Monday, 14 December 2009

Manuscripts and identity

I've been rather saddened recently to see that a little Psalter in Edinburgh which may once have belonged to St Margaret of Scotland is being touted as the Scottish Book of Kells. Now I've never actually managed to see it, but I have got a copy of the facsimile and some high-grade images, and I included it in my Margaret book. It's a cute little thing, only about 130 mm by 85 mm in size and with lots of bright little initials, but calling it the Scottish Book of Kells is a bit like calling Birmingham England's Venice. Birmingham's OK, but Venice is startling, and comparing the two sounds like a joke at England's expense. We, especially the English with our colonial history, ought to take Scotland's early medieval heritage more seriously than that: Scotland's Book of Kells is either irrevocably lost, or it's the Book of Kells -- it's actually quite likely that that manuscript originated on the island of Iona.

On the other hand, although it's a shame if one has to make these sorts of comparisons in order to get people interested, I suppose I shouldn't grouch about it; of course I think this stuff deserves more serious treatment, I've spent years studying it, and I shouldn't turn up my noses at those who haven't. Take something I know a bit about but not much, say the Rosetta stone, and then tell me that some object is the Rosetta Stone for pre-Columban Mayan hieroglyphs or something like that, and my attention will be grabbed even as the experts are finding themselves annoyed at all the ways that it's not like the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone has become cultural short-hand for a key that unlocks past written cultures, and the Book of Kells has become short-hand for a beautiful book with alien decoration, for "don't underestimate these people just because they lived a long time ago".

The little Psalter in question actually seems to me to have a very interesting significance which has, understandably perhaps, been glossed over by the promotion for the exhibition it's in. The main body of the Psalter is in a beautiful script of the sort written in Ireland and Scotland, a development of the early Insular scripts found in the Book of Kells among others (only it's a minuscule, e.g. lower-case, script, not a majuscule or upper-case one). It has decorated initials for the start of every psalm, made of interlace and beast bodies, and it has lots of little coloured initials at the start of verses. Psalters, especially ones from the Irish world, tended to split the 150 psalms into three sets of 50, and had decorated pages to start the 1st, 51st, and 101st psalms. The first and third of these decorated pages are missing (this is really common in medieval manuscripts) but the second shows a fascinating development. All you can still see of the original is a rectangular frame with interlace corner pieces; the rest has been completely erased and replaced with some English decoration in a Carolingian style, roughly datable to the eleventh century, probably late. And this is why the manuscript is associated with St Margaret; because she is the person who, with the best of motives, was at work in late eleventh-century Scotland making it more English/Continental. St Margaret was married to King Malcolm, or Máel Coluim, i.e. Malcolm Canmore from the end of Macbeth. Malcolm's first wife was a Scandinavian woman called Ingebjorg, and their sons were called Domnall and Donnchad (respectively pronounced Dovnall or Donall and later to become the name Donald, and pronounced Donnakha and later to become Duncan). Malcolm and Margaret's children were called Edward, Edmund, Athelred, Edgar, David, Alexander, Edith and Mary; not one seems to have been given a Gaelic name. The girls were educated in England. When Malcolm, Margaret and Edward all died suddenly within three days of each other, the younger children had to flee from the subsequent anti-English backlash. Consequently David, who later became one of Scotland's greatest kings, grew up at the English court, where his sister Edith/Matilda was queen, and became a vassal of the English king for huge estates in East Anglia before eventually succeeding to the Scottish throne. After that the heir to the Scottish throne was always a vassal of the English king. If you're a die-hard fan of things Gaelic Margaret is not the most positive of figures. This diminishing of Gaelic culture can't be seen as anything other than a terrible shame, even if you find Margaret an endearing figure as I do, and that picture in the little Psalter in Edinburgh provides a very literal symbol of the erasure of almost the whole of something Gaelic to replace it with something blandly English.

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