Medieval Manuscripts and ScribalStyles: Team OG(H)AM Hosts Artist Thomas Keyes 

By Deborah Hayden and David Stifter, OG(H)AM’s Irish Co-Investigator and Irish Principal Investigator

In autumn 2023, the OG(H)AM team was awarded a major follow-on funding grant from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council for the year-long Impact and Engagement project Ogham Palaeography+ (OPal+),  led by Prof. Katherine Forsyth (University of Glasgow). For one strand of this project, OG(H)AM and OPal+ Co-Investigator Dr Deborah Hayden (Maynooth University) will collaborate with the Inverness-based parchment-maker and scribal artist Thomas Keyes ( to explore how the materiality of manuscript writing influenced the ogam script when it ‘stepped down’ from the stones and was adopted for book writing, from the eighth century onward. Keyes, who works in the interface of the medieval manuscript and the modern urban graffiti tradition, will produce an artwork that responds to the contents of the famous tract on ogam preserved in the fourteenth-century Book of Ballymote (Royal Irish Academy MS 23 P 12). 

Thomas Keyes shows samples of his homemade parchment on the train from Maynooth to Dublin 

On 7th–8th March this year, Hayden was joined by fellow OPal+ Co-Investigators Dr Nora White and Prof. David Stifter in facilitating a visit by Thomas to Dublin and Maynooth. We first travelled to the Library of the Royal Irish Academy to view the Book of Ballymote and several other manuscripts containing ogam script, from the famous early-ninth century Stowe Missal to specimens of manuscript ogam in nineteenth-century antiquarian notebooks (special thanks to the RIA Library staff who gave up their morning to turn the pages of these precious sources for us!). Thomas was able to closely inspect the preparation and features of the vellum used for the Book of Ballymote, including doodles and mouse-bites, and compare them with samples of vellum that he had prepared himself. In this way, Thomas recognised many physical details of the production of the vellum and of the page layout that untrained eyes would never notice or pay attention to.

Thomas Keyes and Nora White examining the vellum in the Book of Ballymote (Dublin, Royal Irish Academy MS 23 P 12)
Scraps of vellum and geometrical drawings prepared by Thomas for his research on the 14th-century Book of Ballymote 

The Stowe Missal’s ogam signature by the scribe who mysteriously calls himself DINOS or SONID (for which see Lars Nooij’s 2020 blog post for the Royal Irish Academy and his video ‘Made in Tallaght’) was not the only item of interest for us in this manuscript. The last page of the Stowe Missal (f. 67v) is partly obscured by a stain in the top-right corner, which impedes the reading and understanding of the first of the three Old Irish healing charms on that page. Thomas’s professionally trained eye recognised that the stain cannot be due to spilt ink, as was previously believed, but must be due to a viscous liquid such as sweet wine or – and this opens up many intriguing possibilities – blood. Physical and genetic follow-on research will hopefully shed more light on this. 

After our visit to the RIA, we had the great opportunity to visit the Palaeogenetics Lab in the Smurfit Institute for Genetics at Trinity College Dublin, where Thomas and Prof. Dan Bradley, Professor of Molecular Population Genetics, had a stimulating discussion about medieval vellum production, such as the hair colour of medieval calves whose skin was used (white, perhaps with red ears?) and different vellum preparation techniques and their influence on the preservation of DNA. The evening’s entertainment was then provided by the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, which hosted an engaging lecture on ‘Creativity and Copying in the Art of Late Medieval Gaelic Manuscripts’ by Dr Rachel Moss from the Department of Art and Architecture at Trinity College Dublin. 

Thomas Keyes talks to Daniel Bradley, Professor of Population Genetics in Trinity College Dublin, about the animals used to produce vellum for early medieval Irish manuscripts 

Making Medieval Manuscripts 

Thomas’s visit continued the following day in the Arts Building at Maynooth University, where he held two truly inspiring workshops for the students and staff of the Department of Early Irish. First up was ink preparation: we used the bark of oak and holly boiled in ammonia to make different types of black ink (a pungent but productive process!). Thomas had also brought samples of coloured inks he had made in advance, such as orcein (a bright purple dye extracted from lichen that had been soaked in ammonia for 4 months) and verdigris (a bright green pigment made from copper acetate). The best place for keeping the ink during the act of writing is in shells, which due to their natural shape do not tilt over. 

We then experimented with turning reeds and goose feathers into pens, the art of which consists largely of cutting the tip at the right angle. 

Staff and students peruse the raw materials on the table, including reeds of different varieties.
Thomas Keyes demonstrates the correct angle at which the reed or feathers should be cut.
Students and staff from the Department of Early Irish at Maynooth learn to cut reeds and feathers at the correct angle so that they can be used as pens 

Outside the Arts Building, we got some practice in preparing skins (typically calf would be used for medieval Irish manuscripts, but we were using deer). Thomas had brought two stretching hearses, on which wet hides had been dried under tension to align the collagen fibres of the skin and create a white writing surface. Students and staff all had an opportunity to practise scraping and finishing the hides using two different sizes of the crescent-shaped tool known as a ‘lunellum’. 

Students use lunella to scrape a stretched hide
Students practise making parchment by scraping a deer hide with a lunellum 

Finally, we practised writing on pieces of vellum prepared by Thomas using our home-made quills and ink, which was trickier than it looked! With the right nib, very fine and minute strokes are possible – in theory. Needless to say, our strokes were mostly rather broad, unlike those we had been able to admire the day before, for instance in the Book of Ballymote. The students enjoyed the experience hugely, and it’s safe to say that everyone now has a much greater appreciation of the skill, patience and care that was required to write the precious medieval and early modern Irish manuscripts that we study in our department. It was an eye-opening experience to realise the amount of physical work and of materials required for the production of one vellum codex: for example, not only the number of calves whose skins have been turned into the folia of a manuscript such as the Book of Kells (estimated to be somewhere between 159 and 185), but also of geese for the quills. Only four feathers of a goose are suitable for writing, and depending on the care in writing, one feather might only last for a few pages at most. 

Tiago uses a quill he's made to write on a piece of vellum
Tiago de Oliveira Veloso Silva, a PhD student in the Department of Early Irish at Maynooth, unleashes his inner scribe 

Thomas has now returned home to Scotland to begin preparing his ogam-inspired artwork. We can’t wait to see what he will come up with – but in the meantime, we will leave you with this example of one of his creations to give you a flavour of what is in store later this year: 

Thomas Keyes's distinctive artwork, a modern take on the pages found in the Book of Kells

Images: © Deborah Hayden, David Stifter 

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