Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentiales and Selections from Related Documents

By John T. McNeill; Helena M. Gamer | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VIII
Penitential Elements in Medieval Public Law

1. SELECTIONS FROM EARLY IRISH LAW

[THE Irish code known as the Senchus Mór was compiled at a period shortly after the introduction of Christianity. According to the statement with which it is prefaced, the compilation was made under the High King Loeghaire mac Neill (428-58). It is further alleged in this document that St. Patrick and two other bishops collaborated in the preparation of the code with Dubhthach, the poet, and other representatives of the pre-Christian learning and legal customs of Ireland. The Senchus was designed, we learn, to combine "the judgments of true nature which the Holy Ghost had spoken through the mouths of the Brehons" (Irish judges) whose disciples "exhibited from memory what their predecessors had sung," with the "Word of God in the written law and the New Testament." History must take from Patrick in this incident the two companion bishops mentioned, and leave doubtful his participation in the framing of the Senchus Mór. But we have at least good reason to suppose that Patrick visited Tara, the capital of King Loeghaire, and consulted with the King and with his poet and adviser, Dubhthach Moccu Lugir.1

The only law tract here quoted, except the Senchus Mór, is the strongly clerical document known as the "dSequel to the Crith Gabhlach", which betrays its late date by references to the emperor and is thought to belong either to the period 800-840 or to the late tenth century.

The Senchus Mór, and the other medieval collections of Irish law decisions, have been edited and translated by W. N. Hancock and others in Ancient Laws of Ireland ( 6 vols., 1865- 1901), from which work the present illustrations are taken. Many incidental references to penance and allied matters occur in these laws which are in themselves too slight for quotation here. Only a few of the more revealing passages are given. Although the reader will observe that the obscurities of the texts have partially baffled the translators, he will be able for the most part to discern the significance of the references to penance. The footnotes are my own.]

____________________
1
E. MacNeill, Saint Patrick, Apostle of Ireland ( London, 1934), pp. 100 ff.

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