05: Roderick Maclean of Iona: A Renaissance Humanist from the Western Isles
by Dr. Alan Macquarrie
Roderick MacLean’s Latin poems on St Columba, the Ionis or Ionidos Liber, ‘Book of the Song of Iona’, published in Rome in 1549, have received less attention than they deserve. They and their author are difficult to categorise: Roderick MacLean appears from the poems to be a model of Catholic orthodoxy, yet we know that he had earlier spent time studying under Luther and Melanchthon at Wittenberg in the 1530s. His subject-matter, Columba as portrayed in Adomnán’s Vita Columbae (c. 700), is very medieval, while his language is that of the Renaissance, with a good knowledge of Greek, skill at using the verse forms of Horace, and a quite remarkable vocabulary. The poems contain a number of interesting Latinisations of Gaelic names, some incidental information about farming practice on Iona, and some hints about MacLean’s manuscript of Vita Columbae and its relationship to the surviving MSS. As well as Ionis, MacLean wrote psalm paraphrases (of which only one survives) and some court poetry which came to light very recently during the course of our research.
Image caption: The title page of Roderick MacLean’s poem Ionis, published in Rome in 1549, from a copy in the Bibliotheca communale Augusta, Perugia. The inscription “Collegium Romanum” shows that this copy had belonged to the Jesuit College in Rome (founded 1551) before it was acquired by the library in Perugia, probably in 1565.
About the speaker
Alan Macquarrie was born in Glasgow and is a graduate of Cambridge and Edinburgh Universities. He worked for ten years in the Department of Scottish History at Glasgow University, then for 18 years in the Education Faculty at the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of a number of books, including Scotland and the Crusades (1985), The Saints of Scotland (1997), Medieval Scotland: Kingship and Nation (2004), Legends of Scottish Saints (2012), and Scottish Supplications to Rome, 1471-1492 (2017). He is also involved in the series of Calendars of Papal Letters to the British Isles published by the Irish Manuscript Commission. His edition of the Poems of Roderick MacLean, jointly edited with Roger P H Green, will appear in 2022.
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