On careful reading…a brief response

I always expected that my book on the Irish scholarly presence at the monastery of St. Gall would elicit critical responses. This is not to say that I do not prefer compliments and positive appraisals, but I am fully aware that my analysis of the spread of Hiberno-Latin scholarship on the Continent ruffles the feathers of those colleagues who would rather emphasise the Irish element of the intellectual achievements by Irishmen. Those on the nativist side of the spectrum can be troubled by my assessment that not all that glitters is (completely) green and that we can learn more about early medieval intellectual history when we include all possible factors that promoted and shaped Irish learning, and curb our modern impulses to classify everything along national(ist) and ethnic lines.

Professor Ó Cróinín’s review in the Journal of British Studies is the first review of my book I have read so far1 and it is decidedly negative. In the conviction that a (negative) review need not be the end of the academic conversation, but rather a continuation, I gladly take this opportunity to respond to some parts of his short review. For while I do not expect to convince Professor Ó Cróinín of all of my conclusions, I do think it is important to point out where the review does its readers a disservice by misrepresenting my argument. And unfortunately it does so repeatedly and consistently.

It is probably good to briefly describe my approach to the evidence in the book: since the tremendous contribution of Irish scholarship to European culture is not in doubt and the Irish intellectual presence at St. Gall is undisputed (see below), it is possible and instructive to study the circumstance in which Irish scholarship gained such a position of influence, in particular the routes taken over the Continent and the reception it got in St. Gall. To quote the introduction (p. 2):

‘I am interested in the place of Irish scholarship at this Alpine monastery: how was it received, read and valued and what part did its Irish origin play in all this?’

My approach tests two assumptions often expounded, implicitly and explicitly, in earlier scholarship: 1) that St. Gall acted as a bridgehead (or gateway) of Irish scholarship, meaning that it was at St. Gall that Irish texts made landfall and that this monastic centre had a ‘special relationship’ with Ireland, and 2) that the scribes and masters at St. Gall were always aware of the Irish heritage of the material before them, or that they (always) appreciated it because of its Irish credentials. In both cases, my findings qualify these assumptions: I found that much of the Irish material came to St. Gall via other continental centres, rather than directly from Ireland, and was graciously received by St. Gall scholars but often without being aware of (or particularly interested in) its Irish background. As I stated in the conclusion, this thereby only underscores the value accorded to the Irish works for their practical use or intellectual quality. This point seems to have been lost on Ó Cróinín.

Ó Cróinín opens his argument by stating that I ‘set out to minimize’ the Irish influence at St. Gall a) ‘by questioning the significance of all the surviving Irish material in the abbey library’ and b) ‘by turning on their heads all the well-known references by continental writers to the Irish and their influence, and rather than seeing them as complimentary and admiring of Irish scholarship, viewing them instead as manifestations of anti-Irish animosity’. The use of the phrase ‘set out’ suggests intent (as does his search for my “motivation” some paragraphs down): Ó Cróinín suggests that I came to this subject in bad faith, with a not-so-hidden agenda to do damage to the reputation of eighth- and ninth-century Irishmen. Without offering any evidence for such malicious intent, Ó Cróinín thereby disqualifies the book from the outset. Perhaps it is illustrative to quote again from the introduction of the book (p. 2):

‘The early medieval Irish feats of scholarship were formidable. The labours of Irish thinkers, scribes and artists, in the form of original writings, preserved antique scholarship and works of art had lasting effects on European culture. The impressive breadth and depth of Irish scholarship in this period is undoubted and uncontested. If there was a civilization to be saved, the Irish certainly played a part in the rescue operation.’

I am interested to learn how this paragraph testifies to the intent to minimize Irish influence. I do not see it.

To me, but I expect also to other readers of the review, it would have been instructive to learn how, in Ó Cróinín’s eyes, I misinterpreted early medieval evidence, leading me to paint an erroneous picture. Ó Cróinín does not offer us any such observations. Instead, he repeats his original claim a number of times, stating how my book tries ‘to conjure’ evidence ‘out of existence’ (see below), engages in ‘relentless denigration’ and displays a ‘steady drumbeat of anti-Irish bias’. This seems to be exactly the function of that first sentence: to disqualify the book without need to analyse its contents.

Actually, there is one supposed misreading on my part to which Ó Cróinín directs attention, namely my remark that the surviving sections of the Vita S. Galli uetustissima ‘make no reference to Ireland or to Irishmen’ (p. 19). I honestly do not know what Ó Cróinín is aiming at here. The full sentence from which he quotes a fragment is: ‘The surviving sections make no reference to Ireland or to Irishmen and we find no instance of geographically identifying words such as hiberniascotigena or even scot(t)us in the entire text.’ This sentence comes at the end of a paragraph which explains how only fragments of this the oldest known Life of Gallus —now wonderfully published by the abbey press—survive on two mutilated ninth-century bifolia and how the missing parts probably include a large chunk of what would have been the opening of the text, where one would expect an exposé of Gallus’s origin and his travels with Columbanus (at least, that is what we find in the same place in the two Carolingian recastings of the Life). Due to the fragmentary nature of the extant life, we can never know the exact content or tone of the original opening of the uetustissima. I fail to see the factual error in this statement.

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 2106, f. 1r – Vita S. Galli uetustissima, http://www.e-codices.ch/en/csg/2106/1r

The ensuing observations in Ó Cróinín’s review are even more puzzling and no longer point to supposed factual errors or false interpretations. Instead, on the subject of the fascinating list of books written in Irish script—Libri Scottice scripti—, he comments that ‘not even Meeder’s reductionist approach can conjure this list out of existence—though that is not to say that he does not try.’ I am at a loss here: how do I try to negate the existence of this list, when I write ‘this list of books is an important, but complicated, witness to the relations between Ireland and St. Gall’ (p. 55)? Surely, I am not the first to address to the complications of this list, asking questions such as: why were the titles on the list not present in the catalogue proper? Could these books have included volumes in Anglo-Saxon script? In fact, Johannes Duft is much more blunt in his assessment of the books listed as ‘out-of-date’, ‘mostly unreadable’, ‘with no practical and direct importance’ to the St. Gall monks, and possibly including Anglo-Saxon books.2 It makes one wonder: would Ó Cróinín suggest that Johannes Duft—the eminent erstwhile St. Gall librarian-—set out to minimize the Irish contribution to St-Gall?

Equally puzzling is Ó Cróinín complaint that ‘while Meeder does write about the famous mid-ninth-century Irish scholars Marcus and his nephew Móengal (Marcellus), […] their influence, too, is minimized as much as possible, by subsuming it into a discussion of other (occasionally fictional) Irish visitors’. This seems a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t: I covered all the evidence of Marcus and Móengal’s presence at St. Gall and, at one point, remark that ‘the contribution of the Irish Marcus and Marcellus to St. Gall’s intellectual networks […] was greater than the simple conveyance of books’. Such qualifications seem at odds with a book that is ‘relentlessly denigrating’ Irish scholarly influence. Furthermore, I would never conclude from the (sometimes sparse) evidence of Irish visitors to St. Gall that some of them were therefore ‘fictional’ (I have no reason to believe they are); perhaps Ó Cróinín could explain why he ‘conjures’ these men ‘out of existence’?

Ó Cróinín then seeks to determine the ‘motivation’ for ‘all this relentless denigration’. The following sentences are a little muddled, but seem to intimate that the denigration of Irish achievements stands in service to the elevation of Anglo-Saxon influence. As a case in point, Ó Cróinín offers my discussion on the mysterious Eadberct who is mentioned in the St. Gall copy of the Collectio canonum Hibernensis, which seems to have been referred to in the library catalogue as Collectio Eadberti de diuersis opusculis sanctorum patrum. It raises the question: if the St. Gall monks refer to the Hibernensis as ‘Eadberct’s collection’, what did they imagine his role to have been? Judging by the catalogue entry, they seemed to think he was more than (just) the copyist. Or, citing my concluding remark:

‘I do not intend to argue here for [Eadberct’s] authorship of the entire Hibernensis–the evidence for an Irish origin is simply overwhelming–but my point is that it is feasible to imagine the recipients of the Hibernensis at St. Gall assuming that Eadberct had a hand in the compilation of the collection.’

But this nuance, again, seems lost on Ó Cróinín.

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 243, p. 254 – Collectio canonum Hibernensis

This is not to say that I do not welcome critical reviews of my book. Following its publication, I have found a number of unfortunate imperfections and mistakes (sometimes pointed out to me by colleagues, for which I am quite grateful). The paragraph on the ordo Romanus in MS 349 (p. 62), for instance, appears to stretch the argument, and my identification of the Old Testament king Roboam as Jeroboam is mistaken: it should be Solomon’s foolish son Rehoboam (p. 70-71). And finally, my metaphor of St. Gall as a ‘sink strainer’ is poorly chosen and I understand how Ó Cróinín (and others) might take offence: I regret that word choice and would probably now opt for another metaphor (perhaps “fish weir” would work?). The sentence following the offending word, however, makes my position clear:

‘With the streams of scholarship rushing through St. Gall, an impressive number of Irish works were trapped by its monks. Partly thanks to the cupidity of the St. Gall monks, partly owing to its convenient location, and partly due to the fortuitous survival of so much of the library’s holding, we have this unique collection to study.’

The scholars and scribes of St. Gall actively sought to acquire and copy the scholarship that they found within their intellectual network: in their selection, the background (e.g. Irishness) of these texts took a backseat to practicality, intellectual value, and other concerns. The late ninth-century glosses in the breviary of St. Gall’s books (MS 728) testify to critical minds reflecting on the past indiscriminate acquisition policy of the monastery as a process of hit-and-miss. We can only be thankful to those earlier monks who were so eager to copy the scholarship that came within their reach.

I have not missed the subtle praise at the end of the review for almost the entire second half of the book as an ‘otherwise useful discussion of the St. Gall transmission of the important Irish texts De XII abusiuis saeculi (65–82) and the Hibernensis (83–98), as well as the St. Gall copies of the various penitentials, Irish and non-Irish (99–108).’ I appreciate these words. But I cannot pretend Ó Cróinín’s review is not a little frustrating. Here’s the thing: personally, I am in constant awe of the achievements of the Irish scholars of the early Middle Ages and convinced of their formidable influence on European culture. But my appreciation was not the topic of my study; the book focuses on how the monks of St. Gall appreciated Irish scholarship and how the Irishness impacted on its distribution and reception. It is frustrating that this central element did not get across to a valued and admired colleague like Prof. Ó Cróinín. 

It is the duty of the author of a book to write precise, clearly and well-argued and I welcome any criticism that may help improve my future work. In my view, the onus is on the reviewer to read carefully. In this case, I think there is some room for improvement on that score.

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Name in print: The Irish Scholarly Presence at St. Gall

The Irish Scholarly Presence at St. GallApril saw the publication of my book on the Irish scholarly presence at St. Gall with Bloomsbury Academic publishers. The cover is certainly wonderful and I can only hope that the reviewers feel that the content matches it. To give you some idea of the argument of the book, I am including the final version of the brief conclusion of the book here.

The glosses that were added to the breviary of St. Gall’s books in the last decades of the ninth century are testimony to the voracity with which the community had obtained its scholarship. In their urge to acquire learned texts, the monks of St. Gall had hit a number of misses, so the later annotator recorded. Especially among the texts of purported patristic writers, he found false, mendacious and useless works. While the later annotator appears to have had the leisure to thoroughly examine the books in the library, the earlier copyists and book buyers were simply too eager to collect authoritative texts and too time-pressed to inspect closely what they were about to acquire.

These unique glosses paint a picture of a bustling and vibrant blooming of intellectual energy that distinguished the Carolingian revival of learning. Networks of knowledge were buzzing with activity and scholarly exchange. With its focus (mainly) on a few manuscripts, written at or brought to the Alpine monastery of St. Gall, and containing scholarly material originally composed in Ireland, this book only covers a tiny detail of the prodigious intellectual phenomenon that was the Carolingian revival of learning. Nevertheless, this study represents an attempt to offer a contribution towards a better understanding of the intellectual boom of the eighth and ninth centuries. Rather than taking a top-down approach and attempting to explain the situation ‘on the ground’ from the well-expressed ambitions of a distant court, it aims to present a ‘horizontal’ model for the enquiry of intellectual contacts between St. Gall and other learned centres. And despite its modest scope, this book has tried to demonstrate that, when studied closely, a history painted with broad strokes can prove to be deceiving. Thus, whereas the numerous surviving products of Irish learning in the library of a monastery with an Irish patron saint would suggest the existence of a singular connection between the monastery and Irish scholarship, or a gateway function connecting Ireland with continental Europe, a more detailed look presents us with a different picture altogether.

The turbulent and creative years of Carolingian renovatio formed the circumstances in which Irish learning was spread over the continent, where they were read, copied, redacted or ransacked with vigorous creativity. The community of St. Gall managed to collect a sizeable corpus of Irish scholarly works with some of the most influential texts from Ireland: De XII Abusiuis, the Collectio canonum Hibernensis, Ailerán’s exegesis and Irish penitentials. The monastery was no stranger to Irish influence. It appears that a modest, but steady stream of pilgrims visited Saint Gallus’s grave among the many travellers seeking to cross the Alps into or out of Italy.

The Irish learned texts were, however, obtained through other channels. The study of the extant manuscript witnesses to Hiberno-Latin scholarly texts at St. Gall reveals evidence (sometimes circumstantial) for intellectual connections with nearer, continental centres. Especially north-eastern France and central and southern Germany – and of course Reichenau – seem to have supplied St. Gall with Irish scholarship; and vice versa. By the time it arrived at the monastery of St. Gall, it had often already gone through a number of continental or Anglo-Saxon hands: an Anglo-Saxon by the name of Eadberct had been able to put his stamp on a version of the Hibernensis; De XII Abusiuis was already employed to fulfil a role in a continental, political dispute; the preface to Cummean’s penitential was already appropriated for use in a continental penitential composition.

The monastery of St. Gall did not fulfil the role of bridgehead, connecting Ireland with the continent, nor was it any more of a gateway than other continental centres within the Frankish realms. If metaphors are necessary, St. Gall acted more as a sink strainer. With the streams of scholarship rushing through St. Gall, an impressive number of Irish works were trapped by its monks in their nets. Partly thanks to the cupidity of the St. Gall monks, partly owing to its convenient location, and partly due to the fortuitous survival of so much of the library’s holding, we have this unique collection to study.

None of this, of course, diminishes any of the creative splendour of the Irish scholars who produced the learned masterpieces. On the contrary, the rich evidence of continental appreciation and appropriation, and the dynamic redistribution of Hiberno-Latin scholarship between continental intellectual centres only underlines the fact that Irish learning was valued greatly by its continental recipients for its skill, sagacity and utility. It was these qualities rather than any value automatically attributed to ‘Irishness’ that ensured its place within the pan-European pool of learning.

The medieval spread and reception of scholarship was, ultimately, an exercise in cultural exchange in which both the ‘sender’ and the receiving party influenced the scholarly product that was shared. The transference of a cultural object from one context into another by necessity transforms its meaning. By the time Irish scholarly works arrived at St. Gall, they had already gone through a number of such semantic transformations. While the Irish background is important for historians to understand the context of the works’ conception and original composition, we cannot assume that this background was equally significant for the St. Gall recipients. In fact, one can justifiably wonder whether the St. Gall monks always knew the origin of the Irish texts they copied, read and taught (and whether they cared). Similarly, the meaning and relevance of Irish works of learning must have been different for the community of a continental monastery than for its Irish author and initial Irish audience. In fact, one could argue that the Irish scholarship became ‘more continental’ (or rather ‘more European’) with every step of its dissemination beyond the shores of Ireland. This ‘globalizing’ trend is, after all, the hallmark of the most durable of scholarly expressions. And the durability of Irish learning is not in doubt.

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Social and Intellectual Networking in the Early Middle Ages

31 August – 2 September 2017

@ Radboud University, Nijmegen, Netherlands

Co-Organised by Networks of Knowledge and Networks and Neighbours

Keynote Speakers

Prof. Eileen Joy (Punctum Books, BABEL Working Group, and Postmedieval)

Prof. Yitzhak Hen (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev)


Networks of Knowledge (NoK) and Networks and Neighbours (N&N) are two projects dedicated to interrogating social, political and intellectual connectivity, competition and communication between persons, places and things in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. We are excited to announce that we have come together to bring you an international, interdisciplinary conference on social and intellectual networking in the Early Middle Ages.

The conference aims to explore the existence, performance and sustainability of diverse scholarly, intellectual, social, and material networks in early medieval worlds. We will engage manuscripts, artifacts and theories over several panels framed by two categories: people and history and ideas and society. The first references networks of scholars, thinkers, writers, and the social and political histories related to their productions. The second imagines the transmission of ‘knowledge’, as information, as rhetoric, as object, and as epistemic grounding. In addition, we will have a dedicated panel for interrogating the applicability of social network theory for early medieval studies.

Selected 30-minute papers will investigate the theoretical possibilities and problems of researching early medieval networks, attempt to re-construct historical networks, critically analyse ‘information’, and/or contribute in diverse ways – theoretically, methodologically, and epistemologically – to our understanding of early medieval connectivity.

The symposium is set up in such as way allowing ample time for discussion and active participation of the audience. Assigned moderators, who will have pre-read the papers, will ensure thorough discussions following the papers.

The programme is now published!

The conference is entirely free and open to anyone, but in order to make accurate catering bookings, please register your interest at conference@networksofknowledge.org (preferably before 1 August).

For more information, please contact Dr. Michael J. Kelly and Dr. Sven Meeder at conference@networksofknowledge.org

Radboud University NijmegenNWO

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