Monday, March 7, 2011

The Würzburg Glosses

F. 7v
Codex Paulinus Wirziburgensis currently resides in the university library of Würzburg, Germany. It was produced by Irish scribes sometime around the year 800 and contains the Latin text of the Pauline epistles (plus Hebrews). What is noteworthy about this manuscript, however, are the thousands of old Irish glosses in the margins and between the lines. The glosses provide explanations and applications of the text from Patristic sources.

 Interestingly, the main source for the commentary is the heretic Pelagius. He is cited frequently by name which shows the Irish scribes were open about using a writer who came in for some very heavy criticism from the Church Fathers and Jerome in particular (who was highly respected by Irish theologians). Jerome called Pelagius stolidissimus et Scottorum pultibus praegravatus, a stupid man weighed down with Irish porridge!

The 3000 or so Irish glosses are a vital witness to reconstructing old Irish, and also give us some insights into the Biblical interpretation of the early Irish church. An interesting gloss is written over 2 Corinthians 12:7, where Paul mentions his stimulus carnis, or thorn in the flesh. The Irish gloss reads, Cenngalar (headache). This may be an allusion to the Latin theologian Tertullian (d.220) who wrote that Paul’s thorn in the flesh may have been per dolorem, ut aiunt, auriculae uel capitis (a pain in the ear or head). 

f. 17v stimulus carnis / Cenngalar
Like so many Irish manuscripts its survival was due to being taken to the continent by wandering Irish monks, while at home countless manuscripts and libraries were destroyed by the Vikings. Manuscripts like the Codex Paulinus were valuable study tools and welcome reading to the many Irish scholars in Germany and elsewhere. As the writing style in Europe evolved the insular miniscule hand used in this manuscript became archaic and hard to read, so these manuscripts sat unused in European monasteries and libraries. Dusty relics like these speak of the vibrancy of the early Irish church and her many pilgrims for Christ.

For further details see:
Ó Néill, Pádraig P., “The Old-Irish glosses of the prima manus in Würzburg, text and context reconsidered”, in: Richter, Michael, and Jean-Michel Picard (eds.), Ogma: essays in Celtic studies in honour of Próinséas Ní Chatháin, Dublin: Four Courts, 2002. 230–242.

Breen, Aidan, “The Biblical text and sources of the Würzburg Pauline glosses (Romans 1–6)”, in: Ní Chatháin, Próinséas, and Michael Richter (eds.), Irland und Europa im früheren Mittelalter: Bildung und Literatur / Ireland and Europe in the early Middle Ages: learning and literature, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1996. 9–16.

Ní Chatháin, Próinséas, “Notes on the Würzburg glosses”, in: Ní Chatháin, Próinséas, and Michael Richter (eds.), Irland und die Christenheit: Bibelstudien und Mission. Ireland and Christendom: the Bible and the missions, Veröffentlichungen des Europa Zentrums Tübingen. Kulturwissenschaftliche Reihe, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1987. 190–199.


  1. Very interesting. Do you know of anywhere the glosses are collated to read?

    Also what do you think are the odds of some manuscript like this one turning up in ireland or elsewhere? I remeber the stories where the monks would hide the valuables from the vikings when they heard they were coming.. It would be great. Also is there any record of finding such manuscripts back in the viking countries.. i suppose they werent intereseted in taking books.

  2. Hello Space Bishop!

    Thanks for the comment!

    By far the best resource for reading these glosses and getting information on manuscripts etc is a huge two volume work by the great Irish scholar Whitley Stokes, called "Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus". sell reprints of this work or conversely you can read it online for free! It’s outside copyright now as it was published in 1903. Stokes provides the original Irish as well as a translation.

    As for the odds of a manuscript turning up, I’d say the odds in Ireland are very slim. Our history since around AD800 was pretty much turbulent and a great deal of material was destroyed. Also, you’re right about monks burying manuscripts and other valuables. In 2006 some turf cutters dug up an ancient illuminated Psalter in Tipperary, which was probably hidden there by a monk. It was an amazing discovery. So I guess you never know what else might be out there!

    I don’t think there are any ancient Irish manuscripts found with Viking treasure hoards, in Ireland or Scandinavia. The Vikings were more interested in the richly gilded covers for manuscripts called a cumlach in Irish. I might do a blog post on the Irish scribes’ reaction to the Vikings next!

  3. Cool. Google books only has a preview of it.

    Out of interest were i to give you a magic wand with the power of resurrecting ancient artefacts out of the ground what would you like to see appear?

    Ive asked many people this question and love to hear the answers.

  4. hmm. maybe an original NT manuscript. Not a copy but an actual autograph. That would be pretty sweet!