Medieval Gaelic Sources

Author: Katharine Simms
Series: Maynooth Research Guides for Irish Local History (Number 14)
Publisher: Four Courts Press
Published: 2009
ISBN 13: 9781846821370 hbk

Synopsis: This book is intended to serve as a practical guide to Gaelic language sources (as opposed to administrative or ecclesiastical records in Latin, French, or English) for the history of these communities in the high Middle Ages, laying emphasis on published texts for which English translations are available. Under six headings (annals, genealogies, poems, prose tracts and sagas, legal material, colophons and marginalia), it discusses not only the nature of the sources themselves, the purpose for which they were originally created, and their survival and availability to researchers, but also how to glean usable historical information from them.

Review: The aim of this book is to introduce people to medieval sources in the Gaelic languages, to explain the purpose of their creation, how they survived, whether they are available in published form, and how to get usable historical information from them. There is a complementary book to this one, which the author herself talks about in her introduction, called Medieval Record Sources (Maynooth Research Guides for Irish Local History, number 4); in that book the records discussed are in English, French and Latin. I’ve ordered that book and will be reading and reviewing it when it arrives.

The manuscripts that are discussed in the book are written in three stages of Gaelic; Old Irish (650 – 900 CE), Middle Irish (900 – 1200 CE), and Classical or Early Modern Irish (1200 – 1650 CE). The author gives a short history of the three divisions of the language and a history of how reliable the translations are that I found engaging and very interesting.

The book is not a very large one, all together only 131 pages long. But it is a treasure trove of information in the sense that by the end of it you know about the Gaelic sources, their strengths and weaknesses. You know the background of how and where they came into being and who wrote them as well as who influenced the writers and how. You get a sense of who translated them and how reliable these translations are and what you can as a modern reader get from them if you are looking for historical information. Another impressive part of this book is of course the Further Reading section and the Index.

Another highly recommended book if you are looking for the origins of the sources you are reading.