Brian Boru and the Book of Armagh

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2014), Volume 22

Above: The Book of Armagh’s association with Brian is based upon this short Latin text on folio 16v, in which he is memorably described as imperator Scotorum (‘emperor of the Irish’). (Trinity College, Dublin)

Above: The Book of Armagh’s association with Brian is based upon this short Latin text on folio 16v, in which he is memorably described as imperator Scotorum (‘emperor of the Irish’). (Trinity College, Dublin)

The Book of Armagh (Trinity College Dublin MS 52) is one of the most significant manuscripts to survive from early medieval Ireland. A small volume (c. 195mm x 145mm), it contains texts relating to St Patrick, a complete New Testament (the only Irish copy to survive from the period) and documents concerning St Martin of Tours. Uniquely among Irish manuscripts of the period, its place of production is known, it can be dated precisely and it can be attributed, though in part only, to a known scribe and artist. Ferdomnach, who signed the book on five pages, was termed ‘a scholar and an excellent scribe’ by the Annals of Ulster when his death was recorded in 846. According to one inscription, Ferdomnach produced the manuscript for Torbach, who was abbot of Armagh in the year 807. A young man with extraordinary calligraphic skills, Ferdomnach produced pages of precise script and ornament, including the Evangelist symbols and the opening words of the four Gospels. At folio 16v, in the midst of short Patrician texts copied by him, was recorded an agreement between Brian and the church of Armagh (c. 1005).

Brian in the Book of Armagh
The Book of Armagh’s association with Brian is based upon a short Latin text on folio 16v of the manuscript, in which he is memorably described as imperator Scotorum (‘emperor of the Irish’), by his amanuensis Máel Suthain (who signed himself in Latin as Calvus Perennis).

R.I. Best suggested that ‘it has escaped observation hitherto that this entry has been written by two hands, Mael Suthain’s being rather heavy and ill-formed’, and, indeed, the fourteen-line text may have been written in two stages. The first half of the entry (as far as macha) could have been composed in advance (in agreement between Armagh and Brian’s advisers), before Máel Suthain endorsed it in the presence of Brian and his retinue, in the manner of a modern treaty-signing.

It has been suggested that the text was written with reference to the ecclesiastical entitlements claimed in Liber Angeli (‘The Book of the Angel’), which is also found in the Book of Armagh. The text, however, was inserted into a blank space among the Additamenta (‘additional material’) to the seventh-century hagiographic Life of St Patrick by Tírechán, and speaks more closely to that material. On the first column of folio 17r, directly adjacent to the column containing Máel Suthain’s text (16v), is a record of a supposed incident in which Patrick confirmed Armagh’s authority. Its claims for Armagh’s jurisdiction echo—in content and phrasing—those of Máel Suthain’s text.

The date commonly assigned to the text, 1005, is based on two questionable assumptions. The first is that it was written in Armagh during Brian’s earliest known visit, but there is nothing in it to suggest that this was so. It could have been written in Munster; the Book of Armagh’s status as relic and insignia suggest that it may have been carried by Armagh clerics while on official business. The text itself has no internal dating criteria, except by implication the death dates of Brian and Máel Suthain. Therefore 1010 would be its latest date, provided that the Calvus Perennis of the text was Máel Suthain Ua Cerbaill, who died in that year. That Máel Suthain was called ardshui na Herend (‘chief sage of Ireland’) in his annalistic obit, but he was not the same person as the Máel Suthain who died in 1031 and who was called anmchara (‘confessor’) of Brian in the seventeenth-century Annals of the Four Masters. It seems likely that the earlier Máel Suthain was responsible for the text, as his title suí (‘sage’) was that given to ecclesiastical scholars of the highest rank.

The second dating assumption is that the text is linked with Brian’s gift of twenty ounces of gold to Armagh in 1005. There is no evidence to support the theory that the two incidents occurred at the same time; indeed, had they done so, we might expect some mention of Brian’s offering in the text. If it was written in Armagh, then it may just as easily have been penned during one of Brian’s subsequent expeditions to the north, such as that in 1006 when he granted the ógríar (‘full demand’) of Armagh, which could be equated with the claims espoused in the first section of Máel Suthain’s text.

Imperator Scotorum
Aubrey Gwynn argued that Brian’s title in the entry, imperator Scotorum, was a borrowing based on the title adopted by his contemporary, Otto III, who styled himself imperator Romanorum (‘emperor of the Romans’). But if Máel Suthain read the texts in the Book of Armagh closely (as he himself implies), then he may have noticed the term imperator barbarorum (‘emperor of the barbarians’) in Muirchú’s seventh-century Life of Patrick. This somewhat unflattering title was used to describe Lóegaire mac Néill, who supposedly ruled almost all of Ireland (and, indeed, Máel Suthain’s text is located directly after a genealogy of Lóegaire’s descendants). The same Latin genitive plural ending –orum is found in all three titles, and it is possible that Máel Suthain drew on the old and the new to commemorate his master in a fitting manner.

Denis Casey is a post-doctoral researcher for the Emperor of the Irish exhibition on Brian Boru at Trinity College, Dublin; Bernard Meehan is Head of Research Collections and Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College Library.

Read More: Provenance

Further reading

R.I. Best, ‘An early monastic grant in the Book of Durrow’, Ériu 10 (1926–8), 135–42.
L. Bieler (ed. & trans.), The Patrician texts in the Book of Armagh, Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 10 (Dublin, 1979).
A. Gwynn, ‘Brian in Armagh (1005)’, Seanchas Ard Mhacha: Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society 9 (1) (1978), 35–50.
J. Gwynn (ed.), Liber Ardmachanus: The Book of Armagh (Dublin, 1913).


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