Colm Tóibín’s used the word magic to describe ancient stones, which he suggested were without artifice, without religion, and without history. Ironically, his description reminded me of the Book of Kells, and that, in turn, brings me to this passage in Peter Brown’s definitive history of the early Middle Ages, The Rise of Western Christendom. It seems that magic was very important, even to the monks of Ireland.
In a Christian region where books of any kind were rare objects, the Christian mystique of copying the Scriptures was yet further tinged with the magical awe that had always surrounded the áes dana, the “people of the skill,” the master-craftsmen whose legendary cunning provided secular rulers with the ornaments and jewelry appropriate to their status.
The writer as jeweler . . .
In the same way, the craftsmen of the great monasteries covered the vellum pages of the Gospel books with exquisite illuminations. These craftsmen were the áes dana of the “High King of Heaven.” They caused the honor of God to blaze from the page. They were not simply copying a text. They were turning parts of the holy text into the equivalent of jewelry.
IMAGE: The Tara Brooch, illustration from The Early Christian Architecture of Ireland by Miss M. Stokes
This is one in an occasional series about the Virginia Festival of the Book, to be held in Charlottesville, Virginia, on March 26–30, 2008, and sponsored by my employer, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.