Lisa Bitel

title.none: Early Irish History (Lisa Bitel)

identifier.other: baj9928.0407.003 04.07.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lisa Bitel, University of Southern California,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí. Early Irish History and Chronology. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2003. Pp. xi, 228. $55.00 1-85182-635-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.07.03

Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí. Early Irish History and Chronology. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2003. Pp. xi, 228. $55.00 1-85182-635-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Lisa Bitel
University of Southern California

If Dáibhí Ó Cróinín were an early medieval scholar, who would he be? Someone deeply involved in the so-called paschal controversy of the latter seventh century. He is an expert on computus, the calculation of time and dates that lies at the basis of Christian liturgy. He can reconcile lunar and solar calendars, accommodating leap days and leap years, and blithely sort his epacts from his ferials. A mathematician "most skilled in reckoning chronology," as St. Columban would say, he can read a Victorine 19-year or an Anatolian 84-year calendar with equal ease. He is as arrogant as that same Columban, who explained in exasperation to European bishops that their way of dating Easter was "more worthy of ridicule or indulgence rather than authority" (Ep. I.4). More than one major scholar gets severe treatment in these pages (although not so severe as in the fabulously sarcastic footnotes of Ó Cróinín's survey of early medieval Ireland.) Finally, he is as profoundly learned as Cummian, the bishop who set out his position on the date of Easter in a letter in 632 or 633 to the abbot of Iona, citing patristics and ten different versions of the Christian calendar to make his case. Like every early Irish monk worth his vow, Ó Cróinín knows his way around the manuscripts and can cite evidence in Irish, Latin, German, and math.

This book of essays, all but one previously published, represents Ó Cróinín's career-long attempt to entice us medievalists into the cosmos of computus. Two themes recur throughout: First, the dismaying lack of response to his enticement and, second, the unacknowledged contributions of the medieval Irish to this and other fields of learning. In an attractively personal introduction, he tells the story of twentieth-century medievalists who inspired him, beginning with his undergraduate professor, Denis Bethell, who showed him Charles Jones' edition of Bede's On Time. Via printed word, Ó Cróinín met more mentors: Bruno Krusch and Bartholomew Mac Carthy, who led him back to Columban, Mo Sinu maccu Min of Bangor, Patrick, Palladius, Dionysius Exiguus, and Victorius of Aquitaine, among others. The precocious university student Ó Cróinín realized that modern medievalists had either neglected computus entirely, deeming it "dry and repulsive," or had misattributed significant medieval works about it, or worse, had simply never noticed its manuscripts in major archives.

The result was a series of essays published between 1981 and 2003 mostly in Irish journals, along with the co-edition of Cummian's famous letter. Ó Cróinín's essays, collected here, range in accessibility from the difficult to the nearly impossible and, in size, from a two pages to full-length articles. They are full of lists, numbers, untranslated passages, and unexplained references to technical matters of the calendar. They are arranged here according to the chronology of their subject matter, rather than by theme. The collection begins with a piece on the archaic Irish names for days of the week and the missionary Palladius's participation in fifth-century calendrical debates; it ends with a revised list of Bede's sources for On Time, based on Charles Jones's identification of Bede's sources. Some of the essays work better than others. The note on the Hiberno-Latin term calcenterus probably won't interest too many readers. However, the pieces on Cummian's learned circle (chap. 9) and on the Irish provenance of Bede's computus (chap. 13) would have made good introductory essays for the collection. Only beginning on page 99 can non-specialists learn the basics of the argument over the date of Easter, which obsessed so many of the great minds of the seventh century. And only on page 173 do we begin to understand why, exactly, so many men felt so vehemently about the issue, how they argued their cases, and why it took so long for monks and priests across Christendom to agree.

All of the articles are about the discovery of manuscripts, the attribution of manuscripts, or the way in which computistical manuscripts and their contents can transform our understanding of medieval learning. In Ó Cróinín's estimation, a grasp of computus can enlighten us about major events of the sixth and seventh centuries, including heresy, episcopal hierarchy, the extent of papal influence, authorship of the great insular gospel books, and the origins of written History itself in the form of random notes of events in the margins of calendrical tracts. The best surprises in these essays are not the lost manuscripts that Ó Cróinín dug out of archives, or the phrases in textual fragments that he has identified as Irish, nor the link he makes between computus and other products of medieval learning. It is not even Ó Cróinín's admirable math. It is his unrelenting insistence on the fundamental importance of computus to so many people during the beginning centuries of the Middle Ages. His fifteen essays on computus, and his assertion that computus was one of the three major areas of early medieval monastic learning, reminds us in a new way that the European past was utterly exotic. Our collective repulsion for computus, so central to learning then, becomes a revelation to historians who believe that we have a grasp on medieval minds.

We don't. Their Christianity was not ours. Almost alone among modern scholars, Ó Cróinín shares their mysterious zeal. His studious comparison of pages, explications of whole works and short phrases, and even his tracking of single words across the forgotten manuscripts of the period yield major rewards to those who struggle, with equal rigor and determination, through these essays.