Conflicting views about the Book of Ballymote

From Kelten
k80-2019-jaski-review-book of ballymote-manuscript-royal irish academy
Published: 29 July 2019
Conflicting views about the Book of Ballymote
Bart Jaski

ReviewBook of BallymoteManuscriptRoyal Irish Academy
Title (NL): Tegenstrijdige standpunten over het Boek van Ballymote
Abstract (NL):

De boeken uit de reeks Codices Hibernenses Eximii behandelen stuk voor stuk vele aspecten van één specifiek handschrift. Dit tweede deel gaat over het 'Boek van Ballymote', een omvangrijk 14e-eeuws, Iers manuscript. Hoewel de artikelen veel goede informatie en nieuwe inzichten bevatten, had het werk baat gehad bij een strakkere redactie. Zo ontbreekt het aan een algemeen overzicht met daarin basisinformatie over het handschrift (omvang, aantal handen, etc.) en staan de artikelen op een onlogische volgorde, waarbij men pas tegen het einde het fysieke handschrift zelf behandelt. Daarbij komt nog dat de auteurs het bij herhaling met elkaar oneens zijn, waardoor je als lezer geregeld heen en weer moet bladeren om de verschillende argumenten te kunnen volgen. Ook blijven enkele cruciale vragen onbeantwoord, ondanks dat deze in meerdere bijdragen aangestipt worden. Ondanks dergelijke onvolkomenheden en gemiste kansen levert dit boek toch een waardevolle bijdrage aan ons begrip van dit belangrijke handschrift.

Ó hUiginn, Ruairí (ed.), Book of Ballymote, Codices Hibernenses Eximii II (Dublin 2018). Royal Irish Academy. 400 pp., ISBN 978 1 908997 56 2, hardback, €55,-.

Students of medieval Irish texts, whether literary or otherwise, will usually be familiar with the manuscripts that contain these sources. The late fourteenth-century Book of Ballymote is one such manuscript, and as regards its size, scope and execution it is surely one of the most important medieval Irish written sources that has survived. It is quite typical of the Irish scholarly approach that whereas decorated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells receive abundant attention, literary manuscripts are mainly mined for their content, rather than studied as entities in their own right. Apart from its description in the Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy (fasc. XIII, 1934, p. 1610-1655, MS 536 / 23 P 12), only Tomás Ó Concheanainn devoted a detailed study of eleven pages to the manuscript in Celtica 14 (1981), p. 15-25, in which he mainly discussed the three scribes which he reckoned wrote the Book of Ballymote. It is therefore an excellent initiative of the Royal Irish Academy to devote a whole series of publications to individual Irish manuscripts, named Codices Hibernenses Eximii. This review is concerned with the second volume of the series (not the eleventh as one may infer from the title page and the colophon), and its eleven contributions are based on papers given at a two-day conference in 2015.

This is a handsome book, with a pleasant font and lay-out, and abundantly decorated. As with the first instalment of the series, on Lebor na hUidre, the contributors are experts who write on a specific codicological, textual or historical aspect of the manuscript. One who reads the book from cover to cover will be enriched by many interesting and important observations, but will also be confronted with several major cases of overlap and disagreement between the contributions. Although cross-references to other chapters for alternative views are incorporated, the reader may still be somewhat dazzled by these recurring discussions. In this respect, the order of the chapters is not very helpful either. The book starts with a discussion of the value of Irish genealogical texts by the late Donnchadh Ó Corráin and ends with articles about codicology, scribes and decoration – thus finishing with the subjects which, to my mind, should have come first. Moreover, the book lacks a basic description of the manuscript which gives us its size, number of folio’s (including those missing), quire structure, the different hands, etc., to serve as a point of reference and to which the various contributors may refer. Instead, such descriptions are either found piecemeal throughout the book or are lacking.

Despite both partially overlapping and complementary articles, certain topics are still in need of a more thorough study. An example of this involves one of the central questions, namely the roles of the three main scribes of the Book of Ballymote (BB): Robertus Mac Síthigh, Solamh Ó Droma and Maghnus Ó Duibhgeannáin. Pádraig Ó Macháin’s excellent contribution (p. 221-250), which offers a range of new insights on the codicology of BB, regards the last as the owner and coordinator of the book (p. 227), because Ó Duibhgeannáin writes at fol. 36r that he is fear in leabhair sea ‘the man (owner) of this book’. Yet, as Ó Macháin’s very useful collation shows, this marginal note appears in a quire otherwise written by Mac Síthigh, the manuscript’s most prolific scribe with about 120 folio’s to his name. Ó Droma comes second with over 80. Ó Duibhgeannáin has just over 60 folio’s to his credit, including the last quire. Or, I should say, he had this to his credit. For since Elizabeth Duncan has started investigating the palaeography of Irish manuscripts, the number of recognized medieval Irish scribes has risen dramatically. In this case too, she divides the hand previously thought to be Ó Duibhgeannáin’s into eight hands (p. 273-300). Most of these only wrote a couple of lines in the final tales. Whether we are dealing with collaborators, relief scribes or one scribe trying his hand at different styles of writing is not always easy to judge. However, if Duncan is right, Irish scribal practices in general are in for a re-evaluation. For BB, her findings would mean that of the three main scribes, Ó Duibhgeannáin collaborates with several other, minor scribes, whereas the other two do not. One wonders why.

Ó Macháin also makes the interesting suggestion that Solamh Ó Droma may have been a cleric, because of his first name (Solomon), and that the frequent invocations to the Trinity may point at the manuscript having been written for a substantial part at Oileán na Tríonóide (‘Island of the Trinity’) at Loch Key, near Ballymote. One may note that Ó Droma wrote the first couple of pages of BB, thus starting the whole endeavour, while Ó Duibhgeannáin is the one who by and large finishes it. Hence the latter may not have been the manuscript’s coordinator from the start, but fulfilled this position later on. He notes in one of the last sections of the book that he was writing while waiting for his tutor (oide) Mac Aodhagáin, a family active in Ormond. In his article on the scribes and patrons (p. 191-219), Ruairí Ó hUiginn notes that if the Maghnus Ó Duibhgeannáin who died in 1452 is the scribe of BB, he must have been quite young when it was written (at least for a part) between 1393 and 1395 at the house of Tomaltach Mac Donnchadha in Connacht, as can be extrapolated from another colophon. This does not sit well with Ó Duibhgeannáin’s proposed role as coordinator either. Moreover, the most prolific scribe, Robertus Mac Síthigh, does not figure in this discussion. Ó hUiginn says ‘we do not appear to know anything’ about him (p. 201). Yet the annals note that in 1397 a John Mac Síthigh was killed among the Scottish mercenary gallowglasses, so Robertus was not a member of one of the Irish professional learned families at all.

It is of course difficult to say anything definite about the scribes of BB, for the available evidence only affords us erratic glimpses of light of a process that is otherwise shrouded in darkness. All the more reason to present what little there is in a clear and structured way. This may not have been the purpose of the original lectures, but should perhaps have been given more priority in the printed version. A concluding chapter, not written by the editor but another scholar, who can look at the matter from a fresh perspective, could have been added to discuss questions raised by several scholars. Furthermore, I think the presentation would also have benefited from a more severe editorial policy in other ways. In the first volume of the series Nollaig Ó Muraíle generously conceded (on p. 185) that his theory about the later history of Lebor na hUidre was weaker than that of Ó hUiginn in the same publication. In the present volume a similar situation is reversed. At p. 239 Ó Macháin discusses the manuscript’s frontispiece: a drawing of a boat with four men, one wearing a crown, and four women on board. He anticipates Karen Ralph’s detailed analysis of the same illustration later on in the book (p. 327-341), saying that she is wrong to think that the scene depicts Tomaltach Mac Donnchadha, the patron of the book, with his family. Rather, the evidence overwhelmingly points to this being Noah, with his three sons and their four wives, even if his depiction as a king is odd. Ó Macháin even discovers a devil lurking in one of the corners of the page, which points to theological concerns. He also notes the dove, but it could have clarified that we know it’s a dove (and not some other bird) because it has a branch with leaves in its beak, a visual rendering of Genesis 8:11. All in all, one wonders if Ralph’s long discussion should not have been rewritten, with a focus on the depiction of boats, which is certainly of interest.

Other matters on which scholars disagree revolve around patronage, the general purpose of the manuscript and whether the choice of texts and decoration are an expression of antiquarianism or continuity. In this respect a comparison between BB and the Book of Lecan (Lec) is certainly worth pursuing, since the latter was written more or less at the same time and in same the region. Nollaig Ó Muraíle even sees ‘a striking similarity between the two volumes’ (p. 167), and posits that both had access to the same (type of) sources. He gives a useful overview of the content of both manuscripts in two lists, in which a number of tracts are printed in bold. One would expect this to signify the tracts that both manuscripts have in common, but this is not always the case. Ó Muraíle devotes much space to discussing all of the tracts in BB, but, however ‘famous’ or ‘celebrated’ some of these might be, this means that the comparison between BB and Lec remains rather superficial. One would like to know to what extent the nine tracts which they have in common agree with each other with regard to, for example, content and orthography. The genealogy of Aodh Mac Diarmata (died 1393), printed on p. 189, is already instructive in this regard, and this matter asks for a more profound analysis – one Ó Muraíle would be well qualified to undertake.

One also would like to know more about the sources quoted in both manuscripts, which several other authors besides Ó Muraíle also note. One is the Book of Glendalough, apparently so famous that no one has bothered to cite any secondary literature about it. In the index there is no cross reference to its Irish title, Leabhar Glinni Dá Locha, which is in fact used once in the book. The same applies to the Psalter of Cashel alias Saltair Cormaic i Caisiul, which is mentioned several times as a source in the secular genealogies. This fact is almost completely ignored, and recent secondary literature about it is again left uncited. The bulk of the material which BB and Lec have in common in fact concerns the secular genealogies, which take up almost a quarter of the whole of BB. That this important part of BB has not been studied in more detail is a missed opportunity. Ó Corráin writes about the value of genealogies in general, but, although it makes for an enjoyable read, the informed reader will already have seen most of the examples he gives in earlier publications by himself or others, although this is not always acknowledged.

It is perhaps no coincidence that some of the best articles are those which provide the most focus to their research, and succeed to break new ground. I would like to take the contributions of Máire Ní Mhaonaigh on universal history (p. 33-49), and Elizabeth Boyle on biblical history in BB (p. 51-75) as examples, even if they partially cover the same territory. Ní Mhaonaigh gives a clear overview of historical themes in BB and argues that it ‘offers a coherent, comprehensive account of regional, Irish and world history within a carefully constructed frame’ (p. 43), albeit one mainly based on earlier sources, perhaps the source common to BB and Lec from the twelfth century (p. 49). Boyle notes that key texts on biblical history in BB have not been given much scholarly attention, and offers a fine analysis based on the relevant texts, some of which are here edited and translated for the first time. She argues that the central theme of BB is that throughout the history of the world, ‘empires collapse, dynasties rise and fall … the structures of earthly power are transient’ (p. 67). BB does not have an eschatological orientation (p. 58), but is concerned with the lessons secular and biblical history teaches the attentive reader.

Another fine contribution is to be found in Deborah Hayden’s treatment of grammar in BB (p. 77-100), a topic which has more in common with the previous two contributions than one may expect. Hayden has discovered that sections within the Irish origin legend Lebor gabála and the grammatical tract Auraicept na nÉces share concerns about grammar and poetical scholarship, and in conjunction with the law-tract Uraicecht becc with the four divisions of wisdom: grammar, metrics / computus, history and the (legal) canon. She links this to the seventh-century Irish tract De ratione conputandi (and hence to Augustine’s De genesi ad litteram). I can add that there are also other tracts that discuss or refer to the four divisions of wisdom, including the law-tracts Míadshlechtae, Uraicecht na ríar, Bretha nemed toísech and Bretha nemed dédenach; the pseudo-etymological compilation Sanas Cormaic; and the Hiberno-Latin tracts Sententiae Sancti Augustini et Isidori in laude compoti (also attributed to Bede as De computo dilogus), Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae and Prebiarum de multorum exemplaribus. We are thus dealing with a topic of major interest in early Irish scholarship. Within the context of BB, we can now see that Boyle’s argument is supported by history being one of the four divisions of wisdom. This concept also provides a suitable counterpoint: whereas kings and empires come and go, the tenets of scholarship, both secular and ecclesiastical, are eternal.

The aforementioned scholars all note important variants, additions or omissions in the BB versions of tracts such as the Irish Sex aetates mundi, Lebor gabála, Auraicept na nÉces or the Irish translations of classical tales, which receive a detailed linguistic discussion by Uáitéar Mac Gerailt (p. 101-154). Such variants often do not occur at random, but should be understood in the context of BB in its entirety. This is (and has been) easily overlooked by the editors of individual tracts, and one should redress this imbalance. It is no longer fashionable to produce (semi-)diplomatic editions of entire manuscripts such as Lebor na hUidre and the Book of Leinster, but I am certain that scholars would be greatly served by it in a case such as BB, especially in light of the fact that several leaves now missing from BB were copied by Richard Tipper in 1727-8 (see the discussions by Ó Macháin, p. 244-248, and by Bernadette Cunningham and Raymond Gillespie, p. 260-265). These could be included in such an edition.

I am well aware that current scholarship does not invest in such basic work in a structured way, and this is to be regretted. It is crucial to provide research on manuscripts and their contents with a solid basis: detailed and accurate catalogue descriptions, faithful transcriptions and expert interpretations. The series Codices Hibernenses Eximii makes a timely contribution to this third aspect. With regard to BB one should conclude that it remains ‘a formidable codex about which much remains to be said’ (p. 249). The present volume underlines the progress that can be made by a concerted approach, even if there is still room for improvement. I hope that the series will eventually reach the ‘real’ eleventh volume, and continues afterwards for a long time.

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