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MS 12 R 33 (The Cathach)

Catalogue of Manuscript MS 12 R 33 in the Royal Irish Academy

© Pádraig P. Ó Néill, 2021

MS 12 R 33

The Cathach

The Cathach (battler), also known as The Psalter of St Columba (Colum Cille), is one of the oldest surviving manuscripts from Ireland, and although badly damaged, enjoys a unique status. It is the earliest known Irish copy of the Gallicanum Psalter in a very pure form, and its accompanying rubrics (known as the St Columba series) are the first witness of such headings in western Europe. Its script is a smaller version of the Insular Half-uncial which became the formal standard in copying Irish manuscripts over the next four centuries, while its scribal techniques would remain staples of Irish calligraphy, notably the diminuendo decoration of initials and the cenn fo eite (a symbol used to mark an overflow of text to available space in the line above it). The history of the Cathach is no less remarkable. According to a sixteenth-century legend it was furtively copied by Colum Cille, the founder of Iona (d. 597), from a valuable exemplar in the possession of St Finnian of Movilla, thereby bringing about the Battle of Cúl-Dremne and Colum Cille's subsequent exile in Scotland. While the historicity of this account remains a matter of debate, what is known for sure is that in the later eleventh century the Cathach was enclosed in a cumdach (shrine) commissioned by the O'Donnell family, who by then had become the dominant branch of the Cenél Conaill. In the later Middle Ages the cumdach (and contents) was employed by this family as a talisman in battle, hence its Irish name Cathach. Taken to the Continent after the Williamite wars it remained there for about a century, before being brought back in 1802 to Ireland, where it is now lodged in the keeping of the Royal Irish Academy. Although scholarly verdicts on the date of the Cathach range from late-sixth to mid-seventh century (see D. Ó Corráin, Clavis Litterarum Hibernensium, 3 vols (Turnhout, 2017), I, no. 12, pp. 45-6), a date at least before 650 A.D. seems likely. Its origins lie in the Columban community, as indicated by its close associations with Cenél Conaill, the sept from which Colum Cille was descended, as well as the documented influence which its text and rubrics exercised on early Northumbrian Psalters, both no doubt introduced by the Iona mission.

The manuscript was written on vellum, ruled in dry-point (clearly visible, for example, on fol. 39 v) for 25 lines per page, though imperfectly executed. In its present state it consists of 58 continuous folios (of an estimated 110, with dimensions 27 × 19cm), all of which suffered varying degrees of damage around the edges, probably before being enshrined (for a minute description and an edition, see H. J. Lawlor et al., 'The Cathach of St. Columba', PRIA 33C (1916), 241-443). Originally, they were bound as quires of five sheets folded once to give ten folios (see Roger Powell's report, fols. 7 - 10 ), a common Irish practice modelled on Late Antique models. Also archaic is the use of scriptio continua, which in this case, however, is rendered more readable by the arrangement of the text in short, sense-based lines consisting of clauses or phrases (per cola et commata), the normal scribal practice in formatting Irish Psalters. The text (including the rubrics) was copied by a single, competent scribe who self-corrected; however, judging by fairly numerous omissions, he did not collate the finished product with his exemplar. A second hand is evident in the frequent addition of two symbols, an obelus-like ÷ which marks the end of certain verses (e.g. fol. 23 r, lines 6, 8, 10, and 13) as well as clauses within a single line (e.g. fol. 56 r, lines 4 and 7), and an oculus ⨀ which is consistently entered above the initial letter of each psalm (e.g. fol. 19 r above the initial 'D' of 'Deus' [ps. 52]).

Abbreviations are rarely employed, except for the nomina sacra. Punctuation takes the form of (1) decorated initials to mark the beginning of each psalm (additionally identified by number) which meld into the opening letters of the text in a diminuendo effect (e.g. fol. 30 v line 4, Deus in adiutorium; see M. Herity & A. Breen, The Cathach of Colum Cille: an introduction (Dublin, 2002), pp. 14-39); (2) combinations of dots and commas to mark the end of the psalm (e.g. fol. 54 v line 6); (3) within the psalm a cross preceded and followed by dots and commas to mark groups of verses (e.g. fol. 39 v line 14); and (4) within the line the insertion of the symbol : to delimit two clauses (e.g. fol. 28 r, lines 11 and 12). Not to be confused with these punctuation symbols are the asterisk * and obelus ÷ which appear before a word, phrase, or clause, followed by a complementary colon symbol : at the end (e.g. fol. 19 r, line 8 and fol. 41 r, line 10, respectively). In origin these are the critical signs used by Jerome in his edition of the Gallicanum Psalter to highlight the relationship of its readings to the Greek Septuagint on the one hand and the original Hebrew on the other. Thus, a passage in the Gallicanum bound by asterisk and colon indicated words not in the Septuagint but added from the Hebrew; conversely, the obelus and its colon bounded words found in the Septuagint but not in the original Hebrew. The Cathach has 47 occurrences of these symbols (see M. McNamara, 'Psalter Text and Psalter Study in the Early Irish Church (A.D. 600-1200)', PRIA 73C (1973), 201-98 at 266-68 [reprinted in The Psalms in the Early Irish Church (Sheffield, 2000), pp. 19-142 at 107-10]; and Herity & Breen, The Cathach, pp. 42-45). Only about one third of them, however, conform to Jerome's usage. The majority seem to be the product of collating the Cathach against a superior Gallicanum or Old Latin text, or (in the case of the obeli) against Jerome's Hebraicum (his final edition of the psalms, directly translated from the Hebrew). For example, at Ps 89:17, '÷ et opera manuum nostrarum direge super nos:' (fol. 48 r, line 6), the corresponding reading in the Benedictine critical edition of the Vulgate Psalter has no obelus. Its presence here reflects a collation of the Cathach or its exemplar against the Hebraicum - but in the distinctively Irish recension of the latter which uniquely lacks this clause.

Contents consist of pss. 30:10-105:13 in the Gallicanum (or Vulgate) version, with each psalm preceded by a rubric in orange minium containing (1) the biblical psalm title and (2) a heading which directs the reader to an interpretation (usually Christological) of the psalm, sometimes including a directive to read some related part of Scripture. The origins and authorship of these so-called Columba headings has not been determined (see Herity & Breen, The Cathach, pp. 45-60). Judging by its contents and appearance, the Cathach was designed for both scholarly and devotional purposes: its critical signs on the one hand point to an interest in comparing different versions of the Latin psalms, while its rubrics would have served to guide readers towards interpreting the psalms as Christian prayers.

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