Saturday 17 November 2012

Hiberno-Latin Culture

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín introduces the Hiberno-Latin culture of the Irish monasteries in this essay.

The coming of Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century brought about many changes in Irish society, one of the most profound being the introduction of the Latin language. Ireland had never been a part of the Roman Empire and therefore had never acquired the apparatus of Roman government, which included Latin as the everyday lingua franca not only of administrators but also of the population at large. The Rome that Irishmen revered was, in the words of the great Irish missionary Saint Columbanus, not the Rome of the Caesars but the Rome of the Saints Peter and Paul. Within a century of receiving formal Christianity, however, Irish scholars had acquired a remarkable mastery of Latin, but it was the Latin of the Bible and the church fathers rather than of Virgil. The image of Ireland as a haven of classical Latin literature (and even of Greek) in the decades following the fall of the Roman Empire has been greatly exaggerated, but the reality, while more modest, is no less impressive in its own way. Whether the initial impetus owed anything to the activities of the first continental missionaries, led by Bishop Palladius, is impossible to say; that Gallican mission has left no traces, either in surviving manuscripts or in any texts associated with Palladius and his followers. The only fifth-century writings to survive, Patrick's Confessio and letter, left no mark on later Irish writings in Latin, except insofar as Patrick's works display a mastery of what has been called biblical style by its discoverer, David Howlett, and that biblical style was to become a distinguishing feature of later Hiberno-Latin prose compositions. It is reasonable to suppose that there was continuity of Latin literacy from the fifth century on, but the hymn in praise of Patrick traditionally attributed to his disciple Secundinus (Audite omnes amantes) is now believed to be late sixth-century in date, and the work of Colmán Alo (of Lynally, Co. Meath, d. 610) rather than the fifth-century Secundinus. It already attests to a respectable grasp of Latin language and metrics. A possible rival in terms of dating is the remarkable poem Altus prosator (Ancient creator), a sort of "Paradise Lost" ascribed to Columba (Colum Cille), founder of the monastery of Iona (d. 597). However, that work is believed by modern scholars to be of seventh-century date.

It is only with the figure of Columbanus, originally of Bangor, Co. Down, later founder of monasteries in Gaul and Italy (d. 615), that the first real evidence emerges of substantial writings in Latin by Irishmen. Six of his letters survive, along with a number of poems, sermons, and two monastic rules. He mentions two mentors by name, the British writers Finnian (Uennianus) and Gildas; the latter's De excidio Britanniae has left definite traces on Columbanus's prose style. The evidence of surviving manuscripts makes clear the debt to British teachers in the formative stages of the Irish Church, but Columbanus's complete mastery of Latin, in a variety of different prose styles, as well as his command of both quantitative and stressed meters, demonstrates for the first time the full range of native Hiberno-Latin skills. This range finds expression in prose and verse compositions throughout the seventh century: saints' lives and instructional literature, biblical commentaries and Latin grammars, canon law and handbooks of penance, besides a rich variety of poems devoted to biblical learning and computistics (the mathematics required to calculate the date of Easter), devotional hymns, and hagiography. One of the earliest of these compositions in date, Cummian's letter on the Paschal question (632/633), is remarkable for its rich patristic sources (i.e., the writings of the church fathers—some of them unique) and for the collection of ten different Easter tables (the mathematical tables used to calculate the date of Easter) on which its author was able to draw. Sometime in the mid-seventh century the arrival in Ireland of Isidore of Seville's writings spurred a massive production of Hiberno-Latin writing on every imaginable subject, and across the full spectrum of the monastic curriculum. Newly acquired grammatical texts from late antiquity led to a surge of renewed interest in that field also, and Irish writers perfected a new type of instructional handbook, the elementary grammar, for use with beginners in Latin, which led in turn to more advanced study using exegetical grammars. By combining the methods of biblical exegetes and Latin grammarians in one text, Irish teachers perfected an instructional technique that was clearly very successful. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the remarkably uniform language of these different authors. Though scholars have happily used the term Hiberno-Latin to describe the language of Irish texts from this period; in fact, Irish Latin was indistinguishable in grammar and syntax from its continental counterpart—a testament to the efficacy of teaching in Irish schools.

Alongside the ordinary expressions of Latin culture in Ireland, however, there was also the extraordinary: the so-called Hisperica famina (Western sayings) make their appearance in the mid-seventh century. A "culture fungus of decay" (as one scholar, Eoin Mac Neill, described them), these bizarre colloquies are a pastiche of the pedantic hypercorrectness of some of the grammarians, and they mock the high-falutin' language and vocabulary of the schools. They are probably not to be taken too seriously (and may not be Irish at all in origin). Another exotic flowering of Irish Latin culture, however, definitely is a native concoction: The bizarre writings of Virgilius Maro "the Grammarian" are an extraordinary rodomontade (bluster) of mock learning that pokes glorious fun at the pomposities of the self-same schoolmen. The fun was probably well intended, but Virgilius Maro's more exuberant pronouncements made their way into the works of seriously minded computists and biblical commentators, with the result that continental men of learning, when they came face to face with such oddities in the eighth century, tended to look askance at Irish learning.

What most impresses, however, is the sheer quantity of Hiberno-Latin writings in the seventh and eighth centuries and the range of their subject-matter. Hiberno-Latin authors drew on a huge variety of Late Latin, biblical, and patristic sources, in addition to unorthodox writings like the commentaries of the heresiarch Pelagius, and a remarkable number of biblical apocrypha nowhere else available. They also began to gloss their Latin texts in the vernacular, very quickly passing to full texts in Old Irish. The most remarkable example of this phenomenon is the Cambrai Homily (probably mid-seventh century), a bilingual Latin-Irish text combining excerpts from the gospels, Pauline Epistles, and Gregory the Great's gospel homilies, with a parallel text in Old Irish whose language is extraordinarily archaic. The oldest known manuscript with bilingual Latin-Irish glosses dates to about 700, but the most famous is the Würzburg codex of about 800 containing Pauline epistles with a huge number of glosses in both Latin and Old Irish. This probably belonged to Clemens Scottus, master of the palace school at Aachen in Charlemagne's time, who ended his days at the shrine of the Irish saint Kilian in Würzburg.

Hiberno-Latin scholars enjoyed a very good reputation when they traveled across Europe, following in the steps of Columbanus. The eighth century saw the appearance on the continent of men like Dicuil (author of a remarkable cosmographical work, Liber de mensura orbis terrae [Book on the measurement of the earth], as well as computistical and grammatical texts), Dungal of Pavia, Muredach Scottus "most learned of all men" (in his own estimation, at any rate), and Joseph Scottus, friend of Alcuin. Even more remarkable, however, was the generation of scholars that followed them in the ninth century, especially Sedulius Scottus of Liège and his circle of friends, and the most famous of them all, Iohannes Eriugena ("Irish-born"). These men were the superiors of their continental contemporaries not only in terms of Latin learning but also in their knowledge of Greek. Eriugena in particular was by common consent the finest intellect of his generation. In their Latin poetry (and Greek poetry too in Eriugena's case) Sedulius and Eriugena demonstrated a complete mastery of the language. Sedulius too, with his "Handbook for Princes" (De rectoribus Christianis), also established a genre that was to have lasting influence in the area of political philosophy. In Eriugena's case his philosophical works (especially the Periphyseon: On the Division of Nature) reveal a mind that had no equal in Europe in his time, and a unique grasp of Greek philosophy.


Bieler, Ludwig. Ireland, Harbinger of the Middle Ages. 1963.
Kenney, James F. Ecclesiastical. Vol. 1 of The Sources for the Early History of Ireland. 1929.
Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí. Early Medieval Ireland, 400–1200. 1995.

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín

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