The Medieval Review 11.02.25

Simms, Katharine. Medieval Gaelic Sources. Maynooth Research Guides for Iriash Local Histories. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009. Pp. 131. . $24.95 pb ISBN 978-1-84682-138-7.

Reviewed by:

Robin Stacey
rcstacey@u.washington.edu

There can be few bodies of historical materials more inherently daunting than the Gaelic-language sources extant from late medieval and early modern Ireland. Not only are the bardic schools and hereditary learned families in which many of these texts originated likely to seem very foreign to many scholars, the nature of the sources themselves can be such as to dissuade the historiographically timid from venturing any further. The language in which they are written differs markedly from modern spoken Irish and (outside of Ireland) is not easy to learn, and the manner in which these texts were used and transformed over time poses considerable hazards for the unwary. Moreover, as is well known, Gaelic records from this period tend not to be the sort of administrative or bureaucratic documents one finds elsewhere in Europe at this time. Rather, literacy was used in these centuries to create and reshape native power-relations, to celebrate Irish vernacular culture and promote a particular view of the past, and to preserve and examine in a scholarly way the intellectual riches of earlier centuries. What T. M. Charles-Edwards said of the early medieval period holds true as well for the era after the coming of the Normans: "A scholar turning from... continental Europe to Ireland in the same period must be struck by three things: how much written material survives; how much of it is in the vernacular; and how little of it is designed to do the jobs usually performed by the more utilitarian written documents in ancient, medieval or later literate societies." [1]

The new volume by Katharine Simms in the Maynooth Research Guides for Irish Local History series does an excellent job introducing the (largely) non-specialist audience at which it is aimed to the nature, types, and pitfalls of these unusual sources. After a helpful introduction surveying some of the linguistic and textual difficulties the Gaelic-language texts pose for researchers, Simms devotes individual chapters to each of the major extant genres: annals, genealogies, poems, prose tracts and sagas, and legal and medical texts. A brief "Afterword" offers summary advice for those seeking to make use of the texts she has described; she also provides in two brief appendices sample texts and translations of some of the genres of source discussed in her earlier chapters. There is a brief list of scholarly resources and suggestions for further reading, and an index to the published sources cited in earlier chapters. A further, more comprehensive index to topics covered in the book and to non-published sources would have been helpful, but is not provided here.

The book is expertly done. Simms is one of the most highly respected scholars of the period, known particularly for her work on native political relations, bardic poetry, and law; happily, non-academics as well as specialists will find the book easy to read, as Simms has taken great care to bring to the work her trademark clarity of style. Every chapter reflects both her own wide-ranging interests and vast personal experience with the sources she is describing. Her chronological remit for the book stretches from the eleventh through the seventeenth centuries, but she provides welcome excurses where appropriate into the Old Irish sources as well. (It is devoutly to be hoped, however, that the Press does not take her thoroughness as a reason not to commission a separate volume on the pre-Norman period.) Every chapter introduces the reader to the major manuscripts, collections, and questions surrounding the genre to which it is dedicated, outlining for the reader how one might go about finding the best editions and translations. Discussions of current scholarly controversies are kept to a minimum or summarized only briefly (or occasionally ignored, as on p. 91 with the issue of whether the early medieval lawbooks originated entirely in an ecclesiastical context).

Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the thoughtful advice Simms gives her readers, which is clearly grounded in her own deep knowledge of the sources. Thus the chapter on the annals suggests specific strategies for those new to the genre: how to determine which version of a particular event is most likely to be credible, how to negotiate the treacherous dating systems employed by annalists at different periods, how to ensure that one does not miss relevant background information for a given entry (33-36). The chapter on poetry outlines not only the various types of poetry researchers are likely to encounter, but offers advice on how to use poetic sources as historical evidence (68-72, and cf. 52-55 and 88-90 for similar discussions on the genealogies and saga literature). Similarly, Simms' discussion of the legal sources points the reader to a variety of questions that might profitably be asked of this material, while several other chapters go even further to suggest specific areas for future research (e.g. 63-64 on poetry, and 86-87 on homiletic collections). Where electronic resources exist (e.g. the online version of Hogan's Onomasticon, the bardic database), she provides references to them, although she is quite vocal also in urging researchers to make extensive use of editors' prefaces and of older local histories. All in all, this is a book from which scholars of all levels of experience will emerge enlightened and empowered.

Inevitably, there are some topics one wishes might have been covered in more detail. To me, the appendices at the end were a real missed opportunity for Simms to demonstrate some of the approaches and techniques she had been suggesting throughout the book. Similarly, while Simms several times advocates placing the Gaelic language sources in their wider Latin and Anglo-Norman context, more could have been said or demonstrated in this respect as an enticement to further research, if nothing else. A more comprehensive introduction to the nature of the schools and venues in which the texts she is describing were authored would likely have been helpful as well. All in all, however, these are relatively minor quibbles. Simms has succeeded wonderfully in what must have been her main goal for this work: making these difficult sources seem, if not exactly welcoming, then at least accessible and less frightening to those with reason to seek them out.

--------

NOTES

1. T. M. Charles-Edwards, "The context and uses of literacy in Early Christian Ireland," in Literacy in Medieval Celtic Societies, ed. Huw Pryce (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 62-82, p. 62.