Irish Books and the World’s First Copyright Case

KellsFol027v4Evang book of kellsSt. Columba loved books. When he journeyed to the tomb of St. Martin of Tours, he brought back as a relic a gospel book which had lain with St. Martin for over one hundred years. And if you’ve ever seen the great Book of Kells, housed in Trinity College, Dublin, with its intricate Celtic knotwork, stunning details of the four evangelists, tiny images of creative genius—funny faces, stretching animals, two mice sharing a communion wafer—who could blame him for his love of books, especially those made with the superb craftsmanship of the Irish monks? A sister text, since lost to history, The Book of Kildare, was described by 12th century geographer Gerald of Wales as being so beautiful that it must have been “the work of an angel.” In those days, monasteries were publishing houses. St. Columba founded dozens of monasteries, including one at Kells.

At that time, books were hand-written, almost exclusively by monks, and unlike the hyper-pious continent, which tended to destroy anything un-Christian, Irish monasteries collected pagan Greek and Latin literature, which very well otherwise might have been lost forever. Voracious readers and scholars, the Irish collected it all.  Books were most frequently copied onto parchment, made of dried sheepskin, and in Ireland, sheep were (and are!) abundant.  Indeed, the shape of the modern book, more tall than wide, was based on the size of sheepskin.  The most important books were copied onto white Vellum, made from the calf.

Books—one book, a holy book—were St. Columba’s downfall. He coveted. He envied. He desired his master’s psalter. He had no Kinko’s, no Staples superstore, no recourse to to order another copy. He did it the old fashioned way, borrowing the book from his mentor St. Finian and copying page by page, night after night, until he had his own copy.

Perhaps he should have asked. (Perhaps he had asked and had been refused.) Either way, St. Finian considered it theft and appealed to King Diarmait.  King Diarmait thus considered the first copyright case in history. His ruling is famous: “To every cow her calf; to every book is copy.” As a child belongs with her parents (excepting abuse), a calf belongs to its cow, and a copy of a book is retained by the one who owns the original.

Long story short, an accidental killing led to war, some say at St. Columba’s urging, between Columba’s clan (not the churchmen; the tribe from which he came, the Ui Neills, whom today we would call O’Neills) and King Diarmait.  Columba beseeched God on behalf of his people while Finian prayed for the King who granted legal judgment in his favor.  Over one thousand warriors died in battle. For his penance, St. Columba exiled himself from his beloved Eire, travelled to Scotland, and founded the noted community at Iona, which flourished for centuries. In his travels through Scotland, reportedly he drove away the Loch Ness Monster with the sign of the cross. A few centuries later, in 804, monks from Iona fled to Kells for protection from raiding Vikings. The Book of Kells was probably created in Iona and taken to Kells for safety.

St. Columba, lover of books, founder of monasteries, died June 9, 597 and his feast day is celebrated on June 9.  The Scottish name Malcolm (Máel Coluim) means disciple or servant of Columba. He is also associated with a monastic rule (including this piece of good advice: “constant prayers for those who trouble thee”) and two or three Latin poems or hymns. Along with Patrick and Brigid, he is part of the triumvirate of patron saints of Ireland.

Oh, and that whole war bit above: probably, or at least possibly, a legend. Other sources claim the love of spreading God’s message of good news, and not a penance for untimely deaths, led Columba to Iona. But it makes a good story.

If you can’t found a monastery, write a poem, or banish a monster today, honor St. Columba by respecting copyright.  For one day at least, avoid pirated DVDs and illegally copied music, cite your sources, and practice MLA style.

For further interest

The Book of Kells online, from Trinity College, Dublin.

 Awesome video about The Book of Kells (with a wee bit about St. Columba). Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6Part 7. (Imperfectly edited but otherwise well done.)

The Iona Community is an ecumenical Christian community located in Iona, Scotland, which works for peace and social justice, rebuilding community, and renewing worship. Their symbol, the Wild Goose, is a Celtic symbol representing the Holy Spirit.

Closer to home in Southbridge, MA is St. Columba of Iona Orthodox monastery. Anyone want to take a pilgrimage with me?

Register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright office. . . just teasing. You know you don’t have to do this, right?Copyright exists from the moment the work is created” (from their website). For the dedicated, their article on Registration For Online Works is worth a glance.

St. Columba and the Loch Ness Monster info.

References  (I did not follow MLA style in writing this blog.)

Irish monastery libraries and the making of books (p. 158-168) and St. Columba’s copyright war (p.169-171) in Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. NY: Doubleday, 1995.

Another view of events preceding St. Columba’s pilgrimage to Scotland from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

An objective/scholarly print source: Johnston, William M., ed. Encyclopedia of Monasticism. Vol. 1 A-L.  Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000. p. 319-321,

More details about St. Columba from Orthodoxwiki.

Photo credit: The Book of Kells folio 27v Symbols of the Four Evangelists, from Wikipedia Commons.

Note: Do not confuse St. Columba ( also called Columcille) with his disciple, Columbanus.


2 comments on “Irish Books and the World’s First Copyright Case

  1. UPDATE: Apparently Gerald of Wales (Geraldus Cambrensis) also collected tales of Irish werewolves, a disappearing fairy island, and the fairy story of “Elidor and the Golden Ball” about a young boy’s visits to fairy and his theft of their prince’s golden ball. See Katherine Briggs’ “An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures” for more information.

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