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Sven Meeder. The Irish Scholarly Presence at St. Gall: Networks of Knowledge in the Early Middle Ages. Studies in Early Medieval History. London: Bloomsbury Academic. 2018. Pp. 187. $114 (cloth).

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 November 2018

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín*
Cambridge University, Magdalene College, National University of Ireland, Galway
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Book Review
Copyright © The North American Conference on British Studies 2018 

The influence of the Irish in the Swiss monastery of St. Gall has long generated scholarly controversy. In 1956, a former abbey librarian, Johannes Duft, published a famous article entitled “Iromanie und Irophobie” that described the course of the controversy up to that date, with the pendulum swinging now in favor of the Irish, now against. Most modern scholars have managed to find a middle ground in the debate, and the 2018 exhibition in the abbey library, with its accompanying, richly illustrated catalogue edited by Cornel Dora and Franziska Schnoor (An der Wiege Europas. Irische Buchkultur des Frühmittelalters or the English-language version, The Cradle of European Culture: Early Medieval Irish Book Art) has provided another opportunity to present all the evidence and reexamine all the facts about St. Gall himself and his foundation.

Sven Meeder sets out to minimize the Irish influence at St. Gall by questioning the significance of all the surviving Irish material in the abbey library and by turning on their heads all the well-known references by continental writers to the Irish and their influence, and rather than seeing them (as previous scholars had unanimously done) as complimentary and admiring of Irish scholarship, viewing them instead as manifestations of anti-Irish animosity. In doing so, he occasionally misreads the early evidence—as, for example, when he argues that “the surviving sections [of the Vita vetustissima, the oldest known Life of Gallus] make no reference to Ireland or to Irishmen” (19).

Meeder is not willing to allow any active Irish influence, even where the evidence appears to be overwhelming. A case in point is his treatment (55–61) of the famous mid-ninth-century St. Gall librarian's list of “books written in Irish script” (Libri Scottice scripti). Not even Meeder's reductionist approach can conjure this list out of existence—though that is not to say that he does not try. So far from providing clear evidence of significant Irish presence, however, and therefore influence in the monastery, he dismisses these “Irish books.” He cannot see that the evidence of the surviving dozen or more St. Gall Irish manuscripts and manuscript fragments, when added to the thirty itemized books in the list, amounts to a collection of Irish books second to none in Europe. (There are only a dozen manuscripts dating from before 800 AD in the Dublin libraries today!) Karl Schmucki, in his contribution to the 2018 St. Gall Library exhibition, has a list (102) of later Irish visitors to the abbey, from the ninth century to the twelfth, and the manuscripts that preserve evidence of continuous Irish presence there. And while Meeder does write about the famous mid-ninth-century Irish scholars Marcus and his nephew Móengal (Marcellus), whose decision to remain at St. Gall after they called to pay their respects to the founder on their return from Rome, is recalled in a memorable passage of the abbey's later history, their influence, too, is minimized as much as possible, by subsuming it into a discussion of other (occasionally fictional) Irish visitors.

What is the motivation for all this relentless denigration? Perhaps the answer lies in another of Meeder's remarks: “The absence [in the list of books Scottice scripti] of a reference to Anglo-Saxon script … makes one wonder whether the label scottice included books originally copied in England” (55). Here perhaps is the clue to his apparent belief that the Hibernensis (at least as it survives in one St. Gall copy, Cod. 243) was the work of an Anglo-Saxon. The reference here is to St. Gall Cod. 728, a later catalogue that mentions a Collectio Eadberti de diuersis opusculis sanctorum patrum. Meeder argues that in fact this describes the copy of the Hibernensis in Cod. 243. But that is not enough: “Instead of a lowly copyist, we must contemplate a different function performed by Eadberct” (91). Sadly, here Meeder's nerve appears to fail him; it turns out that “Perhaps Eadberct must be understood as the person responsible for bringing this Irish collection to the monastery of St. Gall” (91). Such a disappointment: a tantalizing idea has been held up for a moment to glitter in the sunlight of revisionist scholarship, before falling on the dust heap of idle fancy. Not, however, before Meeder rubbishes previous discussion of the note in Paris MS, BNF lat. 12021, whose brilliant interpretation by the Swiss-German Celtic scholar, Rudolf Thurneysen, revealed that it contained the names of the probable two original Irish compilers of the Hibernensis, Ruben of Dairinis and Cú Chuimne of Iona. It is very instructive, as illustrative of Meeder's modus operandi, to compare his comments on the Paris note with his treatment of the Eadberct epilogue.

There is a steady drumbeat of anti-Irish bias throughout the book that culminates in Meeder's closing statement: “The monastery of St. Gall did not fulfil the role of bridgehead, connecting Ireland and the continent, nor was it any more of a gateway than other continental centres within the Frankish realms. If metaphors are necessary, St. Gall acted more as a sink strainer” (110). The remark is offensive and insulting, which is a pity because readers will be put off the book thereby and will miss its otherwise useful discussion of the St. Gall transmission of the important Irish texts De xii abusiuis saeculi (65–82) and the Hibernensis (83–98), as well as the St. Gall copies of the various penitentials, Irish and non-Irish (99–108). If readers come to the book in the expectation of finding in it a replacement of the 1926 study by the American scholar, J. M. Clark, The Abbey of St Gall as a Centre of Literature and Art, they will have to seek further.