New Digital Archive Will Bring Medieval Chants Back to Life: Project Amra Will Feature 300 Digitized Manuscripts and Many Audio Recordings

Among his­to­ri­ans of Euro­pean Chris­tian­i­ty, it long seemed a set­tled ques­tion that Irish Catholi­cism, the so-called “Celtic Rite,” dif­fered sig­nif­i­cant­ly in the mid­dle ages from its Roman coun­ter­part. This despite the fact that the phrase Celtic Rite “must not be tak­en to imply any nec­es­sary homo­gene­ity,” notes the Catholic Ency­clo­pe­dia, “for the evi­dence such as it is, is in favour of con­sid­er­able diver­si­ty.” Far from an insu­lar reli­gion, Irish Catholi­cism spread to France, Ger­many, Switzer­land, Italy, and North­ern Spain through the mis­sions of St. Colum­banus and oth­ers, and both influ­enced and absorbed the Continent’s prac­tices through­out the medieval peri­od.

His­to­ri­ans have recent­ly set out to “restore [the Irish Church] to its right­ful place on the Euro­pean his­tor­i­cal map,” writes Trin­i­ty Col­lege Dublin’s Ann Buck­ley in her intro­duc­tion to a book of schol­ar­ly essays called Music, Litur­gy, and the Ven­er­a­tion of Saints of the Medieval Irish Church in a Euro­pean Con­text.

To vary­ing degrees, all of the schol­ars rep­re­sent­ed in this col­lec­tion write to counter the essen­tial­iz­ing “quest for what might be unique or ‘oth­er’ about Ire­land and Irish cul­ture” among all oth­er Euro­pean nation­al and reli­gious his­to­ries.

Buckley’s writ­ing on the ven­er­a­tion of Irish saints has made a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to this effort, and her decade and a half of archival work has helped cre­ate the Amra project, which aims “to dig­i­tize and make freely avail­able online over 300 man­u­scripts con­tain­ing litur­gi­cal mate­r­i­al asso­ci­at­ed with some 40 Irish saints which are locat­ed in research libraries across Europe.” So write, who also point out some of the most excit­ing aspects of this acces­si­ble resource:

The dig­i­tal archive, when com­plet­ed, will also incor­po­rate record­ings and per­form­ing edi­tions of all the chants and prayers from the orig­i­nal man­u­scripts, as well as trans­la­tions of the Latin texts into a num­ber of Euro­pean lan­guages. In this way, con­tem­po­rary audi­ences can enjoy first-hand the devo­tion­al songs asso­ci­at­ed with Irish saints, bring­ing them out of their slum­ber after more than half a mil­len­ni­um.

You can hear one antiphonal chant, “Mag­ni patris/Mente mun­di,” from the Office St. Patrick, just above. Per­haps unsur­pris­ing­ly, “no oth­er Irish saint is rep­re­sent­ed so exten­sive­ly or with such vari­ety in medieval litur­gi­cal sources,” writes Buck­ley. Man­u­script hymns, prayers, and offices for Patrick have been found in Dublin, Oxford, Cam­bridge, the British Library, and “in the Vien­na Schot­ten­kloster dat­ing from the time of its foun­da­tion by Irish Bene­dic­tine monks in the twelfth cen­tu­ry.” (See the open­ing of the Office of St. Patrick, “Veneren­da immi­nen­tis,” from a late-15th cen­tu­ry man­u­script, at the top.)

Oth­er saints rep­re­sent­ed in the archival mate­r­i­al include Brig­it, Colm­cille, Colum­banus, Canice, Declan, Cia­ran, Fin­ian, and Lau­rence O’Toole. The mis­sion­ary monks all received their own “offices,” litur­gi­cal cer­e­monies per­formed on their feast days. Many of the man­u­scripts, such as the open­ing of the Office of St. Brig­it, above, con­tain musi­cal nota­tion, allow­ing musi­col­o­gists like Buck­ley to recre­ate the sound of Irish Catholi­cism as it exist­ed in Ire­land, Britain, and Con­ti­nen­tal Europe sev­er­al hun­dred years ago.

The project is devel­op­ing a dig­i­tal archive of such record­ings, as well as “a ful­ly search­able data­base,” notes, with “inter­ac­tive maps show­ing the geo­graph­i­cal dis­tri­b­u­tion of the cults of Irish saints across Europe, and of the libraries where the man­u­scripts are now housed. A series of doc­u­men­tary films is also envis­aged.” You don’t have to be a spe­cial­ist in the his­to­ry of the Irish Church, or an Irish Catholic, for that mat­ter, to get excit­ed about the many ways such a rich resource will bring this medieval his­to­ry to new life.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Where Did the Monk’s Hair­cut Come From? A New Vox Video Explains the Rich and Con­tentious His­to­ry of the Ton­sure

The Medieval Mas­ter­piece, the Book of Kells, Is Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

160,000 Pages of Glo­ri­ous Medieval Man­u­scripts Dig­i­tized: Vis­it the Bib­lio­the­ca Philadel­phien­sis

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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