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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.
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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.

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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 Pardon. Their success meant that Milton could 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 plausible that Dorothy Moore met 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.
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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.)

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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.

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18 Jun

Robert Boyle, Irish Identity and Science

This year’s 5th Annual Robert Boyle Summer School which runs from June 23 2016 explores ‘Science and Irish Identity’. Organiser Eoin Gill argues that in Ireland, scientific achievements are less celebrated than literary ones. Gill says that1:

It is not unusual for people to talk openly about Yeats and Joyce and their significance in our history and culture. Science has been squeezed out, and some suggest it is because many of our leading scientists were Anglo-Irish and science therefore was seen as an Anglo-Irish pursuit and spurned by the Free State. Others claim that the Catholic Church was wary of science and some even suggest that Catholics themselves leaned more towards superstition than rational inquiry.

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17 May

Robert Boyle Summer School, Lismore Co. Waterford, 23rd – 26th June 2016

The Robert Boyle Summer School 2016 (an event aimed at all interested in exploring different aspects of culture) will explore Science and Irish Identity. See details of the programme here on robertboyle.ie. Book tickets via Eventbrite.

From robertboyle.ie:

Ireland’s literary and musical achievements are well acknowledged home and abroad and celebrated in many successful and long established summer schools. The Robert Boyle Summer School was established to explore the place of science in our heritage and culture and the 2016 School will address the theme “Science and Irish Identity”. This theme will resonate with the commemorations of the 1916 Rising and the Battle of the Somme and the school will take place in between these events from 23-26 June. The theme presents the opportunity to explore different Irish Identities not in terms of conflict but in their involvement in and attitudes towards science.

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17 Mar

Literacy and Learning in Ireland before and after Patrick

National Heritage Park, Wexford (c) Irish Philosophy

National Heritage Park, Wexford. (c) Irish Philosophy

There are two myths about early medieval Ireland. One is that it was an ignorant, isolated place. The other is that without Ireland, civilisation would have been lost.

Pollen evidence suggests a growing population in the Ireland of the third and fourth centuries, with agricultural expansion and forest clearance taking place after a previous decline. The landscape was dominated by pastureland, intermingled with scrubby woodland and mixed farming, with few large areas of forest1.

This was a rural society, broken up into túatha and kingdoms. However it was not isolated from the world. Tacitus tells us in the first century AD Roman traders knew the major routes to, and harbours in, Ireland. Imports included wine and fine cloth. There were also Roman-Irish contacts via Romano-British slaves in Ireland and Irish settlements in Wales2. In Wales as well as in Ireland itself we find evidence of the first Irish writing, Ogham.

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20 Feb

Eco on a Perfect Language: Gaelic

The dream of a perfect language did not only obsess European culture. The story of the confusion of tongues, and of the attempt to redeem its loss through the rediscovery or invention of a language common to all humanity, can be found in every culture.
[…]
It is in the seventh century, before any known document written in Romance or Germanic languages, that the first allusion to our theme appears. It is contained in an attempt, on the part of the Irish grammarians, to defend spoken Gaelic over written Latin. In a work entitled Auracepit na n-Éces (‘the precepts of the poets’), the Irish grammarians refer to the structural material of the tower of Babel as follows: ‘Others affirm that in the tower there were only nine materials, and that these were clay and water, wool and blood, wood and lime, pitch, linen and bitumen…These represent noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, participle, conjunction, preposition, interjection.’
Ignoring the anomaly of the nine parts of the tower and only eight parts of speech, we are meant to understand that the structure of language and the construction of the tower are analogous. This is part of an argument that the Gaelic language constituted the first and only instance of a language that overcame the confusion of tongues. It was the first, programmed language, constructed after the confusion of tongues, and created by the seventy-two wise men of the school of Fenius.

Umberto Eco (1995) The Search for a Perfect Language (trans. James Fentress), London:Fontana Press, pp. 1, 17, 18.

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