Wednesday 23 August 2023

Ancient Irish Scholars: Dicuil the Geographer

Early medieval Ireland was not only the insula sanctorum, the island of saints but, as the title of Archbishop John Healy's 1890 work Insula Sanctorum et Doctorum suggests, also an island of scholars.  Archbishop Healy devoted a chapter within his book to the eighth-/ninth-century scholar Dicuil, author of a famed geographical treatise and teacher at the court of Louis the Pious, successor to Charlemagne. The chapter was also published as part of an occasional series in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, which I reproduce below. Modern scholars continue to debate the value of Dicuil's work and his legacy, Archbishop Healy's complaint that Dicuil's treatise, De Mensura Orbis Terrae had not been published in Ireland was not addressed until 1967 when J.J. Tierney edited the text as Volume 6 in the series Scriptores Latini Hiberniae. His translation is available electronically at University College Cork here.


ONE of the most interesting monuments of ancient Irish scholarship is Dicuil's treatise, De Mensura Orbis Terrae written so early as the year A.D. 825. It is not very creditable to the Irish learning of the present day that no attempt has yet been made even by any of our learned societies to print this little work in Ireland. It is to French scholars we are indebted for printing and annotating Dicuil's treatise. In 1807 the editio princeps was published by M. Walckenaer from two manuscripts in the Imperial Library of Paris. In 1814 M. Letronne produced a still more accurate edition, enriched, too, with many learned notes, and important dissertations, in which he shows the advantages that scholars may derive from a careful study of this geographical treatise of the Irish monk. There is no doubt that M. Letronne expended much time and labour in the execution of this work, of which the full title is as follows : Recherches Geographiques et Critiques sur Le Livre De Mensura Orbis Terrarum compose en Irlande au Commencement du Neuvieme siecle par Dicuil. This work is now very rare, and hence we shall present our readers with a brief account of this most valuable and interesting monument of ancient Irish learning.

Unfortunately we know nothing whatsoever of the personal history of Dicuil except what can be gathered from a few incidental references which he makes to himself in this treatise; but these, though very brief, are clear and definite. He tells us first of all that his name was Dicuil, and that he finished his task in the spring of the year A.D. 825. Like most of his countrymen at that time, he was fond of poetry, and gives us this information in a neat poem, written in Latin hexameters at the end of the MS., to which we shall refer again. He also implies in his opening statement, or prologue, that he had already written an Epistola de questionibus decem Artis Grammaticae which was probably intended to be copied and circulated amongst the Irish monastic schools of the time, but of which we know nothing more. He tells us that a certain Suibneus (Suibhne), or Sweeny, was his master to whom under God he owed whatever knowledge he possessed. His native country was Ireland, which he describes in affectionate language as "nostra Hibernia," our own Ireland in opposition to the foreign countries of which he had been speaking. Elsewhere he calls it in accordance with the usage of the time nostra Scottia. He also adds when referring to the islands in the north and north-west of Scotland, that he had dwelt in some of them, he had visited others, more of them had he merely seen, and some of them he had only read of.

This is really all the information we have about Dicuil, and from data so meagre, it is very difficult to identify Dicuil the Geographer, amongst the many Irish monks who bore that name.

By a careful examination, however, of these and some other facts to which he refers, we can conjecture with some probability where and by whom he was educated.

When speaking of Iceland Dicuil refers to information communicated to him thirty years before by certain Irish clerics, who had spent some months in that island. This brings us back to A.D. 795, so that when Dicuil wrote in 825, he must have been a man considerably advanced in years. We may infer, too, that his master, Suibhne, to whom he owed so much, flourished as a teacher at a still earlier period than A.D. 795. There were several abbots who bore that name between A.D. 750 and A.D. 850 ; but it appears to me that the master of Dicuil must have been either Suibhne, Abbot of Iona, who died in 772, or Suibhne, son of Cuana, Abbot of Clonmacnoise, who died A.D. 816, and the former appears to be the more probable hypothesis. If Dicuil were, suppose, seventy-five when he wrote his book, he must have been born in 750. He would then be about sixteen years of age when Suibhne, Vice-Abbot of Iona, came over to his native Ireland in 766, where he remained some time. Suppose that Dicuil returned with him as a novice in that year, he could have been six years under the instruction of Suibhne before that abbot's death in 772. It is likely that Dicuil remained in Iona for several years after the death of his beloved master, it was, doubtless, during these years that he visited the Scottish islands, and dwelt with some of the communities whom St. Columba had established there. On this point his own statement is clear and explicit.

But towards the close of the eighth century a storm burst upon the heads of the devoted inmates of these religious houses, when they were slain or scattered abroad. In A.D. 794 the Danes devastated all the "Islands of Britain," and in 795 they attacked and plundered Iona itself. In 798 they renewed their inroads, and harried "all the islands between Erin and Alba." Iona was burned again by " the gentiles" in 802, and the family of Hy, to the number of seventy-eight persons, was slaughtered by them four years later. Then nearly all the survivors fled to Erin, and built the City of Columcille, in Kells, next year, A.D. 807, to which, shortly after, the relics, or at least some of the relics, of the founder, were solemnly transferred. It is highly probable that it was at this period, when the community of Iona was dispersed, that Dicuil returned to his native country. It is very difficult, however, to identify him with any of the holy men who bore that name, and whose festivals are recorded in our calendars. Colgan mentions nine saints of this name; some of whom, however, certainly flourished at a much earlier period.

The founder of Iona, Columcille, with his kinsmen, originally came from Donegal, and the monastery seems to have been principally recruited at all times by members of the Cenelconaill race. Amongst the saints who were called Dicuil, or Diucholl, were two who were venerated in Donegal; one the son of Neman, whose memory was venerated at Kilmacrenan on Dec. 25  the other was Dicuil of Inishowen, whose feast-day is Dec. 18th. The latter is described as a hermit; and it may be that our geographer, after his return from Iona, retired to a life of solitude in Inishowen, and there, towards the close of his life, composed this treatise, of which the most valuable portion is that containing the reminiscences of his early life in the Scottish islands.

The chief difficulty against this hypothesis, that Suibhne, Dicuil's master, was the Abbot of Iona who died in 772, is the great age at which, in that case, the pupil must have written his book, in A.D. 825. The monks of those days, however, were often intellectually and physically vigorous at the age of eighty, and even of ninety years.

If, however, anyone prefers the other hypothesis, which certainly fits in better with the dates, then we must assume that Dicuil was trained at the great College of Clonmacnois, which at this period was certainly the most celebrated school in Ireland, if not in Europe. Suibhne, we are told, was abbot for two years before his death in 816; but had been, no doubt, for many years previously, a fer-legind, or professor, in Clonmacnoise. It was nothing new for the younger monks to travel to other religious houses in pursuit of knowledge and sanctity; and in this way Dicuil, like so many of his countrymen, would visit Iona and the Scottish islands.

The treatise De Mensura Orbis Terrae is especially valuable as affording evidence of the varied classical culture that existed in the Irish monastic schools at this period. In the prologue the author tells us that he derived his information mainly from two sources; first, from the Report of the Commissioners whom the Divine Emperor Theodosius had sent to survey the provinces of the Roman Empire; and secondly, from the excellent work of Pliny Secundus that is, the Natural History which is so well known to scholars. Dicuil complains that the manuscripts of the Report in his possession were very faulty; but still, being of more recent date than Pliny's work, he values it more highly. He adds that he leaves vacant places in his own manuscript for the numbers, in order to be able to fill them in afterwards when he can verify or correct them by collating his own with other manscripts of the Report. He also quotes numerous passages from other writers, who, I am afraid, are not very familiar to the classical scholars of our own times. The first of these works is that of Caius Julius Solinus, known as the Polyhistor. Of his personal history we know as little as we do of Dicuil himself. He flourished about the middle of the third century, and appears to have borrowed his matter, and sometimes even his language, from Pliny's Natural History. The contents of this work of Solinus may be inferred from the title of an English translation, published in 1587: "The Excellent and Pleasant Work of Julius Solinus, Polyhistor, containing the Noble Actions of Humaine Creatures, the Secretes and Providence of Nature, the Description of Countries, the Manners of the People, &etc., Translated out of the Latin by Arthur Golding, Gent." Another work, equally unknown to the present generation, but frequently quoted by Dicuil, is the Periegesis of Priscian. It is a metrical translation into Latin hexameters of a Greek work bearing the same title, which was originally composed by Dionysius, surnamed from that fact Periegetes, or the "Traveller," in Goldsmith's sense. He appears to have flourished in the second half of the third century of the Christian era.

Such are the principal authorities whom Dicuil follows; and as he knew nothing of foreign countries himself, he cites his authorities textually for the benefit of his own countrymen. It is surely a singular and interesting fact that we should find an Irish monk, in the beginning of the ninth century, collating and criticising various manuscripts of these writers either in some Irish monastic school at home, or in the equally Irish school of Iona, though surrounded by Scottish waters and in view of the Scottish hills.

For us, however, the information which Dicuil gives us of his own knowledge, or gathered from his own countrymen, is far more valuable; and to this I would especially invite the reader's attention.

In the sixth chapter, when speaking of the Nile, he says;

"Although we never read in any book that any branch of the Nile flows into the Red Sea; yet Brother Fidelis told in my presence, to my master Suibhne (to whom, under God, I owe whatever knowledge I possess), that certain clerics and laymen from Ireland, who went to Jerusalem on pilgrimage, sailed up the Nile for a long way'

and thence continued their voyage by canal to the entrance of the Red Sea.

This Irish pilgrimage to Jerusalem is worthy of notice, for many of our critics where they find mention of such pilgrimages to Rome and to Jerusalem in the Lives of our early Saints, seem to regard it as an exaggeration, if not a kind of pious fraud. But here we have the testimony of one in every way worthy of credit, who himself spoke to such pilgrims after their return from the Holy Land.

Then their testimony is peculiarly valuable in reference to a vexed geographical question regarding the existence of a navigable canal in those days from the Nile to the Red Sea. A canal called the "River of Ptolemy" and afterwards "the River of Trajan," was certainly cut from the Pelusiac branch of the Nile to the Red Sea at Arisnoe. It was certainly open for commerce in the time of Trajan, but during the decline of the Roman empire became partially filled with sand. Trajan, it seems, however, when re-opening the canal connected it with the river at a point higher up the river than the old route, opposite Memphis, near Babylon, in order that the fresh water might flow through the canal and help to keep it open. Under the Arabians this canal of Trajan was re-opened, but geographers have asserted that it became choked shortly afterwards and remained so ever since. The testimony of the Irish pilgrims quoted by Dicuil is the only satisfactory evidence that we now possess to prove that this canal was open at the end of the eighth century for the purposes of commerce and navigation.

The pilgrims also give some interesting information with reference to the Pyramids, which they call the "Barns of Joseph." "The pilgrims," he says, "saw them from the river rising like mountains four in one place and three in another." Then they landed to view these wonders close at hand, and coming to one of the three greater pyramids, they saw eight men and one woman and a great lion stretched dead beside it. The lion had attacked them, and the men in turn had attacked the lion with their spears, with the result that all perished in the mutual slaughter, for the place was a desert and there was no one at hand to help then. From top to bottom the pyramids were all built of stone, square at the base, but rounded towards the summit, and tapering to a point. The aforesaid brother Fidelis measured one of them and found that the square face was 400 feet in length. Going thence by the canal to the Red Sea, they found the passage across to the eastern shore at the Road of Moses to be only a short distance. The brother who had measured the base of the pyramid wished to examine the exact point where Moses had entered the Red Sea, in order to try if he could find any traces of the Chariots of Pharaoh, or the wheel tracks ; but the sailors were in a hurry and would not allow him to go on this excursion. The breadth of the sea at this point appeared to him to about six miles. Then they sailed up this narrow bay which once kept the murmuring Israelites from returning to Egypt.

This is a very interesting and manifestly authentic narrative. Another interesting chapter is that in which Dicuil describes Iceland and the Faroe Islands. "It is now thirty years," he says, "since certain clerics, who remained in that island (Ultima Thule) from the 1st of February to the 1st of August, told me that not only at the Summer solstice (as Solinus said), but also for several days about the solstice, the setting sun at eventide merely hid himself as it were, for a little behind a hill, so that there was no darkness even for a moment, and whatever a man wished to do, if it were only to pick vermin off his shirt vel pediculos de camisia abstrahere he could do as it were in the light of the sun, and if he were on a mountain of any height, he could doubtless see the sun all through." This way of putting it is certainly more graphic than elegant, but it is at the same time strictly accurate, and shows that the Irish monks had really spent the summer in Iceland. For the arctic circle just touches the extreme north of Iceland, and therefore in any part of that country the sun would even at the solstice set for a short time, but it would be only, as it were, going behind a hill to reappear in an hour or in half an hour. So that by the aid of refraction and twilight a man would always have light enough to perform even those delicate operations to which Dicuil refers.

He then observes with much acuteness that at the middle point of this brief twilight it is mid-night at the equator, or middle of the earth ; and in like manner he infers that about the Winter solstice there must be daylight for a very short time in Thule, when it is noon-day at the equator. These observations show a keen observant mind, and would lead us to infer that Dicuil like his countryman Virgilius, who flourished a little earlier, had been taught the sphericity of the earth in the schools of his native country. He says also in this same chapter, what is certainly true, that those writers are greatly mistaken who describe the Icelandic Sea as always frozen, and who say that there is a perpetual day from Spring to Autumn, and perpetual night from Autumn to Spring. For the Irish monks sailed thither, he says, through an open sea in a month of great natural cold, and whilst they were there enjoyed alternate day and night except about the Summer solstice, as already explained. But one day's sail further north brought them to the frozen sea. Dicuil's reference to Iceland is interesting from another point of view. In almost all our books of popular instruction, and even in many standard works on geography, it is stated that the Danes, or Norwegians, "discovered" Iceland about the year 860, and shortly afterwards colonized it during the reign of Harold Harfager. But Dicuil clearly shows that it was well known to Irish monks at least more than half a century before Dane or Norwegian ever set foot on the island, as is now generally admitted by scholars who are familiar with Icelandic literature and history.

The following interesting passage which shows the roving spirit that animated some of the Irish monks at that period is contained in the third section of the same seventh chapter. "There are several other islands in the ocean to the north of Britain, which can be reached in a voyage of two days and two nights with a favourable breeze. A certain trustworthy monk (religiosus) told me that he reached one of them by sailing for two summer days and one night in a vessel with two benches of rowers (duorum navicula transtrorum). Some of these islands are very small and separated by narrow straits. In these islands for almost a hundred years there dwelt hermits, who sailed there from our own Ireland (nostra Scottia). But now they are once more deserted, as they were from the beginning, on account of the ravages of the Norman pirates. They, are, however, still full of sheep, and of various kinds of sea birds. We have never found these islands mentioned by any author."

It is quite evident that Dicuil here refers to the Faroe Islands, which are about 250 miles north of the Scottish coast. A glance at the map will show that they are rather small, and separated from each other by very narrow channels, and in this respect differing from the Shetland Islands, to which this description would not therefore apply. Besides, the Shetlands are only 50 miles from the Orkneys, about 100 from the mainland, and hence could easily be reached in a single day by an open boat sailing before a favourable wind ; whereas the islands occupied by the Irish hermits could only be reached after a voyage of two days and a night, even in the most favourable circumstances. The word " nostra Scottia" of course refers to Ireland; for up to the time that Dicuil wrote, that word had never been applied to North Britain. Skene, himself a learned Scot, has shown by numerous citations from ancient authors that beyond all doubt the name " Scottia" was applied to Ireland, and to Ireland alone, prior to the tenth century. Up to that time the name of Scotland was Alban or Albania.

The love of the ancient Irish monks for island solitudes is one of the most remarkable features in their character. There is hardly an island round our coasts, which does not contain the remains of some ancient oratory or monastic cells. But they did not always remain in sight of land. Inspired partly with the hope of finding a "a desert" in the ocean, partly, no doubt, also with a love of adventure and a vague hope of discovering the "Land of Promise," they sailed out into the Atlantic in their currachs in search of these lonely islands. Every one has heard of the seven years' voyage of St. Brendan in the western ocean. St. Ailbe of Emly had resolved to find out the island of Thule, which the Roman geographers placed somewhere in the northern sea. He was, however, prevented from going himself, but " he sent twenty men into exile over the sea in his stead." St. Cormac the Navigator, made three voyages in the pathless ocean seeking some desert island where he might devote himself to an eremitic life. It is highly probable he went as far north as Iceland; for Adamnan tells us that he sailed northwards for fourteen days, until he was frightened by the sight of the monsters of the deep, when he returned home touching on his way at the Orkney Islands.

When the Norwegians first discovered Iceland in A.D. 860, they found Irish books, and bells, and pilgrims' staffs, or croziers, which were left there by men who professed the Christian religion and whom the Norwegians called "papas"or " fathers." Dicuil, however, gives us the earliest authentic testimony that Iceland and the Faroe Isles had been discovered and occupied by Irish monks long before the Danes or Norwegians discovered these islands. Of Ireland itself, Dicuil unfortunately gives us no information. He was writing for his own countrymen, and he assumed that they knew as much about Ireland "our own Ireland" as he did. The only observation he makes in reference to Ireland is that there were islands round the coast, and that some were small, and others very small. But he takes one quotation from Solinus, who says that

"Britain is surrounded by many important islands, one of which Ireland, approaches to Britain itself in size. It abounds in pastures so rich, that if the cattle are not sometimes driven away from them they run the risk of bursting. The sea between Britain and Ireland is so wild and stormy throughout the entire year that it is only navigable on a very few days. The channel is about 120 miles broad."

Dicuil, however, good Irishman as he was, does not quote two other statements which Solinus made about the pre-christian Scots for he wrote before the time of St. Patrick first, that the Irish recognised no difference between right and wrong at all; and, secondly, that they fed their children from the point of the sword a rather inconvenient kind of spoon we should think. In fact the Romans of those days knew as little, and wrote as confidently about Ireland as most Englishmen do at present, and that is saying a good deal.

There is one incidental reference in Dicuil chapter v section ii. which is of the highest importance, because it settles the question as to the nationality of the celebrated Irish poet, Sedulius, the author of the hymns Crudelis Herodes, and A solis ortus Cardine, in the Roman Breviary. Dicuil quoting twelve lines of poetry from the Report of the Commissioners of Theodosius, observes, that the first foot of the seventh and eighth of these hexameter lines is an amphimacrus. Here are the lines :

" Conficiter quinis aperit cum fastibus annum.
Supplices hoc famuli, dum scribit, pingit et alter."

"At the same time," says Dicuil, " I do not think it was from ignorance of prosody these lines were so written, for the writers had the authority of other poets in their favour, and especially of Virgil, whom in similar cases our own Sedulius imitated, and he, in his heroic stanzas, rarely uses feet different from those of Virgil and the classical poets." "Noster Sedulius," here applied to the great religious poet by his own countryman, in the ninth century, settles the question of his Irish birth, The reader will observe also, what a keen critic Dicuil was of Latin poetry, and will probably come to the conclusion that they knew Prosody better in the Irish schools of the ninth than they do in those of the nineteenth century.

In the closing stanzas of his own short poem on the classic mountains, Dicuil implies that he finished his work in the Spring of 825, when night gives grateful rest to the wearied oxen who had covered the seed-wheat in the dusty soil.

"Post octingentos viginti quinque peractos
Summi annos Domini terrae, aethrae, carceris atri,
Semine triticeo sub ruris pulvere tecto,
Nocte bobus requies largitur fine laboris."


The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol X  (1889), 203-213.

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