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New edition and translation of the Statute of Kilkenny

21 December 2021 - The Irish Manuscripts Commission will publish Professor Keith Busby’s new edition and translation of the Statute of Kilkenny, a project he has been working on as part of his recent Visiting Research Fellowship at the Trinity Long Room Hub.

Professor Keith Busby is Douglas Kelly Professor of Medieval French Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and spent the Michaelmas semester at Trinity working in collaboration with Dr Peter Crooks from Trinity’s School of Histories and Humanities.

Although his main research interests are in Old French literature of the 12th through the 14th centuries, Professor Busby has said that a fortuitous mistake led him to discover a connection to Ireland in his research on medieval French.

After publishing Codex in Context: Reading Old French Verse Narrative in Manuscript in 2002—a book which provided readers with a guide on how to read medieval French literature in manuscript—Professor Busby realised (“to my horror”) that he had forgotten to include discussion of a list of titles of ‘lais’ on the flyleaf of a manuscript in Shrewsbury School ('lai’ or ‘lay’ is a short narrative poem in Old French, usually centred around a problem relating to ‘courtly love’). Although he had known about this list for a long time, this omission would prove more intriguing than he thought at the time when he began to subsequently look further into the titles of the ‘lais’. Within the list he identified two titles as coming from pure Irish mythology and pseudo-history. Professor Busby's publications to date had included mostly works on old French literature, particularly Arthurian romance, and in Codex in Context, part of a chapter was devoted to the genre of the so-called ‘Breton Lai,’ the most famous of which were written by the late 12th century author known as Marie de France, “the first woman writing in French”. Having identified a number of titles relating to Irish material, including ‘Le rey Heremon’, that is, Éremon, one of the sons of Míl Espaine from the foundation myth of Ireland in the Lebor Gabála (The Book of Invasions) and ‘Coscra’, that is, ‘Cuscraid Mend Macha’ (‘Cuscraid the Stammerer of Macha’), Professor Busby became fascinated by the notion of French in Ireland. “This list tended to suggest that what we used to call the Normans, but whom historians now call ‘the English’, were writing texts in Norman French on pure Irish topics.” The culmination of Professor Busby’s new research interests came with the publication of his 2017 book French in Medieval Ireland, Ireland in Medieval French: The Paradox of Two Worlds.

It was in the final chapter of this book that Professor Busby discussed briefly the Statute of Kilkenny, by way of emphasising that although by 1366, French in Ireland had mainly died out as a “practical everyday language” (he argues it was only at the very highest echelons that it was used in Ireland at this time),  French had been the language of English law since about the 1270s. French was also “the language of Lionel of Antwerp who was sent by his father, Edward, to ‘sort out the Irish’”, Professor Busby comments, noting that the Statute of Kilkenny was in French, albeit a particular idiom of French, which is now generally referred to as ‘law French.’  

I had the impression that the Statute of Kilkenny was for the Irish a bit like Magna Carta is for the English, that is to say, that most people had heard of it, but that outside of the community of academic historians, not many knew much about it.
Professor Keith Busby

“After I'd finished the book, I remained curious about the Statute of Kilkenny and I started looking at it in more detail and talking to historians of medieval Ireland. I had the impression that the Statute of Kilkenny was for the Irish a bit like Magna Carta is for the English, that is to say, that most people had heard of it, but that outside of the community of academic historians, not many knew much about it. My colleagues in medieval history confirmed that.”

The Statute of Kilkenny was a set of laws devised by the English in 1366 (under the direction of Lionel of Antwerp) to try and separate the English from the Irish and forbidding the English in Ireland from marrying an Irish person or speaking the Irish language, among other measures.  It has been called “the blueprint for apartheid in Ireland”.

The text of the Statute had been published in one edition from 1843 and another from 1907 but Professor Busby noted that “both of them looked quite inadequate as editions and translations”, prompting him to formulate his current project.

His fellowship in Trinity was already underpinned by a close working relationship with Dr Peter Crooks (School of Histories and Humanities) and Dr Mark Hennessy (Department of Geography) whom he had met at ‘Invasion 1169’, a conference organised by the Department of History at Trinity College Dublin on the 850th anniversary of Anglo-Norman invasion. It was here where Professor Busby says that “historians of medieval Ireland received a poor philologist into their midst”, and where his cross-disciplinary journey began. “It was at that conference really that I started becoming—if that’s possible at my age—a historian of medieval Ireland.”

...in recent years, several of the most original and penetrating contributions to medieval Irish studies have emerged from a scholar of medieval French -- Professor Keith Busby.
Dr Peter Crooks

Commenting on Dr Busby’s contribution to the field of Irish medieval studies, Dr Peter Crooks, Associate Professor in Medieval History said: “in recent years, several of the most original and penetrating contributions to medieval Irish studies have emerged from a scholar of medieval French -- Professor Keith Busby. It was a pleasure to welcome Keith to Trinity in Michaelmas Term 2021, reinforcing a relationship that has developed strongly with Ireland generally, and Trinity in particular.”

Another reason that brings Professor Busby to the Trinity Long Room Hub, is an archive held in the manuscripts department of the Trinity Library. Professor Busby says that there are no surviving manuscripts from the Middle Ages (“the curiosity of the textual transmission of the Statue of Kilkenny”) but notes that the papers of archivist Philomena Connolly which includes “a considerable file of material she had compiled on the Statute of Kilkenny” were donated to the Trinity Library. The archive suggests that she was about to start work on an edition before her death. There are three copies of the Statute of Kilkenny in London, Professor Busby says, although they are all from the Elizabethan era. “As a medievalist, it was a bit of a shock having to try and transcribe late 16th and early 17th century manuscripts. So that’s really what brought me to Trinity.”

During the final week of his fellowship, Professor Busby received the welcome news that his edition and translation of the Statute of Kilkenny will be published by the Irish Manuscripts Commission when it is completed, most likely in 2022.

Welcoming the forthcoming publication, Dr Peter Crooks said that Professor Busby has engaged closely with the community of medievalists in Trinity across a number of departments, as well as Trinity’s Manuscripts and Archives Research Library. “We look forward to this important study, whose appearance is sure to reignite a centuries-old debate on that notorious legislation. For the first time, that debate can be built on an authoritative textual examination of all the manuscripts of the Statute, along with a translation and commentary that will reveal the richness and complexity of the cultures -- legal and linguistic -- of late medieval Ireland.”

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