Monthly Archives: May 2016

Unstable Narratives of Scribal Collaboration in an Eleventh- to Twelfth-Century Irish Manuscript

Unstable Narratives of Scribal Collaboration in an Eleventh- to Twelfth-Century Irish Manuscript – by Eystein Thanisch, University of Edinburgh

Scribal activity is, naturally, pivotal to both reconstruction of textual history and understanding a text’s reception. Interactions between multiple scribes can be especially insightful. Yet neither a text’s history nor a scribe’s precise role is necessarily a stable and known fact; if our understanding of one changes, the other can transform too. Here, I explore an example of how interpretations of scribal collaboration can differ depending on how one relates the scribes’ work to a text’s history.

The example appears in the eleventh- or twelfth-century Gaelic-language manuscript, Lebor na hUidre (hereafter, LU), a compilation of literary, pseudo-historical, and religious texts. A quick description is available here and detailed discussion can be found in a recent conference proceedings volume. The manuscript is available online via Irish Script on Screen (‘Collections’ > ‘Royal Irish Academy’ > ‘MS 23 E 25’) and a diplomatic edition can be found on the CELT Database (subsequent references are to this edition).

Briefly, at least three successive scribes produced LU, A, M, and H. A begins several texts. M completes and sometimes annotates them and adds his own. H annotates A and M’s contributions, intervenes in rasura or by interpolation, and also adds texts. Recently, and dramatically, Elizabeth Duncan showed that hand H is, in fact, made up of six different scribal hands (H1–6).

The LU text (ll. 2783–924) considered here is Aided Nath Í ocus a adnacol (‘Nath Í’s violent death and burial’; ANÍ). M begins it and annotates his contribution; H1 annotates, amends, and continues it. M opens with the death of Nath Í (a fifth-century Irish king) in the Alps. He had been cursed with an early death and an obscure grave by Forménus, the king of Thrace, whose prayers he had disturbed. Nath Í’s body was returned to Ireland and buried at Cruachu (modern-day Rathcroghan). His burial-place, with those of other ancient notables, was preserved through poems (given in extenso) by Torna Éces and Dorban Fili. There follow a prose survey of royal cemeteries. M’s contribution ends with p. 38b (l. 2907). p. 39 is by H1. He continues the prose survey, recapitulates Nath Í’s story, and concludes with a colophon narrating the text’s compilation by two eleventh-century scholars.


William Frederick Wakeman, 'The Tomb of Dathi' (1903). Wikicommons

William Frederick Wakeman, ‘The Tomb of Dathi’ (1903). Wikicommons

ANÍ also appears in two late fourteenth-century manuscripts, the Book of Ballymote (BB) and the Yellow Book of Lecan (YBL). These both contain material from H1’s continuation (YBL more than BB). YBL also includes within its main text material found in LU as M and H1’s annotations. BB only draws on M’s annotations and omits the colophon. In YBL, the colophon is located roughly half-way through ANÍ, following Torna’s second poem (LU, ll. 2811–50).

This situation has been interpreted in two ways.

1. Tomás Ó Concheanainn argued that LU must constitute the archetype. Its text of ANÍ is a thitherto non-existent fusion of the work of two independent scholars, M and H[1], a fusion that occurred in the course of LU’s physical compilation. The BB and YBL versions, containing material rendered by both LU scribes (although to differing extents), must therefore be derived from LU.

2. Others, most recently Máire Herbert, argued that the YBL text represents an independent, slightly fuller recension, to which both M and H1 had access. They inscribed its evidently attractive material in and around the pre-existing LU text. The BB text is of the same recension as M’s original.

Herbert’s position seems more convincing. Her argument predominantly rests on detailed textual examination, beyond this blogpost’s scope. To add a brief observation, for the LU text to be the archetype, one would need to explain why, on the YBL branch, the colophon was moved back into the text from an original concluding position. More plausibly, H1 encountered it midway through a YBL-type text. Too substantial for insertion into M’s text at its proper location but too valuable to omit, he appended it to his continuation, despite this misleadingly implying a unified text.

Leaving aside this debate’s rightful outcome, however, each position produces a distinctive picture of scribal collaboration. Ó Concheanainn takes M and H1 for creative, independent scholars sourcing extra material to improve the text; their joint creation then virtually became later tradition’s canonical version. For Herbert, M and H1 are strictly scribes, confined to a pre-existing textual tradition. All they are trying to do is put together the fullest version within that tradition. Their work on the page looks haphazard, but the whole process is distinctly conservative. The hybrid version they produce does not become particularly influential.

Detailed study of individual manuscripts can be very insightful, but immediate appearances can be deceptive. A lot depends on our assumptions, whether about a text’s history or about scribal activity. This case of scribal collaboration reminds us of the potential hidden complexities in manuscript culture, although I doubt that any scholar with much experience of medieval manuscripts is actually in need of such a reminder!