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 Irmingard; Eberhard, count of Friuli; Hartgar, 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
- 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. ↩
- 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 ↩
- 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 ↩
- Clare Stancliffe (2004) Sedulius [Sedulius senior ↩
- 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 ↩
- Aidan Breen (2009). “Sedulius Scottus (“the Irishman”)” in James McGuire, James Quinn (ed.), Dictionary of Irish Biography Cambridge University Press. http://dib.cambridge.org/viewReadPage.do?articleId=a7969 ↩
- Luned Mair Davies (2004) “Sedulius Scottus (fl. 840×51–860×74), poet and scholar” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. ↩
- Davies (2004) ↩
- Breen (2009) ↩
- Springer (2013), p. xvi-xvii. ↩
- 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). ↩
- 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. ↩
- R. W. Dyson (Ed. Trans.) (2010) De rectoribus christianis. Boydell & Brewer. See pages 18-19. Quote from p. 192/3. ↩
- 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. Academia.edu ↩
- Dyson (2010), pp. 17-18. ↩
- Davies (2004). Dyson (2010), p. 19 ↩
- Davies (2004) ↩
- Davies (2004). Dyson (2010), p. 20 ↩
- Davies (2004). Breen (2010) ↩
- Dyson 2010 p. 17 ↩