Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Táin Bó Cúailnge: A 12th Century Review

Opening page of the Táin Bó Cúailnge in the Book of Leinster
 The medieval Irish monastery's role in preserving native Irish literature has been well documented. It should be remembered, however, that not every scribe was impressed with the content they had to copy.

Among the greatest of the medieval Irish sagas that was preserved on parchment was the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). This epic tale was passed on as part of a bardic oral tradition before it was redacted, compiled and written down in the twelfth century. Its textual history is complex and three recensions survive in different manuscripts. According to the Irish tale Do faillsigud Tána bó Cúailnge (‘How (the) Táin bó Cúailnge was found’) the best striving manuscript of the Táin was pawned off by a monk for a copy of one of Isidore of Seville's works. Only then was it discovered that no-one could remember the Táin in its entirety.

In the Book of Leinster there is an interesting scribal colophon at the end of its own peculiar recension of the Táin Bó Cúailnge.

"But I who have copied this history or, more accurately, fable, do not give credence to certain things in this history or fable. For certain things in it are the illusions of demons; certain are poetic fictions; certain are plausible, certain are not; certain are for the entertainment of fools."
Book of Leinster, Folio 399. The Scribe's 1 Star Amazon Review
Professor  Pádraig Ó Néill offered some reflections on "the rather complex reactions of a twelfth-century Irish ecclesiastic to his native literature." The cantankerous scribe in question was likely, according to O'Neill, magister of a scriptorium or fer légind of a monastic school. Such criticism of Irish literature in the Medieval era was by no means limited to the Irish themselves. An English scribe who copied out the Irish account of Saint Brendan the Navigator finished off his manuscript with the verdict that "it is not true, nor [even] probable. . . [and] these fabulous tales ought to be consigned to the fire."

For O'Neill the Irish scribe's poor review of the Táin "betrays a new, critical, attitude towards native Irish literature, one which presages the end of the compact between the two learned classes of native filid and monastic literati... The explanation for this change almost certainly is to be sought in the ecclesiastical reforms, especially the introduction of foreign religious orders, which were being effected in the Irish Church during the second half of the twelfth century."

Pádraig Ó Néill, “The Latin colophon to the Táin bó Cúailnge in the Book of Leinster: a critical view of Old Irish literature”, Celtica 23 (1999): 269–275.

Ernst Windisch, Die altirische Heldensage Táin Bó Cúalnge nach dem Buch von Leinster - Leipzig 1905.

1 comment:

  1. I'm very happy to have read anything that comes from you! haha

    Miss you Shane! Hopefully, we can come visit you in Ireland sometime!