A Psalter in the Bog

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A driver of a backhoe in Ireland’s midlands has discovered a small psalter. He was digging peat for use in commercial potting soil. The tannin in the peat preserved the image of the closed muddy psaltervellum, or specially prepared cow hide, used to make the medieval manuscript much as the Irish bogs preserve bodies for hundreds of years. Once the backhoe operator realized what he had found, he immediately covered the medieval psalm collection with moist peat, very cleverly preventing it from being destroyed by exposure to air. Bernard Meehan, the curator of manuscripts at Trinity College Library, Dublin (the eventual home of the psalter), said

Initial impressions place the composition date of the manuscript at about 800AD— but how soon after this date it was lost we may never know.

The psalter is bound in leather, with a fairly common style of thick wrap-around leather cover (often compared to a wallet) and contains about twenty large folios, with about 45 letters per line and a maximum of 40 lines per page. The actual ms. is now loose within the cover. When it was found, it was open to Psalm 83, in the Vulgate, or 84, in the modern numbering system (modern English Bibles follow the Masoretic or Hebrew numbering of the Psalms). In other words, it’s part of this:

In finem pro torcularibus filiis Core psalmus quam dilecta tabernacula tua Domine virtutum concupiscit et defecit anima mea in atria Domini cor meum et caro mea exultavit in Deum vivum etenim passer invenit sibi; domum et turtur nidum sibi ubi ponat pullos suos altaria tua Domine virtutum rex meus et Deus meus beati qui habitant in domo tua in saecula saeculorum laudabunt te small image of a text pagediapsalma beatus vir cui est auxilium abs te ascensiones in corde suo disposuit in valle lacrimarum in loco quem posuit etenim benedictiones dabit legis dator ibunt de virtute in virtutem videbitur Deus deorum in Sion Domine Deus virtutum exaudi orationem meam auribus percipe Deus Iacob diapsalma protector noster aspice Deus et respice in faciem christi tui quia melior est dies una in atriis tuis super milia elegi abiectus esse in domo Dei mei magis quam habitare in tabernaculis peccatorum quia misericordiam et veritatem diligit; Deus gratiam et gloriam dabit Dominus non privabit bonis eos qui ambulant in innocentia Domine virtutum beatus vir qui sperat in te

News reports keep mentioning the Book of Kells, probably because it’s the most famous Irish manuscript; a better comparison would be the Cathach of St. Columba, R.I.A. MS 12 R 33, c. A.D. 560-630. This is not the same period as the bog find, but it’s a better match in terms of the type of ms. than Kells is. The text of the Psalms is in Latin, but there are glosses and rubrics in Old Irish, making this the earliest extant example of Irish (exclusive of ogham inscriptions). Kells is a huge book, containing the text of the Gospels, and extensively ornamented; not something to be used daily. Kells is and was an exhibition piece; this new find looks to be a working psalter.

UPDATE 8/5/2006: More fragments of the psalter have surfaced in the bog owned by Kevin and Patrick Leonard in Faddan More in north Tipperary. Pieces of the cover, and a leather bag used to carry and protect the book were also located. Some years previously a fine leather bag was located in the same bog, which perhaps lends credence to the current theory that the psalter was deliberately hidden by someone who intended to collect it later, some thousand or so years ago.

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