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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.
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04 Jan

“Too Gentle a Soul”: James Ussher

A historian, a scholar and a key figure in the religious debates of the 16th century, Ussher was born in Dublin (either on Nicholas St[1] or 57 High St[2] across from the old Christchurch Synod Hall) on the 4th January 1581 and baptised in the Church of Ireland St Nicholas Within. He was born into a prosperous merchant family, but one that was torn by the religious divisions of the time. Most of the Usshers conformed to the Church of Ireland, notably Henry Ussher, Church of Ireland archbishop of Armagh from 1595 to 1613, who played an important role in the creation of Trinity College, Dublin in 1592. His mother remained Catholic; her brother was the famous historian Richard Stanyhurst (1547-1618), in later life a Jesuit priest [3].

James Ussher was one of the first to attend Trinity College Dublin, gaining his BA c. 1597 and MA in 1601. He was ordained by his uncle Henry Ussher in December 1601 and in 1602 took his first trip of many to England, in search of books for Trinity College Library. During his trips to London he made many antiquarian connections with figures such as Henry Savile and John Seldon. He graduated in Divinity in 1607, immediately becoming Professor of Theological Controversies. In 1613 he married Phoebe Challoner, daughter of the vice-provost of Trinity Luke Challoner, and published his first work, Gravissimae Quaestionis, de Christianarum ecclesiarum, in occidentis praesertim partibus, ab apostolicis temporibus, ad nostram usque aetatem, continua successione & statu, historica explicatio (London, 1613). This work gave an account of medieval heretical groups drawing on original sources; however it also had the polemical purpose of tracing the rise of the Anti-Christ in Roman Catholic church, and the identification of groups such as the Cathars as proto-protestants[4].

Ussher graduated DD in 1614 and became vice-chancellor of Trinity in 1615. He is also credited with playing a large part in the creation of the Church of Ireland’s first full Confession of Faith. These articles were an advance on the 39 Articles on which they were based, they allowed more accommodation of puritan ideas than the equivalent in the Church of England (for example, allowing more leeway on the question of bishops) and did not require subscription. Ussher became Bishop of Meath and Clonmacnoise in 1621 and finally was appointed Archbishop of Armagh by James I of England in 1625[5]. It should be noted that of the twenty-five bishops James I placed in the Church of Ireland in his lifetime, Ussher was the only one born in Ireland and educated at Trinity [6]

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23 Oct

James Ussher: Academic Modernity

Archbishop Ussher of Armagh, intellectually the most imposing figure of this early period, combined moderate religious Calvinism and academic modernity in a manner more typical of the contemporary Dissenter than of bishops of the established church. He gave financial assistance to Samuel Hartlib, who as well as being publisher of Petty’s Advice, acted as a one-man clearing-house for advanced ideas in education, religion and the sciences. In 1641 he paid the publishing costs of Arnold and Gerard Boate’s Philosophia Naturalis (Dublin, 1641), being in agreement with the book’s strongly anti-Aristotelian tone. When in 1640 Dr Prideaux expressed fears over some of John Dury’s pansophist writings […], his friend Constantine Adams, ‘to shade off this needlesse fear,…did instance unto him in the ArchB. of Armach’. […]

But Ussher himself was no scientist, and knew relatively little of the New Learning’s techniques and justification. His correspondence with the English mathematician Henry Briggs and with the astronomer John Bainbridge was concerned largely with the help the new science could provide for his own historical and chronological studies. […] Nonetheless Ussher’s interest in science did lead him to acquire some of the manuscripts belonging to John Dee, Edward Wright and John Bainbridge.

From K. Theodore Hoppen (1970) The Common Scientist in the the Seventeenth Century: A study of the Dublin Philosophical Society 1683-1708, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 11-12.

To put the printing of the Philosophia Naturalis into perspective, of the 93 books printed in Dublin between 1626 and 1650, it was the only one dealing with science (even taking the widest possible sense of the term.) The Boates are cited by Robert Boyle in his Origin of forms and Qualities alongside Lucretius, Bacon and Gassendi as excellent authors who are opposed to Aristotelian ideas.

I’m intrigued by James Ussher, patron of the New Learning, but I haven’t as yet found any more on this side of him in relation to science. This from Renaissance Mathematicus, In defence of the indefensible, explains how the work of Ussher and others like him laid the foundation of both modern history and archaeology.

17 Mar

Appropriating Patrick: Keating, Ussher, Toland and the Early Irish Church

A statue of St Patrick in an antique shop window (c) david perry/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A statue of St Patrick in an antique shop window
(c) david perry/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The very oldest texts in any language written in Ireland that have survived relate to St Patrick. One, the Confessio, outlines his own account of his life. To the modern reader, it may seem sparse. There is no mention of Pascal fires, of shamrock or of snakes.

The tale of St Patrick developed over time, and to fulfil different purposes. Muirchú’s Latin Life of Saint Patrick, compiled around the year 680 which includes tales of wonders, was written to confirm Armagh’s pre-eminent place in the Irish Church. Patrick was said to have arrived in Ireland in 432AD to undermine the earlier Palladius who was documented to have arrived in 431AD. The development of the myth continued into the 15th century, with examples to be found in the Book of Lismore and the Leabhar Breac. This tradition emphasised St Patrick as a wonder worker and a prophet. At the same time secular writings such as the 12th century Acallamh na Senorach include stories of Patrick meeting the Fianna.

The Norman invasion saw a parallel tradition emerge, starting with Gerald of Wales’ outline of Patrick’s life in Topographia Hibernica, which included a debunking of the legend of the banaishment of the snakes. Jocelin of Furness’ account, based on resources some of which are now lost, was written as part of the Anglo-Norman attempt to appropriate the saint. Written at the same time as the shrine in Downpatrick was established, it portrays Patrick as a miracle-working prophet, whose mother was related to St. Martin of Tours.
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21 Oct

Why Study…James Ussher

Why Study…James Ussher with Professor Alan Ford, University of Nottingham.

Ussher (1581-1656) is now principally remembered for just one thing: giving the date of the creation as 4004 B.C. (on “the entrance of the night preceding the twenty third day of Octob[er]”). The chronology from which this date comes has become a foundational text of creationists; as Prof Alan Ford writes

It is a neat irony that one of Ussher’s greatest works of scholarship, the summation of a lifetime’s investigation of biblical chronology, which combined the latest scientific and astronomical discoveries of his day with the profoundest scriptural and historical research, should now be upheld by those who reject the consensus of contemporary biblical and scientific studies.

Stephen J. Gould argued that, while obviously wrong, “I shall be defending Ussher’s chronology as an honourable effort for its time and arguing that our usual ridicule only records a lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past.” Those adopting and those dismissing Ussher both tend to break the rule that the context in which a philosopher worked should not be ignored; another irony is that Ussher did the same when exploring the history of the early Christian Church in Ireland, as the video explains.

21 Mar

Fall in the House of Ussher

Ussher represented the best of scholarship in his time. He was part of a substantial research tradition, a large community of intellectuals working toward a common goal under an accepted methodology–Ussher’s shared “house” if you will pardon my irresistible title pun. Today we rightly reject a cardinal premise of that methodology–belief in biblical inerrancy–and we recognize that this false assumption allowed such a great error in estimating the age of the earth. […]

The textbook writers do not know that attempts to establish a full chronology for all human history (not only to date the creation as a starting point) represented a major effort in seventeenth-century thought. These studies did not slavishly use the Bible, but tried to coordinate the records of all peoples. Moreover, the assumption of biblical inerrancy doesn’t give you an immediate and dogmatic answer–for many alternative readings and texts of the Bible exist, and you must struggle to a basis for choice among them. As a primary example, different datings for key events are given in the Septuagint (or Greek Bible, first translated by the Jewish community of Egypt in the third to second centuries B.C. and still used by the Eastern churches) and in the standard Hebrew Bible favored by the Western churches.

Stephen Jay Gould, “Fall in the House of Ussher.” Natural History 100 (November 1991): 12-21 (available online here)
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