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The Stowe Missal and Gospel of St. John

  • RIA MS D ii 3: Cat. No. 1238 c. A.D. 792-803 Vellum: 15cm x 12cm 67 leaves (incomplete)

Written in Latin. The Stowe Missal is a Mass-book of the early Irish Church, small enough to be carried around for the use of a priest on his travels. It may have been written in Tallaght, Co. Dublin, as the abbot of the priory, St Máel Ruain, is commemorated in the Mass. According to the first inscription on the cumdach or shrine, it was in the monastery of St Ruadhan in Lorrha, Co. Tipperary, c. 1050, and recent researches indicate that it may have been written there. The Missal was named ‘Stowe’ because, in the 19th century, it was part of a collection of manuscripts in the library of the Duke of Buckingham at Stowe House, Buckinghamshire, England, which was sold in 1849 to the Earl of Ashburnham. In 1883 it was purchased by the British Government and deposited in the Royal Irish Academy.

D ii 3 consists of two separate manuscripts which were bound together for no evident reason other than the leaves were of the same size. The manuscript is bound in boards of oak covered with uncoloured vellum and round the three outer edges there are strips of kid skins 2cm wide stained with red.

The first manuscript (11 folios) contains excerpts from the Gospel according to St John. It was written in a cursive minuscule script by a scribe who signed himself in Ogham writing Sonid (f. 11r). In common with the ‘pocket’ Gospel books and books of devotion of the 9th century, the opening page of the Gospel (f. 1r) has a large ornamental initial and a group of coloured initials enclosed in an ornamental border of geometrical pattern and a beast's head. It is coloured in purple, yellow and red. At the end, (f. 11v) there is a miniature of St John the Evangelist, which faced another miniature on the front page which is now lost. The figure of St John is similar to the short draped figure of the standing Evangelists of the St Gall Gospels, with an eagle hovering with expanded wings over his head and coloured in red and yellow.

The Missal proper (56 folios) is in the second manuscript and it contains the Ordinary and Canon of the Mass, the Order of Baptism and the Order of Visitation of the Sick, Extreme Unction and Communion. The series of antiphons and alleluias are similar to the series for the Communion of the Sick in the Book of Dímma. At the end (ff 65-7) there is an Irish Tract on the Mass, three Irish spells against loss of eyesight, injury by thorns and disease of the urine, and some liturgical rubrics. The traditional view is that this manuscript was the work of a number of scribes of whom only one, Móel Coích, who was responsible for erasures and interpolations, signed his name (f. 37r). However, it has recently been argued that the manuscript is the work of one scribe using different quills. The initial P of the opening prayer, Peccavimus Domine, in the Ordinary of the Mass is decorated and set in a border coloured in yellow and pink. Except for playful drawings of initial letters, the rest of the manuscript is not decorated.

With funding from the bequest of the late Caitlín Bonfield, Librarian of the Academy, the Missal was rebound in existing boards, folios cleaned and repaired by A. Cains in the Trinity Conservation Laboratory, Dublin in 1993/94, at a cost of £1,000.

Digital images of the manuscript can be viewed on Irish Script on Screen.

Select Bibliography

Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy(Dublin, 1943), Fasc. 27: 3431.
Rev. J.H. Bernard, ‘On the Stowe St John’, Trans RIA30 (1893), 313-24.
F.J. Byrne, ‘The Stowe Missal’ in Great books of Ireland(Thomas Davis Lectures), (Dublin, 1967), 38-50.
Siobhán Fitzpatrick, ‘The Stowe Missal: its provenance and recent history’ in George Cunningham (ed.), The Roscrea Conference: commemorating forty conferences 1987-2007 at Mount St Joseph Abbey (Roscrea, 2007), 1-6.
E. Gwynn, ‘The Stowe Missal’, Irish Church Quarterly9 (1916), 119-33.
F. Henry, Irish art in the early Christian period to A.D. 800(revised edition, London, 1965), 43, 161-2, 199-202, 205, plate 112.
E.A. Löwe (ed.), Codices Latini antiquiores ..., (Oxford, 1972), 267-8.
B. McCarthy, ‘On the Stowe Missal’, Trans RIA27 C (1885), 135-267.
P. McGurk, Latin Gospel books from A.D. 400 to A.D. 800(Paris, etc., 1961), no. 82, p. 78.
G. Mac Niocaill, ‘Fragments d’un coutumier monastique irlandais du VIIIe-IXe siècle’, Scriptorium 15 (1961).

Bernard Meehan, ‘Irish pocket Gospel books’ in C. Breay and B. Meehan (eds) The St Cuthbert Gospel: studies on the insular manuscripts of the Gospel of John (BL, add. Ms 8900), (London, 2015), 83-102.
P. Ní Chatháin, ‘The liturgical background of the Derrynaflan altar service’, JRSAI 110 (1980), 127-48.
Thomas O’Loughlin, ‘The Stowe Missal: the eucharist as refreshment’ in O’Loughlin, Celtic theology: humanity, world and God in early Irish writings(London & New York, 2000), 128-46.

Timothy ONeill, The Irish hand … (Cork, 2014), 18-19, 80-1.
Timothy O’Neill, ‘Quills, inks and vellums’ in Bernadette Cunningham and Siobhán Fitzpatrick (eds), Treasures of the Royal Irish Academy Library(Dublin, 2009), 45-9.
T.F. O’Rahilly, ‘The history of the Stowe Missal’, Ériu 10 (1926-8), 95-109.
P. Ó Riain, ‘The shrine of the Stowe Missal re-dated’, Proc. RIA91 C 10 (1991), 285-95.
Pádraig Ó Riain, ‘The Stowe Missal’ in Bernadette Cunningham and Siobhán Fitzpatrick (eds), Treasures … (Dublin, 2009), 10-15.
J. Ryan, ‘The Mass in the early Irish church’, Studies 50 (1961), 371-84.
Whitley Stokes, ‘The Irish passages in the Stowe Missal’, Zeitschrift für vergl. Sprachf., N.F. 6(5), 1882.
J.H. Todd, ‘On the ancient Irish Missal and its silver box, etc.’, Trans RIA23 (1856), 3-37.
G.F. Warner (ed.), The Stowe Missal(Facsimile and printed text), Henry Bradshaw Society, Vols 31-2, (London, 1906, 1915).

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