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A Manuscript and a Meeting Point: TCD MS 667 (Part 1)

By Conor McDonough OP

Among the many religious communities in the medieval town of Limerick was St Saviour’s Priory, home to the Friars Preachers or Dominicans. Right at the northern edge of Englishtown, it was founded in 1227 under the joint patronage of Gaelic aristocrat, Donncha Cairbreach Ó Briain, and the English crown.

Like any community of friars, St Saviour’s was not a stand-alone entity, but a node in an international network of friars, through which texts, ideas, stories, and friars themselves travelled with ease across national and ethnic boundaries. Like communities of friars everywhere, the founding aim of St Saviour’s was to preach the Gospel at a popular level, in an engaging and entertaining fashion, not only to those who worshipped in their church, but throughout the hinterland.

What might the training of young friars have looked like in medieval Limerick? Until recently, answering that question would have involved a lot of guesswork. In the last number of years, however, a fifteenth-century manuscript in the library of Trinity College Dublin – TCD MS 667 – has come to be associated with St Saviour’s, Limerick (for an outline of the argument in favour of this provenance, see the second part of this blogpost). TCD MS 667 was almost certainly the handbook of the community’s lector, the friar charged with teaching and forming young friars. Between the covers of the manuscript are found literally hundreds of short texts, almost all in Latin. Between them they paint a rich picture of the intellectual and imaginative atmosphere in St Saviour’s Priory and its zone of influence.

Among the first images to jump out at the manuscript’s reader is a mathematical diagram on p. 59. It’s one of a series of texts on basic astronomy and arithmetic designed to support the community’s regular life of prayer. It’s well known that debates about the dating of Easter caused endless difficulties in the early Irish Church. By the fifteenth century that question was long settled in the West, but it was still important for each new generation of clergy to understand the principles of calendrical science.

A circular diagram used in calendrical calculations found in TCD MS 667.
Figure 1: A circular diagram used in calendrical calculations (TCD MS 667)

It’s no surprise that this manuscript, belonging to the Order of Preachers, contains a number of sermons, including a few by great figures of ancient Christianity like St Augustine. There’s one sermon, for the feast of Corpus Christi, which includes a little rhyme in English (p. 184), a reminder to us that virtually all sermons preached to the people in the Middle Ages were delivered in the vernacular. While the main body of sermons was often recorded in Latin, the little memorable jingles with which preachers summed up their message were difficult to translate into another language, so they were usually preserved, as in this case, in the vernacular. This sermon, we can be sure, was intended to be preached in the city of Limerick; Irish, rather than English, was the language of Limerick’s rural hinterland.

Marginal notes (in Latin and English) on a page of TCD MS 667.
Figure 2: Marginal notes in Latin and English (TCD MS 667)

The manuscript contains a wonderful visual mnemonic for preachers too (p. 252): a hand which takes up half a page, each joint representing a point in a sermon about the shortness of life and the importance of conversion. 

A diagram of a hand containing notes for a sermon fills half a page of TCD MS 667.
Figure 3:  A diagram of a hand containing notes for a sermon fills half a page (TCD MS 667)

Apart from actual sermons, there’s an awful lot of what we might call ‘sermon-fodder’: vivid short stories designed to be woven into sermons; wise aphorisms; and many numbered lists: the seven principal virtues; the seven deadly sins; seven spiritual works of mercy; seven sacraments of the Church; seven gifts of the Spirit; seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer; the two principal commandments of the Law; the eight beatitudes; the seven ages of man; the six ages of the world; the three weapons of the devil; the twelve articles of the faith; the six functions of a church bell; eight kinds of lies; and the nine daughters of the devil (simony, pride, fraud, and so on). It’s easy to see how these lists might be memorised by trainee friars and then used to give a memorable structure to their sermons.

Among the proverbs in the manuscript, we find not only nuggets of wisdom from Christian authorities, but also from ancient pagan writers, like Cicero, Seneca, and Aristotle.

As for the stories, there are dozens of them, many of them drawn from anecdote collections made popular by the friars, excerpts from which turn up in manuscripts from Iceland to Poland. The longest of the narratives in the book is an adventure story about the finding of the Crown of Thorns by Charlemagne (a version of this story has, interestingly, endured to this day as a folk song in the Faroe Islands). There are many shorter stories too, sometimes arranged by theme for easy referencing.  The group of stories concerning the Blessed Virgin includes many miracle stories which emphasise Mary’s role as ‘Mother of Mercy’: a hermit is tempted to sin, but is consoled and encourage by a vision of Our Lady; a man dies and is claimed by both angels and demons as their own, but Mary appears and pronounces that he, who had been devoted to her during life, belongs among the good; and, most touchingly, a single lily grows from the tomb of a Cistercian monk who had faithfully prayed the Ave Maria throughout his life.

There are many more stories in this vein, all designed to capture the imaginations of hearers. My personal favourite tells of the apparition of a deceased student to his former teacher of logic. The student appears wearing a cape made of parchment, covered in logical problems, all aflame, and proceeds to tell the master all about Purgatory. The teacher in the story, of course, goes on to give up his worldly ambition and enters religious life. What’s fascinating about this anecdote, though, is that the teacher’s name is changed in the Irish version. Whenever this story turns up on the continent, the teacher’s name is Serlo, but here, in this book from Limerick, he’s given a local name: Patrick.

All these texts are written in Latin, but from pp. 165-181 of this manuscript something very unusual happens: the decoration of the pages stays the same, along with the themes of the texts (collections of proverbs, material for sermons and the confessional), but the language changes to Irish, and the script is modified accordingly. This combination of Gaelic script and ‘English’ decoration is apparently unique in Irish manuscripts. For Alan Fletcher “the very hybridity of the mise en page of the texts in the Irish language testifies, in the face of any notions of segregation, to ethnic cross-fertilisation and exchange”. This impression is strengthened if we consider the Limerick context. The switch to Irish at this point almost certainly indicates that the Dominican friars of Limerick were concerned to preach not only within the walls of Limerick, but also beyond them, to the Irish-speaking population. In order to reach the full range of their intended audience they had to be ready to preach and hear confessions in both English and Irish.

The small number of named Limerick friars of this period testify also to this cultural mixing: there are both English and Gaelic names among them. We can imagine life in St Saviour’s Priory being just as multilingual as the manuscript that has survived from its library: liturgy in Latin, conversation and pastoral care in English and Irish. Just as TCD MS 667 is a melting pot of texts and languages, so too was the priory, all with the aim of providing pastoral care and spiritual encouragement to the full range of people in its ambit.

TCD MS 667 is thus a meeting point of different languages, cultures, and religious and scribal traditions, but it also bears signs that it was a meeting point – at least once – between humans and animals. On p. 35 of the manuscript are found two feline pawprints, right in the middle of the page. At some point when the book was being written, and the ink was beside the page, the cat – a pet, a stray? – must have jumped up, knocked over the ink, and strolled with inky paw right across the lector’s handbook. An unwelcome interaction, perhaps, but just one more layer of complexity in this extraordinary manuscript, whose recently digitised pages are online and ready for further investigation.

Cat’s pawprints on a page of TCD MS 667.
Figure 6: Cat’s pawprints on a page of TCD MS 667.

(A version of this article appeared in David Bracken (ed.), Saints and Seekers, Dublin, 2022).

Further reading

Bhreathnach, E., ‘The Mendicant Orders and Vernacular Irish learning in the Late Medieval Period’, Irish Historical Studies, vol. 37 (2011), pp. 357-375.

Byrne, A., ‘Language Networks, Literary Translation, and the Friars in Late Medieval Ireland’, in M. Carruthers (ed.), Language in Medieval Britain: Networks and Exchanges, Donington, 2015, pp. 166-178.

____, ‘The Circulation of Romances from England in Late-Medieval Ireland’, in N. Perkins (ed.) Medieval Romance and Material Culture, Cambridge, 2015, pp. 183-198.

Fletcher, A.J., ‘Preaching in Late-Medieval Ireland: the English and the Latin Tradition’, in A.J. Fletcher and R. Gillespie (eds.), Irish Preaching: 700-1700, Dublin, 2001, pp. 56-80.

McDonough, C., ‘A Book at the Edge of Englishtown: TCD MS 667’, in N. Stam (ed.), Medieval Multilingual Manuscripts: Texts, Scribes, and Patrons, Dublin, forthcoming.

Ó Clabaigh, C., The Friars in Ireland, 1224-1540, Dublin, 2012.

By Conor McDonough OP

TCD MS 667 was digitised as part of the ‘Manuscripts for Medieval Studies’ project, supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York. This project is part of the Virtual Trinity Library programme which aims to conserve, catalogue, digitise, and promote the Library’s unique collections, making them accessible to a global audience, from schoolchildren to scholars.

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