The Medieval Review 10.10.04

Evans, Nicholas. The Past and Present in Medieval Irish Chronicles. Studies in Celtic History. Rochester: Boydell Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 308. 115.00 ISBN 9781843835493. .

Reviewed by:

Daniel McCarthy
Trinity College, Dublin (emeritus)

In the opening lines of his preface Nicholas Evans relates that he became convinced of the importance of understanding the Irish chronicles while he was an undergraduate in Cambridge. This academic connection explains a considerable amount about the focus of his book, for it was from Girton College, Cambridge, in 1984 that David Dumville published his elaboration of the hypothesis of a "Chronicle of Ireland" (CI), which had been initially proposed there by Kathleen Hughes in 1972. The purpose of Evans' book is twofold: firstly, to endorse Dumville's hypothesis of CI extending to 911 and to further develop this, especially by the construction of his own chronology for it; secondly, to set forth his own hypotheses concerning the use of CI in Irish chronicling over 912-1100. The work is arranged as an introduction followed by nine chapters, three appendices, a bibliography, and two indices. It is presented anachronistically in that chapters one to four substantially deal with the developments of CI over 912-1100, chapters five to seven deal with CI and its chronology over 431-730, chapter eight deals with the supposed redaction of CI in Clonmacnoise over 912-1100; the final chapter summarises Evans' conclusions. The Cambridge hypothesis of a CI is, therefore, fundamental to the entire book.

Before considering the content of the book there are a number of general issues to review, beginning with the title. The book deals substantially with three annalistic chronicles, the Annals of Ulster (AU), Annals of Tigernach (AT), and Chronicum Scottorum (CS), with just occasional references to three others (7-8), thereby omitting at least five Irish annalistic chronicles, the four recensions of Lebor Gabála, and the versified chronicles of Gilla Cóemáin. Moreover, it considers just the years 431-1100 whereas AU, AT, CS collectively extend continuously from circa 769 BC to AD 1543, so that neither in literary nor in temporal terms can it be considered to review the "Medieval Irish Chronicles." Given that his book deals with just the years 431-1100, Evans' choice of the years 329-39 from AT, MS Rawl. B. 488 f. 6v, for the cover illustration of his book appears inappropriate.

Next, a characteristic and difficult feature of Evans' literary style is that he continually introduces speculations, typically commencing with words such as "probable," "perhaps," "may," "might," "likely," "could," or "possible." For example, seeking to explain the distribution of earlier tenth century northern entries in AU he writes, "It is possible that a text in Brega or Conaille could account for this, but it may also be the case that the chronicle was kept somewhere in the north other than Armagh in the mid tenth century, since there are relatively few detailed items from the same period with which to locate the source" (29). Here, while acknowledging the inadequate evidence, he speculates on three possible locations and incongruently excludes a fourth. While the short sections at the ends of the chapters headed "Conclusion" appear to offer hope to the reader of some resolution of these accumulated speculations, alas here the process continues unabated. For example, that at the end of chapter two (65-6) incorporates 4 × "perhaps," 3 × "possible," 2 × "likely," and one each of "probably," "may" and "possibility," comprising twelve such speculations in just forty lines, which multiplicity confounds the singular "Conclusion" of their heading. In consequence, this book confronts its reader with a vast array of unresolved speculations.

Turning to his treatment of chronological matters, in his introductory notes Evans sets forth three different notations to represent annalistic AD data as follows: "actual A.D. given without brackets," an editorial AD is "given in square brackets when the real year is uncertain" (p. xii), and s.a. prefixed to identify manuscript AD years. Then in Table 1 on the same page he proceeds to discuss the editorial years of CS, in all instances representing them without brackets, with the consequence that throughout the entire work it is impossible to be certain whether his plain AD references register editorial or "actual" AD years.

As outlined above the primary objective of this work is to endorse the hypothesis of a CI extending to 911; it is the first hypothesis described in the introductory review where it is characterised as the view "accepted by most historians" (2), albeit with no corroboration, and it is placed first in the concluding chapter with the assertion that the "results have strongly supported the view that the... 'Chronicle of Ireland,' continued to 911" (225). To maintain this hypothesis Evans has been obliged to reject certain results published by myself, and it seems appropriate to examine these here. Evans undertakes his defence of the 911 boundary for CI in chapter four wherein he asserts that, "Thirty-five items have been classified as definitely shared by AU and the Clonmacnoise group...There are also 177 possibly-shared items" (91-2), and he lists in Appendix 2 references to these 212 items. However, he gives absolutely no account of the criteria he has used to decide whether items should be considered shared "definitely," or "possibly," or excluded altogether. Thus it is impossible for the reader to make any informed judgement on these classifications. However, it is clear from this that Evans accepts that there are between 35 and 212 shared items distributed between 916 and 1100. Now these shared items are frequently sequenced identically, but Evans immediately dismisses as "very unlikely" (92) the straightforward explanation that their common source had extended beyond 911, as both Mac Niocaill and I had concluded. Instead he speculates (93-101) that the explanation for identical sequencing is that chroniclers in different locations shared the same network news, viz., "the chronicles largely retained the order of their notes, which themselves reflected to some extent the order by which news of events reached them" (101). Evans provides no evidence to support his vague conjecture that network items preserved a temporal ordering, for which the annals themselves provide absolutely no evidence. For example, no temporal connectives are found between the successive items of the annals over 912-1100. Rather, it is apparent the Evans has adopted this conjecture in order to preserve the 911 boundary.

All proponents of the CI hypothesis have also assumed that AU commences at 431, and Evans likewise undertakes to defend this boundary against the palaeographic and codicological evidence published by me that ff. 12-14 of TCD MS 1282 are the remains of a pre-Palladian section of AU written by the first scribe, Ruaidhrí Ó Luinín, and bound in the first stitching of the codex. To counter this Evans (9-10) has made his own brief contradictory palaeographical assessment without exhibiting any examples, has mistakenly asserted that "the size of the pages in the two sections is not the same," and referenced a marginal inscription on f. 16r which he describes as "probably the note about the start of the chronicle," without acknowledging that this is in the second hand H2 and so is clearly an interpolation after f. 16r had been written by Ó Luinín. On these inconsequential grounds he releases himself from any obligation to consider AU's pre-Palladian section, writing, "fos 12-14...will not be considered as part of Ó Luinín's main text of AU" (10), but his explanation will not withstand scholarly scrutiny. In summary, none of the arguments presented by Evans in support of either the 431 or 911 boundaries for CI are persuasive.

Turning next to Evans' treatment of chronological matters, this is concentrated in chapter six, "The chronology of the 'Chronicle of Ireland,' 431-730," and chapter seven, "The original chronology of the Irish chronicles, ca 550-730." It has to be said that these chapters will tax the most ardent of chronographers; for example, his explanation of the 28-year solar cycle commences, "Every year the first of January occurs on a different day" (145), which statement, if correct, would restrict all of time to just seven Julian years, one for each day of the week. This confusion is a consequence of Evans' omission of the word "successive" before "year," and from this and other mis-statements it is clear that his understanding of the mechanics of the solar cycle is extremely tenuous. Notwithstanding which he proffers the vague assertion that, "Although ferial numbers can be used to make corrections, these could often be erroneous if the ferial numbers themselves became corrupt" (140). This view then prompts Evans to turn instead to entries derived from what he inaccurately terms "Mediterranean sources," because, he explains, these "provide a way of checking and correcting the chronology of the Irish annals, because they include reign-lengths, dates, and annals" (153). The collations that follow in Tables 12-15 between annalistic data and that from Marcellinus, Bede, and Liber Pontificalis, and the associated speculative discussion are impenetrable to this reader, but it leads Evans to the comforting conclusion that, "The ferials, as found in AT and CS, then, were created in their current form...[in] the tenth or eleventh centuries" (176). Thus he has shown to his own satisfaction that the kalend plus ferial chronological apparatus that we know was employed in the unique Paschal table followed by those who compiled these annals in the sixth century in Iona, was not introduced into their chronicle until two centuries after that Paschal tradition had been abandoned as heretical.

In chapter seven, Evans, recognising that, "chronological texts are more likely to have been sources for the vast majority of items in the Irish annals from about 550 to 660" (171), and therefore this chronology must have existed about 175 years before Bede's Chronica maiora could have been used, consequently undertakes, "To determine where the Irish chronicles have lost or added years before 730" (179). The results of this exercise are tabulated in Appendix 1, headed, "A concordance of A.D. 431-730 including dates and a summary of lost and added kalends" (235). This table extends through 311 rows in four columns headed "AU," "AT," "CS," and "Dates," each datum of which may receive any of fourteen annotations. While it is described as a concordance, Evans states, "It is likely that from AU [447] and CS [446] to AU [486] and CS [484] that annals found in this diagram on the same line do not actually correspond with each other" (236), and indeed collation confirms that some of these are not concordances. Regarding the column headed "Dates," Evans states, "These figures are unlikely to represent the A.D. dates which the interpolator of the papal and imperial items envisaged" (235 n. 1), and in fact of the three hundred years covered by the table only the fifty-two years 664, 670-95, 704-7, 710-30, are assigned un-ambivalent AD years. In practical terms the table is unusable on account of the number and diversity of the restrictions attached to it.

As mentioned above Evans' second objective is to present his own hypotheses concerning the use made of CI after 911 by the tenth and eleventh century annalists. He examines AU in chapter one and concludes ambivalently, "it is likely that soon after 911 the 'Chronicle of Ireland' was continued in Conaille or Brega" (43). His basis for this is his earlier assertion, "In the first half of the tenth century there are also many detailed items about ecclesiastical and secular affairs in Brega and Conaille, which could indicate that a chronicle was kept there during this period" (21), but he nowhere provides his reader with any schedule of these "many detailed items," of which he cites just three, though Table 3 (28) represents that there are twenty such items over 912-39. He admits that, "No particular centre in Conaille or Brega is prominent enough in these items to indicate where this information was being written" (23). In these circumstances it is impossible to place any faith whatsoever in his hypothesis of a "Conaille/Brega Chronicle."

Evans treats the Clonmacnoise group in chapter three, wherein he proposes that, "from 912, or soon after, a copy of the 'Chronicle of Ireland' was made...[and] For much of the tenth century it was probably kept at Clonard" (89-90). But, just as in the case of Conaille, he provides no schedule of the Clonard references, or even statistics, so it is impossible for his reader to critically examine his discussion. In chapter four Evans presents his hypothesis that the "seemingly problematic items" (91) shared between AU, AT, and CS over 916-1100 arose because, "the independent Irish chroniclers responsible for producing the ancestors of AU and the Clonmacnoise group after 911, both continuing the 'Chronicle of Ireland', maintained scholarly connections to the mid-eleventh century" (114). This then is his medieval network news discussed above.

In chapter five, entitled "The Restructuring of the past in the 'Chronicle of Ireland'," following an examination of the papal and Patrician entries Evans concludes, "that this revision of the Irish chronicle was part of the effort to promote Patrick and Armagh...[dated] probably after 731, when Bede's 'Ecclesiastical History' was written, and before 912" (144). That the annalistic entries dealing with papal and Patrician matters have a marked polemic purpose is not open to doubt, but Evans, without presenting any evidence, then proceeds to generalise this, claiming, "This rewriting of the annals became a feature (if often less prominent) of most surviving chronicle manuscripts" (144), and it is this claim that underlies "The Present and the Past" of his title. This claim is completely unsustainable, for one of the truly remarkable aspects of the vast majority of annalistic entries, which have been transmitted in multiple manuscripts across a millennium, is their semantic stability, notwithstanding abbreviation, copying, and translations from Latin to Irish to English. It is the norm of chronicle transmission that entries relating to prominent figures, whether ecclesiastical or secular, attract additions and modifications, and the Irish annals are no exception to this. But Evans' unwarranted allegation dishonours the achievement of the generations of annalists who laboriously transmitted all these records for the benefit of their successors, and does a disservice to those modern scholars who wish to use them to research the past.

Nicholas Evans has produced a formidable compilation of his own speculations concerning the textual history of the Irish annals over 431-1100, but for this reviewer the absence of cogent justification for these renders them implausible. However, Evans certainly deserves the gratitude of all those scholars who believe in the hypothesis of a "Chronicle of Ireland" for bringing so much energy and industry to its defence and development. Whether he has succeeded in establishing the viability of this hypothesis, or rather in demonstrating the extreme difficulty in maintaining it, is something that only time itself will reveal.

The editorial board invites readers to consider the following review by Nicholas Evans of Daniel McCarthy's book The Irish Annals: Their genesis, evolution and history, published as TMR 09.04.09.