‘A source-book for senchas? Educational miscellanea in B.L. Egerton 1782’

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On 12 March 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Abigail Burnyeat from the University of Edinburgh, who discussed, ‘A source-book for senchas? Educational miscellanea in B.L. Egerton 1782’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

The Egerton 1782 manuscript, found in the Egerton Collection of the British Library in London is an Irish vellum manuscript, written between 1517-18. Several scribes from the Ó Maolconaire learned family compiled the work at the behest of Gerald mac Domhnall MacMurrough-Kavanagh, King of Leinster, 1517-23. Abigail sought to investigate the worth of the miscellaneous material in this manuscript, which include snippets of history, genealogy and poetry. While these items do not seem to contribute towards a grand narrative, they can still inform on the methodology and ideology of medieval Irish literature.

An engagement with bilingualism and biculturalism is evident throughout these miscellaneous items. Many feature an interplay with Latin and vernacular Irish (bilingualism) or biblical/Classical and vernacular Irish tradition (biculturalism). For example Dúan in Choícat Cest (Poem of the Fifty Questions) features detailed descriptions of the structure of the heavenly host and other biblical terminology as well as a list of the kings of Rome. Another text, Fíngin mac Flaind engages directly with Irish vernacular tradition, informing the reader of the origin story of the Irish people revolving around Scota, along with other characters such as Lugaid or Crimthann. Both of these examples are ‘question-and-answer’ texts. They quiz the reader on essential information, for example, ‘What was the death of Lugaid’, before answering, ‘he died of grief’. These Q&A texts may have had real practical application in the learning environments of medieval Irish literary students.

Other texts included in Egerton 1782 are quite obscure, with one example, Duan in Cethrachat Cest (Poem of the Forty Questions)featuring a tale about Aengas, son of Dagda, a sole attestation (does not seem to appear anywhere else). In this story, Aengas lands on the island paradise of Emain Ablach and kills ten hundred of the household in a single night. The violent conception of Senbecc is another relatively obscure tale found in this poem and an example of  ‘high-level detail’. Other included information is more conventional, such as dates in the life of Christ, a note on the battle of Ard Rathain or a note on the family of Irish saints. Yet the overall picture is undeniably eclectic. Abigail argued that the compilation of these texts was intended to be used as a factual databases of essential knowledge for literary scholars in medieval Ireland. They may have been ‘free-floating miscellanea’ yet they added to the overall base of terminology and information that a literary student (and teacher) would be expected to know. Abigail argued that criticism of the compilers of manuscripts is a neglected area of current scholarly engagement. These compilers were engaging with contemporary literature and potentially shaping much of the material that was learned and taught, therefore, instead of only engaging with the individual texts found in a manuscript, the manuscript as a whole should be assessed and evaluated.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher) 

Our seminar series continues next week, 19 March, with Coinneach MacLean’s ‘The Tourist Gaze on Gaelic Scotland’. This will be held in Room 202 of 3 Uni Gardens at 5.30pm. This will be the last in the current series. All very welcome.

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