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Walter Berschin  

Early Byzantine Italy and the  Maritime Lands of the West

 From: Greek Letters and the Latin Middle Ages. From Jerome to Nicholas of Cusa . Translated by Jerold C. Frakes. Revised and expanded edition. The Catholic University of America Press, http://cuapress.cua.edu/  


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3.  Ireland 

One of the most tenacious of modern legends concerning the Middle Ages is that classical studies escaped from Gaul to Ireland during the collapse οf late antiquity, and that Greek was studied and known in Ireland during the early  medieval "Dark Ages": "L'hellénisme banni du continent Occidental alla se réfugier plus loin dans cette île qui avait échappé a la conquête romaine: l'Irlande. -L'état des lettres y était alors florissant depuis des siècles, grâce au zèle intelligent des Druides qui avaient importé leurs lumières des Gaules. Convertis au christianisme, ils n'en continaient pas moins à cultiνer la littérature ancienne. ...Le mysticismequi constituait le fond du caractère irlandais, les rendit enclins aux rêveries philosophiques, ce qui explique

leur ardeur pour les doctrines de Platon. L'étude de la langue grecque formait dοnc l'une des bases de leur enseignement." ("Hellenism, banned from the western reaches οf the Continent sought refuge further away on the island which had escaped the Roman conquest: Ireland. At that time, literary studies had been flourishing for centuries, thanks to the intelligent zeal of the Druids, who had imported their dultural lights from Gaul. After their conversion to Christianity, they did not lessen their cultivation οf the study of ancient literature ... The mysticism which constitutes the basis οf the Irish character disposed them to philosophical reveries, which explains their ardor for the doctrines of Plato. The study of the Greek language was thus one of the foundations of their education.") Here, in his Alde Manuce et l'Hellénisme à Venise (p. xvii), the book collector and learned amateur Ambroise Firmin-Didot formulated especially well and imaginatively what others before him had already written about "le miracle irlandais" in cultural history.24 Already in 1905,  Μaurice Roger currectlv readjusted the standards οn the basis of his manuscript studies, and in 1912, Μario Esposito came to very negative conclusions after a critical analysis οf all sources cited up to that time on which the high opinion of Greek studies in Ireland had been based: "Dduring the earlier period, from the sixth to the end of the eighth century serious, serious evidence of Greek or classical knoeledge in Ireland is slight and almost non-existent."25 

Τhe Irish question has nevertheless persisted. From the relative and period-specific, historical point of view, many traces of Greek among the Irish are significant simply because they appear almost nowhere else: Greek letters as display script in the Schaffhausen Adamnan codex, written before 713 οn the island of Ιοna -ΦΙΝΙΤΥΡ CΗΚΥΝΔΥC ΛΙΒΕΡ (finitur secundus liber); and οn the last page, the Greek paternoster in Greek majuscules (in part already with ЭЄ for Μ).26 Esposito correctly notes, "The orthography is not suggestive of any accurate knowledge of Greek grammar," but orthography and grammar should not be the οnly standards of scholarly interest in these early traces, so typical of the medieval reception of Greek; nor may they be considered in isolation. Along with the Adamnan codex from Ιοna, one must also take into account the early Northumbrian fragment of an evangelary which includes a display page οn which the Greek paternoster is written in the Roman alphabet;27 in addition, one must consider the "Book of Lindisfarne," written by Bishop Eadfriŏ of Lindisfarne (698-721), with the illumination titles Ο AGIOS MATTHEUS Ο AGIUS MARCUS Ο AGIOS LUCAS O AGIOS IOHANNES, which should not be understood as an awkward copy of Greek illumination titles: there is a design of embellishment and encoding involved in this use of Greek words and letters.28 Thus there was certainly an "ornamental" and perhaps even a liturgical interest in Greek in the Irish-Northumbrian culture domain around 700. Τhe "Book of Armagh," Ireland's oldest "historical work" (ca.807), presents a kind of compilation of these uses of Greek: page titles, subscriptions, and even a name are written in Greek: ΔΙΚΤΑΝΤΕ ΤΟΡΒΑΚ├ (dictante Torbach) with "spiritus asper"├ for h!29 The Latin paternoster is also written in Greek majuscules in the "Book of Armagh." If one considers Ireland and Northumbria together, one can itemize a brief series of "Greek" paternosters:

before 700, Durham, Greek in the Roman alphabet
after 700, Ιοna, Greek in the Greek alphabet

after 800, Armagh, Latin in the Greek alphabet

Αll variations οn the Greco-Latin mode are thus represented. Coincidence or conscious variation? Similarly the Trier-Echternach illumination school "fully declined" in Latin the phenomenology of the Greek word and letter in the tenth/eleventh century.

This ornamental Greek of the Irish frequently radiated out to the Continent, although without tangible and demonstrable evidence for direct Irish influence in each particular case. B. Bischoff, Die südostdeutschen Schreibschulen der Karolingerzeit, 3rd ed. (Wiesbaden 1974), descτibes ninth-century southern German manuscripts with such Graeca; among them is the manuscript of Gregory's Dialogi, Augsburg Ordinariatsarchiv 10 (from Füssen, St.Mang), saec. ΙΧ in., with AэєΗΧ (amen: эє  for Μ as in many Western documents; Χ for Ν , "wohl aus der Rune für Ν zu erklären" ["most likely to be explained οn the basis of the rune for Ν"]; Bischoff, p. 50) and ΕXΡLICIΘ. In spite of the Continental minuscule and Old High German glosses (in the vowel cipher attributed to Boniface and explained in the De inventione linguarum, Migne PL 112, cols. 1581-82), the insular influence in the lively ornamentation is unmistakable, and the Grecistic method of writing Amen Explicit also belongs to this insular "ornamentation."

Greek words occur occasionally in the poetry and prose of the Irish; for example, in the antiphonary of Bangor, Ireland's oldest "book of poetry," one finds proto, agie, agius, pantes ta erga, zoen.30 

The glosses in the Hisperica famina ("Occidental Orations"), a work which has often been associated with Irish erudition, abound in rare terms, with a sprinkling of Greek and Hebrew words:"

Titaneus olimphium: inflamat arotus tabulatum,
thalasicum: illustrat uapore flustrum ...

[The titanian star inflames the edifice of the heavens, lights up the calm of the sea with fire.]  

"These documents prove very little beyond a slight acquaintance with Greek vocabulary, such as could easily be derived from the textbooks and glossaries then in circulation" (Esposito); seen in the context of its time, however, this "slight acquaintance" with Greek is not inconsiderable. Just such an interest is often attributed to the filid, that Irish caste which particularly cultivated language and poetry; Auraicept, their textbook, which is thought to go back to the seventh century, contains the Greek alphabet (with numerical values) after the Hebrew.32  

Without question the Irish of the early Middle Ages were intensively occupied with script, language, and grammar. That is shown not only by the triad of splendid Irish Priscian manuscripts of the ninth century, in Karlsruhe, St. Gall, and Leiden, but perhaps also by the tradition of the enigmatic Virgilius Maro, whose abstruse grammar was transmitted by the Irish." Through grammatical texts of late antiquity, the Irish came into direct contact with Greek; the same is true of exegesis, to which the Irish were particularly devoted." A typical Irish endeavor in the fields of grammar and exegesis seems to have been to determine what the equivalents of a given word were in the "three sacred languages." Even St. Columban (d. 615) gave a solemn trilingual flourish to his letter to Pope Boniface IV: "... mihi Ionae hebraice, Peristerae graece, Columbae latine ..."35 Το be sure, the search for the equivalents in the three sacred languages was not always successful. The Irish Liber de numeris, "eine Fundgrube für ausgefallenes Wissen" ("a storehouse of obscure information"), contains a good example thereof: "... Pater, Filius, and Spiritus sanctus, in Hebrew these three persons are called Abba, Ben, and Ruha; and in Greek Pater, Bar [!], but Ι have not yet found the Greek for 'spirit.' "

Migne PL 83, col. 1293-1302 (in the appendices to Isidore of Seville), here col. 1302. The passage was first excerpted by Bishoff (Mittelalteriche Studien, II 249), then by R.E. McNally, "Der irische Liber de numeris" (diss. Munich, 1957), p. 51, and idem, in Theological Studies 19 (New York 1958). McNally (diss., p.156) proposes that the Liber de numeris originated in southern Germany in the late eighth century -more specifically, among the associates of Virgil the Irish Bishop of Salzburg (745 or 767-84). H. Löwe treats the problem cautiously in "Salzburg als Zentrum literarishen Schaffens im 8. Jahrhundert," Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Salzburger Landeskunde 115 (1975), 99-143, here pp. 104 f. 

Even in the field of epigraphy, fragments of Greek have been brought to light in modern times from early medieval Ireland: an inscription on the slab of Fahan Mura on the northern Irish coast, held to be illegible, was deciphered by R.A.S. Macalister ("The Inscription on the Slab at Fahan Mura," The Journal of the R. Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 59 [1929], 89-98) as a Greek doxology:



corresponds to Gloria et honor patri et filo et spiritui sancto). The discoverer associated the formulation of the texth with a Toledo Synod of 633; cf. Macalister, Corpus inscriptionum Celticarum (Dublin 1949), II, 118 ff., pl. XLVII. Macalister's reading is confirmed by F. Henry, Irish Art in the Early Christian Period, 3rd ed. (London 1965), p. 126 and pl. VII. One must nevertheless voice some misgivings concerning the early dating of the inscription. It would be unique in seventh century Ireland. According to our knowledge of Greek studies among the Irish, the inscription belongs more probably to the eighth century. Here one may compare the dating of the stone to "around 800" -on the basis of evidence from art history and style- by P. Harbison, in P. Harbison, H. Potterton, and J. Sheely, Irish Art and Architecture from Prehistory to Present (London 1978), p.65. 

Thus it can be said that the Irish were in any case remarkably interested in Greek during the seventh and eighth centuries. On their green island and in the monasteries of Irish character on the northern English coasts, they did not read Homer or Plato, but rather learned the Greek alphabet wholly or in part, excerpted Greek words from late antique sources -Jerome, Macrobius, Boethius, Priscian, Isidore, and others- and probably even participated in the transmission of glossaries; as for complete texts, only short liturgical pieces were evidently known. With a knowledge of Greek acquired in this manner, they could not understand or translate longer Greek texts with which they were unacquainted. But on the Continent, the Scotti peregrini had a scholarly advantage simply because of their receptiveness for languages, especially Greek; and in the ninth-century cultural realm of the Carolingians, with its better resources, it was again possible for an Irishman to translate texts into Latin from Greek.