BMCR 2022.03.25

Apocrypha Hiberniae II, Apocalyptica 2

, , , , , Apocrypha Hiberniae II, Apocalyptica 2. Corpus Christianorum. Series Apocryphorum, 21. Turnhout: Brepols, 2019. Pp. xxiv, 589. ISBN 9782503585352 €355,00.


The book under review is the second volume of Irish apocryphal texts published in the series Corpus Christianorum, Series Apocryphorum, by the Association pour l’étude de la littérature apocrypha chrétienne (AELAC).[1] The members of The Irish Biblical Association are again responsible for the presentation of the critical editions of the Irish originals, the English translations and the commentaries on as well as the informative introductions to the individual texts, among which the Transitus Mariae and the Visio Sancti Pauli might be the best known. Of course, this does not mean that the other medieval Irish eschatological texts included are of minor importance or interest. Especially those texts that were originally composed in Irish – in the volume these are The Fís Adomnáin or Vision of Adomnán and Dá Brón Flatha Nime or The Two Sorrows of the Kingdom of Heaven – are of special significance for detecting the peculiarities of apocalyptic texts in Ireland.

The volume comprises a list of abbreviations (v-vi), a very helpful, rather detailed bibliography (vii–xxiv) and a table of contents in the back of the book (585–589), but lacks any indices that would facilitate orientation and navigation. However, the absence of indices may not be felt by readers who interested in only in a single text. They will be able to find its references to biblical texts, for example, by perusing the texts themselves and reading the apparatuses.

The “General Introduction” (1–14) is not the usual summary of what to expect on the following nearly six hundred pages. After a brief sketch of the fundamental and specific Irish background from which medieval Irish eschatology originated, Martin McNamara leads his readers immediately to the specifics of this regional literary phenomenon and consequently focuses on the key features of Irish apocalyptic literature from the eighth to the fourteenth century. By citing from Codex Reginensis latinus 49, a tenth century Breton manuscript, McNamara offers a treat for everybody studying ancient and Christian afterlife and/or focussing on matters of the soul. The textual extract is about the five places in which the souls will abide until Judgement Day (4–8). Then McNamara points out two major concerns in Irish medieval eschatological texts: the possibility of a vision of God before resurrection and the “fate and condition of the just between death and the final judgment” (8–11). The final four pages of the introduction are dedicated to some particularities of the texts that are edited in the present volume and those to be expected in the forthcoming next one.

It is noteworthy to keep McNamara’s words in mind for assessing the book appropriately (14): “[…] the chief interest is in the critical edition of these texts, with attention to language, date, relation to Irish vernacular tradition, and where possible identification of the sources used.”

The volume contains editions of texts as follows:

(1) According to its editor, John Carey, Fís Adomnáin (The Vision of Adomnán) “has received widespread recognition as the most vivid, eloquent and imaginative account of the afterlife written in the Irish language” (17) and it has been recognized as “the finest of all the medieval visions that exist prior to Dante” (cf. St. John Seymour, quoted by Carey). Carey introduces his chapter with a short history of research, an overview of known manuscripts, some pages about the structure and background and concise insights into the language and date of the text, before he ends with some principles of his edition. The Irish text is presented on the pages on the right with a detailed apparatus of variants, while on the left pages the corresponding English translation is given with some biblical references where they apply (50–115). The translation reads smoothly and pleasantly, the Irish is printed as a run-on text according to the main four manuscript witnesses in Dublin and one in Paris. Two other manuscripts in London and Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, are considered as well. The subsequent notes focus on variants and readings, on parallels in, allusions to and echoes of early Christian writers, and occasionally on the reception history of the text (117–170). Although, as the editor asserts, this account of the afterlife rather often reflects influence of the Visio Sancti Pauli, in 9.7-9 it explicitly quotes the Visio’s very beginning and its motivation, i.e., 2 Cor 12:2–4 (121).

(2) Dá Brón Flatha Nime (The Two Sorrows of the Kingdom of Heaven) is also presented by John Carey, who again provides an introduction that follows the same structure as the previous one. Also text, translation and notes are given in the same way as Fís Adomnáin in the preceding chapter (183–221). The text itself is a rather short description of the judgement of the souls and the end of the world to come. Interestingly, Enoch and Elijah play a major role in the text, above all in the final section (chapters 11–13).

(3) Martin McNamara generally envisions the next chapter with the heading Transitus Mariae. He especially points at the contribution of the Irish Transitus Mariae tradition to research into this popular textual tradition that survived in Syriac, Ethiopic, Coptic, Georgian, Arabic, Armenian, Greek, Latin, Irish, and quite some more languages (225–244). Then Caoimhín Breatnach introduces, edits, translates and comments on Udhacht Mhuire (The Testament of Mary), at the end of which he offers an overview of the relationship of its Irish manuscripts to the Latin version (245–275). Text and translation are accompanied by the usual apparatus of variant readings, while the explanatory notes on the translation on the left side are here and there more detailed and offer even greater transparency. Ugacht Muire annso (De Morte Marie Transitus Mariae), i.e., the Trinity College Latin version, is only briefly introduced by Martin McNamara and Joseph Flahive (357–359). The latter is responsible for text and translation of the manuscript (361–375). Here again a reference to Paul’s trip to the otherworld can be found (chapter 8), though 2 Cor 12:4 is not listed in the apparatus of references.

(4) An Irish version of Visio Sancti Pauli follows thereafter. In a learned and insightful introduction Martin McNamara assigns the Irish tradition a proper place within the tradition of the Visio. By doing so he concentrates on Redaction IV (or “The Hell Version”) that was identified by Theodore Silverstein and elaborately put on a broad manuscript basis by Lenka Jiroušková. Text and translation by Caoimhín Breatnach are based on two manuscripts (P and O) kept in Dublin that might be dated no earlier than the first half of the fifteenth century (392). Both manuscripts are presented in full, i.e., P in the top half of the page and O in the bottom half. The notes on the translation are especially rewarding, because they offer references to Jiroušková’s massive monograph and the Latin version of the text. As the manuscripts are witnesses to Redaction IV of the Visio, they naturally focus on “the respite granted to the damned on Sunday through Paul’s petition and that of the archangel Michael” (392). Although the text itself follows in general the plot of the Latin Visio. Nonetheless, it offers different and genuine details or even omits certain chapters or scenes (393–413). Attentive readers familiar with the Latin Visio or, to be more precise, with its long and short versions might ponder about the issue whether the Irish Visio might be regarded as an individual update or even a more or less independent regional tradition of the Visio.

(5) The final fifth chapter with Irish medieval eschatological texts consists of four Irish legends of Antichrist. It is again Martin McNamara who provides essential information about the Irish Antichrist traditions (417–431). Especially rewarding here is the transcription and translation of a Fragment of an Apocalypse of John in A Life of John, the Beloved Disciple in the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum by Caoimhín Breatnach (420–424), because they make this text known, available and manageable. All in all, McNamara concludes that (431) “the rich Irish legend on Antichrist has drawn from a number of sources: biblical, exegetical, apocryphal and legendary, some of them identifiable, others not so in the present state of research.” And that exactly is a task future studies will have to fulfil. Thereafter, Charles D. Wright offers an introduction to, edition, translation and commentary of A Revelation of John about Antichrist (433–525). The commentary is exceptionally rich and specializes on the main topics and sections of the text.

In addition, Caoimhín Breatnach presents three further, rather short Irish texts of A Revelation of John about Antichrist (Sgél Ainntecrisd – The Story of Antichrist Here, Do thoighiocht an bhreitheamhnais déanaidh – Concerning the Coming of the Final Judgement and Do theacht Anticríosd – Concerning the coming of Antichrist; 527–583). Of course, Breatnach provides the usual introduction, edition, translation and commentary. The earliest text of the three stems from a manuscript dated to the fifteenth century, while the others are from eighteenth and nineteenth century.

This volume is a masterpiece of editorial technique and methodology; and it is an invaluable foundation of further studies of Irish apocrypha. At the same time it provides essential insights into the ongoing processing of biblical or non-biblical material, its transmission and reception, and its regional adaptation. It comprises the most distinguished scholars working in the field, who must be thanked for their meticulous and scrupulous work.


[1] Apocrypha Hiberniae II, Apocalyptica 1: In Tenga Bithnua––The Evel-New Tongue. Edited by John Carey. Corpus Christianorum, Series Apocryphorum 16. Turnhout: Brepols, 2009.