Hunting Italian Uncial

I have reached the point where I am preparing book 1 of my trilogy (Kith and Kin) for publication on Kindle. (Book 1 is called Death in Elmet, A Medieval Murder Mystery) As a part of this, I have been working with my daughter on the design of the cover. The daughter in question is Dr Dominique Falla, and her principal academic field is typography. She has also designed a large number of book covers in her time, especially for Penguin books, so ideally qualified for the task!

Spurred on by Dominique, I have spent the last week or so trying to track down actual examples of the kind of hand writing that would have been in use in Mercia/Elmet/Deira in the 630s by any of the very, very few able to write. This turned out to be quite challenging.

Finding images of the Lindisfarne Gospels was easy enough but they have two drawbacks from the perspective of designing the cover of a book set in 633. Firstly, they are three quarters of a century too late and secondly they are written in insular half-uncials. This is a distinctive and very beautiful script developed in Ireland. Unfortunately, there was virtually no Irish influence on the church in Elmet/Deira by 633.

Lindisfarne Gospels, British Library

So, what about Welsh/Brythonic scripts? Well, I have not been able to find a single example. Not one. If anybody out there knows of any surviving manuscripts from seventh-century Wales, I would be delighted to hear from you. There are inscriptions on stone, of course, but I am not sure that is the look I want.

So what about the hand used by the various people who came over with Augustine from 597 onwards? More relevant, I feel, given that this was the group whose direct disciples went on to become missionaries to Edwin’s court, the Roman influence so strongly advocated by Bede, among others, despite his admiration for King Oswald.

This idea sent me off in search for images of the Gospels of St Augustine, an initially disappointing search. I could not find anything at all on line – plenty of images of the illustrations, but not of the text. Ho hum. But then, Eureka!

Last Wednesday I happened to be in an independent bookshop in Maleny in country Queensland and there I spied a marvellous book. The author is Christopher de Hamel and since 2000 he has been curator in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and one of the prized possessions of the Parker Library is …. yes, The Gospels of St Augustine.

Hamel’s book is called Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Allen Lane 2016) and chapter 1 is a delicious essay on the St Augustine Gospels. It includes beautiful illustrations of the text as well as the pictures. But that was not the end to my delight. Other essays in this wonderful volume cover the Book of Kells, Carmina Burana, the Hengwrt Chaucer and the Spinola Hours. For page after page I have been finding out all manner of fascinating and thought-provoking new things, never mind the glorious illustrations.

The moral of this tale, I think, is don’t give up on book shops just yet guys! Every now and then they can still come up trumps with something you would never think to search for on Amazon.


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