medieval scribe

Centuries ago, in the high Middle Ages, there was a massive book compiled that contained a more or less comprehensive history of Ireland for a 500-year period, from 432 to 911 CE. Listing the births and deaths of kings, princes and other royalty, major battles and upheavals, and the general outline of major events for half a millennium, this book was likely compiled over a long period of time by scribes who wrote and illuminated the vellum pages with painstaking slowness, in monastery chambers possibly all over Ireland. Considering that more knowledge was probably forgotten during medieval times than has been discovered (or rediscovered) in the centuries since the Renaissance, this awesome book–which has come to be known as The Chronicle of Ireland–represents a treasure trove of history, the true mother lode of information about the Irish past, which as we’ve seen can be extremely murky and difficult to decipher at the best of times.

There’s just one problem: The Chronicle of Ireland doesn’t exist. No modern scholar has ever seen it. No copies of it have survived. We have no idea what it looked like, who wrote it or even where it was written. The Chronicle of Ireland is a hypothetical book: one that historians and scholars deduce must have existed at some point, but about which there is no direct evidence. It’s a very fascinating problem in both logic and historical scholarship, called a synoptic problem, which usually arises when dealing with scriptural texts like the Bible or the Torah. In cases like this, however, it also applies to historical books.

irish chronicle

Some of the other annals which (we believe) copied The Chronicle of Ireland survive in good condition. Here’s one of them, the Annals of the Four Masters.

How do we know The Chronicle of Ireland actually existed? Because there are several other, smaller chronicles of Irish history that have survived, and they appear to have been cribbed and copied from some other master text that hasn’t. Take, for example, the Annals of Ulster, which itself covers over 1100 years of history, from the 5th to the 16th centuries. Portions of this text seem to have been copied from another book. The very brief and almost poetic treatment of major events in the Annals of Ulster is pretty typical of what the Chronicle of Ireland must have been like to read. To modern ears it sounds like something out of high fantasy, Lord of the Rings type stuff (which is not an accident; J.R.R. Tolkien based much of his fiction on medieval annals and poems). This passage, for instance:

Twelve days before the melodious Kalends
Of December—a harsh company—
A wonderful person died to your loss,
Aed of Ailech, over-king of the Irish.
A generous prudent man of shields
Who brought plenty to landed Temair,
Against iron-tipped spears a buckler
From the forge-fire of the land of the sons of Mil.

If this sounds cryptic, it is. Just look at the historical mysteries contained in this short passage. What are the “Kalends?” Who was Aed of Ailech? Who are these “sons of Mil” and what do they have to do with this? The documentary record of Ireland in the early Middle Ages is so thin that often verses like these are all scholars have to go on. To give a modern example, determining the actual historical events from this would be like deducing the complex events of the Kennedy assassination from a text like this (something I just made up):

Six days before the Feast of Thanks
In the third year of his reign, in Dallas
A young leader died to your loss,
John of clan Kennedy, King of Camelot.
From sixth floor of the Hall of Texas Books
A malcontent did slay him, with bullets three,
Fell he in his chariot, and on to perish at Parkland
And Camelot was no more.

Despite the obvious problems in trying to essentially reverse-engineer a now nonexistent book from numerous fragmentary copies, one modern researcher has made an attempt to do just that. Thomas Charles-Edwards, an Oxford professor of history and Irish languages, published in 2006 a two-volume reconstruction of The Chronicle of Ireland, drawn from the eight major “sub-chronicles” that he believes were copied from the original lost text. Although controversies exist about what he included and why, and how faithful it might be to the original, what now exists in printed format is at least a sort of reasonable facsimile of what The Chronicle of Ireland might have contained. It’s not perfect, but given that the original book is irretrievably lost, it’s the best we will ever be able to do.

irish abbey

In the Middle Ages in Europe, almost all books were created in monasteries. These are the ruins of Lislaughtin Abbey in County Kerry.

What intrigues me about The Chronicle of Ireland–the modern version–is not what’s there, which is understandably impressive, but what might be missing. Without any direct evidence of the original book, we have no idea what other historical narratives it might have contained that were not lucky enough to have been copied down in other annals that survive into the 21st century. There could be whole histories of various parts of Ireland, lines of kings, battles, wars, upheavals and such that we know nothing about, and that no human being will ever know about again unless some other evidence is uncovered to reconstruct them. This means that, pretty much by definition, there is a great deal about the history of Ireland in the Middle Ages that has been permanently lost. Again, we, the human species, have forgotten far more knowledge in the past than we possess in the present, even in our haughty “Information Age.”

I’ve always been fascinated by lost knowledge. The Library of Louvain, which I blogged about in August, presents such a case. The secrets locked deep in the past of Irish history, now unknowable to us in the 21st century, were once right there in a book, sitting in a monastery library perhaps in some drafty old castle. But for all we know about what was between the pages of that book, there is a lot that we don’t know, and will never know. The Irish past guards its mysteries jealously.