M is for Medieval: or How the Irish Invented the Moleskine.


A great deal of my creative inspiration originates
with the manuscripts of early medieval
Ireland. Perhaps the best known example is the Book of
, which reigns supreme among the elaborately illuminated manuscripts
from that era. These decorated books are typified by mind-boggling details,
swirling spirals, elaborately complex knotwork patterns, and undecipherable
letterforms. These images burst off the vellum pages and stand apart from other
illuminated manuscripts of that time period as a unique creative expression
reflecting many of the cultural complexities of the early history of


Strangely though, my imagination has been
completely captivated by a comparatively small, unadorned assemblage of odd
sheets of vellum called The
St. Paul Irish Codex
(or more formally: MS: Unterdrauberg,
Carinthia, Kloster St. Paul 25.2.31). This manuscript was the personal
notebook of an Irish scribe working in the early ninth century, most likely in
the scriptorium at Reichenau, an
island monastery on
Lake Constance located between
Germany and Switzerland. It contains no color other than the deep brown of
the ink, and no illumination of any kind, yet it seems to me to reveal more
about at least this one personality behind the long labor of creating
illuminated manuscripts.


This un-named monk assembled what discarded pieces
of vellum he could gather together and used his notebook to jot down interesting
text he came across in his daily work (incidentally, the size of this notebook
is very close to a large size Moleskine). Written in a very tight script you will find bits of grammar, animal
lore, an incantation, and an endearing poem in Old Irish about a monk and his
cat named Pangur Bán, all on
the same page.
Throughout the other pages of the notebook are excerpts written in Greek, an
astrological table, and notes on logic, metaphysics and etymology, among other

How, you wonder, does this relate to the modern day
Moleskine? Well in its own way, the
St. Paul Irish Codex is a very well preserved example of the centuries-old need
to organize one’s thoughts on the written page. In the very same way that most of us
today cobble together threads of ideas, quotations, and excerpts from our
favorite writers between the pages of our Moleskines, this ninth century scribe
created a small portrait of himself in the handwritten notebook he left
behind. His interests, reflected in
small fragments of an impressively wide range of subjects, reveal much when
taken together as a whole. None of what he collected was written in the first
person – all the words originally belonged to someone else – but collectively
they became his own.

has been made of the Irish contribution to Western society, so by comparison,
giving an Irish monk credit for inventing the Moleskine does not seem that
excessive. I do know that the
process I go through filling my own notebooks can similarly be found in
this otherwise ordinary looking manuscript created just over 12 centuries
ago. How much of ourselves can be
perceived between the lines of our own notebooks? When I read between the lines of the St.
Paul Irish Codex I am inspired by the presence of a living man long turned to
dust who continues to speak through his handwritten

Lisa Laughy
NinthWave Designs

Print it in Moleskine MSK format
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