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.