Thursday, March 17, 2011

Patrick's Rage

Here follows a brief excerpt from st. Patrick’s lesser known work, his Epistola Militibus Cororici. It was written in response to the enslavement of some of Patrick's flock by men under the control of a minor British king, Coroticus. So Patrick, the former slave, rails against the injustice of slavery; it is passionate, moving and well worth a read. Despite what we sometimes read of st. Patrick and the 'Celtic Church', here in his own words he calls the Irish 'barbarians' and 'apostates' and the Romans 'holy'!

I am Patrick, yes a sinner and indeed untaught; yet I am established here in Ireland where I profess myself bishop. I am certain in my heart that "all that I am," I have received from God. So I live among barbarous tribes, a stranger and exile for the love of God. He himself testifies that this is so. I never would have wanted these harsh words to spill from my mouth; I am not in the habit of speaking so sharply. Yet now I am driven by the zeal of God, Christ's truth has aroused me. I speak out too for love of my neighbors who are my only sons; for them I gave up my home country, my parents and even pushing my own life to the brink of death. If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me.

I myself have composed and written these words with my own hand, so that they can be given and handed over, then sent swiftly to the soldiers of Coroticus. I am not addressing my own people, nor my fellow citizens of the holy Romans, but those who are now become citizens of demons by reason of their evil works. They have chosen, by their hostile deeds, to live in death; comrades of the Irish and Picts and of all who behave like apostates, bloody men who have steeped themselves in the blood of innocent Christians. The very same people I have begotten for God; their number beyond count, I myself confirmed them in Christ.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Stormy seas, a scribe's comfort

The Vikings were a feared and ferocious warrior people. Ireland and Europe in general endured their bloody raids and wars for centuries. In France the Franks handed over a sizeable slice of their kingdom to these mighty “men from the north”, which they named Normandy. The Irish were less generous. Irish scribes wrote scathingly of these gentiles from the north (which is slightly ironic since they were gentiles themselves!). We are told of the Irish coast filled with “countless sea-vomitings of ships” loaded with Vikings and Pirates. The annals repeatedly record churches burned to the ground, manuscripts and shrines destroyed and the slaughter of Christians by these ‘gentile hoards’.

To the Irish scribe, these Nordmanni represented the forces of darkness. Illiterate, pagan, and savage. No monastery or church was safe. The wealthier monastic settlements like Clonmacnoise, Durrow and Armagh were frequently raided. Even the desolate rock of Sceilig Mhichíl, off the Kerry coast, was raided in 823. The Annals of Inisfallen record that the Vikings didn’t find anything worth taking just an old decrepit hermit called Étgal. They carried him off and left him to starve to death in captivity.

Around the year 800 an anxious Irish scribe was staying up late one night busy copying a Latin grammar book. Viking raids were an ever present threat, but this night in particular our scribe paused his copying and penned a small poem in the upper margin of his manuscript (pictured above). As he listened to the howling wind outside he smiled and began to write “Is acher in gáeth innocht”, ‘the wind is fierce tonight!’ The seas were rough, too rough for the dreaded Viking long-boats. He could rest easy tonight.

The wind is fierce tonight
It ruffles the ocean’s fair mane
I do not fear the wild warriors of Norway
Sailing on a quiet sea!

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Würzburg Glosses

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).

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, m.p.th.f.12: 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.