Published in Book Reviews, Issue 6 (November/December 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

Reviewed by Thomas O’Loughlin
Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.

Detail from the final page (p. 136) of the text of the Life, with Dorbbéne’s closing note in red ink: ‘Would whoever reads these little books about Columba’s miracles pray God for me, Dorbbéne, that I, after death, might possess eternal life’.

Detail from the final page (p. 136) of the text of the Life, with Dorbbéne’s closing note in red ink: ‘Would whoever reads these little books about Columba’s miracles pray God for me, Dorbbéne, that I, after death, might possess eternal life’.

For over a century and a half one manuscript has held a unique fascination for every serious student of Irish monasticism: Schaffhausen Stadtbibliothek Generalia 1. The reason for this fame is not only because it contains a complete text of the Life of St Columba, the founder of Iona and a key figure in the growth of early Irish monasticism, by Adomnán, his successor as abbot there and a major figure in his own right, but also because we know when, where and by whom this particular copy of the Life was written. The manuscript now in Switzerland makes it clear, in a note at its end on page 136 (see image left), that it was produced by a monk named Dorbbéne, who was, in all probability, the same Dorbbéne who was abbot of Iona for a short period before his death in November 713. It is therefore the oldest extant manuscript that we can link on the basis of explicit evidence with Iona at the time of its apogee as a centre of learning, writing and book production. Other manuscripts from its library—either produced there or which resided there at the time—may still exist; quite a good case can be made for the Cathach (Dublin, RIA, s.n.), and people often try to make such a case for the Book of Kells (Dublin, TCD, 58) or the Book of Durrow (Dublin, TCD, 57), but such assertions are learned conjectures. By contrast, with ‘the Dorbbéne codex’ (another name given to the Schaffhausen manuscript) we are on much more certain ground, because those few words in red ink show that the person who penned it wanted to leave his name but at the same time distinguish his writing, by the use of coloured ink, from the text he was copying (something a later copyist of the colophon would be most unlikely to do). So here we have a physical object, a book, that we can locate geographically and chronologically on Iona, linked to a scribe whom we can almost certainly identify from other references to Iona in such documents as the Annals of Ulster, and from a time when the scribe would have had personal knowledge of the Life’s author, Adomnán (who died in 704), and so someone who would have had local knowledge of the stages by which the Life came to be the text we now read, whether in the critical edition of A.O. Anderson and M.O. Anderson (Edinburgh, 1961) or the convenient translation by Richard Sharpe (London, 1995). Moreover, the manuscript is not only an early witness to the text—as is the case with any manuscript—but itself preserves evidence that allows us to observe some aspects of the Life’s composition.

Now there is a natural human fascination with relics: we love to think we have the ‘oldest’ or the ‘original’ or can touch something that was ‘definitely there, back then’, and so many books, pieces of metalwork or carved stones are now more often thought of as national treasures or cultural icons of identity than considered as belonging to the more abstruse category of ‘historical evidence’ with which academics wrestle. So is this de luxe—the two volumes being reviewed are simply beautiful to hold and read—facsimile and study merely a homage to such a jewel of Irish and Scottish inheritance? That it is such a homage is not in doubt, and the task of ‘now praising famous men’ (one of the oldest reasons for writing history) is still one that we pursue, but there is a less immediate reason for the fame of this manuscript and the attention it receives. A securely dated codex of known origin acts as a pivot within medieval studies—and they are none too common, especially in the case of manuscripts with connections to early medieval Ireland. The way that the parchment is prepared, the way it is folded and bound, the range of inks used, the style of writing, the manner of punctuation, the abbreviations and other scribal conventions, and even the spelling are all areas which, when taken together, allow us to date other books as earlier or later, and to assess when influences arrived in Ireland or how Ireland may have influenced other places. In short, a manuscript of known prov-enance is of priceless value in the great detective game that is a necessary aspect of medieval studies. Such a manuscript is of scholarly value even if the text it carries is of little value in itself, and irrespective of whether or not the manuscript is attractive as a piece of book art, or whether it has any links to illustrious people such as Adomnán or famous places such as Iona. Thus, while these volumes will be desired by book-collectors and will no doubt be used as ‘suitable gifts’ for dignitaries, they also merit attention from the academic community as part of the incremental progress in early medieval studies relating to Scotland and Ireland.

So what have we got in these two volumes? First and foremost, we have a colour facsimile of the entire manuscript, from outside front over to outside back cover, which is virtually full-size (I could not find it stated in the comments on the volume that the facsimile is full-size but the reproductions measure approximately 285mm by 210mm, which accord with those of the manuscript; see commentary volume, p. 22). The images are clear and sharp, and are arranged in this book exactly as they are encountered in the actual manuscript, making the facsimile a joy to work with. The desire to have such a reproduction goes back, as a formal project, to Eoin MacNeill in the 1930s—he imagined that the task would be carried out by the Irish Manuscripts Commission—but it was never realised (and there is a note concerning this endeavour by Deirdre McMahon on p. 105 of the commentary volume). Even earlier, however, in the 1850s, the value of seeing this manuscript was recognised by William Reeves in his edition of Adomnán (Dublin, 1857), for, using the limited technology of his day, he reproduced portions of several pages. So a very long-standing desire of scholars is now fulfilled. Indeed, we might even be glad that the project of the late 1930s did not succeed: the clarity of these digital photographs is so much better than even the best that were then made, and the use of colour is so much more informative than even the best ‘black-and-white’ reproductions of the past that comparison seems inappropriate. When, for example, a page of this facsimile is held next to a page of the 1933 facsimile of the Annals of Innisfallen (overseen by R.I. Best and Eoin MacNeill and printed by Oxford University Press), one cannot but be struck by the quality and value of the present work. Likewise, when one compares the four pages of reproductions that were included in the Andersons’ edition (between pp 176 and 177) one sees the difference between what was seen as a good set of images of this manuscript and having the sense of looking at the codex itself.

Accompanying the facsimile is a set of essays introducing the manuscript. The detailed report (pp 17–55) on the codex by Eric Graff is a masterly description of what we can learn from the actual object and will repay close study. One hesitates to decide which part of this study is the most useful, but his clear demonstration of how the codex’s six gatherings were assembled (five gatherings each of six bifolios, together with a sixth gathering of five) is a model of clarity and useful information. Also dedicated to the codex as such is the essay by Jean-Michel Picard, setting out what we know of the history of the manuscript from Iona until its current resting place in Schaffhause (pp 56–69). Not the least feature of this essay is that it narrates the last 200 years of the manuscript’s history—giving generous credit to the insights of William Reeves—and so draws together information that, even if known, had to be pieced together from a scattered variety of books and articles, many of them hard-to-obtain publications in German from the nineteenth century. Together, these two essays allow historians to make full use of the information latent in the codex. With this are two further essays that use the text of the Life as found in the codex to give us insights into the intellectual world of the monastery that produced it. Mark Stansbury’s essay (pp 70–89) uses the codex to provide insights into the sequence of events by which Adomnán brought together information, written and oral, and eventually produced his Life. If the work of Graff can be seen as a ‘forensic study’, then this essay is pure ‘detective work’. It is not without precedent: A.O. Anderson did much on the topic in the preface to his edition, but this is a far more complete study, with the evidence laid out clearly and convincingly. It is likely to become the standard introduction to the background of the Life for many years to come. In the diagram (p. 89) of the stages by which Adomnán’s work evolved to become the text now found in the manuscripts, Stansbury has summarised his research and produced a document that I suspect will be cited in every future study of the Life. The fourth essay is by Anthony Harvey (pp 90–104) and examines what we can learn about the Latinity of Iona from the way that Dorbbéne wrote. While this is the most technical of the essays, it is a fine example of how small details of orthography—roughly equivalent to our notion of spelling—in this codex when compared with other information can provide us with valuable historical insights. Taken together, these four essays are a model of the sort of preamble we should have for every Irish manuscript from the early Middle Ages, and, speaking as a teacher, they show students why such disciplines as palaeography and codicology cannot be relegated to some arcane ‘auxiliary’ domain by historians.

Lastly, why bother with a facsimile on paper when there are digital libraries on-line? Is this not simply a prestige product of a dated technology? Few people ever actually handle a medieval manuscript—and if every student did so the damage to the codices would outweigh the educational benefits. But equally one cannot experience the act of reading an ancient text from a modern edition. Here lies the enduring value of facsimiles: they allow us to read texts as their authors imagined they would be read—and I have not encountered a better object as a vehicle for such an experience than this facsimile. All concerned in the ArCH (Armarium Codicum Hibernensium) Project in UCC are to be congratulated, and encouraged to bring us more facsimiles in the future.


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