Scholarly Networks and Information in Medieval Ireland: the Evidence of Legal Tradition

Deborah Hayden, School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies 

This discussion will explore medieval European textual culture and the transmission of ideas through the lens of manuscript production and scholarly networks in Ireland, with a particular focus on the medieval Irish legal tradition. 

The rise of the written word as a means of imparting knowledge during the medieval period is encapsulated in the famous maxim of the sixth-century Pope Gregory the Great, who stated that quod loquimur transit, quod scribimus permanet ('the things we say pass, the things we write endure'). Yet our understanding of textual culture and the spread of information during this period embraces a wide range of more subtly interconnected factors, including the relationship between oral communication, literacy and memory; the role of script and image; the identity of producers and consumers of written texts; the various functions of authors, scribes, commentators, copyists and compilers in the production of a single codex; and the circulation of material amongst different educational centres. From as early as the seventh century, Irish scholars made sophisticated written contributions to learning in both Latin and Irish, ranging from grammatical and computistical works to biblical commentary, narrative prose, verse and annalistic writing. Many of the surviving manuscripts from medieval Ireland contain several or all of these varieties of written material, which might be characterised by different kinds of script, layout or ordering, depending on how a given compiler saw fit to present the information at hand. Similarly, a single text might, in the course of its transmission, be subject to various degrees of expansion, abridgment, conflation or rearrangement by successive copyists. Interlinear and marginal comments or markers in medieval manuscripts serve to indicate how material was understood, organised and contextualised by a compiler or reader, and sometimes serve as a window on the everyday activities and working conditions of the medieval scribe. 

Many of the law tracts written in the Irish vernacular can be dated to the early medieval period, but only survive in much later manuscripts, where they are typically surrounded by substantial commentary that offers insight into the reception of these works over an extended period of time. This discussion will draw on a selection of law texts from two Irish manuscripts written in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries respectively, as a means of exploring medieval conceptions of textual authority and authenticity, the role of script and visual layout for conveying information in written form, and the impact of scholarly networks and patronage on the transmission of knowledge, both in Ireland and in medieval Europe more broadly.