4 books, garlanded with etymologies

We have to go back to Aristophanes for the original metaphor:

To be insulted by you is to be garlanded with lilies.

That one is all over the net, and freely adapted by journos and other low types. They never tell you the precise source, nor explain the ambiguity in Aristophanes. Meanwhile, watch the floral image.

Garlanded, as a verb, seems to have enjoyed a particular vogue in the early nineteenth-century, where I find two choice usages:

One in Walter Scott, The Heart of Midlothian:

They paused for a moment on the brow of a hill, to gaze on the unrivalled landscape which it presented. A huge sea of verdure, with crossing and intersecting promontories of massive and tufted groves, was tenanted by numberless flocks and herds, which seemed to wander unrestrained and unbounded through the rich pastures. The Thames, here turreted with villas, and there garlanded with forests, moved on slowly and placidly, like the mighty monarch of the scene, to whom all its other beauties were but accessories, and bore on its bosom an hundred barks and skiffs, whose white sails and gaily fluttering pennons gave life to the whole.

Another in Keats, The Eve of St Agnes, XXIV:

All garlanded with carven imageries
Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings;
And in the midst, ’mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings.

Suddenly, in this morning’s Irish Times,

The oldest known surviving Irish manuscript will be among a number of works to be exhibited publicly for the first time in 2016, after Trinity College Dublin secured funding for a major conservation project…

Three other manuscripts will also benefit from the conservation work: the Book of Dimma, the Book of Mulling (or Moling), and the so-called Garland of Howth

The Garland of Howth is what remains of a 9th- or 10th-century book of the Gospels (the name “garland” is a corruption of the Irish “ceithre leabhair”) and is considered the work of multiple scribes, none of them first class.

To be honest, were I in possession of a 9th- or 10th-century book, my prime concern might not be whether the scribes were first class.

Now consider the OED’s etymology for garland:

Old French garlandegerlandegallande (also guarlander verb) = Provençal g(u)arlanda, Old Spanish guarlanda, Catalan garlanda, medieval Latin garlandagallanda. The word is also found with a different vowel in the first syllable, as French guirlande, Provençal guirlanda, Italian ghirlanda, Spanish guirnalda, Portuguese guirnalda; and no satisfactory origin has yet been suggested for it. In the 16th and 17th cents. the spellings ghir-gir-guirland are frequently used by English writers, in imitation of the French and Italian forms.

Note: no satisfactory origin has yet been suggested for it. In this context we certainly have one.

The text of The Garland of Howth is on-line, that you may practise your late Latin..

That’s not the end of the mild verbal excitement here.

Despite the general application of the decimal system, we still use a dodecimal one alongside (twelve inches in the foot, eggs in dozens …). Refer now to Martin J Ball and James Fife on The Celtic Languages, pages 118-9:

In Old Irish numbers were counted in tens between 20 and 100. The decades 20-100 and 1,000 are nouns and are followed by the genitive plural. This decimal system survived in the literary language into Modern Irish, but in the spoken language a vigesimal system prevails which uses either the native word fiche or the borrowed scór (< Eng. score) for 20, e.g. ceithre leabhair is trí fichid or trí scór is ceithre leabhair ’64 books’.

Don’t get confused there:  trí scór is ceithre leabhair translates as “three score and four”. Whereas ceithre leabhair are the four books of the Gospels.

Now, consider:

  • What is the crowning literary and dogmatic achievement of Christianity? Indeed, a foundation of all Western European moral teaching?

Did you arrive there at the Four Gospels?

  • Who reintroduced the Four Gospels to Western Europe, after the Fall of Rome?

Did you arrive there at the Irish monks who left their native land, never to return, to convert the heathen (as St Columba, St Ninian, St Martin of Tours)? Then, in a second exodus, to apply care and maintenance to the converted through monastic establishments?

If so, the ceithre leabhair might readily be localised into any of those early languages the OED etymology recites. And, starting with Patrick’s parable on the shamrock, those early Irish monks seem keen on teaching aids borrowed from nature. Perchance, just perchance, have we here some kind of “reverse metaphor” — the Gospels becoming the garland, and the garland metaphored back again?


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Filed under Irish Times, Literature, Oxford English Dictionary, reading, Trinity College Dublin, Walter Scott

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