Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Making the Book of Kells

This article provides an overview to the making of the Book of Kells.
Today in the era of digital technologies, we tend to take the transmission of knowledge for granted. Text and images can be created with ease and shared with millions across the web or printed in multiple copies at the press of a single button. In the early medieval period, however, it was different. If you wanted to obtain a copy of a book, it needed to be laboriously transcribed from another book. This week, we’re going to be looking at the making of the Book of Kells.
Together with Susie Bioletti and John Gillis, colleagues from the conservation section of the library at Trinity College, and master calligrapher Tim O’Neill, we’re going to be exploring some of the skills required and the materials and techniques used in making the Book of Kells. In the early medieval period, the making of a manuscript was specialist work. In order to be a scribe, you had to first be able to read and write. And at a time when only a very small portion of the population were literate, this was not a given. You also had to be able to understand the principles of design and the meanings of the art that was to be used to decorate the manuscript.
There were also practical considerations. This was a time before the creation of artificial light, or indeed, artificial lenses such as magnifying glasses or reading glasses. So a scribe had to have excellent eyesight. Coupled with this, too, in order to create the minute details that we find in manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, a steady hand would have been required. The materials to make the manuscript also had to be procured. This was a period before the mass production of paper. And across most of Western Europe during the early mediaeval period, parchment was used– that is, the skins of young animals. The Book of Kells is made from vellum, or calfskin.
Procuring a suitable number of high quality skins and their preparation was far from straightforward. Coupled with this was the procurement of inks and colours. These days, we take for granted the colourful images all around us, whether on our television screens or on advertising billboards. But in the early medieval period, man-made coloured images were rare and very much the reserve of the elite. It’s worth bearing this in mind when we look at the pages of the Book of Kells to appreciate quite the impact that the vibrant colour on its pages would have had on the viewer. In order to make these colours, various pigments had to be procured and mixed.
These were taken both from plants and from minerals and mixed together with binding agents that helped them to adhere to the page. Recent advances in noninvasive scientific testing have allowed us to learn more about where these pigments came from, and gradually the Book of Kells is beginning to yield some of its secrets.

Today, in the era of digital technologies, we tend to take the transmission of knowledge for granted. Texts and images can be created with ease and shared over the web reaching millions of people in a matter of moments, or printed in multiple copies at the press of a single button. In the early medieval period, however, it was very different.

If a church or an individual wished to get a copy of a book, it had to be copied, by hand, from another book. Highly trained individuals were required to carry out the work.

Colours and inks needed to be gathered and mixed. Vellum or parchment needed to be prepared. Recent scientific analysis of the Book of Kells is helping us to understand in greater depth the efforts that were made to realise this ambitious manuscript.

Coming up this week

This week we will be meeting colleagues from the conservation department at the Library of Trinity College who will be exploring the pigments, calligraphy and binding used in the Book. You will get a chance to try out some of the most well-known illustrations and calligraphy of the Book, and learn about the scribes who illustrated the Book.

Don’t forget to consult the glossary which explains some of the key terms used in the course.

This article is from the free online

The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now