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National Museum of Ireland publishes most authoritative study ever undertaken on medieval hand-bells


The National Museum of Ireland has recently published a fascinating and comprehensive new study of early medieval hand-bells as part of a new Museum book series.  

Early Medieval Hand-Bells of Ireland and Britain by Cormac Bourke brings together for the first time all of the hand-bells that exist or are known to have existed in Ireland and Britain. 

The breadth of research undertaken, and the extraordinary level of detail and description provided throughout this piece of work make it the most authoritative study ever undertaken on medieval hand-bells.

Over 700 pages in extent, the publication catalogues some 300 ecclesiastical hand-bells from Ireland and Britain, including lost bells and six bells of insular type from Brittany and Bavaria.

The first part deals with the morphology, production and distribution of bells, with their archaeological and historical contexts and with their enduring significance in late medieval times. The second part is a catalogue of all existing and recorded bells, offering both physical descriptions and individual case histories. 

The author of the book Cormac Bourke is from Dublin and was a curator of Medieval Antiquities at the Ulster Museum in Belfast for 26 years. He specialises in the study of early insular Christianity and has published widely on medieval metalwork and on the archaeology of saints and their relics.

Hand-bells are the most numerous and most widely distributed metal artefacts of ecclesiastical character that survive from the early Middle Ages in Ireland and Britain. These iconic examples of insular metalworking are emblematic of early Christianity in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Produced between the 5th and 12th centuries, they survive in large numbers and were used originally to regulate monastic time and to punctuate the liturgy. Several are attributed to specific saints ― including Patrick and Columba (Colum Cille) in Ireland, Kentigern (Mungo) in Scotland and David in Wales.

The bells that feature in the publication are for the most part quadrangular, belong to the early Middle Ages and range in date from between the fifth or sixth century and the early twelfth. Quadrangular hand-bells are emblematic both of the early insular church and of devotion to insular saints. The book also includes bell-shrines, which sometimes belong in whole or in part to the late Middle Ages; a small number of round-sectioned bells of early medieval date; two round-sectioned bells of late medieval date that are attributed to named saints and may have replaced quadrangular predecessors; and one bell of indeterminate date and non-insular type that forms part of the Breton group.

Priced at €50, Early Medieval Hand-Bells of Ireland and Britain is available now from the Museum Shop Online.

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