Monday, August 22, 2022

The Cathach

The oldest extant manuscript in Ireland is the Cathach. The Cathach is a psalter, a copy of the Book of Psalms from the Bible (actually, Psalm 30:13 to 105:13). Traditionally, it is associated with St. Columba, and is also called The Cathach of St. Columba. It is dated to the second half of the 6th century, which places it in his lifetime (Columba died 597).

There is a legend that it was made in one night, copied from an original in Movilla Abbey. Supposedly, Abbot Finnian of Movilla objected to Columba making and taking a copy, and the conflict led to a terrible battle. during which 3000 men were killed. This is sometimes referred to as the first war over copyright.

This is unlikely; it is, however, associated with battle for another reason. The O'Donnell clan possessed it, and as a holy book it was considered to give protection in times of battle. Safe in its cumdach (a reliquary specifically made for a book, pictured above), it was carried by a holy man or monk three times around the waiting army prior to battle, and a rallying cry of "An Cathach!" ("The Battler!") would go up from the troops.

The cumdach was made for it. It consists of a wooden box that has been re-decorated a few times. It has bronze and gilt-silver plates, and settings for glass and crystal "gems." Completed in  Kells in the second half of the 11th century, it was added to in the late 1300s with a Crucifixion scene, and then again in the 16th and 18th centuries. The cumdach is in the National Museum of Ireland. The Cathach itself is preserved and studied in the Royal Irish Academy.

What was the likelihood that a battle would be fought over copyright? Hard to say, especially since copyright as we think of it in modern times is a fairly new idea. Or is it? Let's talk about that next time.

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