Menu Travels in Time

Mid-Argyll Theme - 5
Early Christian literature

One of the radical changes brought about in Dál Riata by the coming of Christianity and Church organisation was the introduction of the written word. Christians were 'people of the book' - not just the Bible, though that lies at the heart of their interest in books, but of countless other books as well. Prayer books were needed, portable liturgical books with the words of the Mass or the rites of baptism or anointing the sick. Some such manuscripts survive still.

'A page from the book of
Deer, a pocket gospel book
from north-east Scotland,
with a rite for the communion
of the sick.'

To understand the Bible, commentaries were required, and works that would help with interpretation. So a high-status church like Iona would need to develop a library. This meant that a lot of time must be spent laboriously and patiently making copies of books - one monastery making copies of its own books and sending them to others, or exchanging them, or buying them from other scriptoria or writing centres. Some of these manuscripts were more or less functional, but others were objects of enormous artistic merit - such as the Book of Kells, probably made on Iona.

We know from the writings produced on Iona that the monastery had a superb library. We can tell because Iona authors are constantly quoting from a range of other writings: Augustine, Jerome's biblical commentaries, Gregory the Great, Sulpicius Severus, and many more. According to a poem written around 600 AD on the death of St Columba, the saint had read the 'judgements of Basil' and the works of John Cassian. With a library like that, it becomes very clear that no matter how 'marginal' or 'remote' Argyll might seem to a certain world-view, it was actively engaged with the mainstream of international scholarly culture. 

Even apart from the devotional duty of prayer and godly reading, the physical act of making copies of good books was itself seen as a spiritual activity. Adomnán's Life of Columba frequently shows the saint doing just this, and to make clear the holiness that is involved in writing, his manuscripts appear to have a miraculous power of their own.

But Columba had the reputation of being an author as well as a scribe. Two poems at least were attributed to him at the time of his death. It is possible that they are still known - the Altus Prosator and the Adiutor Laborantium but more likely that these two works were written in the seventh century - perhaps even by Adomnán himself.

Another important literary genre in the early medieval church was the saint's life. Such texts are not just a biography of the saint in question - some might say not even a biography. This kind of writing embodies a wide range of aims on the part of the author and his community. Hagiography, as it is called, is therefore a useful source for the historian if used with care. It should be seen as evidence not primarily about the world in which the saintly subject lived and his or her actions, but rather the world of its author and his intentions and perceptions.

Iona, under the abbacy of Adomnán, also produced a great collection of canons, authoritative judgements of Church teaching on all kinds of issues: the right way to make a king, how and where to bury the dead, what kinds of meat one should eat or avoid, the kind of man who should be a bishop, when to pay tax and to whom, and much more. Here we see social life and church life being regulated for the first time not by the oral traditions of poets and lawyers as the Gaelic tradition had been, but by writing mediated by the clergy.

The Law of Adomnán for the protection of women, promulgated in 697 AD, similarly made the abbot of a monastery, with his written word, a source of legislative authority in an unprecedented way. The Collection of Irish Canons, probably also made under Adomnán's abbacy around 700 AD, was another text which sought to govern and guide human behaviour.

The power of writing could also be put at the service of kings. In the seventh century someone in Dál Riata made a record of the households of the various lordships, and listed their obligations to provide economic and military support to their ruler. The Senchus Fer nAlban is one of the first signs that a tribal society based on kinship and a network of kin-based and personal or familial ties is giving way to a monarchical state, with its bureaucracy, its record-keeping and its regulatory texts.

Where society had been governed by oral knowledge, by contracts ritually and publicly expressed, now the written word was becoming the basis of a new political culture. Gradually, for example, land-transactions would be recorded not only in public rituals of exchange, but in written words - some of which survive in the margins and empty spaces of Gospel books.

"A land grant is inserted in the margin of a gospel page in the Book of Deer."

 

Mayo - Vestvågøy - Mid-Argyll

Travels in Time | Overview | Themes |

Timelines | 700BC to 0 | 0 to 800AD | 800AD to 1100AD |

Landscape | Mayo | Vestvågøy | Mid-Argyll | Archaeology |

Other Media | CD-ROM | Education | Exhibition | Publication |

Information | Bibliography | Project | Links | Contact |

This project has been supported by the EU as part of the Culture 2000 programme.