ii. The concept of ‘natural law’/‘the law of nature’

Occasionally Irish vernacular law, as well as other kinds of early Irish texts, can be seen to contrast between a recht aicnid ‘law of nature' and a recht litre ‘law of the letter' or recht fdide ‘law of the prophets'. The best examples from vernacular law are the Pseudo-Historical Prologue to the Senchas Már §7, which we have already encountered, and Córus Bésgnai §§30-37. Both texts make the point that the Taw of nature', the vernacular law that held sway in pre-Christian Ireland, was not wholly incompatible with the Christian Taw of the letter’, which was said to have been introduced into Ireland by St Patrick. Rather, as Charles-Edwards puts it, according to the Pseudo-Historical Prologue, ‘the law of nature written on men's hearts since Adam dug and Eve span had taken an Irish form in their vernacular law and had been purified of any taint of paganism by the collaboration between St Patrick and the filid' , We may now compare the vernacular uses of Taw of nature' and Taw of the letter' with the manner in which the Hibernensis uses the Latin equivalents of these expressions. I quote five representative examples:

(l)Efif>2.5 (p. 21 In. 7-17)

De causis quibus immolabant sacerdotes legis nature, quorum primus Melchisedech.

Concerning the things for which the sacerdotes of the law of nature, the first of whom was Melchisedech, were offering.

[cf. Gen. 14:18-20]

(2) Hib 2.6 (p. 22 In. 1-4)

De causis quibus inimolabant sacerdotes legis litere, quorum primus Aaron.

Concerning the things for which the sacerdotes of the law of the letter, the first of whom was Aaron, were offering.

[cf. Exod. 28 for the first mention of Aaron's priesthood]

(3) Hib 2.7 (p. 22 In. 5-18)

De IIII generibus oblationum legis litere figurantibus Christum. Isidorus: In exordia Leuitici IIIIgeneraprincipalium oblationum discribuntur ... Concerning the four kinds of offerings in the law of the letter that prefigure Christ. Isidore: Four principal kinds of offerings are described at the beginning of Leviticus...

(4) 77/Z>H14.10 V13.10 (p. 561n. 14-16)

De quinque legibus. Apostolus ait: 'Lex naturae, lex littere, lex prophetarum, lex sequentium autorum usque ad Christum, lex noua'.

Concerning the five laws. The apostle said: ‘The law of nature, the law of the letter, the law of the prophets, the law of successive authors up to Christ, the new law’.

(5) Hib 31.18 (p. 225 In. 19-p. 226 In. 7)

De eo quod filia diuisionem hereditatis non consequetur cum fratribus na-tura. Non ad Euam dicitur, 'maledicta terra in opere tuo', sedAdce.

That, according to [the law of] nature, a daughter does not receive a share in the division of the inheritance along with her brothers. It is not said to Eve, ‘Cursed is the earth in your work', but to Adam.

[cf. Gen. 3:17]

In the first and fifth examples Taw of nature' alludes to the Book of Genesis, but the identification of Taw of nature’ with the Old Testament is refined in the fourth example, where a rather elaborate scheme is given for delineating a trajectory of progress through different kinds of law. This scheme, which has a nearly exact parallel in an eighth-century Irish biblical commentary, the Reference Bible, is also found in the B-Recension, where it is spuriously attributed to an apostle. In the Reference Bible we read of a fourfold scheme:


Further on this passage, see McNamara, ‘Plan and source analysis of Das Bibehverk’, 89; ‘Scowcroft, ‘Recht/aide and its gloss’, 148. On interpretations of the relationship between the old and new law in the Reference Bible, see Carella, ‘Divine Law in the Pauline Commentary’.

Quot sunt leges principales, et unde incipit etfinit una quaeque de eis? Leges quattuor sunt principales: lex naturae, et lex littere, lex prophetiae, et lex euangelii.

How many of the principal laws are there, and where does each of them begin and end? There are four principal laws: the law of nature, the law of the letter, the law of the prophets, and the law of the Gospels.

The configuration of the first three elements in the trajectory set out by both the Reference Bible and the Hibernensis—the law of nature, the law of the letter, and the law of the prophets—is superficially reminiscent of the manner in which these three elements relate to each other in Corns Bésgnai. The remaining elements in the quotation from the B-Recension of the Hibernensis—the law of successive authors up to Christ and the new law—can be interpreted in light of the second and third examples above, where the Taw of the letter' appears to be a reference to the law handed down to the Israelites under Moses (Aaron is mentioned as priest only after the law was first given in Sinai according to Exodus 24. and the Book of Leviticus of course follows the Book of Exodus). The expression ’law of the letter’ is thus distinguished from the Taw of nature’, which is the Old Testament law that prevailed before Moses (as in the first and fifth examples, which allude to Genesis). By association we can now add the Taw of the prophets’, ‘the law of successive authors up to Christ', and ‘the new law' (namely the New Testament) to this clear sequence of chronological progress. I lay it out below (Table 4.1) in the form of a table, for comparison with the Pseudo-Historical Prologue to the Senchas Mar and with Corns Bésgnai.

Table 4.1 Comparison between the Hibernensis and the Pseudo-Historical Prologue to the Senchas Mar and Corus Besgnai

The Hibernensis

Pseudo-Historical Prologue to the Senchas Mar and Corus Besgnai

Law of nature

Law of the letter: Mosaic law

Law of the prophets

Law of successive authors up to Christ

New law

recht aicnid: Irish law in the pre-Patrician period recht litre: Irish law after the arrival of Patrick recht/aide: Law of the prophets

If the Pseudo-Historical Prologue to the Senchas Mar and Corus Besgnai were conceptualising the Taw of nature' and the Taw of the letter' in the same manner as the Hibernensis was, then an interesting analogy emerges between the Israelites before their reception of the law at Sinai and the Irish in the pre-Patrician period, as well between the Israelites of the Old Testament law and the Irish after the arrival of Patrick. The identification of Patrick with Moses as national


The Reference Bible §53, MacGinty (ed), 25.

lawgiver is thus made all the more poignant, and is of a piece with a similar such identification in seventh-century Patrician hagiography from Armagh.

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