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Emain Macha or Navan Fort

Emain Macha (said roughly like evan macka) features largely in Irish mythology, though you’ll find it on maps by its English name, Navan Fort. Technically, Navan Fort isn’t a fort. It is instead best described as a ritual complex, about 1.6 miles west of the city of Armagh, in Northern Ireland.

Navan Fort, Armagh, Northern Ireland
Image: Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons

The complex sits on a low mound, and is visible quite clearly for some distance. The site was largely abandoned by the first century C.E. The central area is a circular area about 820 feet in diameter, set off by a raised bank and a ditch, with the ditch atypically outside the bank—this suggests that the site was used for ritual rather than defensive purposes. There are two sets of ruins inside the enclosed area; an earthen mound, about 130 feet in diameter, and about 20 feet high lies to the north-west; this is generally what most people think of when they hear Emain Macha. To the south-east is what’s left of a ring-barrow, the remains of a late prehistoric ritual area, and burial mound.

A model of a reconstructed Navan Fort central complex; a large circular structure with a conical roof
Navan Fort central complex reconstruction Image: Creative Commons notafly

The mound was likely constructed c. 95 B.C.E.—a date that’s extraordinarily reliable because it’s based on dendrochronology. When it was first built, the site consisted of four rings of posts, arranged concentrically around an immense central oak post or trunk. The entrance faced west, towards the sunset instead of the common domestic entrances of structures from the same era which typically face the east. Inside the floor was tamped down and covered with lime stone blocks brought from elsewhere and carefully arranged in radial patterns from the center out, to a height of about three meters. There may have been a roof, originally. The entire structure was deliberately burned down shortly after it was built, then carefully covered in an mound of dirt, which in turn was covered with turf. This is a pattern that archaeologists have noticed at two other ritual sites, Tara, and Duún Ailinne.

The remains of the ring-barrow are harder to date. Non-invasive geophysical surveys have determined that beneath the surface lies a figure-eight shaped wooden structure, with one ring of the figure larger than the other. The site appears to have been used for generations, with the central sites rebuilt at least twice. Beneath them are still older sites, smaller, each with its own central hearth. Artifacts found at this level during a dig in the 1980s include pottery fragments, bones, and other items that indicate that they were inhabited in the last centuries of the Bronze age, and into the early Iron age, or from roughly 600 to 250 B.C.E.

An even earlier circular ditch surrounds the mound, though it’s not readily visible; it’s an early Bronze age structure, and limited excavations found flint tools and pottery shards indicative of Neolithic era activity at the site, c. 4000 to 2500 B.C.E. Nearby, about two-thirds of a mile to the west is Haughey’s Fort, an early Bronze Age hill fort, and The King’s Stables, a man-made pool from the Bronze age, both of which pre-date the structure at Emain Macha. In addition, Loughnashade, a natural lake and the site where many fine Iron Age artifacts where found, is nearby.

There are three closely related “origin myths” regarding Emain Macha. All of them revolve around a woman named Macha. Here they are, in my less-than-literary translation from the version in §§ 29-30 of Tochmarc Emire from A. G. Van Hamel’s edition in his Compert Culainn (Oxford: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1978

The woman named Macha appeared one day, and without a word, began to care for Crunncu Mac Agnomain, a man of Ulster. But because of his boasting regarding her ability to run, Macha was forced to race against two of the king’s horses, even though she asked for mercy given her advanced pregnancy. Macha died giving birth to a son and a daughter at a single birth at the finish-line. Thus it is said that Emain Macha is named for the twins, emain, of Macha.

Another tale has the name Emain Macha from this.

Three Ulster kings, Dithorbae, Aed the Red, and Cimbaeth shared the kingship, each ruling for a seven years then another taking his place in turn. Each man reigned three terms, that is sixty-six years. Aed the Red died at the beginning, and he left only a daughter. Her name was Macha the Red-haired.

Macha demanded the kingship in her proper turn. Cimbaeth and Dithorbae said they would not give kingship to a woman. Macha vanquished them in battle, and ruled seven years. Dithorbae died in Corann during that time, and left five sons, who demanded the kingship. Macha said she would not give it to them, “for not by agreement did I take it,” said she, “but by force in the field of battle.” Macha vanquished the sons of Dithorbae in battle, and they fled in exile to the wilderness of Connacht. Macha then took Cimbaeth for her husband.

After Macha and Cimbath were united, Macha went seeking for the sons of Dithorbai, disguised as a leper woman. She found them in Connacht cooking a wild boar. The men asked for news from her, and she told the news to them and they gave food to her at the fire. One of the brothers said “the eye of this hag is beautiful, let us lie with her.”

The brother took Macha into the forest, where she bound him by means of her strength and left him in the wood. When she came back to the fire, the others asked “Where is the man who went with you?”

“He was ashamed to come to you,” said Macha, “after lying with a leper woman.”

“It is no shame,” said they, “for we will all do the same.”

Each man took Macha into the wood, where she bound each of them in turn, taking them in a single chain with her to Ulster. The Ulsterman said the men should be killed. “No,” said Macha, “for to kill them would be a violation of true justice from me as ruler; but I shall put them under bondage, and they shall dig a rath [a ring-fort] for me that will be the chief town of Ulster for ever.”

And Macha took the gold pin from about her neck and marked out the lines of the fort with it, thus Emain Macha is named for the gold pin about the neck [muin] of Macha.

You can decide for yourself which origin myth you prefer, but you should be sure to visit Emain Macha. Navan Centre, the official gateway to Emain Macha or Navan Fort is a bit of a tourist trap of the “experience authentic Ireland” variety, but Emain Macha and the associated sites are very much worth the visit, and the more fanciful parts of the Centre can be easily avoided.

I wish I could link to some of J. P. Mallory’s research, but not any of it is available online, not even the articles from Emania. Mallory has done the most recent work at the Navan Fort complex.

The August calendar image from the Da Costa Hours, Morgan Library showing peasants harvesting wheat

Labors of August

The typical labor or occupation of the month depicted in books of hours for the labors of August is threshing grain, (most often, wheat, though sometimes the calendar image for the labor of August shows rye or barley in a field). Threshing is the task of beating the stalks of grain to remove the ripe grains from the stalk as well as remove or loosen the husks that protect the individual grains. In some areas, threshing as the August labor may be replaced by reaping, cutting down the stalks of ripe grain, that often takes place in July. The anonymous Middle English lyric regarding the labors of August says “and here I shere my corne full lowe,” a reference to reaping grain. The calendar image for August may show reapers using a sickle (a short-handled tool with a curved blade) to cut down the stalks of ripe grain, often with with some people stacking the mown wheat in small sheaves or horizontal bundles to dry, and others collecting the bundles of dried wheat upright in vertical shocks for later threshing. Both the Morgan Library’s Da Costa Hours  calendar page for August and the Hours of Henry VIII show threshing as the labor for August.

August images typically show one or two men are shown threshing or beating the the grain with a flail to loosen the dry grains from the stalk. Threshing images for the labors of August sometimes show threshing inside a threshing barn or shed, since a roofed threshing area prevents the ripe grain from blowing away. The poor might be allowed to enter the field and glean any remaining grains, if the birds didn’t get there first. In some climates and regions the wheat or rye was dried in kilns since the weather didn’t always cooperate by allowing the grain to dry in the fields; damp grain can become moldy and unusable, so it was very important to dry the grain before storing or milling into flour. Once all the grain was removed from the field, cows or other livestock might be allowed to eat the remaining stalks, simultaneously clearing and manuring the field for the next crop.

The first of August was celebrated by the Christian feast of Lammas and the Celtic feast of Lughnasad. Lammas or “Loaf mass” was a harvest festival, wherein the first loaf made from the newly harvested wheat was a thanks offering. Lughnasad (Modern Irish Lúnasa), the feast of Lugh, was also a harvest festival among the Irish, and a traditional date for celebrating marriages.

Some books of hours feature alternative occupations for August instead of wheat-threshing or reaping; they may illustrate harrowing the field after the harvest, and others like the Très Riches Heures, feature a summer pastime, like hawking, with reaping taking place in the background of the aristocratic scene of hawking from horseback.

Gospels of Lindisfarne or The Book of Lindisfarne

The Lindisfarne Gospels, better known as The Book of Lindisfarne, or British Library Cotton MS Nero D.IV, is an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels  from the New Testament of the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). The manuscript was produced in Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island (formerly called Lindisfarne Island), off the coast of Northumberland in about 715 C.E. Given the style of the art, and the history of the time, scholars generally favor the creation of the Gospels of Lindisfarne  over the course of five years between 715 and 720.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are almost entirely the work of a single artist, Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne (698–721). This attribution is based principally on the colophon at the end of the ms., added about a hundred years after Eadfrith died in 721. The general practice for manuscript creation, even in a monastery, was to have several people working on specific aspects of a manuscript; some the body text, some the principal illuminations, others as colorists or specializing in page ornaments. Eadfrith appears to have been the sole creator responsible for the text, and all the art. Unfortunately, Eadfrith died without completely finishing the manuscript. Despite its unfinished state, The Lindisfarne Gospels is a masterpiece.

Eadfrith was not only unusual in being the single person responsible for a very important, complicated manuscript; he was an artistic and technical innovator as well. He used a lead stylus to rough out his designs on the reverse of his pages, a compass and straight-edge to create the geometric core of his designs, and in some cases, he used a light source behind the pages when he created the actual art. He also was inventive in terms of the various natural pigments he created for the wide variety of colors in the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Lindisfarne Gospel Contents

The basic text is the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John from the New Testament of the Bible. The Latin text is derived from Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the Bible, and includes some standard prefatory material from Jerome’s Bible.

Carpet Pages

The Book of Lindisfarne opens with one of five elaborate full-page decorative “carpet pages,” cruciform geometric designs reminiscent of eastern hand-made rugs. Carpet pages have been described as virtual prayer rugs, intended to help create a contemplative state. Carpet pages are a standard feature of Insular gospels; you’ll see carpet pages in The Book of Kells, too. The five carpet pages are f. 2v, f. 26v, f. 94v, f. 138v, f. 210v.

Jerome’s Prefatory Materials

The initial carpet page is followed by the richly ornamented incipit (the opening) of St. Jerome’s prefatory letter, then the body of his preface explaining his translation of the gospels. Sixteen pages of canon tables (ff. 10r–17v) follow St. Jerome’ preface; these are elaborately decorated charts that allow similar passages in the four gospels to be compared. Canon tables are a standard feature of medieval gospels. Each of the four gospels is preceded by a short introduction (this is not part of the gospel) about the evangelist associated with the gospel, the holy days associated with particular readings, etc. Each of these introductions contains a carefully illuminated ornamental capital letter.

The Four Evangelists

Each of the four Gospels proper opens with a full-page illuminated (and symbolically  stylized) portrait of the particular gospel evangelist.

Matthew is depicted as a man (f. 25v) seated on a bench, an open codex book in his lap, a quill pen in his right hand. His symbol, the winged man, hovers above and behind his shoulder. There’s another bearded man peeping from behind the curtain, a closed codex book in his hand.

Mark with the winged lion (f. 93v) is shown sitting on a bench, a closed codex book in his left hand, and writing on a sheet of vellum that sits on a round table, with a quill in his right hand. Behind him, above his head his symbol of the winged lion is holding a closed codex book.

Luke with the winged ox (f. 137v), writing with a quill on a scroll-like sheet of vellum rather than a codex. The winged ox behind him is carrying a closed codex book.

John with his Eagle (f. 209v) is seated and also writes on a scroll-like sheet of vellum. He isn’t holding a pen, and his gaze is direct, as if looking at his reader.

Each of the gospels opens with the full-page illumination of the specific evangelist, followed by a full page elaborate decorative “carpet” page, then an exquisitely ornamented “incipit” or opening page featuring the opening line of the particular Gospel in Latin. This opening is followed by the pages containing the Latin text of the remainder of the Gospel.

In the case of Matthew, there is a second illuminated incipit page for the Gospel of Mathew. This “second opening” is an elaborate Chi-Rho-Iota initial illumination for the opening of the story of the birth of Christ from Matthew 1:18. The Chi, the Rho and the Iota are the letters used as the abbreviated form of Christ’s name in Greek, and open the passage from Matthew in Latin “Christi autem generatio sic erat” “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was of this kind . . .” You can very clearly see the x-like Chi, the p-like Rho, and the i or Iota in the illumination in the image below of f. 29r from the Lindisfarne Gospels.

British Library Cotton Nero D iv The Book of Lindisfarne f. 29r showing the Chi Rho Iota from Matthew

The History Of The Book of Lindisfarne

The Priory at Lindisfarne was closely associated with Saint Cuthbert (634–87). Cuthbert was persuaded by King Ecgfrith to become Bishop of Lindisfarne in 685, when Cuthbert was already respected and popular as a monastic, sometime hermit, and associated with miraculous cures. Shortly after Cuthbert’s death, the priory began encouraging a cult in Cuthbert’s name, and that would have required devotional  objects as part of the saint’s heritage. It is likely that Eadfrith deliberately created the Book of Lindisfarne as a deliberate homage to Saint Cuthbert.

Provost Aldred

Many of the Latin text pages of the Gospels contain Old English glosses of the Latin text in red (the in sometimes appears more red-brown now, but it was bright red originally) under the main text. This is because c. 970 C.E.  when the priory had moved to Chester-le-Street and Durham, Aldred, the Provost, added Old English glosses translating the Latin. Aldred’s cheat notes therefore are the oldest surviving version of the gospels in any form of English.

Detail of the top of f. 203v of the Book of Lindisfarne showing interlinear Old English glosses
BL Cotton Nero D IV The Book of Lindisfarne f.203v det. of the Gospel of John showing Aldred’s Old English glosses

Aldred also added a colophon in Old English to the manuscript in the middle of the tenth century. The colophon says the work was “for God and St. Cuthbert.” Aldred’s colphon (f. 259r) cites

  • Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne (698-721); the artist and scribe.
  • Bishop Aethilwold of Lindisfarne (c.721-740); Eadfrith’s successor, as the binder.
  • Billfrith the “anchorite”;  the artisan who adorned the original binding with precious metals. (That binding is not the current binding; the current binding was added in the 19th century.)

The Text of The Book of Lindisfarne

The primary Latin text of the Lindisfarne is written in an exceedingly readable insular majuscule (sometimes called half-uncial); this is the most common hand for Insular gospels of the era, like the Book of Kells. The base text is Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation. The inter-linear glosses in Old English are in Anglo-Saxon Minuscule, the work of Aldred, and a more “modern” hand than insular majuscule.

The Artistic Style Of The Book of Lindisfarne

The ornamentation of Lindisfarne combines elements of Anglo-Saxon metalwork (the enamel ornamentation associated with Anglo-Saxon jewelry is a particularly stylistic influence) and Celtic insular styles most commonly associate with stonework. Other aspects, particularly in the portraits of the four evangelists, are influenced by Coptic and Roman manuscript styles.

The incipit or opening pages of the four gospels are each elaborately decorated and illuminated, with large richly ornamented initials for the beginning (the incipit) of the first words of the gospel. The Gospel of Mathew has two ornamented incipits; the first is f. 3r. The second is the “second opening” of Mathew sometimes referred to as the Chi-Rho page (see above). The Chi-Rho page is probably the most famous illumination in the Gospels of Lindisfarne. The incipit page for the Gospel of Luke is (f 139r), and the incipit for the Gospel of John is f. 211r.

an image of the incipit of the Gospel of Luke from the Lindisfarne Gospels showing the elaborate illumination of the first few words of the Latin text
Lindisfarne Gospels incipit of the Gospel of Luke British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f. 139r.

My personal favorite of the incipits is the one for Luke f. 139r. The opening words of the Gospel of Luke in Latin are Quoniam quidem multi conati sunt ordinare narrationem, “Forasmuch as many have taken it in hand to set forth in order” (Luke 1:1). The large q with its serif and long tail is visible on the far left of the page, with the rest of the text following, with non standard line breaks.

The center of the q is filled with triskeles and spirals; the circular outline of the top is filled with birds and dogs, interlaced and entwined. There are more dogs and birds as well as spirals and triskeles in the long stem of the q.




British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f. 139r. detail showing the U and O of Quoniam
British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV f. 139r. detail showing the U and O of Quoniam

Just to the right of the q are the u and o of Quoniam. The u is formed by two intertwined dogs (look for their heads and ears at the top). The O is decorated with interlace and the kind of abstract geometric tiling used on the carpet pages.

On the far right is a vertical right-angle border, filled with more intertwined birds. But if you look closely, the border is actually a cat, with the head of the cat at the top, and the feet at the bottom, having presumably ingested the birds.






Resources for The Book of Lindisfarne

The British Library’s online Turning the Pages facsimile of The Book of Lindisfarne. They also offer an “images only” version of The Book of Lindisfarne.

Backhouse, Janet. The Lindisfarne Gospels. Phaidon Press, 1994. ISBN: 0714824615. Quality photographs of a selection of pages, with a decent introduction to the history of the manuscript.
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Cover of LIndisfarne Gsopels: Society, Spritiutality, and the Scribe by Michelle P. BrownBrown, Michelle P. The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality, and the Scribe. (British Library Studies in Medieval Culture). University of Toronto Press, 2003. ISBN: 0802085970. This is a scholarly examination of the ms. in a socio-cultural historical context, by the British Library’s Curator of Western Manuscripts. There are 30-some plates, several of them showing details, but the real value of this book is in Brown’s commentary and discussion. The bound-in CD contains scholarly apparatus, including MS. symbols and abbreviations.


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Brown, Michelle. The Painted Labyrinth. British Library Publishing. Revised edition, May 1, 2003. If you mostly want some example plates and a survey of the history and background of the Book of Lindisfarne, this is the book. It’s a small, 48 page “souvenir” booklet produced to accompany the 2003 British Library exhibit of The Book of Lindisfarne. It includes a good beginning reading list and some photographs of the exhibit itself, including some of the artifacts that were included.

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Gameson, Richard. From Holy Island to Durham: The Contexts and Meanings of The Lindisfarne Gospels. Third Millenium Pub Ltd, 2014. ISBN: 978-1908990273. I have as yet not seen this book. Richard Gameson is Professor of the History of the Book, Durham University. He has published nearly 100 studies on medieval manuscripts, art, and book collections, and was the academic curator of the exhibition “Lindisfarne Gospels Durham: one amazing book, one incredible journey.”


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Aidan Meehan. The Lindisfarne Painting Book. Thames & Hudson (April 2000). ISBN:  978-0500281840. After careful study, artist and calligrapher Aidan Meehan has beautifully redrawn more than fifty designs from The Lindisfarne Gospels. Each one has been taken from its amazingly intricate background, often extricated from other entangled ornaments, and enlarged. The original manuscript page from which each design is derived is provided so you can refer to reproductions of the gospel book and see the decorative style and colors used by the scribes in the eighth century. The images are drawn, but not colored.

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