web analytics
17 Jun

“We do not adore the painted images” – Dúngal against iconoclasm

A man whitewashes an image of Christ using a sponge on a pole paralleling the sponge on a pole used to offer gall to the crucified Christ.

Simon Blackburn sardonically defines iconoclasm as “the odd pair of beliefs shared by enthusiasts including Cromwell and the Taliban, that while ‘false idols’ have no supernatural powers they are nevertheless so dangerous that they must be destroyed rather than ignored”1 Iconoclasm literally means image breaking and historically has been done for political reasons (as in the French Revolution) and for religious reasons2. As well as during the reformation, iconoclasm was a serious issue in the 7th and 8th centuries in the Byzantine Empire.

The end of the First Iconoclasm and the Frankish Response

At the last ecumenical council, the Synod of Nicaea in 787 which both representatives of the Orthodox and Western Christian Church attended, the issue was put to rest. Images not only could but should be displayed, for “the more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration”3 Byzantian iconoclasm, its forebears and its philosophical aspects are covered in this episode of the History of Philosophy podcast.
Read More

01 Apr

Calculating Easter: Irish Computus to the Carolingian Renaissance

A bearded Christ with long hair sits, a red book in his left hand, with eagles either side of his head, a cross over him, surrounded by interlaced borders

In his Historia Ecclesiastica (Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, c. 731 AD) Bede noted that the Irish (Scots) and Britons had differed from the rest of the Western Church regarding Easter: “they did not keep Easter Sunday at the proper time, but from the fourteenth to the twentieth moon; which computation is contained in a revolution of eighty-four years” 1

This might suggest the Irish were at fault. Yet, for the past centuries and into the Carolingian Renaissance Irish scholars were at the forefront of “computus”, the development of the ecclesiastical calendar, most particularly the date of Easter. To do this correctly required observation of the moon, and facility at mathematics. “What Irish scholars of the seventh century achieved, therefore, was a comprehensive understanding of Easter reckoning, which was to become the unanimously accepted system for the calculation of Easter, from the ninth century onwards, for the rest of the Middle Ages and in the Orthodox Church to the present day”2.
Read More

17 Mar

Who will separate us? Patrick and division in 17th and 18th century Ireland.

Icon of St Patrick of Ireland standing between St Ambrose and St Gregory

In 2017 the Russian Orthodox Church added Patrick to their calendar of saints1 A saint from before the Great Schism and the Reformation, Patrick is venerated by the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Indeed, many have attempted to claim Patrick as particularly their own.

Patrick has also been invoked in bringing different groups together. While Ireland had a recognisable identity from early times, but like ancient Greece or contemporary Germany, that did not suggest a unitary state. The warring of petty states led to a influx of Normans. Henry II’s assertion of his dominance over those Norman lords led to a separation of the inhabitants into “mere Irish” and “Old English.”

The line between “the king’s English subjects” and “the king’s Irish subjects” was, counter-intuitively, a matter of choice. Those adhering to the native customs outlawed by the Statutes of Kilkenny were declaring themselves outlaws, those adopting an English lifestyle were English regardless of background. For “Old English” Norman families outside the Pale, who intermarried and interacted with Irish Gaelic families, a certain amount of fancy footwork must have been required to balance Irish customs with English laws. The borders of the Pale saw constant aggression that Richard Fitzralph’s admonishing sermons gives witness to2.
Read More

31 Oct

Perspectives on Ireland and the Reformation

Luther stands in front of the church doors as his theses are nailed to it. A watching crowd has mixed reactions: friars leave angrily, one well-dressed man cheers, most look on in curiosity.

Luther sent his ninety-five theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg, on 31 October 1517. He may also have fixed them to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on that day, but there is no contemporary evidence of it. The first reference to the supposed nailing of the theses is in 1558 (twelve years after Luther’s death) from Philip Melanchthon, an ally of Luther who was not in Wittenberg in 1517. If the theses was fixed to the church door, a practice at the time, one would have expected in line with that practice that they would have been fixed by wax1

Very early in the history of Protestantism, history became important. Confronted with the question of “where was your church before Luther” a succession of scholars set out to establish that their church was not new, starting with Magdeburg Centuries (1559-1574) 2 Luther was not the first to call for reform in the Church, and forebears could be traced: Jan Hus and John Wycliffe. And before Wycliffe, at least according to John Foxe (born in 1517), an Irishman: Richard FitzRalph.
Read More

28 Apr

Of Dog-headed Men, Predestination and Universals

Today is the feast of the “popular saint of doubtful history” Christopher1. In the Middle Ages (and later, as the featured image above from the 17th century shows) Christopher was depicted as having the head of a dog.

Pliny recorded the testimony of a Greek physician who claimed to have encountered a race of people with the heads of dogs who dressed in skins. The idea passed into popular legend. The Irish accounts of Christopher, the dog-head who converted to Christianity and was martyred by the Roman emperor Decius can be found in the 15th century manuscripts, the Leabhar Breac and the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum2. It was also referenced by Ratramnus, a monk of Corbie in Picardy, when asked for advice about dog-heads by a monk called Rimbert, who thought he might encounter them in a mission to Scandinavia.
Read More

04 Apr

Isidore and the origins of the Irish

Manuscript image of Isidore

Isidore of Seville, who died on 4th April 656AD, spans the classical and medieval worlds. Besides being bishop of Seville (from about 600 to his death), he also attempted to condense huge amounts of classical learning into his most famous work, the Etymologies. This huge reference work was very influential throughout the Middle Ages, and explains why Isidore was selected by Pope John Paul II as the patron of the internet. A good summary of Isidore’s life and of the Etymologies, including images from various manuscripts of the work, is available on the British Library website 1.

The importance of Isidore can be seen in the fact over a thousand manuscript copies of the Etymologies survive and it was one of the first printed books. Almost certainly available in all cultural centres by 800AD, it seems to have arrived particularly early in Ireland. The earliest fragments of the Etymologies is housed in St Gall (named for the disciple and companion of Saint Columbanus). Written in an Irish scribal hand, it may date back as far back as the mid seventh century. References in Irish texts show that the Etymologies was certainly known in Ireland by the late seventh century and by 700AD all but one of Isidore’s works had arrived in Ireland2.

Read More

25 Jan

Robert Boyle’s Corpuscularian Theory

One of a series of lectures delivered by Peter Millican (2009) to first-year philosophy students at the University of Oxford as part of the General Philosophy course.

09 Dec

Saving Milton: his friend Lady Ranelagh and his defender John Toland

John Milton dictating 'Paradise Lost' to his daughter due to his blindness

John Milton is most famous today for his epic poem Paradise Lost, a poem that was almost lost due to the cause of Milton’s fame (or infamy) in 1660: his work writing defences of the Commonwealth against Royalist attacks. These were written when Milton was Secretary of Foreign Tongues to the Council of State from 1649. The works included Eikonoklastes (1649, justifying Charles I’s execution) and The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660, arguing against the Restoration). After the Restoration, Milton had to be hidden by friends: he eventually was arrested and held in custody for a few months. Friends in high places worked to ensure he was included in the Act of Free and General Pardon, Indempnity and Oblivion. Their success meant that Milton was released from prison, allowing him to complete his half-finished epic poem 1.

Milton had first come to attention as a poet. His first published work was Lycidas, an acclaimed pastoral elegy written for Dorothy Moore‘s brother Edward King. It’s likely that Dorothy Moore met Milton at some point, though as far as I’m aware there is no record of it. In the 1640s Milton became acquainted with members of the Hartlib circle, including Samuel Hartlib, John Durie, Henry Oldenburg and Lady Ranelagh. Milton and Hartlib probably met in 1643 and in 1644 Hartlib circulated Milton’s tract Of Education, To Master Samuel Hartlib2.
Read More

08 Dec

“Pious opinion”: the Irish Franciscans and the Immaculate Conception

Fresco of Virgo Immaculata (Mary, the Immaculate Conception) from St. Isidore's (Irish) College Rome

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, possibly the most misunderstood feast in the Roman Catholic calendar. It celebrates the conception of Mary (the conception of Jesus is the feast of the Annunciation, celebrated on the 25th March.) Why “Immaculate”? In 1854 Pope Pius IX pronounced that Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin”1.

This dogma was debated long before the 19th century. Irish involvement in the debate means that this is also a highly appropriate day to look at the group of scholars who disprove the theory that Ireland produced no influential religious thinkers2. (James Ussher can be cited as another 17th century counter-example.)

Read More

26 Jun

Correcting Lucretius: Dúngal and Carolingian Cosmology

King and Court Astronomer

In January 1417 a man called Poggio Bracciolini pulled a book from a shelf in a German monastic library. The text was De Rerum Natura, a long poem written by the Roman Lucretius in the 1st century BC outlining the tenets of Epicureanism. Much has been written about that event and its effect on the Renaissance, even suggesting it was central in creating modernity1. The story of the text before it was found is less well known.

De Rerum Natura was a poem written in the 1st century BC outlining the tenets of Epicureanism, a philosophical school founded by Epicurus (c. 341-c. 271 BC)2. Epicureanism grew to be one of the major philosophical schools, declining in popularity from the 2nd century on. The oldest manuscripts of the poem that survive are held in the library of Universiteit Leiden: Voss. Lat. F. 30, from the early 9th century nicknamed O and Voss. Lat. Q. 94, nicknamed Q3.

Read More