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'Mistakes of all kinds': the glossography of medieval Irish literary texts

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Much has been written about the vibrant culture of vernacular glossing and commentary in medieval Ireland particularly in relation to Latin texts, the vernacular legal texts, and the early poetry, notably Amra Coluimb Chille. But less, if any, attention has been directed at the glossography of medieval Irish prose texts. One not unreasonable response to this observation might be that there is not much to say as there is not much to talk about. This assumption derives, as does much of the negative impression of the medieval Irish glossographical enterprise, from the scholarship of the early twentieth century. Bergin’s much-quoted views are well known and need not detain us here. Referring more specifically to the type of material under discussion here, Eleanor Knott was firm in her view of medieval Irish glossaries: “as guides to the meanings of words some of them do not even pretend to be useful, and those that do are frequently unreliable”. In this view she was following Kuno Meyer whose opinion is offered in the first quotation at the top of this paper; it comes from the only article which even attempts to grapple with the detail of the texts we are considering here. Times have moved on and nowadays we are inclined to be more sympathetically disposed to the efforts of these glossators and commentators. John Kelleher’s remark (quoted above) was made in that spirit and, although it was made in the context of writing about early Irish humour, it is of more general application and was a forerunner of those scholars who went on in subsequent years to make compelling cases for taking medieval Irish scholars seriously, such as the late Rolf Baumgarten whose particular interest related to words and names; and it is perhaps opportune to remind ourselves that such observations still hold true.



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Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium

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Harvard University Press

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