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An achievement of scholarship and technology.

Damian Bracken and Eric Graff, Editors.


A DOMNAN (d. 704), ninth abbot of Iona, was one of the greatest Irish writers of the early Middle Ages. Moreover, he was a major churchman, counting among his acquaintances Loingsech mac Oengusso (d. 704), king of Ireland and Aldffith (d. 704-05), powerful ruler of Northumbria. His wide-ranging social concerns included the protection of noncombatants in warfare, highly unusual for the time. This culminated in Lex lnnocentium, Law of the Innocents, promulgated at a national assembly held at Birr in 697. More typically, Adomnan was an expert on the Holy Places of Scripture and wrote an influential account of them, one which was adapted by the famous English writer Bede (d. 735). However, few would argue that his masterpiece is Vita S. Columbae, the Life of St Columba. This vita celebrated Columba (d. 597), also known as Colum Cille, the founder-abbot of Iona. Columba had impressed his fellow monks with his sanctity during his lifetime. Stories of his miracles and extraordinary virtues were already being collected soon after his death. They had even reached written form by the time Adomnan became abbot in 679. His achievement was to take these stories, distill them through community memory and deep Christian values, creating one of the most attractive saintly figures from the entirety of Irish hagiographical literature. Adomnan's Columba is impulsive yet wise, a practical abbot who is also a visionary. The saint's powerful personality underpins rather than detracts from the complex political nexus which the Life inhabited. Thus, Adomnan ensured that the saint's role, and that of his community, should be appreciated in Ireland and Britain. After all, Iona's influence was felt on both sides of the Irish Sea, making it a lynchpin of the Insular culture which joined together the peoples of the islands. Various setbacks to the community's influence, particularly associated with the debate over the dating of Easter, made the writing of Vita Columbae all the more important. Adomnan's response is a work that is as theologically profound as it is politically acute.

However, the Life of Columba is not only crucial for its historical and literary legacies; its earliest extant manuscript is one of the treasures of early medieval Irish culture. Relatively few manuscripts survive from seventh- or early eighth-century Insu lar contexts. The so-called Schaffhausen Adomnan (Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, MS. Generalia I), is surely one of the most significant. The scribe was Dorbbene (d. 713), one of Adomnan's successors as abbot of Iona. It may well have been copied under Adomnan's direction or soon after his death. The Schaffhausen Adomnan is the closest that we have to an autograph copy of an early medieval Irish text. Apart from Vita Columbae, the manuscript also contains the only witness to Liber de Virtutibus S. Columbae, compiled by Cummene (d. 669), seventh abbot of Iona. A fragment of this text is interpolated into the main body of Vita Columbae (p. 108a), an invaluable survival of those source materials that were transmuted by Adomnan into hagiographical gold. It is fitting, therefore, that this manuscript should be the first chosen by the ArCH (Armarium Codicum Hibemensium) Project for facsimile treatment. ArCH, based in University College Cork, aims to produce a series of facsimiles of important early medieval Irish manuscripts, particularly ones which, like the Schaffhausen Adomnan, are now in Continental libraries.

However, many, although by no means all, of these manuscripts are digitized, a technology which has generally overtaken facsimile reproduction. For instance, the Schaffhausen Adomnan is already freely available on the excellent e-codices site ( bs/0001), a wonderful research tool. What then is the value of this new facsimile? There are several. The facsimile itself is the first volume of a two-volume set. The reproduction is uniformly excellent and is scaled exactly to the actual manuscript. The color is outstanding, marking a major improvement on the collotype facsimiles of the past. In effect, this perfectly-scaled reproduction allows the reader to see the manuscript as it was originally intended. There can be no doubt that digitization has transformed our understanding of medieval manuscripts; it has also transformed how we read the texts. Though something as simple as zoom tools, a modern researcher can now routinely see more on a digitized manuscript folio than their early medieval counterparts could see on an original. It is much easier to focus in on minute details; concomitantly it is far harder to appreciate a manuscript as a codex, to physically feel its weight or to appreciate it as a singular created object with specific fixed dimensions. This reproduction does not replace the digital copy but it does complement it and gives a feel for Dorbbene's achievement that transcends the screen. The facsimile is an act of mimesis which brings imitation and reality together; it has a heft of authenticity. This is Adomnan's Vita Columbae.

Furthermore, the second book in this set, a commentary volume, is a mine of information. It is valuable both in its own right and as a companion to the facsimile. In a nice touch, it is produced to the same scale as the Schaffhausen Adomnan, running to 107 generous pages. These explore the manuscript, its contents and its contexts. Eric Graffs "Report on the codex: Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, Generalia 1" (17-55), is a real highlight. It provides an expert and clear physical description of the manuscript, including the binding, collation, materials and script. The latter is especially useful and is placed within the context of the Cathach (49), the Antiphonary of Bangor (51) as well as the Book of Dimma (51-52) and Book of Mulling (52), among others. It has color illustrations throughout that usefully support the arguments. Graff's chapter is the single best introduction to this manuscript as a physical object that has been published to date.

Jean-Michel Picard's "Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, Generalia 1: the history of the manuscript" (56-69), directly follows Graffs contribution. The author details the history of the manuscript, charting its journey, like a detective, from Iona to the Continent and eventually to Schaffhausen in Switzerland. But this is no mere travelogue: The manuscript's history is interleaved with historiographical insight, drawing on Picard's deep knowledge of the reception of Adomnan's text, particularly from the seventeenth-century onwards. The early modern rediscovery of the manuscript was especially significant (59-62).

Mark Stansbury's "The Schaffhausen manuscript and the composition of the Life of Columba" (70-89), draws on the author's previous publication on this topic in Peritia 17-18 (2003-04), building on its insights. Stansbury contextualizes Adomnan's work as a hagiographer as well as situating the Schaffhausen manuscript in relationship to the B manuscript recensions which go back to a no-longer extant common exemplar B. This comparison allows for an exploration of changes to Adomnan's text as well as highlighting Dorbbene's role as both scribe and abbot (87-88). The article demonstrates that even a vita with the authority of Adomnan's Life of Columba was never really a fixed text.

Anthony Harvey's "Some orthographic features of the Schaffhausen manuscript" (90-96), provides the reader with a careful and expert examination of Dorbbene's spelling, sifting through common orthographical variations to identify those which are philologically significant. Harvey isolates these features, in particular those demonstrating sound-changes in the pronunciation of Old Irish, such as that which brought voicing to previously unvoiced palatal fricatives (94-96). The article is accompanied by a useful vocabulary appendix, drawing on the important work of the DMLCS (Dictionary of Medieval Latin from Celtic Sources) project (97-104). Harvey's paper rounds out the second volume through bringing life to the interplay of the aural and orthographic worlds which produced the Schaffhausen Adomnan.

The two-volume Schaffhausen Adomnan is an enormously valuable work, an achievement of scholarship and technology. Even in this era of digitization, the impact of having a very high-quality reproduction of the original manuscript is a considerable one. It brings the reader uniquely closer to the world of Dorbbene and from Dorbbene to that of Adomnan, author of the masterpiece. The commentary companion volume is packed with scholarship. Its authors consider the manuscript in all its major aspects ranging through the historical, the palaeographical and the philological. They bring added value and more. Both books in the set are beautifully produced. They are a fitting tribute to the monastery of Iona and to three of its remarkable abbots: Dorbbene, Adomnan, and Columba himself, the man who ultimately inspired this enterprise.

--University College Dublin
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Author:Johnston, Elva
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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