title.none: RESPONSE: Wright on Frantzen on Wright

identifier.other: baj9928.9510.003 95.10.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X


publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: RESPONSE: Wright on Frantzen on Wright.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.10.03

RESPONSE: Wright on Frantzen on Wright.

Reviewed by:

To be sure, Allen J. Frantzen's disappointment that the book addresses the concerns of my work rather than those of his own needs no response. Unfortunately, however, his misunderstanding of the book's purpose and misrepresentation of its scope give the false impression that it only narrowly addresses the concerns and ignores the methods of its declared subject.

Frantzen's complaints about the scope of the book miss its point altogether. "Irish achievement is vast and various," he says, and seems to think that a book on the subject must conduct the reader on a grand tour, stopping at each point of interest. He fails to understand that the book is about what made the Irish tradition distinctive, not about what it shared with or contributed to the rest of Christian Europe. It is, of course, important to acknowledge the fundamental continuity of the Christian-Latin heritage which the Irish received from Britain and the Continent, as my book does (see p. 39). It is equally important, in my view, to define the distinctiveness of the Irish tradition (and of Old English literature informed by it) in terms of its characteristic selection and adaptation of inherited materials. This is the book's essential purpose, and this purpose determined its scope and emphasis.

Because the vastness and variety of the Irish tradition also require some principle of organization, the book focuses on an Old English text (Vercelli Homily IX) whose Irish features are both extensive and typical. Frantzen wonders "how the sources and affiliations of a single homily (and a small number like it) could preclude discussion of this variety and complexity." Yet my analysis of the diverse materials incorporated in this homily enables discussions of Irish and Anglo-Saxons conceptions of, inter alia, the heavens, the earth, and the ocean, sin and death, the soul and the body, angels and demons, the Last Judgment, heaven, and hell, illustrated with citations from Irish and Hiberno-Latin biblical commentaries, homilies, visions, saints' lives, didactic treatises, exempla, apocrypha, and folklore and correlated with comparative evidence from some forty other Old English anoymous homilies and some fifteen OE poems. This seems to me sufficiently various.

Frantzen may think that cosmology and eschatology are narrow topics. (The Irish did not.) The book, however, goes beyond a thematic definition of the Irish tradition by emphasizing the genre preferences and stylistic features that characterize Irish-Christian literature. The Introduction addresses the supposed heterodoxy of the Irish tradition in the context of apocrypha. Subsequent chapters discuss "The Enumerative Style" in the context of florilegia (chapter 2); "The Insular Vision of Hell" in the context of the Otherworld journey and the stylistic affinities of a group of eschatological motifs deriving from the Visio Pauli (chapter 3, together with the Introduction, pp. 23-4); "The Devil's Account of the Next World" exemplum in the context of several specific genre models (chapter 4); and "The Literary Milieu of Vercelli Homily IX" in the context of Irish rhetorical predilections for litanic modes of expression and inexpressibility topoi (chapter 5). I don't know how Frantzen could have missed all this, but he says "There is no attention to the impact that genre must have had on the relations between Irish and Anglo-Saxon sources, and although there are sporadic discussions of style there is no concentrated attention to that aspect of the problem."

The special attention I devoted to genre and style was, in part, a deliberate effort to counter arguments in favor of a heterodox "Celtic" spirituality, and to define Irish influence in terms of the transmission of a literary tradition instead of "an infusion of a transcendental Celtic spirit or mentalite" (p. 11). My point in using the word mentalite was that impressionistic notions of Celticity would not be rehabilitated by dignifying them with an apparently more scientific term. Frantzen, seizing on the word and missing the point, says that I ought to have adopted the approach of the Annales school! But even some of its proponents have conceded the term's vagueness (Georges Duby has declared that he no longer uses it). The possibility that different approaches might have value goes without saying, but that is not a meaningful criticism unless it is demonstrated a different approach was necessary to serve the book's stated purpose (the burden of proof would be Frantzen's).

The book does a variety of other things that Frantzen says it does not. The Introduction examines the cultural stereotypes which helped scholars such as E. A. Lowe, A. B. Kuypers, and Edmund Bishop construct foundational claims of Irish influences in Anglo-Saxon culture; traces the cautious reception of such attitudes in more recent pronouncements by Thomas D. Hill, E. A. Loyn, Henry Mayr-Harting, and Allen J. Frantzen; and relates conflicting scholarly attitudes towards Irish influences in terms of the culturally charged poles of Iromanie and Irophobie. Ignoring this, Frantzen says that there is no "integrated overview which categorizes previous claims about the Irish influence on OE poetry and prose and on Latin sources" and no "guide to the preoccupations" of particular scholars. Does such an "overview" really require an inventory of "the many art historians, historians, and literary critics who have pursued this topic"?

The Introduction further contextualizes my argument by describing the conflicting "Anglo-Saxon attitudes" towards the Irish and towards Irish learning from the school of Canterbury to the council of Celchyth. Chapter 5 associates Vercelli Homily IX and related texts with a Mercian literary milieu and surveys the historical and literary evidence for contacts between Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England during the reign of King Athelstan. In this way the book provides an historical treatment of the Irish elements I discern in Old English literature from two complementary perspectives: a broad-gauged view of the mixed reception of Irish learning in England and the Continent, and a focused view of the assimiliation of Irish materials in a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon cultural milieu. Mentioning none of this, Frantzen complains that I do not provide "an overview of the evidence for Irish influence on OE literary culture, beginning with the seventh century and Bede's world . . . " An "overview" is precisely what I do provide, correlated not with "a literary history of Ireland at the same time" (please!) but with what I take to be some of the most distinctive features of Irish-Christian literature. Having provided the relevant historical contexts, I forgo traversing familiar ground in favor of presenting new evidence.

Frantzen's assertion that the book is "methodologically unself-conscious" has by now a familiar ring, this being an idee fixe which underwrites his flawed critique of source scholarship (see Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, "Source, Method, Theory, Practice: On Reading Two Old English Verse Texts," in Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 76 (1994), 51-73, at 55-7, 65 and 68-70). O'Keeffe points out that "[i]t takes little bibliographical ingenuity to find explicit statements about the method and limitations of source study" in the writings of scholars associated with projects such as Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture. It takes even less when one has to deal with a single book, but perhaps Frantzen just doesn't want to see or acknowledge what doesn't suit his preconceptions, for he says that "there is no attempt either to explain or to examine the methodological implications of source study and no acknowledgment of the need to do so." I therefore direct his attention to some twenty pages of the Introduction devoted to the following specific methodological problems facing source studies dealing with Irish influence: reconstructing a tradition whose record is fragmentarily preserved (11); identifying Irish and Irish-influenced biblical and grammatical commentaries by way of Irish "symptoms" (12-20); determining Irish or Anglo-Saxon origins of common "Insular" traditions (20-1); isolating native and foreign elements in Irish learning (27-9); defining specifically "Celtic" variants of folktale motifs (30-1); dating Irish vernacular texts (34-6); and assessing the relationship of Irish vernacular and Hiberno-Latin languages and their modes of transmission to Anglo-Saxon England (33-4 and 36-7).

Not content with suppressing the book's discussion of method, Frantzen manufactures a "miscalculation of method" by constructing a prejudicial origin for it: "It appears that this project began with the homily and set out to identify its Irish affiliations and features. Then the project was refashioned, and the affiliations and features derived from inquiry into this text were re-represented as the main elements of 'the Irish tradition,' which the homily was used to illustrate (or exemplify). The homily was not a 'test case' for an independent set of ideas about 'the Irish tradition,' in other words, but was instead the source of the ideas said to constitute the 'tradition.'"

One well might wonder how I could have selected any Old English text for such a purpose without having first arrived at a set of ideas about the Irish tradition. The project actually began with extensive reading in Hiberno-Latin and vernacular Irish materials and the relevant secondary literature. As I learned what the salient and distinctive features of Irish Christian literature were, I began to note parallels in Old English texts as I encountered them. Vercelli IX was not the first that came to my attention, but as I continued to collect the evidence it became clear that it was, in fact, the most concentrated example of certain characteristically Irish textual motifs, stylistic features, and theological preoccupations that are scattered in a variety of Old English prose texts and poems. In other words, the project developed just as I say it did in my Introduction (I note in passing that the phrase "test case," which Frantzen places in quotation marks, is his own re-representation of my phrase "case study"). If there is any miscalculation of method here, it might be Frantzen's willingness to validate criticisms through a speculative quest for origins.

Enough has been said to demonstrate that *The Irish Tradition in Old English Literature* is neither narrowly conceived nor methodologically deficient. A book does not have to be comprehensive to justify its significance, or postmodern to justify its approach. More unfortunate than Frantzen's misrepresentation of my book, or his misunderstanding of source scholarship generally, is his simplistic division of medieval studies into benighted and enlightened "eras." Reflexively consigning certain kinds of work to bygone eras (or dismissing others as passing fads) perpetuates what Lee Patterson has called "a hopelessly divisive identity politics" (review of Speaking Two Languages: Traditional Disciplines and Contemporary Theory in Medieval Studies, ed. Allen J. Frantzen (1991), in JEGP 94 (1995), 237-9, at 239). I would suggest that medievalists try to find more subtle and more generous ways to comprehend and debate the differences within our discipline.