History at Leicester

Insular Manuscripts

Leverhulme Trust International Network (2016-2019): IN–2016–029

The Insular Manuscripts project establishes an international research network to advance understanding of knowledge exchange in early medieval Europe through analysis of Insular Manuscripts. 

In the period between c. AD 650 and c. AD 850 manuscripts made in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England, and in monasteries on the Continent founded by English or Irish missionaries, used ‘Insular’ styles of script, decoration, and methods of making that are distinctive and diagnostic.

Our preliminary survey collated data about 500 extant Insular manuscripts, of which 75% are in libraries on the European continent (including 42% in Germany, 9% in France), a further 24% are in Ireland or the UK, and 3% are in Russia or the USA. Among those in European libraries are books that were written in England or Ireland and exported not long after they were made, as well as books that were copied on the Continent in Insular style. A revised list, which will be published online at the end of the project, has increased significantly the numbers of manuscripts written before c. 850 in Insular script or with substantial intervention by Insular scribes.

Some individual books are very well known and have been studied in great detail, often as extraordinary treasures; but there is no synthetic or detailed analysis of what these books reveal en masse about networks of knowledge, movement of people, ideas and technology in the post-Roman West. As a group these manuscripts reveal the deep and extensive contribution of the islands of Britain and Ireland to medieval European culture.

This project enables a step-change in scholarship on cultural networks in medieval Europe by facilitating research with academics, curators, and digital specialists, exploring how new research tools (print and digital) can help us challenge assumptions, map our data, and change the way that investigate our material. It aims to develop a new research agenda by bringing together scholars of early medieval history and manuscript studies, with practitioners expert in network analysis and digital technologies, as well as collection curators. The project collaborated closely with the 2018/19 blockbuster British Library exhibition on Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.

Text image: London, British Library, Royal 2 A XX, fol. 17r (details and copyright)

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