03.12.15, Herity, and Breen, The Cathach of Colum Cille

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Colum P. Hourihane

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.015


Herity, Michael, and Aidan Breen. The Cathach of Colum Cille: An Introduction (with CD-ROM). Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2002. Pp. 75. ISBN: 1-874045-92-5.

Reviewed by:
Colum P. Hourihane
Princeton University

Ireland's insular manuscript tradition is best known for such treasures as the Book of Kells, Book of Durrow or Book of Dimma to name just three which have received considerable attention. Not least of these is the recent publication of an electronic introduction to the first of these (The Book of Kells, Trinity College Library Dublin, London, Thames and Hudson, 2002). Slightly excluded from popular appeal, but certainly not from serious scholarship, is the manuscript now known as The Cathach (the Battler) (Royal Irish Academy MS. 12 R 33) which is Ireland's oldest surviving illuminated manuscript, dating roughly to the late sixth-early seventh century (c. 560-630). Written in Latin on vellum (27cm x 19cm), some fifty-eight leaves now survive of an original one hundred and ten, all of which are in a damaged state.

According to the authors this is the second oldest Latin psalter now in existence and its surviving pages contain fragments of psalm numbers 30:10 to 105:13 in a Vulgate version. Each psalm begins with a decorative initial letter followed by a diminishing series of letters until normal early majuscule script is resumed. Described by E. A. Lowe as 'the pure milk of Irish calligraphy' its pivotal importance in the history of manuscript writing has long been realized with one of the most important transcriptions and analysis being undertaken by H. J. Lawlor early in the last century (Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 33 [1916-17], 241-443). There have been no large-scale studies since then and it seems to have been a manuscript that has been dealt with in passing rather than in-depth.

This present booklet (described as such on the back cover) does not aim to replicate Lawlor's study although it makes extensive use of his work, but instead focuses on the provenance, art history and biblical content of the work. The hardcopy publication is complemented by a CD-rom which reproduces in full color all of the folios along with Lawlor's transcription of the text as well as a modern text of the psalms.

The booklet written by Michael Herity, former President of the Royal Irish Academy, and Aidan Breen, palaeographer and historian, is divided into nine sections with three appendices. The first section records how the manuscript, generally ascribed to Saint Columba is thought to be the copy made by him of an original lent to him by St. Finian. This act of copying led to a dispute that has generally been described as the first copyright ruling, "To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy". Its provenance and peregrinations are recorded including its ownership by the O'Donnells and its custodianship by the Mac Robhartaigh family of Ballymagroarty, Co Donegal. Its travels to Iona are recorded and its use as a battle standard to its enshrinement possibly in 1090. Its post-medieval history on the Continent (possibly at Ypres) from 1691 and its eventual return to Ireland in 1813 is documented. It was only at this stage that the manuscript was discovered when the cumhdach or shrine was opened by Sir William Betham. The Royal Irish Academy received the manuscript in 1843 from Sir Richard O'Donnell and it was restored in 1920 and 1980 (the report of this second restoration with notes on its original quiring by Roger Powell is included as Appendix 2 of this booklet).

The second section in the book deals with the initials and analyses them regarding shape and structure. While the range is not extensive with only two representational elements (the fish and cross), it nevertheless shows the variety of structure in the initials and attempts to analyze them in terms of similarity and frequency-working towards identifying the hand(s) responsible for the various parts. The third section presents some Insular and Egyptian comparanda for the fish and cross and brings the reader into the world of cross inscribed pillars and metalwork with some convincing parallels presented. It suggests that the motifs may have been introduced into Ireland through trade with the north-east Mediterranean which is substantially supported by archaeological evidence including pottery from the west of Britain (where the cross with expanded terminals similar to the example on the Cathach is also found). The fourth section moves us back again to text and comparanda for the hands, texts and decorated initials. It is a synthesis of existing opinions on the work and includes recent research by Schauman on what is possibly the earliest dated manuscript from Bobbio (Ambrosian Library, Milan, S 45 sup) which has the ex-libris of Atalanus, second abbot of Bobbio until c. 625 and which has two Irish hands out of four she identifies. The similarities in script between this manuscript and the Cathach are analyzed with a view to dating the latter in the sixth century. Research by Henry, Arnaud-Lindet, and Lowe are also used to frame the manuscript in time and its general La Tene background is suggested by the authors as having a significant influence. The main objective of this division appears to be to date the work using stylistic analysis and their arguments are convincing. It is at the fifth section that the second author, Aidan Breen takes over with a short section on translations of the bible in an effort to contextualise the Cathach and the early translations which might have been known to the Irish Church. His technical analysis in the succeeding divisions examines the use of the asterisk (indicating a passage or word in the Hebrew that is absent from the Greek) and the obelus (a passage or word missing from the Hebrew but found in the Greek). Recording twenty-five uses of the latter and twenty-two of the former he identifies sources and reasons for this use such as different translations (a unique text of Jerome's Hebraicum or a merging of the Gallicanum and the Hebraicum into a unity) or the possibility of human error in what are clearly wrongly placed symbols in the manuscript. The next section, again by the same author, examines the rubrics in the manuscript and shows how each psalm in the Cathach has a tripartite heading (where these survive or have been copied) with a (1) 'heading proper (verse one of each psalm, from the Greek text, the Septuagint)' (2) what has been interpreted as either a 'liturgical instruction' or else a 'devotional directive' and (3) thirdly an interpretative heading or titulus. These three elements are fully integrated where visible in the manuscript and are used in this essay to determine the textual antecedents of the work. Salmon and indeed Breen as well have suggested that the tituli in this manuscript can be identified as the source from which all other examples in this group were based through transmission to England in the seventh century. The essay identifies similarities between the Cathach and the commentaries of Eusebius, Athanasius and/or Gregory of Nyssa as well as possible errors or uniquely Insular sources for some of the headings. Transcriptions of some of the tituli from the Cathach (based on Lawlor's transcriptions) are then paralleled with the commentaries of some of the Church Fathers in an effort to identify these similarities. As interesting as this is the author acknowledges that no Greek tituli exist which would sustain this comparison and that some of the examples in the Cathach are not paralleled anywhere. Breen points out however the strong Greek tradition elsewhere in the manuscript (vocabulary and most importantly the Christological interpretations to many of the psalms) and suggests that these cannot be dismissed entirely. In a conclusion to this section he summarizes the three-part structure to these headings as possibly being based on an exegetical tradition which was possibly imported into Ireland.

The CD-rom accompanying this publication, which seems slow to load even with good hardware, presents the viewer with three options. The first of these is the ability to page through the entire manuscript folio by folio in color (and the possibility to magnify up to 400%) while the second, described as an 'Overview" repeats the introductory option of having a 'Demonstration' of the database as well as single pages 'About Lawlor's Transcription' and "About the English Translations'. The third division is a series of essays with one or two screens devoted to Origins and Itineraries, Colum Cille, The Cathach and Ancient Copyright, Calligraphy, Comparanda in Metal and Stone, and Springmount Bog Wax Tablets.

Much of the material in the booklet could have been easily adapted to an electronic format, especially the sections on textual analysis where the construction of the initials is evaluated for comparative purposes and the other section on the rubrics where a similar approach is used. It has to be said that the two authors work well together and that their individual essays complement each other with one stressing the cultural milieu in which the manuscript was created and focusing on the La Tene influences (while at the same time providing some interesting Coptic parallels) while the other moves us outside of Ireland and into the Eastern world in his study of textual comparanda. The comparanda are interesting and convincing and highlight the close ties that existed even at this early stage between Ireland and the Eastern world--a fact often neglected. Being on the western edge of Europe even in the seventh century does not reflect an isolationist stance as we are clearly learning. It is the authors' beliefs that such influences were transmitted from the North-Eastern Mediterranean via trade into Ireland. Their findings are further extended by some recent research in this area for Britain in particular and published by Anthea Harris (Byzantium, Britain and the West: the Archaeology of Cultural Identity AD 400-650, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2003) which is precisely the period under survey and provides a good synthesis of this route and its influence from which the authors could have benefited.

The comparanda are interesting, whether in the form of cross inscribed Irish stone pillars or the writings of the Early Christian Fathers, and they can be extended even further. There are several other examples of the Latin cross and Fish which closely compare to the examples in the Cathach (Staatliche Museen, Berlin [2347] Lamp in the shape of two- headed dolphin with cross above; Church of Saint-Victor, Marseilles, Sarcophagus of the Companions of Saint Ursula; Bardo Museum, Kelibia, basin of a font). Similarly, some of the unusual crosses such as that on fol. 28v with expanded terminals and shaft beneath could be compared to the fine catalogue of such forms from Eastern Europe of the same period (R. Petrovic, Krstovi, Vizantijskog Carstva, Belgrade, 1997) where close parallels exist. A booklet such as this cannot hope to cover everything but it is unusual that the authors did not examine the text itself other than the initials and rubrics. From a brief examination of the electronic facsimile it is clear that considerable variety also exists there and that an analysis might add to our understanding of the hand or hands involved. Such an omission may explain the slight reluctance of the two authors not to commit themselves to identifying or numbering the hand or hands involved.

The booklet covers a lot of material other than the manuscript itself and gives us some background information on the purported author (Colum Cille, although it fails to address the current theories that his authorship is in doubt) and it is understandable that it does not delve too much into Adomnan's vita but it is disappointing that a study of the cumhdach or shrine was not included as it really is an integral part of the work and has been since the middle of the eleventh century (made sometime between 1062 and 1098) and could clearly be used to inform us of the socio-cultural use of the manuscript itself. The inscription on this shrine is included but its construction, and later medieval refurbishment are not studied (more recent work on this [Hourihane, Gothic Art in Ireland, 1169-1550, New Haven, 2003] dates the refurbishment to the fifteenth and not the fourteenth century which the authors give). Naturally a booklet such as this cannot include every study but it would have been useful to see some of the more recent work cited such as those by Bourke, (Studies in the Cult of Saint Columba, Dublin,1997) or Bannerman, (Comarba Coluim Cille and the Relics of Columba, Innes Review 44, I [1993] 14-47) but these are minor omissions and what is more annoying is the absence of an index to the volume. Despite its small size it would clearly have made it easier to use.

Any publication such as this, with an electronic format will undoubtedly be evaluated not only for its content but will also be compared to similar publications for its methodology. There is little of interest in the texts on the CD-rom that is of value and that has not been published elsewhere or included in the booklet in a more extended and thorough form. The exception of course has to be the actual manuscript itself and the ability to see it in detail which is well presented and easy to navigate. This presentation does not rely on the relatively new 'page turning' technology of publications such as the Sherborne Missal (British Museum 2002) but it is easy to operate and clearly presented. Particularly useful and informative is the ability to compare the original text, and /or Lawlor's transcription or a modern Biblical text (although why all three can't be shown at the same time is a disadvantage). Apart from the manuscript, which really is the core of the publication and clearly the sole reason why this format was used in the first place, there is little else of interest on the CD-rom. Lawlor's text is already available in hardcopy ("The Cathach of Saint Columba," Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 33 [1916-17], 241-443) as are the Biblical texts and the inability to actually search any of the three formats lessens their value here. Much of the textual material on the cd rom seems to be gauged for a school audience and is slightly simplistic in nature. It seems a lost opportunity that the texts in the booklet were not included on the CD-rom in the first place as in the recent publication of the Theodore Psalter (edited by Charles Barber, University of Illinois Press in association with the British Library, 2001) where facsimile and essays are all in one format. Whereas the presentation is clear it is disappointing to see such a large frame around the data which undoubtedly detracts from the size of the image presented.

I am not sure how successfully merged two publications are with each other or whether or not they would have been best combined into one format--either electronic or hardcopy--and, if forced to opt for one, I believe that the material lends itself more to the former. Nevertheless, as they are, they do present us with yet another piece of the jigsaw for early Christian Ireland and its place in Europe and highlight one of its neglected manuscript treasures and for that the authors have to be thanked.

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Author Biography

Colum P. Hourihane

Princeton University