Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
An Irish Astronomical Tract (Author: [unknown])

The MSS.

The text is contained in three MSS.:—

  1. Stowe, B. II. 1. R.I.A.
  2. Z. 2. 2. 1. (until recently numbered V. 3. 1. 38), in Marsh's Library, Dublin.
  3. 23. F. 13. R.I.A.

1. A vellum MS., in very good preservation, containing 12 leaves, written in a small, neat hand in double columns. With it are bound 5 leaves of a medical tract apparently a translation from Latin. The last page is quite illegible. The text is illustrated by neatly executed diagrams, a few of which, however, are incorrect and do not agree with the text.

The first page is occupied by an astronomical rotula with a movable index, containing names of the Signs of the Zodiac and the planets in Latin; also the names of the months and the numeral figures. At the top of the page is a Lunar Calendar and a list of weights and measures which are very difficult to decipher owing to stains on the MS. At the foot of the rotula is a note in Irish explaining the connection between the signs of the Zodiac and the human anatomy, portion of which is illegible. The contents of this page are entirely absent from the other MSS. It is reproduced as the frontispiece to this volume.

Inside the cover are inserted some sheets of paper written by Col. Vallancey, Dr. Parsons and Mr. Astle on the subject of the MS., which throw some light on its later history. It was bought by Thomas Astle, Keeper of the Records in the Tower of London, in 1763. He evidently asked Dr. Parsons, F.R.S., and member of the Society of Antiquaries, to examine the MS., and report on it to him; which he did in the letter here preserved. With the assurance that accompanies ignorance, Dr. Parsons states that he found it to be "very valuable on several accounts; first for its antiquity, as it was


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certainly written within the century of the conversion of the people to Christianity by St. Patrick; for this is the most pure and ancient character of the Magogian tongue from which the Greek and every other alphabet of Europe had its rise." The letter continues in the same strain. It is dated 6th June, 1765.

On Astle's death in 1804 the MS. came into possession of the Marquis of Buckingham at Stowe. About 1849 it was bought by the Earl of Ashburnham, and in 1883 the Ashburnham collection was housed in the Royal Irish Academy Library.

At the foot of Parson's letter Col. Vallancey appends some remarks, dated London, 10th March, 1782, and says "the astronomical essay appears to be the language of the 13th century." He wisely does not venture to support his opinion, or adduce any evidence to prove it. Higher up on the page, on a line with Parson's signature, Vallancey glosses the former's wild statements with a laconic "mi-creadamhuil annso. Cathal Uabhallansi."

Again, at the foot of a letter on the same subject addressed by Vallancey to Astle, evidently written the same day as the foregoing remarks, since it also is dated 10th March, although the year is not mentioned, there is a memorandum in Vallancey's handwriting as follows: — "Dublin, 20th June, 1785. A copy of this work was found in the MSS. closet of St. Patrick's Library with great additions. Another mutilated copy is in possession of Col. Vallancey."

This memorandum is important for the history of the other MSS.

Before passing on to consider them, it may be mentioned that the name Donncha O'Connaill is written in ornate Roman capitals at the foot of the last leaf but one. It may be the name of the scribe or former owner of the MS., but is probably not genuine.


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2. A vellum MS. of 11 leaves very well preserved, in double columns, in handwriting different from that of B. II. 1. The diagrams are not so neatly carried out as those in B, but all agree with the descriptions in the text, and are therefore more reliable. The last page is entirely illegible, and only the Latin heading and first line of the Irish translation of the last chapter are preserved, since the remainder was continued on this last page. The text of Z is remarkably good. The corrupt passages are few, and any textual difficulties of B have been almost invariably solved by help of it.

How the MS. came to Marsh's Library is not clear. The first record of it I can find is in a MS. Catalogue of the Library compiled by Robert Dougatt, Librarian, 1719-1730.

The entry— Anonymi Elementa Astronomiae M. 3. 6. 16. is, however, on the left hand side of the page and not in Dougatt's handwriting, and was evidently inserted after 1730. The present Librarian, Dr. Newport White, tells me that the fact of it being lettered "M" would point to its having been in Archbishop Marsh's collection, and that it was probably lost or mislaid when the Catalogue was compiled.

Col. Vallancey, in his Collectanea, Vol. VI., part II., p. 316, published 1804, says:— "It is evident that treatises on that science (astronomy) did exist about fifty years since, when Smith and Harris published the histories of Cork (1750) and Down (1757). Both mention that they had seen one in manuscript, and in the Irish character, in the Library of St. Patrick's Cathedral. A strict search was often made at my request, but no such book could be found."

This statement, published in 1804, is certainly strange when taken in conjunction with the memorandum of 1785 quoted above. We are not then sure, when or how


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the MS. reached Marsh's Library, but it probably was contained in Bishop Marsh's collection, was lost or mislaid between 1719-1730, was certainly there between 1750-1757, and apparently lost sight of again until 1785, when it was found with other MSS. in a small closet in the wall. The "great additions" mentioned above by Vallancey are imaginary.

3. A vellum MS. of eight leaves, in very bad condition, comprising twenty-seven chapters of the text in handwriting different from that of either of the other MSS. The text, as far as it goes, is also illustrated by diagrams, some of which are very stained and faint, but appear to be correct inasmuch as they agree with the descriptions in the text.

About one-half of this fragment is clear, but somewhat more of it can be read in a very good light, and with the assistance of the other MSS.

Of its history I can find nothing. In the Catalogue of the R.I.A., 23. F. 13. is followed by two blank pages. In O'Curry's Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History, Dublin, 1861, p. 13 of facsimiles, chapter 19 of the F text:—Si Autem Sol Minoris esset, etc., is reproduced with the accompanying diagram.

O'Curry dates the tract "Circa A.D. 1400," without adducing any reason for his opinion, and describes the fragment as "a beautiful vellum MS. of eight leaves, in the finest style of handwriting". In my opinion, the handwriting of either of the other MSS. is much finer, particularly that of B, but of course O'Curry had not seen either of these. The same portion of the text and the diagram were reproduced in Specimens of Irish National MSS. Part III. ii. No. XXIII.

I have not been able to discover how the MS. came into the possession of the R.I.A., but it may be the "mutilated copy" mentioned as being in Col. Vallancey's possession in the memorandum of 1785.


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The following edition of the text is in the main that of B. Doubtful passages have been emended from Z and F; in the latter case of course only where collation was possible. Scribal errors have been found to be less numerous in Z than in B, but on the whole the two texts differ but slightly. In almost all cases of difference F has been found to agree with Z rather than with B, but occasionally F and B readings differ from those of Z. In the matter of diagrams also Z and F are at one. At the foot of the page the variae lectiones of any importance are given, and where the text of B has been emended from that of F or Z the B reading is given in the collation. I have thought it unnecessary to italicise the commoner extensions of compendia except where there was room for doubt. With words like speir, cercall, naduir, etc., which frequently occur in the text, italics have been used only in the first instance where they occur. Talamh has been extended throughout in accordance with the consonant declension, which it follows in the two instances where it is written in full in the MS. In no case has the spelling of the text been interfered with; punctuation marks have been added, and capital letters where necessary. I have designated the Stabius transcript 3. B. 32. as S in the footnotes and glossary.