In a recent post, I described the many ways Medieval scribes and readers would transport their treasured books. There was one kind of book in particular that demanded its own post. Enter the Irish cumdach or ‘book shrine’.
As Erik Kwakkel of Leiden University explains, the cumdach is a kind of box designed to hold a small manuscript. The Stowe Missal for which the cumdach on the right was made measures only 150×120 mm, which is a little higher than the iPhone 6. The book is very snug inside the box, but the small size matches the object’s anticipated use in battle. You see, Irish cumdachs were not meant to be read. Instead, they were carried around the neck of a monk, who would run up and down in front of the troops right before battle. The book served as a charm of sorts, which was to bring fortune and devine blessing in battle. That is why it made good sense to store this ‘secret weapon’ in a sturdy box that could withstand all that bouncing around and even a potential blow of a sword.
The most famous of these is the sixth-century Cathach of St Columba, which holds a Psalter from the sixth or seventh century. Curiously, while this cathach (‘battler’) is commonly regarded as an object meant for carrying into battle to ensure victory, it is obviously too big to carry around one’s neck: it measures 270×190 mm and weighs quite a bit. Its user probably ran up and down the battlefield with the book under his arm.
I guess the Irish cumdach will strike many a reader as quaint, but in fact the practice of taking your book to battle in a protective box remained popular throughout early-modern history, as shown by the “field Bible” below, which was taken on war campaigns by king Charles II of Sweden. Of course, a Bible of this size would probably serve as a weapon in its own right, especially if banged against an opponent’s head!
You can find out more on transporting Medieval books and the Irish cumdach on Erik Kwakkel’s Medieval books blog.