St Mary’s Abbey Medieval Manuscript Comes Home to Dublin to Trinity Library

Posted on: 23 March 2015

An important early 14th-century manuscript produced at St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin has been returned to its city of origin, after 400 years, courtesy of Trinity College Library.

Lost to the world of scholarship since the 18th century, it has not been in Ireland since the 16th century. It is the first Irish medieval manuscript to be offered for public sale in over 100 years.

It was originally produced by the Cistercian Abbey of St Mary's, after which Mary’s Street and Abbey Street are named. It was the wealthiest monastic house in medieval Ireland. So important was it that the parliament, having no permanent building in the city, frequently met there.

An ownership inscription in the manuscript translated from Latin reads, “A book of the community of the house of the nourishing Virgin Mary near Dublin”.

“The acquisition of the manuscript is very important for Trinity College Library in our ongoing engagement with the city of Dublin. The manuscript contains a considerable body of new information which will help to re-evaluate the history and culture of St Mary’s Abbey and the civic life of Dublin in the 14th and 15th centuries. We will be able to digitise it, conduct scientific analysis, textual and codicological examination of the manuscript which will promote widespread research and scholarship, and popular interest. It will also promote scholarship within Trinity across a number of Schools including History, Classics, Art and Architecture and the Medieval Studies Centre,” said Librarian and College Archivist, Helen Shenton.

 “When Trinity College Library turned to its alumni and friends in the wake of the availability of the St Mary’s Abbey manuscript seeking much needed support for this acquisition the response was unprecedented in its range of supporters. It included numerous bodies and individuals, as well as scholars, across the university and among the wider historically-minded community in Ireland,” added Head of Research Collections and the Keeper of Manuscripts, Bernard Meehan.

 A small cluster of other medieval manuscripts from St Mary’s Abbey survives in major libraries. This ‘new’ manuscript will, through research, focus further attention on the other St Mary’s Abbey manuscripts which are held in other major repositories, including the British Library, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Cambridge University Library and John Rylands Library in Manchester.

 The manuscript includes legal texts, such as an early version of the 14th-century Ordinances which restricted the power of King Edward II, an account of the Trojan war by Dares Phrygius; Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-history of the kings of Britain, and works by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales, died 1223), the Topography of Ireland and Conquest of Ireland. (see extracts below)

The manuscript was produced at a time when resources were not plentiful. Different batches of sheepskin parchment were used. Its quality was varied: some leaves were robust, others were thin and greasy.

After the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII the manuscript fell into private hands; it was eventually purchased by the first Earl Somers whose bookplate is in the volume. The manuscript was acquired by Trinity College Library at Christie’s auction in London in November 2014.

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Notes to Editors

Following  a major fire at the Abbey in 1304,  the monks’ wanted to make good some of their  losses suffered  and put several scribes to work   copying texts. These include an account of the Trojan war by Dares Phrygius; Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-history of the kings of Britain, and works by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales, died 1223), the Topography of Ireland and Conquest of Ireland. In the Topography, Gerald describes Ireland as a land that

… is fruitful and rich in its fertile soil and plentiful harvests … Only the granaries are without their wealth … For this country more than any other suffers from storms of wind and rain … a north-west wind … prevails here, and is more frequent and violent than any other.

Typically for historians of the middle ages, he describes miraculous phenomena, including a cross, in Christ church cathedral, that speaks and gives testimony to the truth:

… there is in Dublin in the church of the Holy Trinity a cross of most wonderful power. It bears the figure of the Crucified. Not many years before the coming of the English, and during the time of the Ostmen, it opened its hallowed mouth and uttered some words. Many people heard it.

Though the Conquest was dedicated to King Henry II, the author was at times startlingly frank about the character of the monarch.  Noting that Henry paid little time or attention to worship, he wrote that

… he appropriated to the royal treasury the revenues of vacant churches … as new crises were continually overtaking him, he lavishly distributed all his money, giving the lawless knight what the priest ought to have received.

Describing his attitude to his legitimate children, he wrote that

… When they were boys, he was devoted to his legitimate children with a spontaneous affection even greater than that usually found in a father. But when these same sons grew up, he viewed them with more jaundiced eyes than any stepfather. And although he had such distinguished and illustrious sons, one great impediment to his complete happiness was his constant detestation, perhaps with good reason, of those who would succeed him.

The manuscript also contains an early version of the Ordinances of 1311, regulations which restricted the power of King Edward II. In the middle ages the abbey was frequently used as the location of the Irish parliament.

Following the Cistercians, its list of subsequent owners includes Redmond O’Gallagher, Bishop of Killala (1545-69; died 1601); James Ley, first Earl of Marlborough (c 1552-1629), who provided the manuscript with its present binding; Lewis Morris (1701-65), the Welsh scholar and poet; the Rev Treadway Nash (1725-1811), of Bevere, near Worcester; John Somers Cocks, first earl Somers (1760-1841), whose bookplate is in the volume. The manuscript came down by descent in the Somers family, until it was offered for sale at Christie’s in London in November 2014.

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