The Stowe Missal and Early Irish Theology

The Stowe Missal is a rare witness to early Irish theology and liturgy. It is named for the library where it was discovered in Stowe House, Buckinghamshire. Analysis of the well worn, 67 page vellum book and its contents date it to between 792 and 811/2. Given that the litany mentions St Maelruain (d. 792), founder of Tallaght, but not Eochaid his successor, who was also listed as a saint in early litanies, there is a good possibility that it was written at Tallaght in Ireland. O’Loughlin mentions that the Stowe Missel was therefore written around the time the Celi De movement began around Tallaght (near modern Dublin).

O’Loughlin notes that the theology of the Stowe Missal reflects the paramount importance of community over individuality. There is a tangible continuity between the living community and those who have gone on, between the church militant, church expectant, and church triumphant. The Irish had a well developed theology of the communion of saints and it is reflected in their comprehensive litanies. For the people who wrote the Stowe Missal being totally absorbed into a community was the goal and an ideal life. They freely gave up their individuality to belong to something greater than themselves. The Martyrology of Oengus (c. 825) and the Martyrology of Tallaght both date from about twenty years after this missal.

We imagine liturgical books as impressive altar tomes and as having a rigidly fixed text. Both assumptions are products of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries owing not a little to the nature of the printing and the fears of the Reformation period. Then it suited all sides to promote uniformity, and their desires were made possible through the new technology. In the earlier period missals had no definite shape as books and their form depended on the particular conditions of when and where they were commissioned and the availability of resources. As to their contents there was a similar variability, not just because no two manuscript books have ever the exact same text, but because the nature of their production allowed for variations and additions to be made with minimal difficulty. Then when that missal was used as an exemplar for another book, all its accretions would be transmitted to the new book as its basic text. We have a fine example of this process of accretions made during use in the Stowe Missal. (O’Loughlin, p. 130-131)

There are several points found its content that support this date and its uniqueness as a witness of the early Irish church and yet illustrates that that the Irish church was fully involved in wider European Christendom, from O’Loughlin:

  • Space left to include “our abbot [and] bishop” in the Eucharistic prayer suggests that it was originally written for a monastic context. In the early Irish church abbots of major monasteries were also bishops. This gave a monastery nearly complete independence.
  • “Stowe’s basic text is that of the Roman rite; for example, it has labeled the Eucharistic Prayer ‘the Canon of Pope Gelasius’, and it shows several post-seventh century Roman developments such as a Gloria.” (O’Loughlin, p. 131).
  • The inclusion of the Nicene creed suggests influence from Spain.
  • The text for the breaking of the bread is similar to that used in Milan.
  • A gaelic (Irish language) description of the Eucharist is included, probably as an aid for sermons.
  • On the last folio there are three spells in Irish.
  • Orthodoxwiki notes that there are phrases and prayers in common with Ethiopian, Coptic and East Syrian texts.

There have been multiple owners of the book who each left notes and additions. An owner named Moel Caich added several pages and made several changes to the text including erasing some of the original scribes text and replacing it. Moel Caich added a baptismal rite and rites for the sick to the missal. O’Loughlin stresses that the Stowe Missal is a working book for a working priest so Moel Caich’s changes reflect his actual usage of the text.

Stowe Missal inital page
Stowe Missal initial page for the gospel of John, bound with the missal.

At some point early in its life it was bound with a partial copy of the Gospel of John. Although O’Loughlin refers to this text as a defective copy of the gospel, it has also been speculated that it contains common readings to use with the liturgy. Not all parts of the gospel are used equally in the liturgy. However, as far as I know, there hasn’t been a study done comparing the intact portions of the gospel of John bound with the Stowe missal with the lectionary. In an era when all manuscripts were hand written, it would not have been unusual for a working priest to have a copy of the gospel that had omissions or lacuna. Once bound together the texts were intended to stay together. The gospel is bound first in the book with an initial page on the first folio and a miniature of St John with his eagle symbol is bound on the last page leading into the the liturgical text.

St Kevins Kitchen, Glendslough
St Kevin's Kitchen, Glendslough

St Kevin’s Kitchen is the type of small rural church where O’Loughlin envisions the Stowe Missel being used. Most priests would have celebrated their masses in places like this rather than in the grand churches within monasteries, though many monasteries may have had particularly small churches.

The liturgy of the Stowe Missal has been authorized for use in the Russian Orthodox Church. The Orthodox church has produced at least two English language translations.


Thomas O’Loughlin. (2000) Celtic Theology: Humanity, World, and God in Early Irish Writings. Continuum.

Stowe Missal Wikipedia

Stowe Missal Orthodoxwiki

English translation of the Stowe Missal from the Web site of the Celtic Orthodox Christian Church (via Wikipedia references)