ARMAGH, BOOK OF (Medieval Ireland)

A vellum manuscript consisting originally of 222 folios (c. 195 x 145 mm; folios 1 and 41-44 are now missing) in three parts: The first contains a dossier of texts mostly in Latin but partly in Old Irish, comprising almost all the earliest biographical and historical materials relating to St. Patrick; the second part is the only complete copy of the New Testament surviving from the early Irish Church; the third contains the Life of St. Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus (in a unique recension). The manuscript is particularly important, both for its contents and because it can be dated. In a brilliant piece of detective work, Charles Graves, later Bishop of Limerick, in the mid-nineteenth century deciphered two partially erased colophons which revealed that the book had been written (with perhaps one or more assistants) by an Armagh scribe Ferdom-nach (d. 846) at the behest of Torbach, heres Patricii (i.e., successor of Patrick and abbot of Armagh) in the year 807. The book was revered in the later Middle Ages as a relic because of a colophon on folio 24v which reads Hucusque uolumen quod Patricius manu conscripsit sua (Thus far the volume that Patrick wrote in his own hand); in later centuries, this text came to be called Canoin Phatraic (Patrick’s Canon).

Leather satchel of the Book of Armagh.

Leather satchel of the Book of Armagh.

The Armagh collection of texts written by Patrick himself appears to have been incomplete at time of writing (807), if not before. Thus only his Confessio is copied (in a defective version) into the manuscript; Patrick’s Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus is missing, apparently deliberately omitted. Copies of the two documents survive in continental transcripts, however, thus revealing the defective nature of the Armagh recension. Copies of the earliest surviving hagiographical works on Patrick, by Tfrechan and Muirchu maccu Machtheni, appear also to have survived only in defective versions at Armagh, and it has even been suggested that they may, in fact, have been added at a later date to the rest of the collection, after their respective texts had been procured from elsewhere.

The gospel text in the Book of Armagh is classified as Vulgate with some Old Latin admixtures. One recent study has detected affinities between the Armagh text and that of the Echternach Gospels main text (Paris, BN lat. 9389). The other New Testament texts are of more or less equal purity (the Acts of the Apostles and the Apocalypse being especially so). At the end of Matthew’s Gospel the scribe has added a collect for that saint’s feast-day (on which day that particular page was written), while at the end of John, excerpts from Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Iob are arranged in a geometrical design around the diamond-shaped closing words of the Gospel. At the end of the additions (Additamenta) to Tfrechan’s Collectanea of Patrician ecclesiastical sites, two groups of cryptic catchwords and abbreviations are inserted, neither having any connection with the Patrician material. The second of these groups (folio 53v.) consists of a number of allusions to Pope Gregory, with the full text of the Hancigitur prayer of the Roman canon. Gregory was especially revered in the early Irish Church, as was Martin of Tours, and some authorities have claimed that the text of the Vita Martini in the Book of Armagh was transmitted to Ireland within half a century of Sulpicius Severus’s death (410).

Whereas the Patrician section is undecorated, the four gospels are elaborated with large and small initials, often with bird- or animal-heads and spirals, and pen-and-ink drawings of the evangelist symbols, while some initials in the third (Martinian) section are also elaborated. Initials towards the end of the topic, in the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, and the Life of St. Martin, are colored. On folio 170r. there is a diagrammatic representation of Jerusalem, the walls of which are decorated with interlace in the Irish style. The closing texts of John’s Gospel and the opening of the Apocalypse are written in spectacular diamond-shaped patterns of exquisite calligraphy. There are some individual Latin words written in transliterated Greek.

The Book of Armagh is important also as the oldest dateable Irish manuscript containing continuous prose texts in the Irish language. Its value for linguists is therefore exceptionally high. Passages from the Patrician dossier also preserve the oldest surviving evidence for the use of charters to record land and property transactions in early Ireland. So also, Ferdomnach’s scribal note Scripsi hunc ut potui librum ("I have written this topic as best I could," folio 18v.) is likewise the earliest dateable example of Irish Latin hexameter verse.

Despite its substantial contents, the Book’s small dimensions, and the arrangement of the gatherings, suggest that it was intended originally to be used as six separate booklets. Superficially akin to the well-known Irish class of "pocket gospels," it is unlikely that the gospels (or the entire New Testament sections) were used for liturgical or ceremonial purposes. A pair of wooden boards, apparently from an early binding, still survives, which may at some earlier date (perhaps already in the ninth century) have formed the cover of the New Testament or some other part of the manuscript. On the other hand, its exalted status was the reason why, in 1004, when Brian Boru visited Armagh in the course of a triumphal circuit around Ireland, he had his secretary (Calvus Perennis, alias Mael-Suthain) insert a note in the Book claiming Brian as imperator Scottorum ("emperor of the Irish").

The earliest datable reference to the Book of Armagh is preserved in the (seventeenth-century) Annals of the Four Masters, who record that in 937 a shrine or case (cumdach) was provided for the Book by Donnchad mac Flainn, King of Ireland. In the fifteenth century, the Book was provided with a leather carrying-satchel, which still survives. At some unknown date the hereditary office of "Steward of the Canon" was created to ensure the safekeeping of the manuscript. It seems to have passed from the possession of the keepers sometime after 1680 into the hands of Arthur Brownlow of Lurgan (County Armagh), and was eventually deposited by a member of the Brown-low family in the library of the Royal Irish Academy, in Dublin. In 1853 it was donated, after purchase, to the Library of Trinity College Dublin.

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