

One such discovery entails a decorated ski from Kinnula, Finland, which was found to be dated from the early Viking Age. Quite interestingly, the extant specimen had width of 12.5 cm while its length was only 101 cm – which suggested that it may have used by shorter people. There is also the probability that such short skis were specifically used for hunting in grounds that were covered with thick vegetation and deep snow. As for the Viking fondness for skiing, the outdoor activity was perhaps given the status of personification through Ullr – a Norse god who is an excellent archer, hunter, skater, and skier.

7) Vikings pioneered one-to-one storage on their ships –

While modern air transportation, with its shambolic overhead bin system, is a seat of confusion and disorder, Vikings, of the late 8th to 11th centuries, had already conceived a way of implementing one-to-one storage on board their ships. There was a practical side to this – when 30 stout Vikings sat themselves down on deck, there was hardly ever any place left for luggage. Consequently, they devised an innovative on board storage system, in which their chests actually doubled as seats. With their unique multipurpose, space-saving credentials, these Viking crates made the job of sailing (and raiding) with supplies far easier.

Interestingly, these oak crates originated as trunks that were carried by the Vikings, and then nailed in their respective positions along the ship. Furthermore, the storage boxes followed a certain design protocol whereby their top edges were slanted – so as to push off the undulating waves of intrusive sea water. The top portions were also finished with minimalist polish, thus imparting a smooth surface that made sitting easier.

8) Berserkers and paranoia –

A big chunk of the Viking Age coincided with paganism among the Vikings, and during these centuries, the berserkir or berserkers were seen as humans who possessed supernatural powers by the blessing of Odin himself. In that regard, much had been said about their so-called berserk fury which allowed such men to forgo pain and demonstrate fanatical levels of strength, like killing well-armored enemies in just a single stroke. However, in reality, going ‘berserk’ was probably just a form of delusion/paranoia also known as lycanthropy. In medical terms, lycanthropy is defined as rare psychiatric syndrome that encompasses a delusion that the affected person can transform (or has transformed) into a non-human animal. Literary evidences do point to such cases of lycanthropy – like in the example of the Volsunga Saga where Sigmund wears wolf skins, howls when aggravated, and even goes on to use the speech of wolves.

Other possibilities of going berserk might have entailed hereditary conditions and even epileptic seizures. There may also have been some pretty simple reasons of taking up the role of a berserker – with some vagabond outlaws preferring the theatrics that would have intimidated the passers-by. Some researchers have also put forth the hypothesis that berserk fury may have been induced by ingestion of materials with psychoactive properties. In any case, berserkers did project an aura of awe and fear even during Viking times – as is evident from their frequent postings as high level bodyguards of pagan Viking chieftains (as described in Hrafnsmal and Harald Fairhair’s Saga).

Book References:The Vikings (by Ian Heath) / Viking Hersir (by Mark Harrison) / The Viking Ship (by Per Bruun).

And in case we have not attributed or mis-attributed any image or artwork, please let us know via the ‘Contact Us’ link, provided both above the top bar and at the bottom bar of the page. To that end, given the vast ambit of the internet and with so many iterations of the said image (and artwork) in various channels, social media and websites it sometimes becomes hard to track down the original artist/photographer/illustrator.


Mythical Creatures: 15 Of The Strangest ‘Hybrids’ From Around The World

Previously, we talked about bizarre mythological monsters and impressive dragons you may have missed out on from popular media like television shows and movies. Well, this time around, with Halloween around the corner, we have decided to up the ante with a myriad of ‘hybrid’ mythical creatures that you may not have known about. So, without further ado, let us check out the brief history and mythology of fifteen of such elusive yet outlandish mythical creatures (ranging from the ancient to the medieval times) that emerge as unearthly crosses between familiar animals and humans. The myriad creatures, presented in alphabetical order, have their origins in myths and legends from different parts of the world.

1) Ammit (from Egyptian Mythology) –

Ominously translating to ‘devourer‘ or ‘soul eater’, the Ammit (also known as Ammut) was an underworld-dwelling ancient Egyptian goddess/demon who personified divine retribution. Having multifaceted anatomy of a lion, hippopotamus and a crocodile, she waited for the opportunity to devour the hearts of people who were deemed unworthy (their worthiness being measured by the scales of Ma’at) – thus cursing their ’empty’ souls to roam aimlessly for eternity, instead of otherworldly bliss. So, in essence, Ammit was not worshiped like other gods rather she epitomized the collective fear of Egyptians that pertained to ‘second death’.

2) Buraq (from Islamic Mythology) –

The Dome of Rock site (as part of the bigger and older Temple Mount) is venerated by Muslims because of its significance as the sacred spot from where Prophet Mohammed rose to heaven in his Night Journey. And, he was supposedly carried to heaven on a fantastical white-hued, horse-like creature named Buraq – that was half-mule (or smaller than a mule), half-donkey (or bigger than a donkey) and had wings. Oddly enough, the eastern sources like Persian and Indian art depict the Buraq to have a humanoid visage and peacock tail, but early-Islamic traditions mention no such specific features.

3) Gajasimha (from Indian Mythology) –

Art by Prasanna Weerakkody

According to Hindu mythology, the Narasimha (or Narasingha) was one among the ten Vishnu avatars with the head of a lion and body of a man. The Gajasimha is most probably a twist on this mythical being (or a variant of Hindu elephant god Ganesha), with its conspicuous elephant head and body of a lion. Unfortunately, there is not much information regarding the hybrid creature, except for numerous sculptural and painted depictions, mostly found in the temples of South East Asia and South India.

4) Hatuibwari (from Melanesian Mythology) –

Hatuibwari has been described to have the head of a human with four eyes, the torso of a huge serpent with imposingly grandiose wings, and sometimes also having four pendulous breasts that signify its status as the primordial ancestor of human beings. Mentioned in various traditions and folklore of Melanesia (a Pacific group of islands northeast of Australia), the Hatuibwari was most probably worshiped as a cosmic creature that created as well as nourished the early humans. Few sources have even put ‘him’ across as a masculine version of Mother Earth – thus serving as an antithesis to the commonly portrayed femininity of our planet.

5) Hippalectryon (from Greek Mythology) –

Credit: CuttlefishDreams Archive

A fantastical creature with depictions as old as 3,000 years, the Hippalectryon is derived from Cretan (or possibly Mycenaean) folklore as a beast with half-horse and half-rooster features. The Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes had described the Hippalectryon as an odd-looking creature with yellowish feathers. The very same author had also made a hypothesis that the origin of the hybrid beast had been influenced by Middle Eastern folkloric traditions. Other sources hint at how the creature may have been an alternative representation of the renowned winged-horse Pegasus. But the most interesting account arguably comes from Aristophanes’s own play ‘The Frogs‘, where he mentions how the Hippalectryon was so comically ugly that it invited laughter from people around, thus driving evil away for good.

6) Khepri (from Egyptian Mythology) –

Art by TorVic Ulloa (Art Station)

Intrinsically connected to the scarab beetle, Khepri was usually depicted as a man with a beetle head in Ancient Egyptian funerary papyri. There was a symbolic side to the whole affair of Khepri worship – with the god epitomizing the forces that moved the sun across the vast expanse of the sky. This connection was derived from the action of scarab beetles when they rolled balls of dung across the rigorous desert surface – while the young beetles emerged from inside the dung, from the eggs laid by the parent. This is in fact related to the Egyptian word ‘kheper‘, which roughly translates as – ‘to change’ or ‘to create’. In any case, Khepri was also considered as being subordinate to the more exalted sun god Ra.

7) Matsya (from Indian Mythology) –

Having the head of a human and underpart of a fish, the Matsya might appear to be a variant to the European-origin merman. However, the tradition of the Matsya is far older with the powerful entity being described in Vedic texts as one of the ten primary avatars of Vishnu (like our earlier mentioned Narasimha). And quite interestingly, in a strikingly similar vein to the Biblical account of Noah’s Ark, the Indian Manu also survived a catastrophic flood brought on by the gods, by building a great ark. This ark/boat was guided and pulled by the magnificent Matsya – a heroic feat that ultimately allowed Manu (and his family, animal pets and even collected plant seeds) to be safe to repopulate the earth.

8) Monocerus (from Medieval Legends) –

Derived from the Greek term Μονόκερος, the Monocerus simply pertains to an animal with a single horn, like the unicorn. However, Medieval bestiaries have given a fantastical twist to the hybrid creature by describing it as having the head of a stag, the body of a horse, the legs of an elephant and a tail of a boar. To top that off, the beast had only one horn, and it was supposedly used to aim the belly region of its opponents, namely the elephant!

9) Mušḫuššu (from Mesopotamian Mythology) –

An image that might be familiar to history enthusiasts from the reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate (of Babylon) in the Pergamon Museum, the Mušḫuššu, pronounced – ‘Mush·khush·shu‘ (also known as sirrušu) is rather a cryptic mythical creature which may have even influenced the Lernaean Hydra. In some narratives, the hybrid creature is the favored (or sacred) animal of none other than Marduk – the patron god of ancient Babylon. The name itself possibly refers to a ‘fierce snake’ or ‘splendid serpent’. To that end, the creature has been described as a dragon-like appearance, with a long neck, a horned head with a crest, and a serpentine tongue – complemented by lion (or feline) forelegs and hind legs of an eagle.

10) Nawarupa (from Burmese Mythology) –

Literally meaning having ‘nine forms’, Nawarupa, also known as byala (especially Arakenese myths), is a hybrid mythical creature that is said to have the multifarious composition from nine different animals. Often used in motifs that bedecked the royal barges, the creature is described as the having the conspicuous trunk of an elephant, the horns of a rhino, the eyes of a deer, the ears of a horse, the wings (or possibly tongue) of a parrot, the body of a lion, the tail of a peacock (or yak), and feet of Chinthe (the griffin like creatures often depicted in Buddhist pagoda complexes). A similar mythical critter known as the Pyinsarupa (‘five forms’) is used as a heraldic device of Myanmar’s current flagship air carrier.

11) Onocentaur (from Greek Mythology) –

Credit: DrawMill

Some of us must know about the renowned centaur, the mythical Greek beast with the head and torso of human and legs of a horse. Well, as it turns out, there is a less-impressive variant to the centaur, called the Onocentaur. Those who know their etymology must have already recognized its donkey credentials. And beyond Onocentaur’s ‘half-assed’ anatomy, the liminal being was supposedly mentioned for the first time by Pythagoras, while its female form was known as the onokentaura in Latin – as described by Roman author Claudius Aelianus. Furthermore, Greek poetic mythology makes mention of another exotic centaur hybrid known as Ichthyocentaur – with the upper torso of a man, the lower front of a horse and tail of a fish!

12) Pazuzu (from Babylonian Mythology) –

Source: Shin Megami Tensei II

For those who ‘observe’ their movies might identify the Pazuzu from the famous horror-thriller ‘The Exorcist’. In mythological terms, the winged Pazuzu also had some ominous and unsightly aspects with its dog head, eagle-like feet, a scorpion’s tail, and a serpentine private part! As can be gathered from such frightful features, the monster was depicted as the demon of winds who could bring upon catastrophic famines during the rainy seasons. However, the Pazuzu was also invoked to lead the fight against other evil spirits, namely the Lamashtu, a malevolent Akkadian goddess who kidnapped infants by snatching them away from their mother’s breasts.

13) Qilin (from Chinese Mythology) –

In Chinese legends, the Qilin goes hand in hand with whimsicality and mysticism. Also known as the Chinese Unicorn, the spotting of the venerable beast signifies the birth (or death) of a sage or eminent ruler. The innocuous features of the creature are depicted as – having a body of a deer with a single horn, a tail of an ox and hooves of a horse, while their backs projected a vivacious palette of various colors that was complemented by a yellowish belly. Other descriptions of the Qilin entail dragon-like attributes with thick eyelashes and back scales. However, the most interesting episode of the Qilin would pertain to – when a real giraffe was (possibly) presented as the mythical creature to China’s Ming emperor Yongle.

14) Tarasque (from French Folklore) –

Tarasque is mentioned in various sources, but the most renowned account of the terrifying beast comes from the Medieval ‘bestseller’ Golden Legend (or Legenda sanctorum in Latin), compiled (possibly) in circa 1260 AD. It has been described as a dragon or a dragon-like creature with a head of a lion, a body of an ox covered with a turtle shell, legs (six of them) of a bear and finally a scaled tail that ended up like that of a scorpion. According to the Golden Legend, it dwelt in a marsh along river Rhone, and pounced upon unsuspecting travelers with its “sword-like teeth and sharp horns”. As for its origins, the mythical being was said to come from the region of Galatia (in present-day Turkey) – the homeland of its legendary bison-like parent, Onachus.

15) Wolpertinger (from German Folklore) –

Source: World of Warcraft Trading Card Game

A creature that is said to inhabit the picturesque forests of Bavaria, the origins of Wolpertinger might come from popular culture inspired by earlier myths and folklore. Often perceived as a ‘mashup’ of various animals and their parts, the Wolpertinger does bear similarity to the mythical Rasselbock from Thuringia (southern Germany) and even the Jackalope of America. To that end, the critter is described as having the head of a hare (or rabbit), the body of a squirrel (or hare), the antlers of a deer, and wings (and sometimes webbed feet) of a pheasant or duck. Interestingly enough, the popular lore associated with the Wolpertinger pertains to how they are only enticed by beautiful human females.


Archaeologists ‘tantalisingly close’ to finding ancient north-east monastery

© DC Thomson

Archaelogists believe they are tantalisingly close to finally finding the lost Monastery of Deer in Aberdeenshire.

The Book of Deer Project is celebrating a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £10,000 to further its archaeological work.

And yesterday, its members started a two-week excavation with samples being carbon dated and analysed at a site close to Deer Abbey, where two circular structures were discovered last year.

The Book of Deer is a 10th century illuminated manuscript, which contains the oldest pieces of Gaelic writing to have survived from early medieval Scotland.

Archaeologist Alison Cameron said: “This is my fifth year working on the project and this is the closest we have come to buildings which may date to the early medieval period.

“It is a wonderful project with great volunteers and we would all be so excited if this turns out to be the monastery we have been looking for. That would be the icing on the cake.”

Ms Cameron said that details written by monks in Scots Gaelic in the margins of the Book of Deer provided “tantalising clues” of the Monastery of Deer surviving for a time after the monks moved to Deer Abbey.

These clues included suggestions that it was visible from the abbey.

Aberdeenshire Council archaeologist Bruce Mann added: “The finds from last year suggest the lost monastery has finally been located.

“This summer, I am hoping that definitive evidence can be found which confirms this.

“The community effort over the last few years to try to find the site has been tremendous and deserves to be rewarded.”

The project’s chairwoman, Anne Simpson, expressed delight at the HLF grant.

She said: “This is a tremendous boost and will allow us to continue the exciting search for the monastery of Deer which seems so close after last year’s dig.”

A two-week excavation with an associated educational programme, featuring local Aberdeenshire primary and secondary schools, medieval pottery workshops and storytelling will be carried out until July 8.


A Bit About Britain

It’s hard to beat soaking up the atmosphere of an elegant historic house, or imagining life being restored to the grim ruins of a once-mighty castle. But there’s also a special kind of magic getting off the well-beaten tourist track to explore some less obvious aspect of our past, an attraction that isn’t widely advertised, or which even isn’t that easy to find. So let’s take a look at Ninekirks – or, more properly, St Ninian’s Church in, or near, Brougham, Cumbria.

Ninekirks is accessible only on foot, along a country track to a bend in the River Eamont, where the church nestles in the middle of a field inside a walled enclosure. It is a beautiful and evocative spot. The present church was built on the site of an earlier one in 1660 by the redoubtable Lady Anne Clifford and is a rare example of a 17 th century country church. The completion date, 1660, is set into the plaster over the plain table altar most of the fittings, including the oak box pews, date from this time. However, this was a medieval site, in its early days a Celtic monastic settlement, by tradition founded by St Ninian at the end of the 4 th century. Before then, the Romans were here too, though their presence is hidden deeper in the shadows. A village grew from the monastery, but had been abandoned (or moved closer to modern Brougham) by the end of the 13 th century. Now, Anne Clifford’s 17 th century church is the only visible memorial to the people that once lived there.

The visit to Ninekirks began by needing to locate a small car park on the north side of the A66, just east of Penrith and more or less opposite Whinfell Park. The advice was that it is easy to miss, and it was – particularly with a 32-ton truck thundering up your rear (so to speak). One of life’s imponderable questions, along with why don’t sheep shrink in the rain, is why are there so many bad truck drivers? Anyway, second time round, the car successfully negotiated itself off the carriageway and down into a small secluded semi-tarmacked area. There was a promising sign pointing to ‘Historic Church’. I parked up, changed into my boots and set off along the side of a field, the last scent of summer heat wafting up from the vegetation. It struck me, not for the first time, how green north-west England can be. After awhile, the path curved away from the busy road and dipped to become something of a holloway. The hum of traffic gradually receded and the only sounds were the breeze blowing through the trees overhead and the occasional distant bleat of a lamb. No birdsong. With occasional glimpses of the flowing Eamont to the left, and a few gates to clamber over, after about a mile the path led to a bank, at the bottom of which stood a very elderly, wooden, five-bar gate, much worse for wear. The church beckoned across a sheep-strewn field from inside its old stone pen. As I got there, a sense of the sheer age of the place was almost overwhelming, despite my brain telling me that, actually, the church wasn’t that ancient. It was a very curious sensation, rarely felt. This might be one of those places which the tides of history have largely by-passed, washed only infrequently by the waves of exceptional events.

The path to the church was discernable, but hardly well-used. Suddenly, I felt quite lonely. To the right of the porch is a modern replica of a Celtic cross, commemorating two soldiers of the First World War, Johnston, Gh and Slee, J. The base of the cross is evidently much older – medieval, I found out later. In one corner of the churchyard is a ruined building – 18 th century, I reckon. This turns out to be the remains of the stable for the parson’s horse and trap.

Inside the church, time seems to have stood still for 350 years: the only thing wanting is a congregation dressed for the second half of the 17 th century. It is surely much as Anne Clifford left it once she’d signed the builders off. What she’d built on was probably a Norman church. There was certainly one on the site in 1393, when it was a chapel-of-ease for St Wilfred’s chapel in Brougham – also rebuilt by the industrious Lady Clifford, incidentally. In any event, by her time St Ninian’s had become dilapidated and derelict. She has left us a very simple oblong one-room church, which still has some relics of the older building. In front of the altar are impressive, and interesting, post-Reformation brasses of the de Brougham family. And, nearby, under a heavy wooden trap door, is a medieval grave slab which clearly shows a sword and is believed to commemorate father and son Odard and Gilbert de Burgham. This would set it in the 12 th or early 13 th century. Underneath the oak altar table is a pre-Reformation altar slab, which I think I read somewhere was dug up from the churchyard. The parish chest is probably medieval too. There is some intriguing Jacobean carving and I have never seen canopied box pews quite like these they even have coat pegs in them, so the gentry have somewhere to hang their cloaks.

All the while I’m there, I’m thinking that not only is this unpretentious and rather agreeable little church on top of another much older one, but outside and round about are the buried remains of St Ninian’s pre-Conquest monastic site as well as the deserted medieval village of Brougham. Both sites have been identified from aerial photographs. The monastery lay to the east of the church and is believed to be early medieval Irish. In other words, it was a Celtic community at the very dawn of Christianity in Britain. A hoard of 23 Roman coins was uncovered during the digging of a grave in the churchyard in 1914 and these are said to have been left there between 276 and 286 AD – more than 100 years before Roman rule in Britain came to an end. It is not clear where the tradition of the monastery being founded by Ninian comes from. Ninian is reputed to have landed on the Isle of Whithorn, in Dumfries and Galloway, in 397AD where he established a mission to convert the pagan southern Picts. He is meant to have been a native Briton, but little is known about him – and none of it undisputed fact. Did he establish a community here before his better-known foray into Pictland, or was this a later off-shoot? We’ll probably never know. Just to add to the mystery, Historic England suggests that the church was once dedicated to St Wilfred. Oh – and, apparently, an 8 th century ‘Hiberno-Saxon’ (Irish-Saxon) decorated gilt cup was found there in 1846, together with a number of skeletons (which shouldn’t surprise anyone). But it’s not clear what happened to the cup, or the bones.

There is a tradition that Ninian lived for awhile as a hermit in nearby caves people like him did things like that in those days. Indeed, there is a ‘Giant’s Cave’ marked on the modern OS map, on the northern bank of the Eamont. I wondered about having a look at that when I was there, but time was short, it was on the opposite bank and I should probably have fallen in. It was only afterwards when researching this article that I learned that the local name for this cave, or caves, is Isis Parlis. It seems this may be a very old name indeed and nothing whatever to do with an Egyptian goddess, but ancient Celtic in origin, meaning something like ‘the fairies’ cups’. Good luck to anyone who wants to delve further, but I cannot resist re-telling one of the legends associated with Isis Parlis, which you will find on the amazing Old Cumbria Gazetteer website. It is told in a guidebook of 1787, ‘A Survey of the Lakes of Cumberland, Westmorland, and Lancashire’, written by a James Clarke:

“Dr Burn tells us, upon the authority of Mr Sandford’s manuscript history, that Sir Hugh Caesario had an hermitage in that neighbourhood called Sir Hugh’s Parlour: of this he, Mr Sandford, was informed by a Mr Page, Schoolmaster at Penrith from the year 1581 to 1591 and this intelligence Mr Page had from a stranger, who came so early as that period to visit the antiquities and curiosities of that country…

… an old tradition and song, which informs us that one Torquin, a man of gigantic stature, but addicted to all kinds of rapine and brutality, lived in a cave in this neighbourhood, on the banks of the river Emont. This den, which yet retains the name of the Giant’s Cave, is about two miles from Penrith, and is, on some account, (the foundation of which is now forgotten,) much resorted to on the third Sunday in May by the country people, who carry with them tea, liquors, &c. and there make merry. It consists of several caverns in the rocks, the road to which leads down a frightful precipice, quite to the water’s edge: this makes many decline the journey, but when down, the road is more tolerable. Many strange and incredible stories are told of this cave one, which seems not so absurd as the rest, and to have had some real foundation is as follows:

Torquin, or Torquinas, (as some call him,) having stolen several virgins, conveyed them to this dismal mansion, where he kept them close prisoners. One of them, however, found means to escape along the side of the rock: in her road she was obliged to step over a hideous gap a yard and a half wide a rugged, craggy rock over-hanging her head, so as scarcely to allow room to stand upright, and a perpendicular descent of 48 feet underneath: the sides of the rock are such as could afford no hold to her hand, and the boiling and rapidity of the impetuous torrent which roars beneath, are enough to confuse the calmest and most intrepid. Notwithstanding these horrors and difficulties, she preserved and effected her escape, and to this day the place has retained the name of the Maiden’s Step.

Tradition further says, that the ravages of this Torquin coming to the ears of King Arthur, he sent Sir Lancelot du Lake to bring him to Court: Torquin refusing, a battle ensued, in which Torquin fell, and was buried in Penrith church-yard, and these pillars erected at his head and feet [Giant’s Grave].

There is indeed a giant’s grave in the churchyard of St. Andrew’s, Penrith.

In any event, I’m putting Ninekirks on my list of places to revisit. Looking at the OS map, there’s an alternative path from the east, via 16 th century Hornby Hall (whose adjoining fields I gather hosted a satellite RAF station during WW2). Deep in thought on the way back to the car, I crested a hillock to be confronted by what I believe was a roe doe. In truth, I’m not sure exactly what it was – but it was a little deer. Hard to tell which of us was more surprised, but I certainly wasn’t the one that chose to leap over a nearby fence.

Finally, we all want to know why it’s called Ninekirks, don’t we? The obvious possibility is that the name is derived from ‘Ninian’s Kirk (church). However, a more attractive explanation is that witches dancing round it made it fall down and, having done this eight times, they got bored.

Ninekirks is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust and, though it is redundant, services are still occasionally held in it.


Researchers close to rediscovering Christian Pictish monastery that vanished mysteriously 1000 years ago

The history related to Christianity is huge and every day many researchers try to shed light on long-lost mysteries. Now a group of archaeologists has set upon rediscovering the lost Scottish monastery where the famous 'Book of Deer' was written.

The recent excavation process is considered the biggest breakthrough in archaeology. Earlier, researchers found 1600-year-old manuscripts which revealed what Jesus taught his brother James, besides some secrets of heaven and future events.

Now the archaeologists are in search of the Pictish monastery where the 10th-century Latin Gospel Book, purportedly containing the oldest-known written examples of Scottish Gaelic, and possibly the oldest Scottish writing of any kind was written. Almost 1,000 years ago, according to Scotsman, the monastery vanished from historical records.

However, while working in the Old Deer village located in Scotland's Aberdeenshire, researchers recently came across some ancient pottery and a fireplace with charcoal, as well as a stone layer featuring holes for posts.

They believe that if the excavation, which started in 2017 summer, continues, they would find more undiscovered mysteries of the vanished monastery.

Bruce Mann, archaeologist from Aberdeenshire Council, said researchers had spent many years to locate the monastery and after the recent development, they are optimistic about accomplishing the results.

In addition, he said, "More work obviously has to happen, but regardless of what this finally turns out to be, it is a significant find for not only Old Deer, but Aberdeenshire and beyond too."

Folio 5 recto from the Book of Deer (Cambridge University Library, MS. II.6.32), Text from the Gospel of Matthew, starting at Matt. 1:18, with Chi Rho monogram. The text in the margins is amongst the oldest surviving Gaelic text from Scotland. Wikimedia Commons

According to reports, the book was written by the saints of Aberdeenshire in the 9th or 10th century when paper was so expensive that monks used margins and blank spaces to write land transactions and other notes. Those notes were in Gaelic and considered the first written evidence of the language.

On the other hand, Michelle Macleod, a senior lecturer from Gaelic at Aberdeen University, said the Book of Deer could be a small book but "it has left a huge legacy for us, not only in the north-east but for the whole of Scotland. We had to wait another 200-300 years after the Book of Deer to find any more evidence of written Scottish Gaelic."

However, as reported by BBC, the excavation was filmed for a BBC Alba documentary, entitled "Air Tòir Manachainn Dhèir" (The Lost Monastery of Deer) which includes detailed discussion on the findings.


Guest Post: The Elusive Life of Francis, Viscount Lovell by Monika E. Simon

Today it is a pleasure to welcome back Monika E. Simon to the blog, with a second guest blog post. This time we are looking at Francis Lovell, close friend of Richard III who seems to have disappeared after the 1487 Battle of Stoke and the defeat of the forces of pretender Lambert Simnel. Monika’s debut book, From Robber Barons to Courtiers: The Changing World of the Lovells of Titchmarsh, is out at the end of the month.


Fundraising campaign underway for Book of Deer projects

© The Book of Deer Project

A campaign has been launched to help raise over £40,000 to support two major north-east archaeological digs.

The Book of Deer Project has been carrying out work since 2008 in an effort to locate the early medieval Monastery of Deer.

Those involved now hope to raise about £40,000-£50,000 for what they have called Project Open Hart – Revealing the Secrets of the Deer Field.

The dig is to take place in 2022 and members have hopes of making further interesting finds following a number of exciting discoveries in recent years.

Chairwoman Anne Simpson said: “At the last dig in 2018 there were some interesting finds, such as a round flat stone with a game engraved on it.

“The response from local youngsters has been fantastic in the past. It’s a great way to spend time outdoors and learn more about the history of the local area.”

The group have previously received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and plan to apply again in October to help facilitate the costs of the big dig.

The second project, which will be a partnership with other groups, is for the loan of the Book of Deer from Cambridge University.

The 10th century illuminated manuscript contains the oldest pieces of Gaelic writing to have survived from early medieval Scotland.

Mrs Simpson said: “This is really exciting and my hope is that it will be on display from May to October in 2022, which will tie in with the Year of Scotland’s Stories.

“It is something that could be combined with other events and exhibitions.”

It is understood “a couple of thousand pounds” needs to be raised for the loan of the Book of Deer from Cambridge University.

Mrs Simpson said: “I believe the last time the book was in Scotland was in Glasgow in 1990.

“It would be quite something for it to be on display here but certain criteria need to be met.”

Last year members of the Book of Deer Project visited Cambridge to see the book on display.

Mrs Simpson added: “It was amazing to see. Being able to examine it is almost like touching the past.”

A number of potential venues for the display of the book in 2022 are being considered.


Notes

  1. The Medieval Park: New Perspectives, ed. R. Liddiard (Bollington, 2007) Breaking and Shaping Beastly Bodies: Animals as Material Culture in the Middle Ages, ed. A. G. Pluskowski (Oxford, 2007).Back to (1)
  2. M. Johnson, Behind the Castle Gate: From Medieval To Renaissance (London, 2002) R. Liddiard, Castles in Context: Power, Symbolism and Landscape, 1066 to 1500 (Macclesfield, 2005).Back to (2)

Stephen Mileson would like to thank Aleks Pluskowski for his very generous, detailed, and perceptive review. He endorses his call for further research into the development of aristocratic hunting cultures and landscapes elsewhere in Europe