The Ancient Book of Deer, Oldest Known Gaelic Text in Existence

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Currently housed at the University of Cambridge Library, the historic Book of Deer is said to have been discovered by the University’s librarian, Henry Bradshaw, around 1860. It is said to be the only pre-Norman manuscript revealing tenth century northeastern Scottish culture’s society and religious traditions, and is the earliest known Gaelic document in existence.

Although fascinating to historians for multiple reasons, the greatest intrigue for those drawn to this ancient text lies within the handwritten notations made in its margins and other blank areas, and not necessarily within the text itself. The notations, also referred to as ‘notitiae’, are written in the type of Gaelic typically spoken by the upper classes in the early twelfth century region of Buchan at a time later than the original text, indicated land grants or ‘charters’ and represented the legal rights to land believed to have belonged to the original Deer monastery of Aberdeenshire in Scotland, thus presenting a clear connection to the Deer region.

Deer Abbey in Scotland. ( Public Domain )

Although a Cistercian Abbey can be traced back to the year 1219 in a nearby region, any links to an earlier monastery have never been established and appear to have vanished entirely other than within the hand writings of the Book of Deer. If the writings are, in fact, valid, and not forgeries, they indicate the earliest Gaelic documents in Scottish existence – dated back to three centuries earlier than the next earliest historical writings confirmed. Although their credibility has been called into question by some, others argue the writing is completely authentic and believe clues to the location of the actual monastery will be found eventually. Through continued study and ongoing excavations like the fall of 2015’s endeavor which sought to use ground-penetrating radar as well as other archeological work being planned and funded primarily by the namesake Scottish Book of Deer Project, such a discovery may well occur in time.

The text of the book comprises eighty-six folios including portions of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the full Gospel of John, an Anointing of the Sick (especially relevant as the church sought to secure the Picts’ faith over traditional folk healers when sick), the Apostles’ Creed, and an old Irish colophon arranged into a small Gospel Book. (There is also an interesting element within the text, largely considered an error in the Gospel of Luke, which indicates a man named Seth to be the first man and grandfather of Adam.) These types of books were usually made for personal use at the time rather than for use in church, and were called “Irish Pocket Gospel Books.” Cambridge University was provided the book by King George I after he bought the library of Bishop John Moore in 1715, but its original transport from its roots in Aberdeenshire remains a mystery. Some have speculated that the Wars of Scottish Independence may have provided the circumstances for its theft.

Folio 5r contains the text of the Gospel of Matthew from 1:18 through 1:21. Note the Chi Rho monogram in the upper left corner. The margins contain Gaelic text.

Folio 5r contains the text of the Gospel of Matthew from 1:18 through 1:21. Note the Chi Rho monogram in the upper left corner. The margins contain Gaelic text. ( Public Domain )

Although some have suggested the penmanship appears identical among the various notations, others have stressed the differences and proposed the possibility of five different writers. Some of the accompanying artistry, however, is especially unique and noteworthy. Decorative adornments of letters, large Evangelist illustrations and simple drawings can be found throughout the book, and its style suggests similarities to early Irish manuscripts such as the old Irish manuscripts of the Book of Dimma and Book of Durrow.

Folio 1 verso from the Book of Deer (Cambridge University Library, MS. II.6.32), showing the four evangelists.

Folio 1 verso from the Book of Deer (Cambridge University Library, MS. II.6.32), showing the four evangelists. ( Public Domain )

Of particular relevance aside from the land grants’ writing are areas which centered around the monastery’s creation in Deer by the saints Drostan and Columba, after they were given the original land from a Pictish authority named Bede. Additionally, some of the writings asserted the monastery was free to remain of paying certain fees. David I of Scotland is also mentioned in the writings, as he is said to have given the monastery certain immunity from lay service and future demands for payments. As a result, during the time of David’s rule in Scotland, he enjoyed heightened ‘sair sanct’ status throughout his reign.



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