Sunday, May 6, 2012

Mael Brigte's Gospel Book

British Library MS Harley 1802, f3.
British Library Manuscript ‘Harley 1802’ is a pocket sized copy of the four gospels in Latin written by a young Irish scribe called Mael Brigte Ua Maeluánaig in the year 1138. It measures 165mm x 120mm, and was clearly designed as a personal copy of Gospels rather than as a magnificent public Gospel book like the Book of Kells. In other words it was designed to be read and studied rather than admired. A quick glance at the tiny pages reveals that in addition to the Gospel text there are copious notes and comments written in the margins and interlinear. These notes are mainly drawn from the early church fathers (including older Irish writers such as Manchén). The notes are simple and were designed much like a study Bible to bring together details to aid study of the text. For example an Irish gloss in the margin of folio 97b reads,
There were three that were resuscitated by the gentle Christ, when he was for a time upon the earth, the daughter of Jarius the noble, the son of the widow, and Lazarus.”
A curios gloss is recorded next to Matthew 24:26a. The context is where Jesus warns people against believing reports of false Messiahs. The biblical text is,

“If therefore they shall say to you, Behold he is in the desert: go ye not out.” DRB.

To which our scribe added the gloss, which he attributed to Manchén,

Ecce in deserto .i. ut fiunt anchoritae” (here in the desert, i.e. to become an anchorite).

The connection between the desert and the hermit was strong in early Irish exegesis. The Latin word for desert (deserto) was adopted into the Irish language as dísert, meaning hermitage. In this little gloss the lasting influence of the eastern Desert Fathers on the Irish is seen.

In addition to these explanations of the text there are Irish poems relating to some of the Gospel characters. These poems mainly focus on Christ, the Apostles and the Magi. The Irish church drew from early Greek Magi traditions (i.e. their names and number) and developed these into detailed stories relating to the Magi’s clothes and personalities.

Magi Poem
The poem in our manuscript goes into great detail on the appearance of the Magi, who are called ‘druids’. Melcho is described as grey-haired and without guile, with a very long beard. Caspar, a fair, blooming, beardless youth, and Damascus (normally called Belthazar) is described as, a grizzled man with a crimson and white spotted cloak, with soft yellow sandals.

Another poem focuses on the appearance of Christ and the Apostles. According to William Reeves this poem was, “framed according to certain rules which guided the ancient scribes in the illumination of their biblical manuscripts, and may possibly find a partial illustration in the figures which appear in the Book of Kells and other manuscripts of that class.” Similar literary descriptions were used in the eastern churches for iconography. It’s amusing to read the descriptions of the Apostles in this poem. Apparently Thomas was the best looking (“choicest of faces was his face”), Bartholomew was a ginger, John was beardless (a common description), James and Andrew were blonde with long beards, and Peter had a glossy head of grey hair and a short beard. Such details strike the modern reader as bizarre and unhelpful, but the early Irish church enjoyed them.

The amount of material packed into this pocket-sized book by Mael Brigte is vast. The patristic sources and commentary alone display a remarkable acquaintance with the theological literature of his day. What is perhaps more remarkable is that this manuscript was compiled by a scribe in his twenties! We know this from a note added at the end of Luke’s Gospel, “Mael Brigte who wrote this book in his 28th year, the second year after the great storm.” The storm in question is also recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters s.a. 1137. For a man in his twenties he certainly was well versed in theology.

Colophon asking for clemency
The manuscripts ends with a colophon asking for people who later read this manuscript to, “pardon the faults of this book…for it requires much clemency both in text and commentaries!” 


  1. Hmmm reminds me of someone I know ... wait a minute its you! Love you my valiant historian;-)