Celtic 222. Early Irish Manuscript Tradition

Barbara Hillers
Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures
Harvard University

Course Description

This course explores the medieval Irish manuscript codices, situating them against their monastic background and investigating their form and content. It provides an introduction to Irish paleography and editorial method, giving students hands-on practical experience in manuscript transcription as well as familiarizing them with research tools (facsimiles, catalogues of manuscripts, electronic and microfilm resources). Seminar participants are expected to take an active role in shaping the course; students will make a number of presentations, as well as choose and present a final term project. Requirements: some knowledge of either Latin or Irish.

Course Evaluation

Attendance and participation: 10%
Exercises and quizes: 30%
In-class presentations: 30%
Final project and paper: 30%


Discrete readings will be assigned for each week. The following works serve as points of departure or of reference throughout the course and may be considered required reading (though not necessarily required buying).

Weekly Topics

Week 1: Adamnán's Vita Columbae
Introduction of literacy to Ireland. Monasteries and scriptoria. The familia of St Columba.
Week 2: Medieval Manuscript Production
Hands-on introduction to the physical world of writing in medieval Ireland: media and techniques.
Week 3: Books for Missionaries - The Earliest Manuscripts
Psalters, missals and portable gospels. From Roman Rustic to Irish Majuscule: the development of Irish script.
Week 4: The Book of Armagh and the familia of St Patrick
The Patrick Dossier in the Book of Armagh. Latin palaeography: compendia and conventions. Irish Minuscule. Calligraphy practicum.
Week 5: Tools and Resources: Library Practicum
Library Resources: Manuscript collections, facsimiles, microfilms, electronic resources. Manuscript catalogues, diplomatic editions. Introduction to the Robinson Room collections.
Week 6: Illuminated Manuscripts I: Function, Artistry and Meaning
Models and development. Irish vs Anglo-Saxon or Insular? Function and meaning.
Week 7: Illuminated Manuscripts II: Durrow, Kells and Lindisfarne
Visit to Houghton Library. Student presentations, introducing the Durrow, Kells and Lindisfarne facsimiles. Exploration of a single Manuscript page.
Week 8: In the Footsteps of Columbanus: Irish Manuscripts on the Continent
From the trivial to the complex: monastic education. The St Paul Codex. Irish manuscripts in Continental libraries; the glossed Milan, St Gall, Würzburg and Turin manuscripts.
Week 9: Text and Context: Early Irish Hermit Poetry?
Interpreting marginal poetry within its proper context - its immediate manuscript context and its intellectual and religious context.
Week 10: The Twelfth-Century Vernacular Manuscripts
The three vernacular manuscripts - The book of the Dun Cow (LU), The Book of Leinster (LL) and Rawlinson B502. Student presentations and practicum on the scripts. The taxonomy of the tradition.
Week 11: From Manuscript to Printed Text: The Theory & Practice of Text Editing
Introduction to the history of textual criticsm. Manuscript collation and the stemma. The joys and perils of emendation.
Week 12: Welsh Vernacular Manuscripts
Introduction to Welsh Manuscript tradition. Welsh script and scriptoria. The vernacular compilations: The White Book, the Red Book, and the Hendregadredd Manuscript.
Week 13: The Late-Medieval Vernacular Manuscripts
Later medieval manuscript production: significance. The learned families and their patrons; scholars' books and patrons' books. The Book of Ballymote. Student presentations on late vernacular compilations.