Monday, December 29, 2014

Patrick Fleming and the Letters of Columbanus

The First Printed Edition
of Columbanus' works
by Patrick Fleming in 1667
The Irish monastic leader Columbanus wrote several letters during his time in Europe (c. 598-615). These letters are some of the earliest examples of Hiberno-Latin and our only surviving source from the conservative Irish camp on the Easter dating controversy. The letters were written to three popes (Gregory the Great, Sabinian (?), and Boniface III), a synod of Gallic bishops that wanted to censure him, and to his own monks at Luxeuil following his expulsion from Gaul. 

Columbanus was a man who spoke his mind and was proud of that fact (Ep. 5.9). At times he had to excuse his abrasive style on the grounds that he was Irish, and appealed to "the freedom of my country's customs, for among us it is not a man's station but his principles that matter" (Ep. 5.11). This appeal to Irish free speech emboldened him to lambaste the bishop's of Gaul and occasionally a pope or two. 

The fact that we can read the letters of Columbanus today is largely down to the work of a 17th century Irish Franciscan scholar, Patrick Fleming. Fleming was a lecturer in theology at the Irish college at Louvain. His chief theological interest was the work and life of Columbanus, and he set out to collect and transcribe any manuscript material relating to Columbanus that he could find in European libraries. On a trip to Bobbio, Italy, he came across an ancient but badly written copy of Columbanus' letters, which he transcribed. That manuscript has since been lost and Fleming's 17th century transcription formed the basis of the editio princeps that was published in 1677. Had Fleming not made his own copy of the Bobbio manuscript, the letters would have been lost forever.*

Fleming was later appointed director of an Irish college in Prague in 1630, but was murdered in 1631 during the Thirty Years War. His magnum opus on the life and works of Columabanus was finally printed some 36 years later. The modern critical edition of Columbanus' letters is still primarily reliant on Fleming's work.

*note: There was a second 17th century transcription produced by a scholar named Joadoc Metzler, but this is very probably a transcription of Fleming's work and not from the Bobbio manuscript. See Johannes Wilhelmus Smit, Studies on the language and style of Columba the Younger (Columbanus) (Amsterdam, Hakkert, 1971), 33-8.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Celebrating Christmas with Wise Men from Ireland

Sedulius Scottus, (fl. 840-860) lived in Liège at a time when Irish scholarly influence in western Europe was at its zenith. He was a scribe, poet, grammarian, philosopher, and theologian; a professional wise man of sorts. In one of his poems he mentions his fellow Irish compatriots, Fegus, Blandus, Marcus, and Beuchell, as the "four-span of the Lord, [and] the glory of the Irish race" (Quadraige domini, Scottensis gloria gentis), no false modesty here.

In a Christmas poem he wrote around 850 he described a Christmas celebration in Liège. The imagery of the nativity is applied to the church and her bishop. The church choir emulates the angelic hosts in their praise of God and the bishop is the shepherd who leads his flock to the true Shepherd Christ.

But what of the Wise Men? Well naturally for Sedulius, the Wise Men are the Irish scholars like himself who have come to Lèige bearing gifts of wisdom and eloquence!

Here is an excerpt from that Christmas poem;

It is the time of snow, gleaming with perfect light; now is the season in which the Lord Jesus was born. O brothers shine like the purest snow, and glisten with unblemished souls. The blessed Virgin gave birth to Jesus, Ruler of the world, and son of the Almighty…

The Messiah. the bread of life, is born in the town of Bethlehem. But here is the Lord's house, and bread too, and the nourishing drink of poor Bethlehem. 

As the angelic choirs chanted harmonious praises and sand melodious hymns to God on high, so our excellent choir, with one voice, celebrates O Zion, your glorious triumphs…

The Lord was our Shepherd, and the shepherds its witnesses; and the Shepherd was the child who was born in Bethlehem...

Out of the east came the Magi bearing gifts, hastening in their journey to the Christ child; but now Irish scholars arrive from western lands, bringing their precious gifts of learning…

When the joyous day arrives, let all rejoice as one, and let gladness and love rule every man's heart. Divine radiance attests to Christ's birth, and heaven's splendor adores our True Light. Let us walk happily in the light of Christ, and go directly to his sacred land. Amen.

See Edward Doyle, Sedulius Scottus: On Christian Rulers and The Poems, Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, Vol. 17 (Binghamton, NY: State University of New York, 1983), 112-113.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Live in Christ, that Christ may live in you

"I live, yet no longer I, but Christ lives in me, he who for me has died; for that is the cry of the elect. But none can die to himself, unless Christ lives in him; but if Christ lives in him, he cannot live to himself. Live in Christ, that Christ may live in you (Vive in Christo ut Christus in te)."

Columbanus, Sermon 10.2

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Massive Scribal Hangovers: One Ninth Century Confession

Codex Sangallensis 904, page 204,
a ninth century copy of Priscian's Latin grammar
with an ogham gloss in the top margin
Medieval Irish scribes were habitually recording their emotional and physical state as they labored at the task of copying manuscripts. These scribal glosses range from pious prayers ("God bless my hands today" Laon MS 26, f18v) to curses on pens, parchment, and careless work by fellow scribes.

Physical ailments were also described, sometimes in graphic detail. One scribe writing in Co. Clare informed whoever cared in a marginal gloss, "the phlegm is upon me like a mighty river, and my breathing is labored." (MS Egerton 88 f. 26).

One Irish ninth century copy of a Latin grammar, the Institutiones grammaticae by Priscian (c. 500), contains alongside the usual prayers and complaints a curious marginal gloss in ogham script.

Ogham script was used by the Irish possibly as early as the fourth century AD, mainly in grave monuments scattered over Ireland (as well as some in western Britain).

The ogham gloss on the top of page 204 in the Priscian grammar is a single word in Irish, Latheirt.

This obscure word can be accurately defined thanks to the remarkable old Irish dictionary dating to possibly as early as the ninth century, the Sanas Cormaic (Cormac's glossary). The entry for the Irish word Latheirt is defined as follows;

Ale [Lait] + killed [ort], i.e. ale has killed us, that is ale drinking.

McManus notes,
"This [definition] together with other contexts shows the basic meaning to be 'excessive ale-consumption' with the logical extensions 'excessive drunkenness' and 'massive hangover', the last probably the meaning intended in the Priscian Oghams."

The task of copying out a Latin grammar by hand was difficult enough for a monk without the added misery of a hangover. This was not our scribe's finest hour.

Ogham gloss that reads in Irish Latheirt, i.e. "massive hangover."

Damian McManus, A Guide to Ogham, Maynooth Monograph 4 (Maynooth: An Sagart, 1991), 133.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Apertio Aurium and Illuminated Manuscripts

Book of Kells folio 27v
Insular illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells often contain a page with the symbols of the four evangelists.

This page was used in a ceremony for new believers known as the "Opening of the Ears" (Apertio Aurium).

As new believers prepared for baptism they went through basic catechesis. During Lent catechumens were brought into the church for a reading of the first few verses from each of the four gospels, with an explanation of the four symbolic figures for the Evangelists (Man, Lion, Ox, Eagle). See here for more on the background to these symbols. 

Ó Carragáin has suggested that pages like folio 27v in the Book of Kells were displayed at the altar and the four-fold Gospel explained. This ceremony was a visual presentation of the Gospel to an illiterate audience preparing to join the church. This ceremony was part of the broader preparation of catechumens for their upcoming Easter baptism.

The earliest account of the details of the Apertio Aurium ceremony are given by Bede (672-735), who notes in his allegorical commentary on the Tabernacle,

"There are four pillars at the entrance of the court [of the Tabernacle] because no one is able to come into the unity of the holy church except through the faith and the sacraments of the gospel, which are contained in four books. For this reason, in that same church the pleasing custom has developed from ancient times that the beginnings of the four gospels are recited to those who are about to be catechized and initiated into the Christian sacraments, and at the opening of their ears they are carefully instructed concerning the figures [of the evangelists] and their order, so that from then on they may know and remember which books, and how many, [contain] the words by which they ought chiefly to be instructed in the true faith."

Another brief reference by Bede is given in his commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah,

"…not through our own freedom of will but through the illumination of divine light that, after hearing the prophetic worlds of the Gospels, we are incorporated into the members of the Holy Church. And a beautiful and wholesome custom has developed in the church through the teaching of the Fathers that the mystery of the four Gospels is explained and their beginnings are recited to those who are being catechized."

The Book of Kells, and other Insular illuminated manuscripts, were not merely intended as objects of aesthetic beauty, but also as a means of teaching and instructing people in the faith of the Christian Gospel.


Éamonn Ó Carragáin, “Traditio Evangeliorum and Sustentatio: The Relevance of Liturgical Ceremonies to the Book of Kells,” in The Book of Kells: Proceedings of a Conference at Trinity College, Dublin, 6-9 September 1992, edited by Felicity O’Mahony (Dublin: Scholar Press, 1994), 400-401.

Bede, On the Tabernacle, translated by Arthur G. Holder (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1994), 101.

Bede, On Ezra and Nehemiah, translated by Scott DeGregorio (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), 115.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The sole sufficiency of grace: A ninth century Irish reflection

Sedulius Scottus (fl. 840-860) was an Irish theologian and teacher who emigrated to Liège (Belgium) during the reign of holy Roman emperor Lothair I (840-855). Among Sedulius' literary outputs were a political treatise on the rule of kings, some poetry, and a biblical commentary on Paul's epistles. He also coped out a Greek psalter which is still preserved today in Paris. His commentary on Paul's epistles was the subject of a study by Michael Sloan. Commenting on Galatians, Sedulius addressed the issue of the sufficiency of grace in Christian salvation. For Sedulius it is clear that faith alone (sola fide) and grace alone (sola gratia) were the basis, cause, and ground for Christian salvation. The supremacy of Christ is only truly maintained when one relies on Christ completely for salvation, "We esteem Christ dishonourably when we think that he is not sufficient for us to salvation" ([Christum] vilem habetis, dum putatis eum vobis non sufficere ad salutem).

Here Sedulius comments on Galatians 2:19-21.

"I died through the law of Christ to the law of the letter. Or rather, through the old law itself. So that I might live for God, who renewed his own law. I was crucified with Christ, because I died to all sins for which the law was given; therefore the law is completely unnecessary for me. And I live, that is, with a spiritual life. No longer I, that is the old self, or not by my ability. I live by faith in God, that is, in faith alone, because I owe nothing to the law (in sola fide, quia nihil debeo levi)."

"I shall not make the grace of God invalid, that is, I ought not to be ungrateful to him, who so greatly loved me, that he even died on my behalf. For grace is debased and invalid, if it alone does not suffice for me (abjecta enim et irrita gratia est, si mihi sola non sufficit)."

For more see:
Sloan, Michael C. The Harmonious Organ of Sedulius Scottus Introduction to His Collectaneum in Apostolum and Translation of Its Prologue and Commentaries on Galatians and Ephesians. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH Co. KG, 2012.

A Greek colophon in MS 8407 (f.55r) from the hand of Sedulius Scottus. "I Sedulius Scottus wrote this."

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Poem for an old Manuscript

Irish poets were the first Europeans to write in the vernacular. A tenth century Irish poem - preserved in UCD manuscript MS A 9 - describes a reunion between old lovers. The poet is now an old man and comes across a dear old lady (Crínoc), who was once his first love. The poem's monastic themes have led some commentators to suggest that the poet is describing either a concubine or a virgo subintroducta, i.e. a nun who lived with a priest, monk, or hermit like a sister or 'spiritual wife' (uxor spiritualis).

Martin McNamara is his work The Psalms in the Early Irish Church challenged this interpretation and offered the plausible suggestion that what this poem is actually describing is an old monk who has come across an old psalter manuscript that he used as novice when he first entered religious training. The Psalms formed the backbone of basic theological education in medieval Irish monasteries and young boys beginning at age seven would often learn how to read and write by copying out for themselves their own personal copy of the 'three fifties' (i.e. the book of Psalms). The Psalms were not only the means of introducing literacy to young novices, they also served as the hymnal for the canonical hours when monks would sing the psalms together. Some Irish monasteries would sing all 150 Psalms each day!

Evidentially this old psalter passed through several later owners before our poet came across it again as an old man.

A Crínoc cubuidh do ceol 
Crínoc, melodious is your song.
Though young no more you are still bashful.
We two grew up together in Niall's northern land,
When we used to sleep together in tranquil slumber.

That was my age when you slept with me,
O peerless lady of pleasant wisdom:
A pure-hearted youth, lovely without a flaw,
A gentle boy of seven sweet years.

We lived in the great world of Banba
Without sullying soul or body,
My flashing eye full of love for you,
Like a poor innocent un-tempted by evil. 

Your just counsel is ever ready, 
Wherever we are we seek it:
To love your penetrating wisdom is better
Than glib discourse with a king.

Since then you have slept with four men after me,
Without folly or falling away:
I know, I hear it on all sides,
You are pure, without sin from man.

At last, after weary wanderings,
You have come to me again,
Darkness of age has settled on your face:
Sinless your life draws near its end.

You are still dear to me, faultless one,
You shall have welcome from me without stint;
You will not let us be drowned in torment:
We will earnestly practice devotion with you.

The lasting world is full of your fame,
Far and wide you have wandered on every track:
If every day we followed your ways,
We should come safe into the presence of dread God. 

You leave an example and a bequest 
To everyone in this world,
You have taught us by your life:
Earnest prayer to God is no fallacy. 

Then may God grant us peace and happiness! 
May the countenance of the King
Shine brightly upon us
When we leave behind us our withered bodies.

Kuno Meyer, Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie, vol. 6 (London: David Nutt, 1912), 266.

Martin McNamara, The Psalms in the Early Irish Church (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 360-361; 394-395.

UCD Franciscan MS A 9 P. 40

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Early Irish Eschatology

A new work on Medieval Irish Eschatology edited by John Carey is due to be published soon. The work is essentially a collection of primary sources produced in medieval Ireland and covers areas like the afterlife, heaven, hell, and the final judgment. It's a two volume set, running to almost 950 pages and looks like an excellent resource.

Early medieval Irish eschatology is a topic I did some limited research on last year.

This is an essay I wrote on the Chirstological emphasis in early Irish eschatology. I focused on the dominant theme of Christ in the eschatological expectation of early Irish theology.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Eriugena's View of the Eucharist

Eriugena's (c. 815 – c. 877) view of the Eucharist was an outworking of his view of creation and the physical world as “theophonies through which and in which God has appeared and appears and will appear.” (Com. in John 302A). Jesus Christ is revealed to the faithful, according to Eriugena, through the Scriptures which testify of him, and also the created world, which manifests visible the invisible attributes and character of God (PP 723D).

In other words, God manifests himself through visible, corporeal, and intelligible means, e.g. Scripture and creation. Any such self-manifestation by God is referred to by Eriugena as a theophany.

Eriugena defined theophanies as “certain divine apparitions comprehensible to the intellectual nature [of people]” (PP 446C), or “the forms of visible and invisible things, through whose order and beauty God’s existence is made known” (PP 919C).

The Carolingian world that Eriugena lived and taught in stressed a real presence and substantial change in the offering of the Eucharist. This can be seen in the Gallican liturgy used at this time. However, Eriugena seems to have purposely avoided these terms, and instead regarded the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist not in terms of substance but theophany. The Eucharist was the "spiritual food" of God's people (cf. 1 Cor. 10:3), but like all theophanies, it pointed beyond itself as a spiritual sign or marker, back to God.

Walker noted that in Eriugena's theological framework, sacraments are not final but significant pointers in the cosmic process. Eriugena states that the sacrament of the Eucharist is “a typical similitude of spiritual participation in Jesus whom we taste by faith in the understanding alone…and receive into the heart of our inner being for our salvation and spiritual growth and ineffable deification.” (Expos. Super Hierarchy Celestial 140B).

Hincmar archbishop of Reims (d. 882) regarded Eriugena's conception of the Eucharist as heretical because in Hincmar's words, Eriugena did not regard the Eucharist as truly the body and blood of the Lord but only a memorial (non verum corpus et verus sanguis sit Dominis, sed tantum memoria).

Eriugena's theology held that the universe in all its parts had a sacramental quality. “For in my opinion," he wrote, "there is nothing among visible and corporeal things which does not signify something incorporeal and intelligible.” (PP 866A). To speak of a real presence in the Eucharist (i.e. a change of substance from bread to flesh) was to miss the point of the role of the sacrament, which is to point beyond itself to a spiritual reality. The Eucharist was received by faith, and consumed by faith, because by faith the Christian is united to Christ through divine grace (mente non dente, Com. in John 311B).

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Word within the word

“O Lord Jesus, I ask of you no other reward, no other blessedness, no other joy than this: to understand in all purity and without being led astray by faulty contemplation your words which are inspired by the Holy Spirit…For as there is no place in which it is more proper to seek you than in your words, so there is no place where you are more clearly discovered than in your words. For there you abide, and there you lead all who seek and love you. There you have prepared for your elect the spiritual banquet of true knowledge and passing you minister to them.”

John Scotus Eriugena, Periphyseon 5:1010D

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Early Irish Church: Some Essential Sources

Here are some of the more important primary sources relating to the early Irish church that are available in English translations. It's by no means exhaustive, but I've found these works to be interesting. They cover the period from around 590-880.

Columbanus, The Complete Works (Letters, Sermons, Poems, and Monastic Rules) [c.590-615]

Cummian, On the Easter Controversy [c.633]

Alieran, Mystical Interpretation of Jesus' Genealogy [c.650]

Anonymous, A Treatise on the Ordering of Creation [c.650]

Adomnan, On the Sacred Places [c.680]

Adomnan, The Life of Columba [c.680]

Blathmac, The Poems of Blathmac Son of Cú Brettan [c.800]

Sedulius Scottus, Commentary on the Pauline Epistles [c.840] (partial translation only)

Sedulius Scottus, On Christian Rulers [c.840]

Eriugena, The Division of Nature [c.850]

Eriugena, Hymns and Poems [c.850]

For secondary sources I recommend these key texts:

Thomas M. Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland

James Kenny, The Sources for Early History of Ireland

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200

Kathleen Hughes, Early Christian Ireland: Introduction to the Sources

Catherin Thom, Early Irish Monasticism

Monday, April 14, 2014

Early Irish Easter Hymn

A seventh century Easter hymn is recorded in the Irish Antiphonary of Bangor, and also in a manuscript from the Irish monastery at Bobbio in Italy (Turin G. v. 38). Easter was an exciting time for the early Irish church. The celebration of the Resurrection of Christ coincided with the end of the Lentan fast. It also occurred after the Spring equinox which meant that the daylight was longer than nightfall. That Light had conquered darkness was a hugely important symbol for early Irish Easter celebration. Easter was Lucis Solemnitas - the festival of light (Columbanus, Ep. 1.3).

The Irish Easter Hymn focused on this imagery of light and fire as symbols of God's deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt. The Resurrection of Christ was linked to the freedom of God's people from slavery to the devil. Easter was also the time when new converts were baptized. As catechumens they had studied basic doctrine and memorized Scripture. Now at Easter they would undergo baptism, which was viewed as spiritually joining Christ in his resurrection. As the beeswax candles burned our hymn describes the catechumens on the night before Easter morning as young bees awaiting to fly from their incubation in the honey comb of Catechesis. Easter was the great religious holiday in the early Irish church. The Resurrection of Christ and the new life of baptized converts resurrected with Christ in the waters of baptism met together in joyous praise.

Fire [and] creator of fire,
Light [and] giver of light
Life and author of life,
Salvation and giver of salvation
In case the lamps should abandon
The joys of this night
You who do not desire our death
Give light to our breast

To those wandering from Egypt
You bestowed the double grace
You show the veil of cloud
And give the nocturnal light
With pillar of cloud in the day
You protect the people as they go
With a pillar of fire at evening
You dispel the night with light

You call out to your servant from the flame,
You do not spurn the bush of thorns,
And though you are consuming fire,
You do not burn what you illuminate,
Now it is time that the cloudy bee-bread
Should be consumed, all impurity boiled away,
And the waxen flesh should shine,
With the glow of the Holy Spirit.

You store up the nourishment of divine honey
in the secret recess of the honey-comb:
purifying the innermost cells of the heart,
you fill them with your word,
so that the swarm of new offspring,
begotten by the word of Spirit,
may leave behind the things of the earth
and soar towards heaven on carefree wings.

For more see,

Warpole, A. S. Early Latin Hymns with Introductions and Notes. Cambridge: Cambridge Univsersity Press, 1922. 346-9. 

Curran, Michael. The Antiphonary of Bangor and the Early Irish Monastic Liturgy. Blackrock, Co., Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1984.  63

Davies, Oliver, and Thomas O'Loughlin. Celtic Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1999. 317-318

Saturday, March 22, 2014

An Early Irish Eucharistic Hymn

Detail from the Ardagh Chalice c. 800
The seventh century manuscript known as the Antiphonary of Bangor contains many hymns from the early Irish church. One of the earliest hymns it contains is the Sancti Venite (“Come ye saints”), which was probably written as early as the sixth century, making it one of the earliest Irish hymns known (Curran, Antiphonary, 47). This hymn was composed in Latin and was sung during the celebration of the Eucharist.

Come, ye saints, receive the body of Christ,
Drinking the holy Blood by which you were redeemed.

You who were saved by the body and blood of Christ,
Let us praise God, by whom we are made anew.

By this sacrament of the body and the blood,
All have escaped from the jaws of hell.

Giver of salvation, Christ the Son of God,
Has saved the world by his cross and blood.

The Lord has been sacrificed for all,
Himself both priest and victim,

The law commanded the sacrifice of victims,
Foreshadowing the mysteries divine.

Bestowed of light and Saviour of all,
He granted most noble grace to his holy people.

Let all draw near with pure and faithful minds,
Let all receive the protection of eternal salvation.

Guardian of the saints, you are leader, O Lord,
And dispenser of life eternal to those who believe.

He gave heavenly bread to the hungry,
And to the thirsty water from the living spring.

Christ the Lord himself comes, who is Alpha and Ω,
He shall come again to judge us all.

The hymn's imagery of Christ as the fountain and bread of life is largely drawn from John's gospel. The great pilgrim Columbanus (d.615) who himself studied at Bangor (where this hymn was sung) draws on similar imagery in one of his sermons. Perhaps the hymn's melodious chant was echoing in his mind as he delivered this his last recorded sermon.

"my brethren, let us follow this calling, with which we are called to the fountain of life by the Life Who is the Fountain, not only the Fountain of living water, but also of eternal life, the Fountain of light, yes, and the Fount of glory; for from Him come all these things, wisdom and life and light eternal. The Author of life is the Fountain of life, the Creator of light, the Fount of glory; and thus, spurning the things that are seen, making a passage through the world, in the loftier regions of the heavenlies let us seek the Fount of glory, the Fountain of life, the Fountain of living water, like intelligent and most wise fish, that there we may drink the [living] water which springs up to eternal life [John 4:14].... O Lord, you are yourself that Fountain ever and again to be desired, though ever and again to be drunk. Ever give [us], Lord [Christ,] this water,’’ [John 4:15] that it may be in us too a Fountain of water that lives and springs up to eternal life.’’ [John 4:14] I ask great gifts indeed, who knows it not? But you, the King of glory, know how to give greatly, and you have promised great things; nothing is greater than yourself and you have given yourself to us, you gave yourself for us! Therefore we ask you that we may know the thing we love, since we pray for nothing other than yourself to be given to us; for you are our all, our life, our light, our salvation, our food, our drink, our God. Inspire our hearts, I beg you, O our Jesus, with that breath of your Spirit, and wound our souls with your love, that the soul of each one of us may be able to say in truth, Show me Him Whom my soul has loved,’’ (Song of Songs 1:6).
(Columbanus, Sermon 13.3).