07 February 2009

The Library of Iona Monastery, 563-704 AD


One of the many wonderful things one can find in Thomas Owen Clancy’s and Gilbert Márkus’s Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery (Edinburgh: Edinburgh U, 1995) is a sort of appendix called ‘Iona’s Library’ (pp. 211-22). It is a list of the titles and descriptions of books that were evidently read at the monastery at the beginning of the 8th century. I shall reproduce the list, except when it is non-specific (e.g., ‘Liturgical Books’, or ‘Greek texts’), as well as English editions whenever I have them. But I invite readers to submit examples of any other English editions they know of when I do not provide these.

1) The Bible. According to the authors, the monks at Iona ‘happily used a mixture’ of the Vetus Latina and the Vulgate for some time (p. 212).

2) The Gospel of Nicodemus. There is actually an Irish translation (see Ian Hughes, Stair Nicoméid: The Irish Gospel of Nicodemus [London: Irish Text Society, 1991]) of this ‘apocryphon’, which includes a famous description of the Harrowing of Hell. Unfortunately, the only English edition I seem to have is from a rather ridiculous reprint of The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden.

3) The Book of Enoch. St Columba appears to have drawn on I Enoch for some of the imagery in ‘Altus prosator’. I have it in E. Isaac, trans., ‘I (Ethiopic Apocalypse of) Enoch’, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. I: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, ed. James H. Charlesworth (NY: Doubleday, 1983), pp. 13-89.

4) St Athanasius’s Vita Antonii. While I am sadly lacking a translation of this seminal hagiographic work from the original Greek, I can console myself in this context by pointing out that it was Evagrius of Antioch’s Latin translation that was read at Iona. My translation from the letter is in Carolinne White, trans., Early Christian Lives (London: Penguin, 1998), pp. 7-70.

5) The Actus Sylvestri. I have no English edition of this 5th-century work. I’m also confused about it. Although the Prologue, for one, repeats the Actus’s account of St Sylvester’s relationship with St Constantine, according to this book, it was ‘the primeval seed from which the Donatio Constantini grew’. Are any readers familiar with it? I’d love to get comments.

6) St Jerome’s Biblical Commentaries. According to the authors, St Adomnán uses St Jerome’s commentaries on Matthew, Nahum, Hosea, and Ezekiel, a work on Hebrew places and place-names, and a book of ‘Hebrew Questions’, and he may have had others as well. I do not personally possess translations of any of St Jerome’s writings apart from the three hagiographies in White, pp. 71-128. However, I am currently borrowing several volumes from my dad’s set of the IVP Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, which contain excerpts from St Jerome. Does that count?

7) Philip the Presbyter’s Commentary on Job. Apparently St Columba repeated a mistaken claim about the planet Venus that he probably got from a commentary on Job that used to be attributed to St Jerome but is now believed to be by his pupil, Philip (Clancy and Márkus, pp. 214 & 259, n. 14). I suppose what I said about St Jerome’s own commentaries probably applies to this as well.

8) St Augustine’s City of God. My edition of this is a ‘Modern Library Giant’: St Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (NY: Modern Library, 1950). The introduction is by Thomas Merton, who seems to keep popping up on here for no good reason.

9) Sulpicius Severus’s Life of St Martin. My edition of this is also from White, pp. 134-59.

10) Sulpicius Severus’s Letters and Chronicon. I have no English edition of these, but the authors cite Alexander Roberts’s translation, available here.

11) St John Cassian’s Conferences. Aside from being a major source for St Columba’s ‘Altus prosator’, St Cassian is actually mentioned by name in Dallán Forgaill’s 6th-c. elegy for St Columba, the ‘Amra Choluimb Chille’ at V.6 (Clancy & Márkus, p. 109). I have a complete translation in The Conferences, trans. Boniface Ramsey (NY: Newman, 1997), but I also have the extracts published in ‘The Classics of Western Spirituality’ series: John Cassian, Conferences, trans. Colm Luibheid (NY: Paulist, 1985), which I bought largely for Owen Chadwick’s introduction.

12) Constantius’s Life of St Germanus of Auxerre. Although I do not yet have an English translation of this Life, I am seriously considering ordering this book, which contains one. Be sure to check out the review by an uncritically critical ‘evangelical’ minister of some kind! One can also read excerpts of this Life here.

13) Psuedo-Anatolius’s Canon paschalis. A pseudepigraphal letter which, as near as I can tell, gives a ‘Celtic’ method for the calculation of Easter, this one is not available in English apparently.

14) Cassiodorus’s Exposition of the Psalms. Again, this is not one that I have (though I see it can be ordered here), but there are definitely excerpts among the comments in the IVP Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

15) St Gregory the Great’s Dialogues. I am woefully lacking a translation of the complete Dialogues, but as is well known, the ‘2nd Dialogue’, which gives the Life of St Benedict, is available all over the place, and I have several editions of it. The two I consult most often are Carolinne White’s translation (pp. 165-204), and that by Hilary Costello and Eoin de Bhaldraithe (Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1993). The latter has the merit of including the extensive commentary of the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé.

16) Cumméne Find’s Liber de virtutibus sancti Columbae. As this is no longer extant, I cannot say I’ve got an English translation of it.

17) Cogitosus’s Vita Brigitae. This is an extremely valuable, early (650-90, according to Davies, p. 32) Life of St Brighid of Kildare. I have this one in Oliver Davies, trans., Celtic Spirituality (NY: Paulist, 1999), pp. 122-39.

18) St Isidore of Seville: Etymologies and De Natura Rerum. I don’t have anything by St Isidore, though I certainly wish I did. According to Clancy and Márkus, ‘His numerous writings were seized on with delight by Irish writers, and exercised an immediate and lasting influence’ (p. 220).

19) Hegesippus’s Historia. According to the authors, this is ‘a fourth-century Latin adaptation of Josephus’ Jewish Wars, to which was added additional material from other sources’ (p. 221). I’m not sure that it’s in English.

Well, that’s about it for Clancy’s and Márkus’s list. Their conclusion is delightful: ‘Here we find a monastery not out on a limb, doing its own “Celtic” thing, but steeped in the culture of Latin Christianity, participating fully in the literary expression of the faith of the church, the “People of the Book”’ (p. 222).

3 comments:

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Wow. I know there are translations of alot of those, but rather than fish them all out myself (for I am feeling right lazylike at the moment), I will instead teach you how to fish, with The Dictionary of Early Christian Literature, Sigmar Döpp and Wilhelm Geerlings. Engl. tr. (New York: Herder & Herder/Crossroad Publishing Co., 2000). This is absolutely the best such dictionary around. Each listing includes a short life of each author, and, best of all, complete information on current editions and translations into modern European languages. There's nothing else like it available. It's pricey, but the most valuable of such dictionaries. Put it at the top of your bookbuying list. You won't be disappointed!

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for letting me know about that dictionary, I'd really like to get my hands on one! Just for now, though, I'm not that serious about tracking down all of these. I just thought it would be fun to see which ones I had already. But I'll have to remember about Döpp and Geerlings next time I'm at the Oklahoma City University library. Which centuries does it cover, exactly?

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

It adheres to the old period-definition of "Patristic" in ending with St John of Damascus in the East and St Isidore of Seville in the West. It's comprehensive as far as I've seen. Every time I think I've found a writer that won't be in there, I look and am proven wrong. Discussions of anonymous writings presumed to fall within that date range are also included. It's a great book. Take a look when you can. I'm sure you'll find it very useful.