A modest proposal for education in Ireland

D.R. Howlett

Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources
Bodleian Library

When Magnus Magnusson began research for his television series about the Vikings he encountered many references in early medieval sources to the barbarity, rapacity, and destructiveness of Norsemen. Unflattering as this was to his ethnic sensibilities he had to come to terms with the variety and unanimity of the material. If one searches the same sources for references to Irishmen one finds for half a millennium, from the sixth century to the tenth, a comparable unanimity - not about commercial or military or political influence, but about learning. This gave rise to the reputation in modern times of medieval Ireland as an island of saints and scholars. If from this one inferred that Ireland was a centre for study and transmission of Classical Greek and Latin literature, the reputation would be undeserved; that myth has rightly been debunked. Yet one returns to the many positive assertions of learning among the Irish, not merely remarkable, but prodigious. What was this and how is one to account for it?

One might begin thus. The mother tongue of these people was, by comparison with other European languages, so complex that to those who had already mastered Old Irish the learning of Latin was relatively easy. Learn Latin they did, perhaps as early as the fourth century through commercial contacts with traders from the Roman Empire,[1]but certainly by the fifth century,[2] and with remarkable consequences.

One of the first issues of contact with Latin was invention by Irishmen of a new sort of grammatical treatise, designed not only for those who had not learned Latin at their mothers' knees, but for those who did not speak a proto-Romance vernacular.[3] To measure the magnitude of this achievement let us imagine how great our astonishment would be if the techniques of teaching English as a foreign language had been devised by those whose mother tongue was not English, and if these techniques had been published pre-eminently by another than Oxford University Press.

A further issue of contact with Latin was adaptation of the roman alphabet for the writing of Old Irish. Something like this happened again in the seventh century, when Anglo-Saxons, many of whom had been taught to read and write by Irishmen, adapted the roman alphabet for the writing of Old English. Yet another issue of contact with Latin was invention of ogam by some individual or group with notably sophisticated philological learning.[4] Something like this happened again in the seventh century in England, when the primitive Germanic futhark of twenty-four runes was expanded to thirty-three runes to account for sound changes in Old English.[5]

Still another issue was composition in Old Irish of a grammar of Old Irish.[6] Not until the end of the tenth century did Ælfric compose in England a grammar of Latin in Old English.[7] Not until the thirteenth century did someone compose in England a treatise on the orthography of Old French.[8] Not until the thirteenth century did Snorri Sturluson compose in Iceland a treatise on poetics in Old Norse[9] and Dante compose in Italy a Latin treatise on eloquence in the vernacular tongue.[10]

We see among the Irish articulate literary expression of systematic thought about the phonology, grammar, syntax, and writing of both Latin and Irish centuries earlier than anywhere else in Europe. The other peoples among whom these phenomena occur next are those speakers of English, Norse, and French who came into early and sustained contact with the Irish.

The Latin which the Irish learned was the standard literary Late Latin of the Western Christian Empire. The Irish acquired works by the finest Mediterranean authors soon after publication, like the Moralia in Iob, composed by Gregory the Great between 579 and 602 and available to Laidcenn Mac Baith of Cluain-ferta-Molua, who from a manuscript superior to any now extant published an abridgement, the Egloga de Moralibus Iob, sometime before his death in 661.[11] The Originum siue Etymologiarum Libri XX, composed by Isidore of Seville between 622 and 633, were available in Ireland almost immediately after publication.[12] The very first monuments of Latin literature written by Irishmen both at home and abroad from the end of the sixth century and the beginning of the seventh exhibit not merely competent but masterly rhetorical presentation of complex argument in prose that coruscates with wit, irony, literary allusion, and varied word play.[13] In the art of Latin prose composition the Irish were from the very beginnings of their tradition at least the equals of native speakers. In the art of verse composition they were uniquely inventive.[14]

The religion embraced and professed by the Irish taught that the universe had come into existence because God had said that it should. In Genesis He said, 'Fiat', et factum est ita '"Let it be made", and it was made so'. In John's Gospel, the first words of which echo the first words of Genesis, In principio erat Verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum. Omnia per ipsum facta sunt et sine ipso factum est nihil. 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word. He was in the beginning with God. All things through Him were made and without Him was made nothing.' For people who believe this to be revealed truth words are not merely something to play and joke with (though they are certainly that); they afford a view into the structure of the universe; they are, moreover, a means for direct communication with the Maker of the universe. Serious business.

In Proverbs VIII 22-31 Wisdom says

Dominus possedit me initium uiarum suarum
antequam quicquam faceret a principio ...
ludens in orbe terrarum
et deliciae meae esse cum filiis hominum.

The Lord possessed me, the starting point of His own ways,
before He made anything from the beginning ...
playing in the world of lands,
and my delights, to be with the sons of men.

Again in Proverbs IX 1

Sapientia aedificauit sibi domum, excidit columnas septem.

Wisdom has built for herself a house, she has cut out
seven columns.

These seven pillars of wisdom have commonly been understood as the seven liberal arts, the triuium or 'three ways', grammar, rhetoric, logic, and the quadruuium or 'four ways', arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy. All are implicit in the cosmogony of Job XXXVIII 4-7:

ubi eras quando ponebam fundamenta terrae?
  indica mihi si habes intellegentiam
        mensuras eius
  si nosti,
    uel quis
        super eam lineam
        super quo bases illius
      solidatae sunt
    aut quis
        lapidem angularem eius
cum me laudarent simul astra matutina
et iubilarent omnes filii Dei.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the land?
  Point out to me, if you have understanding,
        its measures,
    if you know,
      or who
          over it the line?
          Over what were its bases
        made solid
      or who
        sent down
          its corner stone
when the morning stars praised me together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

This is what gave Irishmen their intellectual edge for half a millennium. They grew up speaking a difficult language which enabled them to learn other languages easily. And when they learned Latin they acquired with it a coherent view of the universe in which Wisdom, who played among men, had built a house of seven pillars. Three of these pertained to the human linguistic constructs of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The other four pertained to the divine sciences, arithmetic as static number, music as moving number, geometry as measurement of the static earth, astronomy as measurement of the moving heavens, all reflections of the mind of God expressed in number.

In De Ratione Conputandi Dr Dáibhí O' Cróinín has presented a seventh-century[15] guide to the classroom student, leading him step by step through the various levels of the science, from the most elementary explanations of number and numerals through the more detailed discussion of celestial phenomena and the relationship of sun, moon and stars, up to the construction of the Easter table and its rubrics, by which the preceding theoretical knowledge was given a practical application in the calculation of dates.

In an extraordinary book Professor Robert Stevick[16] has presented the compositional rules by which men with knowledge of mathematical ratios and use of straightedge and compass invented Insular manuscript art and poetry, none of it produced by template nor copied from earlier examples, all of it in forms created anew each time. I have presented analyses of fifty works from the fifth century to the thirteenth which exhibit rules of the quadruvial sciences in literary compositions,[17] and edited and analysed short texts from the seventh century to the tenth which combine arguments about computation with polemic, physiology with theology, hymnody and mythology with calendrical calculation and numerology, and prosody with ethics, mostly in prose and poetry of breathtaking inventiveness and brilliance.[18] I have also presented evidence of the composition and performance of polyphonic music in Ireland in both popular and learned forms long before the time at which musicologists usually suppose that it began in Paris.[19]

For many years the Royal Irish Academy has supported work toward a Dictionary of Medieval Latin from Celtic Sources, to be based upon machine-readable texts of the entire corpus of Celtic Latin literature prepared at Academy House in Dublin and stored at Queen's University, Belfast. The first of its Ancillary Publications, A Bibliography of Celtic-Latin Literature 400-1200, appeared in 1985.[20] The fifth, A Celtic-Latin Word-List, will appear next year. During the past year the Belgian publishers Brepols in cooperation with the Royal Irish Academy have issued on CD-rom an Archive of Celtic-Latin Literature.[21] For the price of a dozen Brepols books or one television set any school in Ireland might have the entire library of Latin literature composed by Celtic-speaking peoples over eight centuries. University College Cork in collaboration with The Royal Irish Academy (CURIA) is supporting the Thesaurus Linguarum Hiberniae, a project to make machine-readable texts of the entire corpus of medieval literatures in Irish, Norse, French, and English.

Here is a national treasure not yet paralleled anywhere else in Europe. But treasures like these in electronic form depend upon the supply of electricity. If the power is off the database is inaccessible. So with the culture of which these texts are the extant record. Unless we transmit it to the only place that matters, the minds of the young, the effort to record it will have been vain. Why should we not use these materials from the beginnings of Irish literary history, not only in institutions of advanced study and higher learning, but in secondary and even primary schools?

Introducing early medieval forms of arithmetic would by inculcating mental calculation and reckoning on fingers and knuckles free students from dependence upon electronic calculators and simultaneously give them the foundations of music theory and geometry and astronomy. It would also restore to general currency the mathematical forms in which Irish artists worked in stonecarving, metalwork, manuscript illumination, architecture, poetry, and music. Instruction in the early forms of languages spoken and written in Ireland would not only make accessible some of the most beautiful verse and prose written over a millennium; it would by requiring knowledge of the paradigms of inflected forms encourage the sadly neglected arts of memory. It would also give to the young both the primary sources of their own cultural history and effective means of renewal.

Cosmological, astronomical, and theological aspects of some of the texts may be taught not for their verifiable 'truth' but as means of organizing thought, presenting a model of the universe, and acquainting the young with the historical background of Western civilization in coherent forms of art. Many of the pre-Christian mythological texts, preserved and transmitted principally by Christian clerics, may be presented as evidence of sensitivity in a culture that was at once ideologically informed and tolerant of other ways. Even passages of explicit sexual content might be presented as art that never veers toward vulgarity, prurience, or pornography.

This is not an exercise in quaint antiquarianism. Nor is it a model for an intellectual theme park. It is a plan for recovery of elements of the past that can enrich the present and empower the young to cope with the future. There is little point in teaching information or technology which will be obsolete by the time students leave school. There is much point in teaching children how to learn, to remember, to think, to design, to tell stories, to compose verse and prose and music, to present arguments forcefully and elegantly, by exposing them to durable works of art by their own ancestors which are affective and effective.

We have at our fingertips on a single affordable disk a priceless intellectual inheritance. To focus and release its power we need only select the most useful and delightful texts to present coherently to the young. This might restore to the Irish the historic function of teaching the rest of Europe. At the very least it might enable the young to acquire well-tested means of understanding the world and building in it a house for Wisdom ludens in orbe terrarum cum filiis hominum.

COPYRIGHT: All material published in Classics Ireland is copyright. Responsibility for, and ownership of, copyright remains with the author of each article.
© Classical Association of Ireland
www.classicalassociation.com : www.classicsireland.com