Depiction in a 12th century manuscript of Donatus writing his grammar.

Sedulius Scottus: philosopher poet to princes

There could be no more appropriate Irish philosopher to write about at Easter than Sedulius Scottus, at least according to another Irish philosopher Dr George Sigerson. In 1922 Sigerson’s “The Easter song : being the first epic of Christendom, by Sedulius the first scholar-saint of Ireland” was published, and in the introduction to this partial translation of the  “Paschale Carmen” Sigerson stated that Sedulius who composed it was Irish1 While this was not a pure assumption on Sigerson’s part2, and the same attribution has been made before and since, modern scholars see no reason to assume an Irish origin for this 5th century writer3.

There is no such doubt about Sedulius Scottus, whose very name betrays his origins. (Though because nothing is ever simple, he is sometimes confused with another, slightly earlier Irish Sedulius, who is known only for a commentary on Matthew, and is sometimes called Sedulius Senior to avoid confusion4 (fl. 7th–8th cent.) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography].) 

Sedulius Scottus probably came from Leinster, based on the invocation of St Brigid in the margins of his manuscripts 5. His name in Irish may have been Siadhal, as Dr Sigernson suggests. It seems likely that he left Ireland due to the threat of the “Nordmanii” (Vikings), who are regularly mentioned in his poetry. He is first documented in the court of the Welsh king Rhodri Mawr (844–78) around 848, moving to the continent soon after6.

It is possible that he arrived with an Irish delegation to Charles the Bald as early as 848, but he certainly arrived before the death of empress Irmingard in 851. One of his poems relates of an arduous journey made by Sedulius and two companions, ending in the three of them being taken in by the kindly Bishop Hartgar in Liege. 7

Sedulius was a prolific poet: eighty three of his poems composed in a variety of classical metres survive. “He sang to some of the greatest in Francia: the emperor Lothar (d. 855) and his three sons, Charles (d. 863)Louis (d. 875), and Lothar II (d. 869); the empress IrmingardEberhard, count of FriuliHartgar, bishop of Liège; Gunthar, archbishop of Cologne; and to Irish friends”8 and “his poetry can still be appreciated for its inventive freshness, delicacy of sentiment, and humour”9. Sedulius wrote his own Carmen Paschale, but as a ten-line poem rather than an epic (he was aware of his poetic predecessor; the 5th century Sedulius was known in Ireland10). His poetry ranges from mock heroic epics to philosophical puzzles and from peons of praise (which can yield biographical details) to drinking songs11

I am a writer, I, a musician, Orpheus the second,
And the ox that treads out the corn, and your wellwisher I,
I am your champion armed with the weapons of wisdom and logic,
Muse, tell my lord bishop and father his servant is dry.

12th century manuscript with large illuminated initial.
Walters Ms. W.12, On Christian rulers (Germany, mid 12th century). This manuscript is the second oldest copy of Scotus’ treatise known, the earliest being from the ninth century. Creative Commons (CC-NC-SA 3.0.)

Sedulius’s most important philosophical work, De Rectoribus Christianis (On Christian Rulers), mixes poetry and prose in the posimetrum style used by Boethius for the Consolation of Philosophy 12. Sedulius describes his work as a handbook (“enchiridion”), meant to be consulted frequently by its addressee “the more easily [to] observe how many evils supernal and divine justice metes out to evil rulers and how many things to good ones”13
De Rectoribus Christianis fits squarely into the genre of political treatises produced in the Carolingian period. These were influenced by the Irish treatise De XII saeculi (“The Twelve Abuses”; read more about this text here). This influence can be seen as early as the letter from Cathwulf to the young king Charlemagne referencing the section of De XII saeculi referring to the unjust king and the cosmological harm he can cause his kingdom. This concept was referenced in letters by Charlemagne and Alcuin, and cited in treatises by Jonas of Orléans and Hincmar of Rheims14. Thus it is not surprising, though very appropriate that Sedulius also uses this work, particularly in chapter 20, with echoes of Irish advice to rulers elsewhere. Chapter 10 may even be adapted from an Irish original15
The treatise is probably addressed to Charles the Bald, though the earlier consensus was that it was addressed to Lothair II is still possible16. It described how the rulers power came from God rather than from the church: the relationship of church rules and monarchs was an important one in the Middle Ages (for an overview of the issues listen to the History of Philosophy podcast 218. Two Swords: Early Medieval Political Philosophy). The importance of virtue exemplified by self-rule (self-control) of the ruler is outlined, along with the key royal virtues of clemency, wisdom, and piety. However this is balanced by advice to respect the church and its bishops, the key role of good advisers, and of the importance of God’s aid in war17.   
Besides the Irish sources already mentioned,  De Rectoribus Christianis draws on scripture, the histories of Orosius and Cassiodorus, and the writings of Boethius, Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, Bede, De re militari, by Flavius Vegetius Renatus and the Scriptores historiae Augustae which describes the lives and fates of the later Roman emperors. The frequency with which Sedulius used such sources is unusual among the advice handbooks for princes written by his contemporaries, showing the extent of Sedulius’s learning, also reflected in his florilegium, the Collectaneum, which draws on an even wider range of classical and Irish texts 18
Sedulius wrote commentaries on Matthews gospel and on the Letters of St Paul, and, sharing the general Irish interest in grammar, on a number of classical Latin grammarians including Donatus. Sedulius did not work alone: he was part of a wider circle of Irish scholars, both back in Ireland and within the Carolingian Empire. The manuscripts associated with the circle of scholars around Sedulius suggests they had knowledge of Greek, and their heavily glossed copy of Priscian’s ‘Institutiones grammaticae’ is a monument of Old Irish glossography. Sedulius was the first among equals with fellow scholars such as Fergus, Donngus, Dubthach son of Máel-tuile, Dúngal, and Iohannes 19

Techt do Róim,
mór saítho, becc torbai;
in Rí con-daigi i foss,
manim bera latt ní fhogbai.

    —Epigram by Sedulius written in the margin of a manuscript, translated by Frank O’Connor as “To go to Rome/is little profit, endless pain;/the master that you seek in Rome/you find at home or seek in vain.”

Manuscript pages
Page of the Reichenau Primer (Stift St. Paul Cod. 86b/1 fol 1v) on which Pangur Bán is written

Perhaps second among equals: Iohannes has been identified with John Scottus Eriugena. They say that Bing Crosby said of Frank Sinatra, “He’s a singer who comes once in a generation; why did he have to come in mine?” Sedulius was a famous scholar but has been overshadowed by his illustrious contemporary. But perhaps in the age of the internet the tables may turn. Frank O’Connor translated an anonymous poem called “Pangur Bán” found in the Reichenau Primer (Stift St. Paul Cod. 86b/1 fol 1v), and suggested due to similarities in style, that it was written by Sedulius. Sedulius disappears from the record in Liege circa 860, and there is some slight evidence that he went to Milan20. It is not impossible he stopped in southern Germany along the way. As the attribution spreads in a cat-crazy medium, Sedulius may yet get the recognition he deserves. 

Depiction in a 12th century manuscript of Donatus writing his grammar.Featured Image: From Arundel 43 f. 80v (a 12th century German manuscript) in the British Library, a miniature of Donatus writing his grammar, i; at the end of Sedulius Scotus’s Expositio super primam edicionem Donati grammatici. Public Domain. 


  1. George Sigerson (1922) The Easter song : being the first epic of Christendom Dublin:Talbot Press, pp. 3-9. Signerson cited the 8th century geographer Diciul and the 15th century German Trithemius calling Sedulius.
  2. despite what Springer says in Carl P. Springer  (1995). The Manuscripts of Sedulius a Provisional Handlist. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 85(5), i-244. doi:10.2307/1006648, p. 11n30
  3. Carl P. Springer (2013)
    Sedulius, the Paschal Song and Hymns Society of Biblical Literature, pp. xiv-xvi, esp p. xvi “We can be quite sure, at any rate, that Sedulius was not Irish”. A more accessible biographical entry for 5th century Sedulius is at CCEL Sedulius, 5th-cent. poet
  4. Clare Stancliffe (2004) Sedulius [Sedulius senior
  5. Seamus Deane (ed) (1991) The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day), Vol. 1, pp. 139-40. pages 117-23 include a selection of his poetry
  6. Aidan Breen (2009). “Sedulius Scottus (“the Irishman”)in James McGuire, James Quinn (ed.),  Dictionary of Irish Biography Cambridge University Press.
  7. Luned Mair Davies (2004) “Sedulius Scottus (fl. 840×51–860×74), poet and scholar” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  8. Davies (2004)
  9. Breen (2009)
  10. Springer (2013), p. xvi-xvii.
  11.   Sedulius translated by Hellen Waddell. Helen Waddell (1933) Mediaeval Latin Lyrics New York: Henry Holt And Company, pp. 120-1, Third verse. The full Latin poem with translation is available on The Latin Reading Blog : A complaint from an Irish monk (blogpost).
  12. W. Wetherbee (2009)  “The Consolation and medieval literature” in J. Marenbon (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Boethius (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy, pp. 279-302). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. See p. 279.
  13. R. W. Dyson (Ed. Trans.) (2010) De rectoribus christianis. Boydell & Brewer. See pages 18-19. Quote from p. 192/3.
  14. Rob Meens (1998). “Politics, mirrors of princes and the Bible: sins, kings and the well-being of the realm.” Early Medieval Europe 7(3): 345-357.
  15. Dyson (2010), pp. 17-18.
  16. Davies (2004). Dyson (2010), p. 19
  17. Davies (2004)
  18. Davies (2004). Dyson (2010), p. 20
  19. Davies (2004). Breen (2010)
  20. Dyson 2010 p. 17
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