One summer a few years ago I stayed in student rooms in Trinity College. Although the accommodation was rather spartan with the traditional blue tack scars on the walls, it was so atmospheric to be able to wander around the old buildings of the Dublin university long after all the tourists had gone.
Best of all was the chance to visit the Book of Kells as many times as I wanted. (The Library displays a different page each day.) These illuminated manuscripts are one of the wonders of medieval Europe.
Imagine the monks in their stone huts, battered by sea winds, bent over their painstaking work. Strictly speaking, rather than The Book of Kells, named after a town in County Meath, it should be called the Book of Iona, as it’s thought that it was monks on that remote Scottish island who were the original artists.
They were inhabitants of a monastery founded there in the 6th Century by the Irish monk Columba, or Colm Cille as he’s known in Irish. In fact, for many centuries the manuscript was believed to be the great Gospel of Columba.
But scholars now place the book in a later period and think it was completed by 800 AD. I find it extraordinary that in such a wild place with limited materials that these men were able to create a work of art that is so delicate and ornate.
You can imagine the monks inside their beehive-shaped stone huts, battered by sea winds with squawking gulls outside, bent over their painstaking work.
I’ve visited another early settlement on Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry in the Atlantic and it is hard to express how bleak and remote those lives were.
The library at Trinity College, Dublin displays a different page from The Book of Kells each day (Image Credit: Photograph by Alamy).
But it wasn’t just forces of nature with which the monks had to contend. The monastery, like many early Christian communities, came under the threat of Viking raids. In 806, following a raid that left 68 of the community dead, the Columban monks took refuge in a newly-founded monastery at Kells in County Meath in Ireland to keep them safe.
The most likely theory is that the monks took the manuscript with them. Amazingly since they were written, the majority of the pages have been passed down through the generations with just 60 pages missing. But medieval sources do record that an illuminated manuscript was stolen from the stone church of Kells in 1006 which is likely to have been the Book of Kells.
According to the Annals of Ulster it was found “two months and twenty days” later “under a sod.” After fighting in the Cromwellian period, the church at Kells lay in ruins, and in 1653 the book was sent to Dublin by the governor of Kells for safekeeping.
A few years later it reached Trinity College where it remains today. Light of the dark ages
The scale and ambition of The Book of Kells is incredible. Written on vellum, it is estimated that the skins of 185 calves were needed for the project. Practically all of the 680 pages are decorated in some way or another. On some pages every corner is filled with the most detailed and beautiful Celtic designs.
This is a description thought by many to be of the Book of Kells by the 12th Century writer Gerald of Wales: You might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man – Gerald of Wales.
“This book contains the harmony of the Four Evangelists according to Jerome, where for almost every page there are different designs, distinguished by varied colours.
Here you may see the face of majesty, divinely drawn, here the mystic symbols of the Evangelists, each with wings, now six, now four, now two; here the eagle, there the calf, here the man and there the lion, and other forms almost infinite.
Look at them superficially with the ordinary glance, and you would think it is an erasure, and not tracery.
Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it.
Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man.”
The title page of St John’s Gospel shows the thoughtful-looking saint, along with a less respectable figure swigging from a goblet of wine (Credit: The Book of Kells)
In 1217, King Henry III (r. 1216–72) issued a new version of Magna Carta, together with a new charter dealing with the royal forest. It was in a proclamation of February 1218 that the name ‘Magna Carta’ itself first appears, in order to distinguish the Great Charter from its shorter forest brother.
On 11 February 1225, at the same time as issuing the final and definitive version of Magna Carta, Henry likewise issued a new version of the Charter of the Forest. Thereafter ‘the Charters’, as they were called, were always linked together.
This example of the 1225 Forest Charter is one of three surviving originals. In substance, it is similar to the Forest Charter of 1217, but includes the statement about the granting of a tax in return for the charter, and the same long witness list, as in the 1225 Magna Carta.
Like Magna Carta, the 1225 Forest Charter was also sealed with the King’s Great Seal. This copy retains its original linen seal bag.
In John’s reign, roughly a third of the country was royal forest, and the penalties imposed for forest offences were a major source of revenue for the king.
One aim of the Forest Charter was to reduce the area of the royal forest by removing everything which King Henry II (chiefly blamed for the forest’s vast extent) had placed within it.
The Charter also banned capital punishments for forest offences (such as poaching and hunting the protected deer), and exempted those having woods within the forest from fines for erecting buildings and creating new arable land.
Ivan Kupala is an ancient pagan ritual, which used to be known as just Kupala – meaning to bathe. Ivan – meaning John, as in John the Baptist – was added after Christianity came to the region and assimilated the festivities.
The ritual was originally held on the summer solstice between June 20 and 22, but was moved to the birthday of St John the Baptist, which was on June 23 by the old Julian calendar.
The new Gregorian calendar moved the date to July 6, so the link with the solstice was lost.
Despite its associations with Christianity, the festival still draws heavily on mysticism and folk-law.
It is believed that witches also take a holiday on this day and come to do harm to people, and that werewolves and mermaids also emerge to roam around and attack the souls of the wicked.
The day-long ritual is therefore designed around purity, supposedly cleansing the body and soul and providing protection, fertility and luck to those who take part.
The main focus is fire-jumping, with the flames supposedly cleansing the souls of those who pass over it.
Couples who can complete the jump holding hands will have a strong relationship, while friends may also jump together to prove their loyalty to one-another.
Unmarried women also wear garlands of flowers and herbs in their hair during the day, and at night float the wreaths out on to a lake with a candle. The woman whose flowers float the longest will be lucky in love, while the longest burning candle denotes long life.
It is also said that, on this one night, ferns are able to produce flowers, with whoever sights one of the blooms able to make a wish come true.
Villagers often take off into the woods in search of the blossoms, with unmarried women allowed to go first with single men following, in the hope that relationships might also blossom in the hunt.
Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt in 450BC and wrote of unusual river boats on the Nile in his narrative history, titled Historia.
For centuries, scholars had searched for archaeological evidence to support his description of such ships mentioned in twenty-three lines.
A wreck has now been found to prove that Herodotus’ account was true. Dr Damian Robinson, director of Oxford University’s centre for maritime archeology said that a “fabulously preserved” wreck has been found around the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion.
“It wasn’t until we discovered this wreck that we realised Herodotus was right,” said Dr Robinson said. “What Herodotus described was what we were looking at.
”In his account, Herodotus had witnessed the construction of a baris where builders “cut planks two cubits long [around a metre] and arrange them like bricks”.Herodotus wrote: “On the strong and long tenons [pieces of wood] they insert two-cubit planks. When they have built their ship in this way, they stretch beams over them… They obturate the seams from within with papyrus. There is one rudder, passing through a hole in the keel. The mast is of acacia and the sails of papyrus…”
Simbakubwa’s skull is believed to have been as large as a rhinoceros skull.(Artwork Supplied: Mauricio Anton)
Of all the places you could imagine discovering a giant meat-eating mammal, a drawer is probably not one.Key points: Simbakubwa fossils were discovered years before by palaeoanthropologists searching for apes
When it was alive, around 20 million years ago, the animal weighed around 1,500 kilograms with a head the size of a rhinoceros’s.
Researchers say there are millions of unidentified species in museums around the world.
But a pair of researchers from Ohio University have done just that.
Matthew Borths was studying fossils at the Nairobi National Museum in Kenya when he decided to have a poke around.”On a lunch break I decided to pull open some different drawers just to kind of see what else was there,” Dr Borths said.”And one of the drawers I pulled out had this gigantic fossil in it.
“Luckily for Dr Borths — and the world of palaeontology — his area of expertise just so happened to be an order of extinct meat-eating mammals called the hyaenodonta.
While he immediately recognised the lower jaw bone as a hyaenodont, he knew it was from a species that had not been described before.”I was like, ‘how did I not know this was here?’ I felt really responsible,” he said.”
I’m one of the few people on the planet that really cares about this group of animals.”
Scientists have discovered a new species of dinosaur that belonged to the same family as Tyrannosaurus rex.
The remains of the long-snouted tyrannosaur, formally named Qianzhousaurus sinensis and nicknamed Pinocchio rex, were found near the city of Ganzhou in southern China. Researchers believe the animal was a fearsome carnivore that lived more than 66 million years ago during the late Cretaceous period.
The bones were discovered on a construction site by workmen who took them to a local museum.
Experts from the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences and the University of Edinburgh then became involved in examining the remains.
With an elongated skull and long, narrow teeth, the predator would have looked very different from a T rex, which had thick teeth and more powerful jaws.
Palaeontologists had been uncertain about the existence of long-snouted tyrannosaurs.
Previously, just two fossilised tyrannosaurs with elongated heads had been found, and since they were juveniles it was unclear whether they were from a new class of dinosaur or simply at an early growth stage.
It is thought that Qianzhousaurus sinensis lived alongside other tyrannosaurs but would not have been in direct competition with them, since they probably hunted different prey.
Experts at the University of Edinburgh said the new specimen was of an animal nearing adulthood. It was found largely intact and “remarkably well preserved”.