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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive A Recently Discovered Irish Book of Psalms in its Setting

Initial Report of the Find
On 25th July 2006 the National Museum of Ireland issued a press release on a "Significant Discovery of Ancient Manuscript" made on July 20. Points made in the press release were: "One of the most significant discoveries in decades and one unique in European and World archaeology has just been reported to the National Museum of Ireland. In discovery terms this . . . is being hailed by the Museum's experts as the greatest find ever from a European bog. Fragments of what appear to be an ancient Psalter or Book of Psalms were uncovered by a bulldozer in a bog in the south Midlands. It is impossible to say how the manuscript ended up in the bog. It may have been lost in transit or dumped after a raid, possibly more than a thousand to twelve hundred years ago." The Director of the National Museum of Ireland, Dr. Pat Wallace, commented that "it is not so much the fragments themselves, but what they represent, that is of such staggering importance. In my wildest hopes, I could only have dreamed of a discovery as fragile and rare as this. It testifies to the incredible richness of the Early Christian civilization of this island and to the greatness of ancient Ireland." The find has even been compared with that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The pages recovered appear to be those of a slim, large format book with a wraparound vellum or leather cover from which the book block has slipped. Raghnall Ó. Floinn, Head of Collections at the Museum, estimates that there are about forty-five letters per line and a maximum of forty lines per page. While part of Ps 83 is legible, the extent to which other Psalms or additional texts are preserved will only be determined by painstaking work by a team of invited experts probably operating over a long time in the Museum laboratory. Dr Bernard Meehan, Head of Manuscripts at Trinity College Dublin, has seen the discovery and has been invited to advise on the context and background of the manuscript, its production, and its time. He reckons that this is the first discovery of an Irish Early Medieval manuscript in two centuries. Initial impressions place the composition date of the manuscript at about 800 AD. How soon after this date it was lost we may never know.

The Ps 83 intended in the press release was that of the Vulgate numbering, not of the Hebrew Text or modern translations. This led to a certain misunderstanding as the psalm was understood in some press reports as dealing with "wiping out of Israel" (Ps 83 in Hebrew numbering). A later Museum press release on 27th July clarified the matter.

Another Museum report, published in the Irish national press on Saturday 5th August, gave further information on the find. More fragments of an ancient manuscript concealed in a Co. Tipperary bog over one thousand years ago with a view to later recovery, have been found by the National Museum of Ireland. The discoveries also include a fine leather pouch in which the manuscript was originally kept. Museum experts have excavated the site [now more precisely identified as] at Faddan More, in north Tipperary (near the town of Birr, in Co. Offaly), since the discovery of the manuscript in July. The report also said archaeologists and conservators had completed excavation of the area where the ancient manuscript was found. The site was excavated over seven days by archaeologists and conservators from the National Museum of Ireland. "Part of a fine leather pouch in which the book was kept originally was recovered as well as other small fragments of the manuscript and its cover. The investigation results suggest the owner concealed the book deliberately, perhaps with a view to its later recovery," the statement noted. All the excavated material is now being conserved and analysed in the National Museum of Ireland and samples of the peat surrounding the find spot have been sent for specialist analysis. The report noted that the area around Faddan More bog is rich in medieval history. Of particular relevance are important monastic foundations such as Lorrha and Terryglass in Co. Tipperary and Birr and Seirkieran in Co. Offaly, which are located nearby. A leather satchel was found in the same bog six years ago and has been radiocarbon dated to between the seventh and ninth centuries AD.

The Arrival of Christianity in Ireland
Christianity probably came to Ireland in the fourth century, but its early history is obscure. The first clear reference we have to it is in the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine (ca. 390-ca. 463) who says that Pope Celestine in 431 sent Palladius to the "Irish believing in Christ as their first bishop." We do not know how widespread these Christian communities were. St. Patrick came later in the fifth century, 432 being the date given for his arrival from the seventh century onwards. This early Irish Church would have been organised along diocesan lines, ruled by bishops. Monasticism, whether eremitic (individual hermits) or cenobitic (living in community) became a reality in the East, (Syria, Palestine, Egypt) from the middle of the third century on. By with fourth it had spread to the West. The Western scholar Cassian (died 435) lived as a monk in Bethlehem and later studied monasticism in Egypt, and then about 415 founded two monasteries near Marseilles. Two writings of his were highly influential in the West: the Institutes in which he set out the basic rules for monastic life and his Conferences in which he says he recounts his conversations with the leaders of Eastern monasticism. His writings are rich with information on eastern (Jerusalem and Egypt) practices on monastic ways, including the divine office and the use of the Psalms. Others besides Cassian also probably brought a knowledge of eastern ways (highly respected in western monasticism.

In his main writing, the Confessions, St. Patrick speaks of the sons and daughters of noble Irish converts devoting themselves to the monastic way of life. The monastic movement must have developed rapidly throughout Ireland, in "Patrician" and pre-Patrician churches, during the later fifth and early sixth centuries. From the mid-sixth century onwards we find monastic foundations flourishing and active in learning and evangelization, in all parts of the country: North (Bangor, St. Comhghal and Columbanus; Derry and Co. Donegal, St. Columkille of Iona; Armagh), East (Monasterboice; Swords, Finglas; Tallaght; Glendalough, St. Kevin), Midlands (Clonmacnoise, St. Ciaran, founded 540s; Clonard, Roscrea, Lorrha and Terryglass in Co. Tipperary; Birr and Seirkieran in Co. Offaly, which are located nearby) where the books would be found in the bog; further south (Lismore) and many others besides. All this development was not centrally controlled and the influences on it may have been varied and from different quarters. There was certainly an influence from Britain on early Irish monastic practices. With regard to the Divine Office and the use of the Psalter there was an eastern influence, mediated probably through the writings of Cassian and possibly other Latin sources.

By the mid-seventh century the Irish (monastic) schools were already active and renowned at home and in Britain. Bede in his Ecclesiastical History (completed 731) tells of the English students coming to study in the Irish schools in the mid-seventh century. A renowned student of these was Willibrord who studied in Ireland at Rathmelsigi, was ordained in 680 and in 690 with eleven companions went as missioners to Frisia. Through the influence of this new learning the traditional (Brehon) laws of Ireland, in over fifty treatises, were codified (in the vernacular) in the later seventh and in the eighth centuries. The renowned Irish collection of canon law (Collectio canonum Hibernensis) was compiled in Latin by two abbots whose deaths are recorded as 725 and 747. Central to study in these Irish schools was the Bible, and as ancillary disciplines for its understanding grammar and computistics. The Latin Grammarian Priscian was heavily glossed in Old Irish. By 800, Commentaries (in the style of biblical commentaries) were written on the Grammarian Donatus's two works Ars Minor and Ars Maior and in the mid-800s these were brought to the Continent by the Irish scholars Sedulius Scottus and Muiredac. Nor was grammar in the native Irish vernacular forgotten. The work Auricept na nÉces (the scholar's primer), and Old-Irish text on language, was possibly composed towards the end of the seventh century.

The Significance of the Psalms in the Early Irish Church[1]
Behind early Irish devotion to the Psalter from the fifth century onwards stands the Latin and Egyptian monastic tradition. First there was the Old Latin version, made from the Greek Septuagint. Jerome corrected this against the Hebrew text, and through the critical signs of obelus (÷) and asterisk (*) indicated respectively passages in the Latin versions but not found in the Hebrew and others in the Hebrew absent from the Old Latin, and introduced by Jerome in his revision. He expected copyists to reproduce these critical signs. His translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin became accepted as the Vulgate in the West (including Ireland) with the exception of the Psalter where his revision of the Old Latin replaced it. Thus the West had three Psalter texts: the Old Latin, Jerome's revision (known as the Gallicanum) and Jerome's rendering from the Hebrew (known as the Hebraicum, or Iuxta Hebraeos). Western monasticism looked on the early Egyptian monks as the heroes to be imitated. These "heroes" recited the entire Psalter, all 150 psalms, daily. In the sixth century and later the monastic rules of Benedict, Columbanus and others arranged for the recitation of the entire Psalter in the course of the week. In private devotions, however, the daily recitation of the entire Psalter still continued.

The early period of the Irish Church can be reckoned from the advent of Christianity in the fifth century until the coming of the Normans in the twelfth. From this period we have about thirty-one documents providing information on the Psalms in Ireland, most of them written in Ireland itself. Nine of them bear witness to the use of the Gallicanum text, six of the Hebraicum, three of texts of the Greek Psalter transcribed or used by Irish scholars on the Continent in the ninth century. The remainder have to do with Introductions to the Psalter or commentaries on it. We may here study this material briefly under a number of headings, as follows: (i) Psalter Format; (ii) Psalm prefaces; (iii) Psalter texts; (iv) Psalter interpretation; (v) Psalter in liturgy and private devotion;

Psalter format. Some of our Psalter manuscripts carry the Gallican text alone; others the Hebraicum. In the Cathach each psalm is introduced by a spiritual psalm heading (referring generally to Christ or the Church). From the tenth century we have a Double Psalter (and small fragments of another text of this) with the Gallicanum and Hebraicum on facing pages, both sides heavily glossed. From early times the Irish referred to the Psalter as "The Three Fifties" (a designation already used by Hilary of Poitiers), and some of the Irish Psalter texts are so divided, with Biblical Canticles and a prayer after each fifty. In the Latin tradition there were seven Old Testament Canticles attached to the Psalter. In Continental texts all found together at the end of the Psalter, but divided among the Three Fifties in Irish tradition. The psalms are poetry, and in Irish texts are so laid out, with each verse beginning a new line and with a capital. The number of lines per page varies, the highest number in hitherto known Psalters being 29. The number of words per line depends on the poetic layout. In the Trinity College Dublin manuscript of the Irish Liber Hymnorum (late-eleventh century) we have an abbreviated Psalter, introduced as 165 prayers and attributed to Pope Gregory. It consists of verses of the Psalms in consecutive order from Ps 3:7 to 144:11, and is divided into the three fifties. Each fifty ended with a Pater Noster. It was probably intended for private devotion. As with other Irish biblical books (the Gospels in particular), the size, penmanship, and ornamentation could vary with the purpose of the writing, that is, whether it was intended for display purposes, for liturgical use, for study or class rooms, for the use of travelling missionaries or students, in which case the work would be unadorned and portable. The more valuable and valued of such books often had special shrines made for them. Another feature of early Irish scholastic life was the book satchel (tiag libuir) often mentioned in Irish texts, which scholars or missionaries put over their shoulders to carry their gospel or Psalter texts.

Psalm introductions. The Irish used and glossed Jerome's two Psalm prefaces, Psalterium Romae (to the Gallicanum) and Scio quosdam (to the Hebraicum). They likewise used widely and glossed the Preface Dauid filius Iesse, wrongly attributed to Bede, and edited (in varying forms from the Irish) by Donatien De Bruyne as no. 1 of his Préfaces de la Bible Latine. VIII. Psalmi.[2] Together with these we have at least three special introductions composed to introduce the specific Irish introduction to the Psalter, with interest in a twofold historical sense, in the asterisks and obeli, and the questions of diapsalma and sympsalma (the latter non-biblical). The Irish preoccupation with these two terms is interesting. The former is used to "translate" selah of the Hebrew text, and was variously understood in Greek and Latin tradition, as Jerome notes. Irish tradition cites and follows Augustine's note on the term in his Enarratio on Ps 4:4. Augustine is discussing whether verse 4 can be united and understood from v. 3, which is followed by a diapsalma. He writes:

But the diapsalma which separates the two verses forbids our joining them together. One may, with some critics, regard diapsalma as a Hebrew word meaning "So be it," or as a Greek word denoting a pause in the psalmody. Thus psalma would mean what is sung, diapsalma a silent pause in the psalmody; and just as we speak of singing in unison as sympsalma, so a cessation marked by a certain pause or break in the continuity is called diapsalma. Whatever the explanation, be it this, that, or the other, one thing at least is all but certain, that after the diapsalma the sequence is broken and cannot be linked up with what precedes.[3]

It is not easy say whether the Irish cited this text of Augustine as piece of (useless?) information, or actually followed its implications in their psalmody.

Psalter Texts. While the text of the first missionaries to Ireland and of St. Patrick was presumably the Old Latin, no Old Latin texts or citations are known from Ireland. Our sources indicate that, from very early times in its Christian history, Ireland had the Gallicanum and the Hebraicum. In fact within these families it had its own specific recensions of both texts, known by the sigla CI for the Gallicanum (C the siglum for the Cathach), and AKI (A being the Amiatinus) for the Hebraicum. From the beginning right down to one of our latest texts (the Psalter of Caimin, ca. 1200) the Hebraicum was used and studied in conjunction with the Gallicanum, for study purposes, and possibly occasionally as a a devotional text.

During this period, the Psalms held a central place in Irish devotion and learning. An indication of it is that the term "Psalter" in Irish came to designate writings other than the canonical text, for instance "The Psalter of Cashel," the "Psalter of Cormac." Students, whether destined for the monastic or clerical state, or lay life, learned to read and write through the Psalter of David. They would have known the psalms by heart. What is probably the oldest example of Latin writing from Ireland is a text of the Psalms, like the recent examples found it a bog. It is the Springmount Bog tablets (dating from cam 600 AD), wax tablets found in a bog in Co. Antrim, with the Vulgate text of Psalms 30-32, probably used in primary instruction. The best known Irish Psalter is the so-called Cathach ("battler") of St. Columba, connected in tradition with St. Columba of Iona (died 597) and believed traditionally to have been written by him. While a leading palaeographer admits that this is not impossible, the work is probably later, from the seventh century. It has the Vulgate text, with the critical signs of the obelus and the asterisk, but not always corresponding to those of Jerome. Rather do they indicate a revision of the Vulgate text against the specifically Irish family of the Hebraicum (AKI). This is an indication of critical work on the Psalter text being carried out in Irish schools in the sixth or seventh century. The Cathach may represent a copy of the Vulgate text made from a Double Psalter (Vulgate and Hebraicum). Its original could then well be from Columba or contemporary with him.

Psalter Interpretation. Historical and spiritual meanings. A notable feature of Irish Psalm exegesis from earliest times down to the latest manuscripts is its emphasis on the historical sense, that is what the text is supposed to have meant to its original readers well before the advent of Christ. The specific Irish introductions speak of twofold "historical," literal meanings in the psalms, the one understanding them to speak of David and his times principally, if not solely, with no messianic interpretation, the other as speaking of David, his contemporaries and later Jewish history, to Maccabean times, with four psalms (2, 8, 44 and 109 in the LXX and Vulgate numbering) taken as direct prophecies of Christ. This twofold historical sense arises from the confluence of two distinct forms of exegesis. The second is easily identifiable. It is the Antiochene, specifically that of Theodore of Mopsuestia. Theodore's Psalm commentary was translated into Latin by the Pelagian Bishop Julian of Eclanum (ca. 386-454) and the extant portions of this Latin translation are almost all transmitted in manuscripts in an Irish hand (now in Turin and Milan, but originating at Bobbio). Only a small portion of the full Latin translation has been preserved. At some early period an adaptation of Julian's translation (now known as the "Epitome") was made, retaining the thrust of the original. The opening section of this (with commentary of Ps 1:1 to 16:11a) was lost, to be replaced in one branch of the transmission by the full translation of Julian, in another with the other literal, historical, Davidic commentary. The first of these is transmitted fully in the Irish manuscript in Milan, Amb. C 301 inf., from about 800 AD, heavily glossed in Old Irish. Extensive glosses from the other form are found in the Irish Double Psalter of St. Ouen (now in Rouen). R. C. Hill has rendered a great service in having translated into English the published section of the Psalm commentary of Diodore of Tarsus and much of that of Theodore. The adaptation of Julian's commentary is an exegetical work in its own fright meriting study and translation. We do not know how and when this Epitome and the full text of sections of Julian's translation reached Ireland, nor have we any knowledge of the origins of the other "Davidic" Psalm commentary. The Epitome must have come to Ireland in the seventh century at the latest as it is fully established there by 700, as is evidenced by a gloss-type commentary on the Psalms preserved in the Vatican manuscript Pal. lat. 68. The influence of this commentary and its historical exegesis is clearly evident in later texts right down to the latest (Psalter of Caimin). The Irish did, of course, also have a spiritual interpretation of the Psalms. A feature of Irish tradition is seen in the so-called Argumenta, sometimes attributed to Bede, in which the literal and spiritual meanings are combined in a single series of Psalm headings.

The Psalter in the liturgy and private devotion. From early times, the Divine Office, to which the Psalms were central, was part of Irish liturgical worship. In this the Psalter was probably recited in the course of the week, in seven or eight canonical hours. Seven such hours are already named in an Irish gloss on Ps 118 (119):164 ("Seven times in the day I have given thee praise") in a Hiberno-Latin commentary from about 700 AD. Nonetheless for both monastic and lay circles we have evidence of the practices of the recitation (or even chanting) of the entire Psalter of 150 psalms daily. There was a special devotion to the long Psalm 118 (119).

The end of an era 11th-12th cent. AD.We are fortunate that from the very end of our era we have most interesting literary evidence which brings life to the information we can glean from the manuscript evidence. From about 1200 AD we have fragments of a glossed texts of portion of Ps 118 (portion of an originally large Psalter of some 150 folios). Its glosses are in the main from the early commentary extant in Pal.lat. 68 (ca. 700), with some from the Epitome of Julian. From the late-eleventh century we have a beautiful poem by a monk from northern Ireland who in the southern monastery of Lismore came on the worn out copy of the Psalter from which he learned his psalms at the early age of seven. He thus lovingly addresses the Psalter:

Your counsel is ever there to hand, we choose it, following you in everything: love of your word is the best of loves, our gentle conversation with the King .... Seeking the presence of elusive God wandering we stray, but the way is found, following the mighty melodies that with you throughout the pathways of the world resound.[4]

In the work Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaib ("The War of the Gael with the Foreigner"), from about 1100 AD, King Brian Boru at the battale of Clontarf (1014) is said to have recited or sung (ro gab) the "Three Fifties" (the entire Psalter), each with fifty prayers (orthan) and fifty Paters.[5] He may have been using an abbreviated Psalter of the kind preserved in the more or less contemporary Irish Liber Hymnorum. A text in the satirical Aislinge Meic Con Glinne ("The Vision of Mac Conglinne") indicates that the teaching and concerns of early Irish eighth-century psalm introductions were alive and well in Ireland in the years 1075-1100 or so. The text says of Mac Conglinne (probably a wandering ex-clerical student) that in Cork:



He took down his book-satchel, and brought out his Psalter, and began singing his psalms. What the learned and the books of Cork relate is that the sound of the scholar's voice was heard a thousand paces beyond the city, as he sang his psalms, through spiritual mysteries, in hymns of praise (for aillib), and annals (or: records, commemorations; annálaib), and sections (or categories; ernalaib), in diapsalms and synpsalms and sets of ten, with Paters and canticles and hymns at the conclusion of each fifty.[6]

The Find in its Context
The recent Psalter find has been compared to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Its nearest example seems to be the Copper Scroll, consisting of two sheets of copper oxidized right through, but made readable thanks to modern technology. We await similar work on this Psalter, to have it yield up as many of its secrets as possible. From the section of Ps 83 (Vulgate numbering) made available we can say that its text is the Vulgate (Gallicanum), not the Old Latin or the Hebraicum, with in valle lacrimarum (v. 7) and benedictiones (v. 8; Old Latin: in convalle lacrimarum; benedictionem; Hebraicum: in valle fletus; benedictione). The length of the pages and the lines (forty lines per page and forty-five letters per line) merit attention. The presence nearby of the leather (book) satchel fits the written evidence nicely. The date, ca. 800, assigned to it by Dr. Bernard Meehan, would make it the second oldest Irish Psalter in vellum after the Cathach (ca. 600). We have a number of Irish Gospel books older than it, from the eighth century. As roughly contemporary texts we may instance the Book of Kells (probably ca. 800), the Book of Armagh (809) and the Mac Regol (or Rushworth) Gospels, written by Mac Regol (d. 822), abbot of the monastery of Birr near the bog where this Psalter was found.

Only when the available text has been published will we be able situate it more fully in its cultural context. Students of the Irish Psalm tradition will be interested in seeing whether it is set out as poetry, per cola et commata, whether intended for study rather than liturgical usage, whether it has any of the critical signs of the obelus and asterisk, how its biblical Vulgate texts stands in relation to the specifically Irish family (CI), whether it has any special headings, and glosses either Latin or vernacular Irish. All this information will be informative, but unlikely to make any revolutionary addition to our knowledge of the Psalms in the early Irish church, on which we are already reasonably well informed.

Martin McNamara, Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy, Dublin, Ireland

Postscript: Latest News on the "Fadden [Bog] Psalter"
After completion of this essay, the daily paper The Irish Times carried an extensive report on a conference held on Saturday 2 September 2006, organized by the Birr Historical Society to celebrate the return (in facsimile edition) of the ninth century (before 822) Macregol Gospels. At this conference the two scholars most involved in the find and its restoration, Dr. Pat Wallace and Dr. Bernard Meehan, were speaking for the first time on the status of restoration of the (Bog) Psalter. It was referred to as the "Fadden Book," and will probably be known in the future as "The Fadden Psalter" (found in the bog of Fadden More'). The original photograph of the Psalter that went round the world had been taken by a mobile phone camera but the National Museum photographer Valerie Dowling has since taken a full portfolio of photographs, some of which will be published in a special supplement to the magazine Archaeology Ireland this autumn. The Fadden Book, which has over one hundred pages and at least three pages of decoration, will be carefully studied and restored by a European team over the next two years. The BBC will also produce a documentary on the restoration. Dr. Meehan said that in recent days they had been able to catch a glimpse of one of the decorated pages and this provided a tantalizing image of a bird—an eagle, peacock, or dove—perched on top on of the illuminated capitals. If the initial presumption that this was a "Beatus" ('Blessed is he...') proves to be true, they might also expect to have illuminated introductions for Psalms 1, 51, and 101. If this proves correct, the Psalter was divided into the typically Irish "Three Fifties," with special decoration at the beginning of each fifty.

Notes
[1] The topic has been studied by M. McNamara in a number of essays, the first being "Psalter Text and Psalter Study in the Early Irish Church (A.D. 600-1200)," Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 73 C (1973), 201-76 (with the edition of selected Latin texts by M. Sheehy, pp. 277-98). This and seven later essays on the subject have been published in M. McNamara, The Psalms in the Early Irish Church (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 165; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).

[2] (Namur: Auguste Godenne, 1920), 43-44.

[3] St. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos; in Ps. 4, no. 4; trans. of Scholastica Hergin and Felicitas Corrigan, St. Augustine on the Psalms, vol. 1, Psalms 1-29 (Ancient Christian Writers 29); Westminster, MD: Newman Press; London: Longman, Green and Co, 1960), 43-44

[4] The text and English translation of the poem by James Carney, in James Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics Selected and Translated (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1967), 74-79; introduction to the poem pp. xxvii-xxviii.

[5] Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh; J. H. Todd, editor, Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh. The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill, or the Invasion of Ireland by the Danes and Norsemen. The original Irish text, edited, with translation and Introduction. (London: Longman, Green, 1867), 196-99, par. 113.

[6] Irish text edited by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, Aislinge Meic Con Glinne (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1990), 5, par. 16, lines 137-43; earlier edition, with English translation, by Kuno Meyer, Aislinge Meic Conglinne. The Vision of MacConglinne. A Middle-Irish Wonder Tale (London: David Nutt, 1892), 12-13.

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Citation: Martin McNamara, "A Recently Discovered Irish Book of Psalms in its Setting," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=568

 
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