One of the most interesting manuscripts to come to light in recent years is the Faddan More Psalter, a parchment codex in a leather cover that contained the Psalms in Latin. It was discovered by a worker harvesting peat for fuel from a bog in central Ireland in 2006. The acidic environment of bogs, famous for preserving human bodies, also preserved parts of this codex in a remarkable way. I first crossed paths with this book several years ago during a visit to the archaeological branch of the National Museum of Ireland. I was just able to see it again this past weekend. It is a truly remarkable survival.
The codex did not look so great when it was first brought to the museum for conservation:
The leaves of the book are heavily damaged, and given the state of the codex when it was found, it’s incredible to see what the conservators were able to recover. Some footage of the conservation process can be seen in this video. A fuller discussion is available in a very nicely illustrated book (from which much of my discussion is drawn): Anthony Read, The Faddan More Psalter: Discovery, Conservation, and Investigation (National Museum of Ireland, 2011).
The book probably dates to the late eighth century (on the basis of combined palaeographic and radiocarbon evidence). It consisted of 30 bifolia arranged in five quires (presumably five three-sheet quires, although I have not found this information specified anywhere). The pages are relatively large (26 cm wide and 30 cm high). Only about 15% of the overall surface area of the leaves survive, but the structural elements can be reconstructed with some confidence. A segment of binding thread survives, as well as the leather cover inside which the parchment leaves were found. Subsequent excavation of the bog at the find site suggests that the book was deposited in the bog not long after it was produced.
There are some fascinating quirks of preservation. Metallic inks can damage or destroy the parchment over time. But under the conditions of the bog, the ink of the Faddan More Psalter sometimes preserved the parchment, such that only the isolated letters survive while the surrounding uninscribed parchment has disintegrated. This is the case in some of the lettering of the decorative opening line of Psalm 51, Quid g[loriatur]:
For a sense of how the book looked in its prime, the museum provides a very nice reconstruction of the book, opened to the beginning of Psalm 51.
The leather cover of the codex survived in relatively intact (after some diligent conservation work). It is a fairly simple construction–a rectangular length of leather (58 cm long and 33 cm high) folded around the codex and latched with three buttons. The cover is now on display wrapped around a filler block:
There are several puzzles connected to this cover. According to the experts who have examined the codex, the cover does not properly fit the surviving parchment leaves, in terms of both the dimensions of the leaves and the thickness of the quires. The cover would have first leaves with a width of about 22.5 cm and a height of about 33 cm. It also appears that the cover simply acted as a folder to protect the leaves, as the quires seem not to have been attached to it.
The exterior of the cover is incised all over with various decorative patterns executed with varying levels of skill.
A good deal of black pigment was found on the exterior of the cover. When analyzed, the pigment was found to be lamp black, but it also contained traces of gold leaf. The presence of gold leaf is a mystery, as gold leaf seems to not to have been used in Ireland in this period.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the cover was the discovery that it was lined with papyrus. These last two facts (the presence of gold leaf in the pigment on the cover and the presence of papyrus lining) have led researchers to conclude that the cover is an import. But, as the researchers also point out, the three-button cover is a type that appears to be illustrated in contemporary Irish manuscript illuminations:
So, the cover raises a number of questions: Was it produced in Ireland, or was it imported from elsewhere? If it was imported from elsewhere, is that also the case for other similar covers, such as those depicted in the contemporary illuminations?
A cursory search did not turn up too much academic bibliography on the Faddan More Psalter. If anyone has suggested reading, please add it to the comments.