The best historians

The best historians

In Brief

New Style? "It is not why therefore we shall wonder if, as the best historians relate...had been begun she felt": some commentators have heard in these two paragraphs a stylistic pastiche distinct from the one displayed in the previous paragraph. But the turgid Latinate prose is similar in many ways, and the content, while different, feels connected quasi-logically to the previous argument: because Ireland has long valued procreation (point one), "therefore" it has a venerable tradition of practicing medicine and building hospitals such as the one to which Mrs. Purefoy has come (point two). Even if Joyce did not intend to create a new style in these paragraphs, and there is some internal evidence to suggest that he did, it does seem that he is shifting the focus from a vaguely ancient prehistory to a specifically Irish medieval history.

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Some phrases in these new paragraphs sound almost idiomatically modern: "as the best historians relate"; "Not to speak of hostels, leperyards, sweating chambers, plaguegraves"; "Certainly in every public work"; "therefore a plan was by them adopted"; "not merely in being seen but also even in being related." At other times the language is even more syntactically contorted than that of the preceding paragraph. The baffling opening clause is followed by many others, such as "it is difficult in being said which the discrepant opinions of subsequent inquirers are not up to the present congrued to render manifest"; "prosperity at all not to can be and as they had received eternity gods mortals generation to befit them her beholding"; "parturient in vehicle thereward carrying desire immense among all one another"; "she by them suddenly to be about to be cherished had been begun she felt."

One has the sense, reading these paragraphs after the preceding one, of taking an occasional, hesitant step forward, only to be drawn back even more intractably into linguistic muck. Perhaps, then, they are best understood as a continuation of the first style's deliberately baffling Latinate medium, as Declan Kiberd seems to do by not signaling the start of a new section. The English prose continues to sound like an ineptly literal translation of Latin, and the opaque Latinate vocabulary persists: "prosperity" is somehow still obscurely important; mothers are "proliferent" rather than pregnant or breeding or child-bearing; they come to the hospital "parturient" rather than in labor; healthcare providers seek to minimize "all accident possibility" rather than foreseeable complications; hospitals waive "emolument" rather than payment.

But several details in the first paragraph create a sense that we may be moving forward into a recognizably historical era and a particular geographical place. The "best historians" are not identified any more than were Sallust and Tacitus in the preceding paragaph, but now it is said that they wrote about practices "among the Celts." The "art of medicine" is mentioned not just as something characteristic of "a nation" or "the nation," as in the preceding paragraph, but as practiced by the Irish people's "greatest doctors, the O'Shiels, the O'Hickeys, the O'Lees," families of hereditary physicians who served noble families of ancient Ireland. Records of their practices go back to Irish and English historical chronicles and medical treatises of the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and they began practicing many centuries earlier still.

Nearly 100 medieval manuscripts contain medical texts in Irish. The website of the Royal Irish Academy, which holds a large number of these manuscripts, observes that the medical texts consist "mainly of translations or adaptations of continental Latin treatises into early modern Irish. The Irish practitioners were unusual in translating the texts into the vernacular rather than working from the Latin as was the norm elsewhere in Europe. Many of these Latin versions had been translated from Greek or Arabic by early practitioners in France and Italy. The compilations were made for practical purposes—for the use of doctors in the course of their working lives."

Although it seems doubtful that Joyce would have had the facility in early modern Irish to delve very deeply into such texts, it is tempting to suppose that they might have influenced not only his understanding of medieval Irish medicine but also the style in which he presented it. Translations of translations, produced for purely practical purposes, without pretensions to literary elegance—such mongrel documents might very well resemble the two horrible paragraphs that Joyce set down. If scholars eventually identify and describe some plausible examples, the find would support, and refine, Gifford's view that these two paragraphs (unlike the preceding one, inspired, he supposes, by Sallust and Tacitus) were written "After the style of medieval Latin prose chronicles, again with the effect of a literal translation that does not Anglicize word usage and syntax."

Of course, such a discovery would complicate even further Joyce's stated intention of imitating the chronological development of English prose. Latin was the lingua franca of medieval and early modern Europe, and for centuries some clerical and historical English writers preferred that medium to the Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Norman English spoken in the streets, so creating an Anglicized equivalent of their Latin might arguably have some relevance to the project. But using English to imitate the effect of Celts translating Latin texts into Irish? Such a digression would be simply bizarre. It would not, however, necessarily be out of keeping with the methods of Oxen of the Sun.

JH 2021
Page from the 15th century Book of O'Lees, an Irish translation of a Latin translation of an Arabic text with Latin words interspersed, held in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. Tables containing horizontal, vertical, and diagonal writing list the names, symptoms, cures, etc. of various diseases. Source:
Page from the 16th century Book of the O'Shiels, a compendium of medical treatises written by Pádruic Gruamdha Ó Siadhail. Source:
Page from a 16th century manuscript by Donnchadh óg Ó Híceadha
that remained in O'Hickey family hands for centuries. Source: