Learning a New Script – Book of Kells

I thought it might be fun to walk everyone (crickets) through how I go about learning a new script – specifically a historical one from a specific source. In this case, it was the famous Book of Kells, an Irish manuscript of the four Gospels, currently located in Trinity College Dublin.

Now, one option is to get your tactical black turtleneck on, put your infiltration gear together and break into the College library. I would recommend the west skylights – they haven’t replaced the wiring for the alarms for quite a while and they’re unreliable at best. Rappel down quietly – quietly – and use your mirror array to deflect the lasers surrounding the Kells display. At this point, your diversion should happen – a small dry ice and water explosion set off by one of the neighborhood teens that you paid off in weed and beer, perhaps – which will allow you to break the case and take the book. Remember to carefully replace it with a bag of sand that you brought with you, so as not to set off the weight detectors.

I leave the escape from the building as an exercise for the reader.

Or, if that’s too much trouble, you can go to the Trinity College website, where they have the whole thing digitized in high resolution. If you’re lazy, that is. Here’s the page I eventually ended up working from:

Book of Kells - Page 292v

The first thing I did was tour through the book and get samples of the different letters. For example:

A 02 H 02 S 02X 02 M 01

This became very useful, as I almost immediately started to notice some of the quirks of this script. For example, there are a lot of ligatures (connections between letters), especially where T is involved:

TE 01 TI 01 TO 01 ET 01

So that told me a lot about the spacing of letters and what the overall Look should be. I also found a rather difficult figure that I couldn’t quite figure out until I went to the Latin Bible:

ET (special) 01

Turns out that this is shorthand for et, a Latin word meaning “and” that gets used frequently. It gives us “et cetera”, and if you squint, you can see how this symbol would lead to the modern “&”.

When I finally had a full-ish set, I set about copying them out. I immediately noticed a slight problem:

Kells - Letter practice

Because this is Latin, there is no k (because c has that sound), no (you find u there), and no w (it’s just not a Thing in Latin). It was tough to find y as well, but I did, with the help of the Latin Bible and a lot of patience. It showed up in two words: Hierosolymis (Jerusalem) and hydriae (waterpots) before I called it quits. Thing is, there were two forms of to deal with:

Y - Hierosolymis 02 Y - hydr 01

And no real reason I could find why one would be used over the other. So I picked the second one, as it looks like a more familiar y to modern readers. No such luck with g, though:

G 01

So, for those missing letters, I would just have to make something up that fit the overall look of this script. Let’s hope for the best.

Anyway, I then clipped out a few words that looked interesting:

agnoscere 01
“agnoscere” – acknowledge, admit
animatum 01
“animatum” – living creature
iohannis 01
“iohannis” – John
mortis 01
“mortis” – death

Okay, so I have letters, I have words, now there’s just one more step to make sure I get it right: Figuring out the x-height (how tall the letters should be in relation to the width of the nib you’re writing with). Welcome to the funhouse, people! It only gets crazier from here!

I took a few words, fired up Photoshop, and made a quick nib ladder:

Nib Ladder 01  Nib Ladder 02  Nib Ladder 03

Like most scripts in this family (this one being Insular script, related to Uncial), this one has an x-height of about 4 nib-widths. Which is awesome, as I already have guidelines printed out to that ratio. Saves me some work.

Step number…. something was to pick a passage. I wanted something that sounded interesting, so I flipped through the Gospels in the Latin Bible until I found one I liked. The hard part was to find where it was in the digital Book of Kells. The trick is to look for words that you can make out in the manuscript, and then ctrl-f your way through the Latin Bible until you find a match. Then just narrow it down.

Long story short (too late), I picked John 1:5: “et lux in tenebris lucet et tenebrae eam non conprehenderunt” (“And the light shineth in darkness: and the darkness did not comprehend it.”) Here it is on the page:

Book of Kells - Et lux in tenebris
My favorite part is where they had to correct “tenebrae”. Ah, calligraphy…


I have my guidelines, I have my letters – let’s take a crack at it!

Kells - John 1-5
I’m no better than they, it seems…


So – not too bad, but needs work. For example, those ligatures I mentioned earlier? I need to make those stronger. I’m not used to connecting letters like this, so it’s something to be mindful of. There are also some smaller details that I’m not quite hitting, but for a first try, I’d say I’m headed in the right direction.

The next, and final part (at least for the day) was to pick a modern quotation and write it out, Kells-style. I chose Yeats because this is an Irish script from an Irish source, and it was still St. Patrick’s Day in the West, so let’s go with an Irish poet. This is from his famous poem, “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.”

Kells - Yeats

So there it is – my process for learning a historical script. This one still needs work, of course. No one masters anything in a day, so I’ll put this into regular rotation to see if I can make it look like something I’m proud of.

Until then, thanks for stopping by!

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