The Heroic Age
Reviewed by Helen Conrad-O'Briain
Clonmacnoise, a foundation of fluctuating fortunes, drawing its members and abbots from artisan families, and set in a well and carefully exploited landscape, athwart natural lines of communication, is the first great Irish monastic site to attract a large scale modern archaeological campaign. This first volume of a series, of which four others are already promised, edited by an archaeologist who has worked at Clonmacnoise since 1990, has set an enviably high standard for the series as a whole. Scholarly, it is yet a book which could be taken up and read with enjoyment and understanding by any intelligent reader, the result of King's experience:
I was struck on one occasion by the remark that all of this information would be published in some obscure journal and that lectures would be given in foreign places or 'up in Dublin', and that the present-day inhabitants of Clonmacnoise would never get the opportunity to learn more about their native place. It was with this challenge in mind and with the realisation that there was a genuine thirst for knowledge about the site that the first Clonmacnoise seminar came about.
Befitting such a remit, the essays here 'clear the ground'. Tubridy's study of the pre-monastic environment of Clonmacnoise and Moloney's study of the surrounding bogs and their crossings introduce the monastery's essential landscape and economy, placing the reader firmly in the physical reality of the site. With the landscape of the monastery before the reader, Kehnel's article provides an overview of the legal holdings of the monastic community in it, considering in particular the sources for our knowledge of those holdings, their political impetus and implications. The implications of these connections cannot be escaped either in their time or in the following articles. Bradley's documentary study of the monastic town of Clonmacnoise and its political and economic influence is followed by a series of three studies covering the cathedral (Manning), art and patronage (O'Floinn) and the vigorous, albeit intermittent, sculptural school centred at Clonmacnoise (Edwards). The collection ends with an exhaustive study of the excavations on the grounds of the adjacent national school (O'Floinn and King) and a catalogue of the eleventh century coin hoard found in the school's playing field (Kenny). The catalogue deserves special mention for its excellent presentation.
It seems almost churlish to find any faults with this book, nevertheless, one or two bear mentioning. The Edwards article is well, but not thoroughly illustrated. At several points her discusssion needs another line drawing or photograph. Clonmacnoise was one of the first Irish tourist attractions, as water-colours from the eighteenth century and photographs studied by Harbison and Scary from the nineteenth century demonstrate, in two articles which provide an interesting sidelight on social and art history in Ireland as well as a record of restorations and features now lost or obscured. Their inclusion here is welcome, but their placement, at least on one level breaks up the continuity of the book as a whole.
Reviewed by Dominic Janes, London
The subject of this book is the 'long seventh century' which runs from 563 to 731. Richter defines his work not as a study of the 'Irish Church' or 'Irish Churches', but of the Christianity of the Irish in Ireland, in Britain and on the Continent. Communication, of people, books and ideas, is a key concept in this study. Richter sets Ireland in the context of international scholarly communication, not simply as an outpost, but as a key destination and focus in its own right. He addresses one of the key paradoxes of Ireland in the early Middle Ages: that this region was so prominent despite the fact that it had never been part of the Roman Empire and had hitherto been culturally isolated.
Richter first of all sets the scene by providing an overview of Ireland in the seventh century, particularly in relation to economy, settlement, epidemics, law and religion. This slightly odd mixture of topics reflects a major problem with this period and region, namely the uneven nature of the source materials across categories and over time. There is, above all, a fault line which divides the mostly undocumented fifth and sixth centuries from the text-rich seventh. This study argues that Christian literate culture, which appears as if by magic at the advent of the long seventh century, must have been based on sophisticated earlier traditions.
The main chapters of the book bring together well known and less-widely appreciated texts from the long seventh century. First these are used to illustrate the lives of a series of important Irish figures active in Britain and Ireland: Colum Cille, Adomnan and Columbanus prominent amongst them. Then Richter examines the mentions in our record of foreigners in Ireland, analysing the role that the Island played as a place of exile and of learning. It is argued that Ireland was not cut off from the rest of Western Europe during the period from Palladius to Columbanus. As Richter puts it, 'the admittedly fragmentary evidence of trade and traffic links between Ireland and the Continent, Gaul in particular, allows us to suppose that such links were firmly established' (p. 29). The use of 'admittedly' and 'suppose' are characteristic. There is a problem here of assertion on the basis of a balance of probabilities derived from scanty evidence. To what extent can we image a picture of dramatic change in Irish society during the sixth century? And if this were not so how should the explosion of written sources be explained?
The richness of these materials is well displayed in the third section of the book, which covers the topics of grammars, exegesis, hymnology, and computistics, amongst others. There is no question that these textual traditions represent a remarkable achievement and that the role of the Irish church in Gaul, for example, was extremely important during the seventh century. Richter quite rightly draws attention to these important matters even though his analysis is slightly less persuasive than he thinks it is.
Reviewed by Clarissa Aykroyd, University of Victoria, BC
Is another reference work on the Middle Ages really needed? Somewhat surprisingly, the answer seems to be yes. There are relatively few reference books which deal exclusively with the medieval era. The most exhaustive resource is still the massive 13-volume Dictionary of the Middle Ages (ed. Joseph Strayer, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982), but there is also a need for references which offer only the most important information, rather than every available detail, in an attractive and easy-to-use format. The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages is such a book.
Norman F. Cantor's credentials as a medievalist are already well established. He is the author of Inventing the Middle Ages (New York: Macmillan, 1991), a highly personal and provocative account of twentieth-century medieval studies, and The Civilization of the Middle Ages (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), a concise and well-written overview of the medieval era. He has also written books on Judaism and American history, among other topics, and thus has a very eclectic background which is reflected in his introduction to the Encyclopedia, "The Middle Ages: Discovery and Identity." In it, he compares thirteenth- and fourteenth-century European identity, as formulated by Gregorian and mendicant eschatology, to the modern-day European Union ("born of the strategies of wily diplomats seeking to achieve a German-French rapprochement, and of bankers anxious to create a façade for agricultural and commercial neo-protectionism"), and does not hesitate to say that anti-Semitism is a remnant of the medieval wars against the Jews which still exists in European public discourse. Cantor occasionally seems to go too far, but he deserves a lot of credit for clearly and eloquently pointing out the relevance of medieval studies to life at the end of the twentieth century.
As a textbook for the medieval beginner, or a reference for the expert who wants a quick summary of the basics on a certain topic, the Encyclopedia does its job quite well. It includes a complete index and cross-references, as well as "signposts" at the end of the longer articles, which point to other articles which may shed more light on that topic. One of the book's most striking attributes is its marvelous illustrations, including photographs of medieval buildings, reproductions of works of art, and a great deal more. For the most part, the entries and articles are clear and succinct. Not surprisingly, there are more entries on the later and high Middle Ages than on the early medieval period, given the relative scarcity of information from this time. However, the Encyclopedia has its faults. Although the writers are named at the beginning of the book, the entries are unsigned, which is frustrating. It would have been interesting to see who wrote what, especially since the tone of the writing inevitably varies. For example, given that the style is generally serious and straightforward, I was a little taken aback by the article on the Franks, which gleefully comments: "The Merovingians spent most of their time in the two centuries after Clovis I hacking each other to pieces in squabbles over the throne," and describes the last Merovingians as being "sent àoff in an oxcart to deserved obscurity." It also seems strange that the Encyclopedia does not have a bibliography for further reading.
The book compares reasonably well to other short reference works on the Middle Ages. Aryeh Grabois's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Medieval Civilization (London: Octopus Books Ltd., 1980) does have a bibliography and a timeline, which the Cantor Encyclopedia lacks, and it is somewhat more thorough, especially with regard to literature, but its format is less "friendly" to the casual browser. In fact, the greatest advantage of this new 'Encyclopedia' may be its attractive layout. It is perhaps intended more for someone who is a relative beginner in medieval matters. Experts will want to hang on to their older reference works, but this book is worth a close look at least. After all, it works both as a basic source of information and as a beautiful coffee table book which just might get your friends and family interested in the Middle Ages.
Reviewed by Michelle Ziegler
John Marsden sketches Celtic Scotland through the "portraits" of six influential kings: Fergus Mor ("the Great", d. 501), Aedan mac Gabran (d. 608) and his grandson Domnall Brecc (d. 642), Kenneth mac Alpin (d. 858), Malcolm II (d. 1034), and his grandson Macbeth (d. 1057). Each of these kings played a pivotal role in the development of Scotland. Marsden begins each biography with a description and history of a particular place in Scotland that for him is important in the history of each king. This is a nice touch which ties a modern place with the man whose life he is chronicling.
Marsden opens his portrait of Fergus Mor with a visit to Dunadd fortress in Argyll. Dunadd was the seat of the kings of Scottish Dalriada since its foundation by Fergus Mor in A.D. c. 500 but has yielded evidence of fortifications dating into prehistory. Marsden freely admits that there is vanishingly little historical evidence of Fergus Mor. He uses this chapter to describe the Irish arrival in north Britain in history but also in legend.
For Aedan mac Gabran, the special place is Iona. Aedan's relationship with St. Columba of Iona was surely one of the great partnerships of all time. Aedan's consecration as king of Dalriada by St. Columba is the first recorded Christian consecration of a king in Britain. Aedan was possibly the single most successful and influential Scottish king of the early period. This is perhaps best illustrated by the number of later kings who went to great lengths to claim kinship with Aedan including Kenneth and Malcolm. Marsden does seem to accept some marginal theories like that which makes Bridei mac Maelchon the son of Maelgwn Gwynedd (p. 52), which seems improbable. Another questionable theory is that it was the British defeat at Catræth that prompted Aedan to clash with Æthelfrith at Degsastan in 603 where he was defeated for the last time (p. 73). However, his portrait of Aedan is complete and at times insightful. Refreshingly, he looks beyond Aedan's reputation as a warrior to examine his ties with the Irish, Britons, and Picts. As Marsden points out, Aedan's achievement can be summed up in his obituary in the Annals of Ulster where he is styled "Righ (King of) Alba", where Alba means all of north Britain. Aedan was the first king to bear this title.
The most pleasantly surprising chapter in the book is Marsden's biography of Domnall Brecc, grandson of Aedan. For Domnall Brecc, Marsden chose the unlikely place of Dun Nosebridge on the Isle of Islay as his special place. Marsden believes this is the site of the battle of Cladrois where Domnall Brecc suffered his first of many defeats in 635. Domnall Brecc's kingship is important in the history of Dalriada because of Abbot Cummene's record that after his defeat at Mag Rath in 637, Dalriada came under outside domination which lasted until 685. According to Cummene, this was the fulfillment of a prophecy made by St. Columba to Aedan. The battle of Mag Rath necessarily dominates any discussion of Domnall Brecc and this biography is no exception. Although Domnall's forces suffered a crushing defeat he continued to reign until 642 when he died in the battle of Strathcarron against King Owain of Strathclyde. Unlike other accounts of Domnall, Marsden goes far beyond just a discussion of Mag Rath to chronicle his life. Domnall Brecc was a remarkable political survivor.
Kenneth mac Alpin is best known for being the first king from whose reign Dalriada and Pictland merged permanently. Marsden chose Dunkeld as Kenneth's focal point. Kenneth is reputed to have built Dunkeld and enshrined some of St. Columba's relics here. Marsden hypothesizes that this was part of a process of reversing the English influence brought to the Pictish church by King Nechtan son of Derelei in 710-717 (p. 131-133). His suggestion that Kenneth's actions at Scone were also motivated by a family feud against Nechtan's family is interesting (p. 134-135). Kenneth's long and bloody reign saw fighting against his internal rivals, incursions of the Scandinavians, and conflicts with Northumbria.
Kings Malcolm II "the Aggressor" and Macbeth are outside of my familiar area so I can only make general comments here. Marsden offers a complex hypothesis for Malcolm's rise to power which I will leave to others to critique. The Glamis stone (on the dust jacket) is used by Marsden to illustrate a connection between Malcolm and the Leinster birth legend of Aedan that is a fascinating window into the manipulation of the memory of earlier kings (p. 156-160). Marsden's recreation of the last years of Malcolm's reign and the succession of Duncan and Macbeth is complicated, perhaps too complicated. Their successions do not fit the pattern of Pictish matrilinear succession as Marsden implies (p. 168-171). It appears to me to be a special form of patrilinear succession through the daughters of Malcolm II, showing that Malcolm's line had made great strides in eliminating other patrilinear claimants.
The one significant drawback of this book is its lack of vigorous referencing and incomplete bibliographic citations (articles without page numbers). However, he often gives clues within the text so that with enough effort his source can be tracked down. Marsden has put more effort into the referencing of this book than in his previous books such as the Northanhymbre Saga (1992).
Overall Alba of the
Ravens succeeds as an interesting exploration of Celtic
Scotland. The technique of telling this story as a series of biographies
is a refreshing and humanizing approach. I heartily recommend
this book to anyone interested in the history of early Scotland.
Reviewed by Michael Foster, Community College of Southern Nevada.
Kenneth Hulrstone Jackson,
F.B.A., was a professor of Celtic studies at Edinburgh University
who, among other works, edited A Celtic Miscelleny, (New
York: Penguin Books, 1972). Now adding to his catalog is The
Oldest Irish Tradition: A Window on the Iron Age which shows
the conciseness of Jackson's intelligence and the breadth of his
knowledge. Originally a lecture given at Cambridge in 1964, this
text has been long overdue for publication, and I suggest anyone
interested in and ignorant of Celtic studies should look at this
book as a good start.
Jackson admits within
the short, 55 page text that this book was not written for Celtic
scholars, but for medievalists, historians, archeologists, etc.
interested in learning the early history of Ireland. Because the
topic he is discussing-the Ulster Cycle-is well known by Celticists,
I understand why he makes this disclaimer early in the text, warning
Celtic scholars of repetition. However, for those of us who have
never read the Ulster Cycle in full, or have not studied Celtic
Ancient History in any great depth, this book is a delightful
and straightforward introduction.
Jackson's lecture is primarily a discussion of the material culture of the Ulster Cycle and especially the Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid at Cooley). Unfortunately, the Ulster Cycle has not been printed entirely in one volume, but the Tain Bo Cuailnge is widely available in a few translations. I suggest Thomas Kinsella's The Tain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969). Other poems of the Ulster Cycle can be found in Jeffery Gantz's Early Irish Myths and Sagas (New York: Penguin, 1982) and in Lady Gregory's slightly dated and political translation Irish Myths and Legends (Philadelphia: Courage Books, 1999).
Jackson enlightens us
with a great deal of information regarding the dress and weaponry
of the culture described in the Ulster Cycles. He, unfortunately,
can not discuss much of the legal and religious aspects of Ulster
Cycle culture because the text does not enlighten us on these
aspects of their lives. Beyond that, Jackson illustrates the warrior-aristocratic
idealism that is prevalent in the text, exemplified primarily
by Cu Chulainn. Finally, after he has discussed these two features
of the text-the materials and ideals of the Ulster Cycle culture-he
concludes with dating the text to be composed ca. 4th cent. A.D.
His argument in dating the text is quite sound and well-argued,
but I would say the book is more worth reading as an introduction
to the Ulster Cycle and Ancient Celtic culture, as the information
displayed in the lecture is very concise and objective. The reason
for this, of course, is that this background material is not Jackson's
argument, but the preparation for that argument-however, as a
non-Celticist coming to the text, I would say his background information
is more interesting than his conclusion.
Another charming aspect of this book is Jackson's straightforwardness, which may be attributed to the fact that this was originally a lecture, and thus spoken-the colloquial language of the text can be heard and felt throughout, and brings a sense of informality and lack of rhetoric which I found productive to his purpose in giving this lecture-to introduce Celticism to non-Celticists. The shortness of the text-merely 55 pages, as I said earlier-is also due to the fact that this work was originally a lecture; yet, I find that shortness a blessing, forcing the lecture to be compact with information and infecund of irrelevance.
Regarding the text itself, the book is written in very small text with very large borders, making it an awkward read. The cover is plain white with a poorly drawn photo on its cover; its binding is atrocious and its typeface was poorly printed (some of the letters bleed into others). Added to this is the fact that the paragraphs are of Kafkaesque length, which forces the reader to read the book entirely in one setting. I can't fault Professor Jackson for this, as it is a necessary consequence of writing a lecture on paper. Nonetheless, it adds to the awkwardness of the printing, making the text look almost ugly at times. In spite of the book's lack of aesthetic appeal, I believe it is worth reading for anyone largely ignorant of Ancient Celtic history who is interested in learning more. Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, who has sadly passed away, was a very intelligent and learned man who displayed his brilliance in this lecture, and I cannot think of anyone better suited to introduce a reader to the vastness of Celtic history.
Reviewed by Joseph Carroll, Rhode Island College
Composed sometime in
the early thirteenth century by an anonymous Icelander, Fêreyinga
Saga remains one of the northern heroic world's quiet classics.
In truth the saga does not exist as a singular text, but was more
or less a nineteenth century stitching together of disparate texts
taken from such works as Flateryjarbûk and Heimskringla.
Recently, Llanerch Publisher put forth a facsimile reprint of
the 1896 translation of the work for the Northern Library series
made by the esteemed Icelandic scholar of the day, F. York Powell.
The story itself contains the themes and conflicts commonly found in saga literature. At its core is the contentious and wily Thrond (Thrûndr) who for generations holds sway over the affairs of the Faeroe Islands and remains resistant to Christianity and the Norwegian Crown. In direct conflict with Thrond are his kinsmen Brestir and Beinir and later their sons Sigmund and Thore (Sigmundr and Thûrir). In particular it is the strong and heroic Sigmund (and later his wife and daughter) who go against Throndr in an attempt to win revenge and to bring Christianity and Norwegian overlordship to the island. What makes Thrond's defiance so intriguing is that it is characterized not by outright repudiation of Norwegian rule or influence; but rather by subterfuge and hidden deceits. He is a complex character with no saving virtues, but with a compelling personality that dominates the saga. It is no wonder that Powell decided to title his translation The Tale of Thrond of Gate: Commonly called Fêryinga Saga, a title which the present publishers reverse for the cover.
Andrew Wawn's 1995 foreword to the reprint states that though Powell's translation led the way for subsequent ones, no later translator has matched his ability to capture the saga's drama and spirit. In fact, Wawn's side by side analysis of a brief passage from various translations demonstrates Powell's ability to add a "measure of sophistication and expansiveness to the bleak simplicity of the original." Moreover, he states that Powell's "verbal instincts are those of a Northman" because he favors a vocabulary that has its roots in Old English, rather than Old French or Gaelic. As to be expected of nineteenth century translations of saga literature, Powell favors the use of archaic language such as "thee, thou, spake" and unnatural syntax to remind the reader of the age and culturally remote nature of the text. The danger of this, of course, is that it lends to even the rudest character a grander stature and eloquence.
In addition to the main text, Powell's own lengthy introduction provides plot outlines, genealogies and lists of topics illustrated by the text that are still useful to the first time modern reader. This introduction is also particularly interesting for the clear picture it gives of late nineteenth century saga scholarship with its preoccupation for sniffing out "genuine" epic prose. At one point in his introduction, Powell laments the insertion in the saga of inappropriate material, which he calls "fictitious matter, absolutely of the same kind as those miserable episodes that disfigure Nial's Saga (sic)."
Llanerch Publisher's reprint of Powell's 1896 translation of Fêreyinga Saga is a useful and important addition to the library of those interested in northern saga or in nineteenth century interest in northern medieval literature and culture. It should not necessarily replace those translations by more recent scholars (the 1975 translation by George Johnston comes to mind); rather it should neatly sit side by side with its younger siblings.
Reviewed by Karen Hollis
Kim Headlee's debut novel Dawnflight takes on the unenviable task of presenting a more sympathetic Guinevere than is normally found in Arthurian legend. In the Author's own words "Guinevers has taken a bum rap", this is Headlee's attempt at offering a different version of events. The tale is told almost entirely from Guinevere's point of view and she becomes the central character of the story which unfolds, which is certainly something I had not previously come across in Arthurian fiction.
The novel is set in the fifth century against a background of Roman and British cultures which are highly suspicious of one another. Arthur comes from a Roman background and Guinevere (or Gyanhumara as she appears in the book) is a Pictish chiefteness. The main plot of the book is the unlikely and difficult love story between the two, and for once this is not given the traditional tragic ending. Lancelot does appear the story, but I, for one, did not recognise the character until I read the Author's notes at the end of the book. The Irish hero Cuchullain also briefly appears in the novel and although he is essentially Arthur's enemy I was pleased to see that he is sensitively presented as a man with motives and feelings.
I was also pleased to see that Ms Headlee presents Guinevere as discovering and eventually converting to Christianity. She certainly is not afraid of flying in the face of the current fashion for Arthur and Guinevere to be pagans and this again adds an interesting dimension to the story.
The novel takes an interesting and at times, wholly original look at the Arthurian legends, managing to breathe new life into what is an extremel familiar tale. It is possible that the Author could write a sequel and cause the story to follow more traditional lines, but I feel that the story as it stands is a sufficient addition to the Arthurian tales.
If I have any complaint with the book it is that the writing style is fairly simplistic, and I would have liked more to get my teeth into. However this is only a minor criticism, and I feel that anyone who has enjoyed Arthurian fiction previously could do worse than reading this novel.
Reviewed by Michelle Ziegler.
The Lord of Sunset chronicles the lives and love of Harold Godwineson and Edith Swan-neck. Harold was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England who fell to William the Conqueror (or Bastard) in 1066. The Lord of Sunset is a tale of love, political intrigue, and tragedy on many levels.
Parke Godwin convincingly recreates Harold and Edith's world. He uses an unconventional method of constantly changing the narrator. It is not unusual to have two different narrators but Godwin uses ten. Out of 79 chapters there are rarely three consecutively in the same voice. The most common narrators are naturally Edith and Harold but others include his brothers Tostig and Swegn, King Edward, and Duke William. It really works quite well.
Although historians have sought Harold's motives for marrying Edith, for Godwin, it is purely a love story. Harold meets his distant cousin Edith at the wedding of his sister Eadgyth to King Edward and they form a friendship. From that friendship, over time, grows their love. Harold and Edith know that their distant kinship will be a problem but they decide to marry first by the civil tradition of hand-fasting in the hope that someday they would be granted dispensation to marry in church. Partially due to the behavior of his brother Swegn and partially out of King Edward's hatred for Harold's family, the crown refuses to back the petition for dispensation to marry in church. Without marriage in church, Edith knows that if Harold wants high office he will someday have to put her aside for a church sanctioned (and political) marriage to give his family legitimate heirs. Although she is warned it would happen before or when Harold became Earl of Wessex, Harold did not remarry until he made his move for the throne. Even then, his heart remained with Edith and she, not his Queen, was with him at the last battle at Hastings.
To say this book is only about their love would be untrue. Half the book deals with the politics that swirled around Harold's family. Only two generations earlier, the highest social position held by the family was that of a thane. Godwine's achievements for his family are remarkable. The politics and resentment that constantly threatened to engulf the family were equally potent.
This book is a remarkable achievement. The characters are not only strong but human. Godwin manages to breath life into Harold's ever passionate brother Swegn in a way that makes his flaws so human and explains the families devotion to him despite the cost. The multiple tragedies that Harold and Edith must bear are agony. If Harold ever wished for a biographer, Parke Godwin would make him proud. The story of Harold and Edith is a fittingly heartbreaking tragedy for the end of Anglo-Saxon England.