Philip Freeman

title.none: Howlett, Macthéni's Vita Sancti Patricii (Philip Freeman)

identifier.other: baj9928.0706.015 07.06.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Philip Freeman, Luther College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Howlett, David. Muirchú Moccu Macthéni's 'Vita Sanctii Patricii" Life of Saint Patrick. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2006. Pp. 199. $60.00 (hb) 1-85182-980-6 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.06.15

Howlett, David. Muirchú Moccu Macthéni's 'Vita Sanctii Patricii" Life of Saint Patrick. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2006. Pp. 199. $60.00 (hb) 1-85182-980-6 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Philip Freeman
Luther College

Two hundred years after the death of Patrick, the seventh-century Irish churchman Muirchú composed one of the earliest biographies of the celebrated saint. Patrick's own surviving letters reveal a passionate yet very human missionary to the Irish, while Muirchú, fully within the hagiographical tradition, presents Patrick as a wonder-worker of exceptional ability. The text of Muirchú's Vita has received scant attention since it was edited by Ludwig Bieler almost thirty years ago [1], but in his recent edition, David Howlett offers a detailed and controversial new look at Muirchú's biography. Howlett's work is the latest in a series of his books arguing that insular writers of the early medieval period based the structure of their texts on a biblical style replete with compositional principles such as parallelism, chiasmus, syllable counting, and gematria.

Howlett begins with a short introduction outlining his argument for the previously unrecognized mathematical diligence with which Muirchú wrote the Vita, including a brief survey of gematria in which each letter of a word has a progressive numerical value. In this system, for example, the Latin word Hibernia can be read as 8+9+2+5+17+13+9+1, yielding a total of 64.

Part I of Howlett's book begins with an analysis of passages in Muirchú which the author argues were clearly developed from Patrick's Confessio as evidenced from internal structure. For example, when Patrick writes that he was captured by Irish pirates annorum eram tunc fere sedecim ("when I was almost sixteen"), Howlett points out that there are fifteen letters before fere sedecim, a deliberate feature provided by Patrick, who was keenly aware of letter counting according to Howlett. When Muirchú describes this stage of Patrick's life, he borrows the phrase annorum sedecim, with (including gaps before words) a total of sixteen letters and spaces. Howlett presents five other similar passages using letter and syllable counting to argue that Muirchú recognized such phenomena in Patrick's text and adapted them in his own work. Howlett also provides numerous examples in Muirchú's text of deliberate gematria usage, as when the name Iacob, with a numerical value of 29, falls exactly twenty-nine syllables before the end of a chapter. From such examples Howlett argues that Muirchú had direct access to copies of both of Patrick's letters and consciously infused his own text with mathematical clues so that careful readers could be certain they were reading his authentic prose. With the manuscript tradition of Muirchú an "orthographic mess" as Howlett contends (34), such signposts should allow an observant editor to reconstruct the original text of the Vita. This project forms the entire second part of the book.

Howlett's carefully rendered text and translation of Muirchú are based on applying principles such as those above to the primary surviving manuscripts. The text, with a normalization of Greek-derived words and archaic Latin orthography, is arranged per cola et commata as in Jerome's Vulgate, with an array of boldface, italics, and other diacritics to represent corrected features in Muirchú's text. Reader's confused by any of this will be thankful for Howlett's detailed analysis and commentary in Part III of the book. Scholars should find Howlett's arguments intriguing, even if they do not agree with his conclusions. The final section of the book includes maps, a complete bibliography, an index of names, and a full listing of gematria, from the Hebrew Abraham (1+2+200+5+40 = 248) to Irish Uloth (18+10+13+17+8 = 66).

Since Dr. Howlett first began arguing for his revolutionary analysis of early insular texts twenty years ago, he has understandably met with grave resistance--as well as limited acceptance--from the scholarly community [2]. Howlett, a Rhodes scholar and editor of the British Academy's widely-respected Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, should not be summarily dismissed by critics who see his work employing methods more commonly associated with the kabbalah or Da Vinci Code. Howlett's facility with Latin is first rate and his grasp of varied traditions, from Old French to Welsh and Breton literature, is impressive. Even those of us who are skeptical of Howlett's conclusions must admit that he has prompted a refreshing new look at a number of early authors. Among other accomplishments, he has rightly emphasized the previously unappreciated rhetorical skill of writers such as Patrick and Muirchú. As this book is just the first in a trilogy of works that will include the Breton life of St. Samson and the Welsh life of St. David, it will be interesting to see the application of Howlett's techniques to other areas of insular and continental hagiography. Ultimately, however, I believe that Howlett will be hard pressed to convince a majority of scholars that his views are correct.

[1] Ludwig Bieler, The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin, 1979.

[2] A balanced and detailed review of Howlett's key ideas may be found in Alan B.E. Hood, "Lighten our darkness--Biblical style in early medieval Britain and Ireland" in Early Medieval Europe 8.2 (1999), 283-296.