University of Leicester gets major funding for project on early medieval manuscripts

The project will study insular-style manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels (pictured), to better understand the activities of Christian missionaries and scholars from Irish and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, including their travels on the European continent during the early Middle Ages. (Credit: British Library)

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded a prestigious Advanced Grant, for €2.5m, to an ambitious new project to study early medieval manuscripts made in Britain and Ireland between AD 600–900.

The INSULAR project is led by Joanna Story, Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Leicester, who will be working with Dr Anna Dorofeeva, Lecturer in Digital Palaeography in the Institute for Digital Humanities at the University of Göttingen, Germany, alongside scientists, conservators and curators of many European manuscript collections.*

It aims to transform understanding of the influence of Anglo-Saxon and Irish missionaries and scholars in early medieval Europe by combining new forms of evidence, captured by innovative digital and biomolecular technologies, with historical investigations into text, script and art.

The manuscripts at the heart of the project were written using distinctive ‘insular’ styles of handwriting that were used in the Anglo-Saxon and Irish kingdoms during the early medieval period.

Some of the best-known early medieval manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, now in the British Library, and the Book of Kells, in the Library of Trinity College Dublin, use insular styles of script and decoration.

Although insular script and art was developed in Ireland and Britain, hundreds of manuscripts using this distinctive style were also produced in the kingdom of Francia, especially in the Age of Charlemagne in the decades around the year 800.

The modern distribution of these insular manuscripts reflects the activities of Christian missionaries and scholars who left the Irish and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to live and work in Francia at this time.

Some of the surviving Insular books were imported, ready-made, into Francia and others were made there in scriptoria that had been established by emigrant clerics from the islands of Britain and Ireland. 

The INSULAR project team will identify differences between manuscripts written on the islands and on the Continent by studying changes in script, art, and the methods of making manuscripts. They will use new digital imaging techniques to identify traces left on the surface of the parchment by makers and readers and will analyse the proteins and ancient DNA (aDNA) preserved within the parchment itself to investigate the origin of the animals used to make the pages of the books.

Professor Story said: “There are hundreds of these manuscripts, in preserved in libraries across Europe, that have the power to reveal much more about the extent and depth of the Insular contribution to the intellectual culture of post-Roman Europe”.

She added, “This is a profoundly European story, both in terms of the context of the production and use of these manuscripts in the eighth and ninth centuries, and in the scale and distribution of them in European archives in modern times.”

*INSULAR Project Partners:

  • Institute for Digital Humanities, University of Göttingen, Germany: Dr Anna Dorofeeva, Lecturer in Digital Palaeography
  • The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, UK: John Barrett, Senior Photographer, ARCHiOx Technical Lead (Bodleian) with Adam Lowe: The Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Preservation, Madrid, Spain
  • The McDonald Institute, University of Cambridge, UK: Matthew Collins, McDonald Professor in Palaeoproteomics
  • The Smurfit Institute of Genetics, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland: Dan Bradley, Professor of Genetics
  • The Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, France: Dr Charlotte Denoël, chef du service des manuscrits médiévaux
  • Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen, Denmark: Dr Jiří Vnouček, Conservator and Senior Researcher
  • Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium: Lieve Watteeuw, professor and head of the VIEW laboratory.

INSULAR emerges from a long-standing research collaboration between Professor Joanna Story and Dr Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts, at The British Library, which included an International Research Network, funded by The Leverhulme Trust [IN–2016–029] that contributed to the British Library’s major international exhibition on The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War in 2018–19.

Manuscript images reproduced by permission of the Board of the British Library.