Welcome to my Library

Thanks for joining me!

Téicht doróim
mór saido · becc · torbai ·
INrí chondaigi hifoss ·
manimbera latt nífogbái

Irish monk from Sankt Gallen in Switzerland – Codex Boernerianus

I first met this poem when I was studying Old Irish in Cambridge.  I have now forgotten the Old Irish, but I will always love this poem.  The translation by Whitley Stokes and John Strachan runs as follows.

To go to Rome, much labour, little profit: the King whom thou seekest here, unless thou bring him with thee, thou findest him not.

Travel is of the soul, not the body.  The ninth century Irish monk who wrote the lines seems to have travelled to St Gall in Switzerland and to a life of back-breaking copying, but he believes he can find everything he is looking for without leaving his cell.    His poem like many remains of Old Irish, comes to us illicitly, scribbled on the edge of the important work that is supposed to be transmitted, in this case 1 Corinthians 2 & 3.  You can see the change in handwriting as he fits in his three lines under the Greek text.

And so for a moment we hear the voice of an Irish monk, transported to a Latin-speaking  Abbey in German Switzerland,  thinking in Irish as he painstakingly transmits the thoughts of a Greek-speaking Syrian Jew.  Is his a happy lot, or an unhappy one? We know nothing about him except what is most important  – that his only journey is towards redemption, and that to him physical place is an illusion.

But nonetheless a whole world has gathered in his cell as he write.  He is mixing Irish thoughts with Swiss air in the company of St Paul, and many invisible others, including Stokes and Strachan, me and now you.  If physical place is irrelevant, there is no meaningful separation in space or time between those of one mind who travel together.  The monk has exchanged the variegated distractions of change and event for the constancy of the presence of God.  He is not lonely.

For a long time I was not able to travel in the body as much as I would like, and spent many days without leaving my home.  It is not surprising that I have been very drawn to the thoughts of this monk.  When I think of travelling, I am no longer attracted by the simple idea of novelty.  I think more of returning to people and places I knew before or have visited in books.

I do literally live in my library, or rather, we as a family live in our library.  Our house is small.  Books are double stacked in the dining room, squeezed between the bannisters, piled on the landing and under beds.  Our garage is likewise given over to bookshelves.  The books form a large part of my real world, and most of all the texts from or about the Classical and Mediaeval world where I also work.  I often find small things of interest which I would like to share with like minded people, without ever reaching the lofty bar of publishable scholarship.  I use whatever I can in my teaching, but I will treat this blog as a common place book where I will publish notes from time to time on my work in progress, as if anyone who visits were dropping in on me in my library.  You are very welcome to drop in.

3 thoughts on “Welcome to my Library

  1. I suppose in a way the Internet brings everything together for us as was the case with this monk. I can visit you in your library whilst waiting for Helen to be ready to go out to Sainsbury’s to get something for tea. The trouble for us is that there is now too much to be read. He could probably think deeply about all that he read, and all of it was important. I tend to get so easily distracted and flit from flower to flower like a butterfly. And many of the flowers are just weeds. But your blog is an orchid.


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