Turning an ancient page in history


A fragment of an ancient text gives a revealing insight into the work of Irish missionaries in Germany and how they viewed the roles of the various saints, writes MARY LELAND

ONLY HALF-DISGUISED by their Romanesque lettering, the names scroll down the vellum page: an abbreviated St Patrick, followed by saints Brandane, Columba, Finiane, Kiarane, Cronane, Muolua, Molaga, those last two especially bridging a gap of 800 years between the monks of Munster and the monasteries of Bavaria.

This litany forms what is called the Regensburg Fragment, a single page recently acquired by University College Cork following a year-long series of negotiations initiated by Dr Timothy Bolton of the Western Manuscripts section of Sotheby’s in London.

The interest of UCC was aroused by emeritus professor Dr Pádraig Ó Riain and his wife Dr Dagmar Ó Riain-Raedel, both specialists of the history of medieval Irish missionaries in Europe. They organised a seminar in 2008 to discuss the provenance and significance of the page and in turn that encouraged librarian John FitzGerald and Cronan Ó Doibhlin, head of Special Collections at UCC’s Boole Library, to acquire what is called a fragment but which in fact is longer than an A4-sized page with writing on both sides.

It is a curious introduction to the world of manuscript collections to learn that this fragment was found in what is known as a “swap box”. This is a store of items that collectors hold, perhaps for years, ready to exchange for something of more immediate interest or a piece that might help complete an existing record.

A thrilling fact of life for collectors and scholars of such items is that they are often found strengthening the binding of early printed books; as a book was printed to reproduce a manuscript, the original folios were often discarded, much as hand-written letters might now be abandoned in favour of e-mails. This is a world in which one can judge a book by its cover, the cover sometimes being more valuable than the volume itself. “These thousand-year-old scraps of vellum would have been torn out of the original books,” explains Timothy Bolton. “They survive and are recognised by the tiniest shreds of chance and they just float past you.”

This one was caught as it floated, and Dr Bolton, who prefers to say that the folio was resting as a relatively unidentified item in a private collection he was examining, admits that he was so bowled over when he realised what he was reading that he “actually shrieked”.

Formerly a medieval historian, Dr Bolton identified the date of the hand which had entered the names of the litany. In reading the side listing of German saints, he saw that these included the early bishops of Regensburg. This supported the scribal date of the 12th century; when he turned over the page, he saw that the first name there was Patrick: “I realised that these following names were spelled as only an Irishman would spell them, and I thought to myself, this looks like fun.”

A colleague directed him to Pádraig and Dagmar Ó Riain, and what Dr Bolton describes as “a cold call” began the process that has culminated in the return of the page to Ireland. At the seminar, Ó Riain, former professor of early and medieval Irish at UCC, explained that the text of the fragment consists of a litany of saints written in a very fine hand with red ink setting off the initial letter of each entry.

“The presence in the litany of a number of Irish saints, accompanied by continental saints closely associated with the city of Regensburg in southern Germany, allows the inference that the Irish Benedictine monastery of St James in Regensburg was the most likely provenance of the text.

“Also, the choice of both continental and Irish saints was no random one, reflecting in an accurate and illuminating way the relations of the Regensburg Schottenklöster [the monastic foundations of Irish and Scotch missionaries on the European continent] with the local German community and with the homeland.”

Regensburg was once the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, and its schottenklöster is named after the Scotti – the name given to the Irish missionaries in Germany. The Benedictine foundations were established around 1072; at least 10 other monasteries, including Nuremburg and Vienna, spread from the mother house until in the early 16th century the supply of Irish recruits began to dwindle and was replaced by monks from Scotland. As every Christian child in Ireland was once aware, a litany (from the Greek lité meaning supplication) is a series of recited invocations to which the congregation replies with a set response, as in “ ora pro nobis”.

Ó Riain points out: “The earliest litanies, dating to about AD400, come from Asia Minor, but in the West this form of prayer is thought to have struck a chord most strongly in what used to be called the ‘Celtic Church’ and the early Irish church was particularly rich in litanies.”

There is rather more than this to be learned about litanies, and the research by both Dagmar and Padraig Ó Riain has made it clear that this relic of Regensburg reflects, as was customary, the particular preference of the author, or of the community to which he was attached.

It has a clear internal logic expressed in terms of saints and is “highly revealing in its choice of representatives of the devotional links that mattered to the Benedictine monks of the Regensburg Schottenklöster”.

ALTHOUGH THEtown of Regensburg now has a Unesco World Heritage Site designation, with its medieval core still largely intact, its early manuscripts have all but disappeared, apart from a few known fragments in the bindings of books in institutions in and around the city and in the UK. That makes the excitement aroused by this discovery, and this acquisition, all the more understandable. Cronan Ó Doibhlin says that no early medieval manuscript of Irish interest, to UCC’s knowledge at least, has been offered at auction since 1922. This wasn’t offered at auction either: Timothy Bolton mediated discussions with its owner in England while UCC explained its conviction that the page should be held for the Irish people. “I saw the validity of putting it in a private sale,” remembers Bolton, “and the owner never questioned that – it just seemed to all concerned that Cork would be the appropriate home, that the page would return to the home of those who wrote it.”

In decoding the manuscript leaf, Ó Riain notes the particularly strong emphasis on the south Clare and Limerick area so that the main emphasis of the litany seems to indicate the sphere of influence of the O’Briens of Thomond. This suggests that it was composed after 1150 when Regensburg was in the care of a succession of abbots from north Munster. The opening of the list of female saints may have been affected by a trimming of the leaf, which could explain why Mary Magdalene’s name is first. There is what Ó Riain calls a nod in the direction of the Benedictines with a reference to their founder’s sister, Scholastica, while Brigida of Kildare, a frequent member of continental litanies, is followed by Gertrude of Nivelles, co-patron of the schottenklöster in Regensburg.

Despite the controlled underground lighting and reverent atmosphere of the special collection reading rooms, the page emerges from its archive treasury with a clarity that seems astonishing given its age, until it is remembered that this handwriting was designed to be easily legible and readily recited. Of course, it has immense significance as the only early medieval written record of the Irish community in Regensburg in its day, and of course it has much more to tell us than even both Ó Riains could cover in their initial lectures. But it was meant to be prayed. Following the seminar, it was at the Benedictine’s Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick that the monks sang the litany at vespers, giving it its first ever liturgical recital in Ireland and possibly the first chanting of its verses since the 16th century.