contributor.author: Frantzen, Allen J.

title.none: Wright, Irish Tradition in Old English Literature

identifier.other: baj9928.9508.003 95.08.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Frantzen, Allen J., Loyola University Chicago

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Wright, Charles D. The Irish Tradition in Old English Literature. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 6. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Pp. xiii + 321.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.08.03

Wright, Charles D. The Irish Tradition in Old English Literature. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 6. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Pp. xiii + 321.

Reviewed by:

Frantzen, Allen J.
Loyola University Chicago

It did not take very long, when I began combing book sale catalogues, to learn to beware the title before the colon. A book (to fabricate an example) called "Sex and Sin in Medieval Italy" would have instant appeal, but after the colon came disillusionment: "A twelfth-century Tuscan marriage contract and its sources." If the title before the colon promised the world, the words that followed shrank that world to an example so specific that I could find little in it that addressed the concerns of my own work.

Charles Wright's book on the Irish tradition in Anglo-Saxon literature does not have a title after its colon, but, for the best reasons, it should have been given one. The book appears to undertake a broad assessment of the Irish influence on Anglo-Saxon culture but is, in the main, an analysis of the Irish textual affiliations of a single Vercelli homily. Wright gathers a wealth of information about the sources of this text but does so at the expense of the larger significance of the subject. Acknowledging the narrow range of the book by narrowing its title might have taken away some sheen, but it would have cushioned the reader's sense of disappointment that this learned book traverses so little ground. The cautious introduction, which discusses Irish influence in general terms, gives only minimal attention to the history of this influence, how it was defined in its early phases, or how it might be redefined along the lines of more recent interdisciplinary concepts. Wright uses "Irish influence" to describe "the direct or indirect transmission of specific themes and rhetorical formulations from Irish or Hiberno-Latin writings," as opposed to "an infusion of a transcendental Celtic spirit or mentalite" (p. 11). Explaining that he differentiates Irish influence from Irish authorship, Wright observes that his "concern is with the reception and assimilation of characteristically Irish thematic and stylistic elements in Old English literature," Wright asserts (p. 18). He then narrows Irish features to numerical motifs and apocryphal lore, especially that concerning eschatology and cosmology (pp. 21-23).

The word mentalite might convey a bit more than vague cultural associations; it also evokes the procedures of the Annales historians, whose contribution to the discussion of cross-cultural influences would have enriched this study considerably. Apart from his title, Wright wisely refrains from efforts to represent his study as anything other than a limited inquiry into textual analysis; 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. The book speaks of an era in which the premises of scholarly investigations could pass unexamined because they were presumably impervious to change, revision, or criticism outside any but the laws of their own tradition. Even in Anglo-Saxon studies, as the work of Martin Irvine and Clare Lees, among others, has now shown, that age is over. Within the Old English-Old Irish periods, tracing textual traditions across and within cultures is a process that raises ideological and political issues, both in the texts and their transmission; within the period of modern scholarship, the study of these texts and traditions is invested with similar concerns. Wright makes only brief mention of the romanticism and nationalism evident in the history of Irish-Anglo-Saxon connections in the early medieval period, allowing that these impulses have exaggerated the Irish achievement (pp. 4-5, 47-48). He might also have observed that such biases, working in the other direction, have minimized the Irish achievement and discouraged inquiry into Irish influence. Such characterizations of Irish influence as Bernhard Bischoff's "Irish symptoms" and "family resemblances" reveal the dismissive assumptions that have governed inquiries into this topic. That language is not exclusive to discussions of Irish sources, of course (Wright notes references to "Spanish symptoms" by Ludwig Traube and Edmond Bishop, p. 12, n. 46), but it is, after all, figurative, not analytical, and it requires scrutiny.

Wright is evenhanded, but he does not always counteract the prejudice against the standing of the Irish. For example, he quotes Theodore of Canterbury's condemnation of Irish paschal customs and tonsure (pp. 39-40) without noting that, in the same penitential, Theodore drew from Irish sources and, after all, authorized a penitential, a document that was as odd and distinctively "Irish" in its time as the Irish customs that were perceived as threats to ecclesiastical unity. It is not only true that the Irish were, in the main, orthodox in their observances, as Wright points out; it is also true that authorities in the Anglo-Saxon church adopted some Irish customs at the same time as they denounced others. Their double attitude, as I pointed out some time ago, was shared by Bede (Wright discusses his attitude on pp. 40, 42-43), where denunciation of the Irish alternates with admiration for their piety. Wright's book is strong on analysis, weak on synthesis. The book needs but lacks an integrated overview that categorizes previous claims about the Irish influence on OE poetry and prose and on Latin sources. Such an overview would have differentiated the assumptions of the many art historians, historians, and literary critics who have pursued this topic. Instead of offering his own historical summary, Wright lists previous studies without supplying a guide to the preoccupations of scholars as different as Ludwig Bieler and Walter Goffart. (pp. 2-3, note 5). He hurries over claims for literary influences in two pages (pp. 9-10), although the presence of "Old English Literature" in his title would suggest that a more generous approach were in order. 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.

Wright's real interest is the Vercelli text and its affiliations with Irish materials, and few will quarrel with the details that are very capably organized here (although many might wish for broader insights into them). The second chapter offers the most to the generalist (Anglo-Saxonist or Celticist); it concerns the "enumerative style" in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England (an earlier version was published in Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies18 [1989]). A sizable portion of this chapter is given to Vercelli homily IX (pp. 88-105). The third chapter, which discusses the Visio S. Pauli and insular visions of hell, contains a valuable summary of the state of scholarship on this important text and its traditions. Wright takes up the well-known controversy connecting Vercelli IX to Blickling Homily XVI and Beowulf 1357b-76a and 1408-17a (pp. 116-35). He reconstructs the source of the Blicking texts; after re-examining the tradition of the Visio S. Pauli, he argues that the poet was indebted to the latter rather than to the former. Wright's work with this question is impressive; he reverses the position taken by Carleton Brown in 1938, although he draws no conclusion about the possible impact of this conclusion on the dating of the poem, or its literary milieu. The fourth chapter, on cosmology and myth in "The Devil's Account of the Next World," pairs better with the second chapter's more general, survey-like focus, than the investigations of chapter three. The fifth chapter relates Vercelli Homily IX to other Anglo-Saxon texts in relation to the Irish tradition. The appendix is an edition and translation of the homily based on Donald Scragg's recent EETS edition.

The architecture of the book, as this summary suggests, is rather disjointed. Although the Vercelli homily deserves a prominent place in this study, its dominant role is disappointing. Wright describes the homily as "an ideal case study of the assimilation of Irish literary forms and learned traditions by an Anglo-Saxon author." Anticipating objections, he continues, "The scope of the book, however, is not so narrow as its focus on a single anonymous homily may suggest. I have chosen this homily because it exemplifies literary motifs, stylistic features and theological preoccupations characteristic of much Irish Christian literature and of certain other Old English texts formed under Irish influence" (p. 10). The homily exemplifies the subject of Wright's concern, apocrypha, a well-known preoccupation of the Irish. But is the apocryphal tradition really the distinctive feature of Irish vernacular or Latin literature? 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." This procedure seems to me to be a miscalculation of method that undercuts the promise of the book, although it lets Wright off the considerable hook of deciding what "the Irish tradition" would look like if it were drawn from the wide range of materials and ideas that the phrase implies.

Irish achievement is vast and various, as Wright acknowledges in the introduction, and hence difficult to describe. It is difficult to see how the sources and affiliations of a single homily (and a small number like it) could preclude discussion of this variety and complexity. Even within the context of religious literature, the importance of contact between the vernaculars languages, compared to contact between Latin sources, and the support of manuscript evidence for textual affiliations, are among the issues that need fuller discussion. Although art-historical evidence could not easily have been included, current literary assessments would seem to be affected by it. Without some engagement with these questions, any concept of "the Irish tradition"--even the ecclesiastical tradition--is bound to be no more than very preliminary. It would have been very useful to embody the idea of "the Irish tradition" by constructing one--that is, by giving an overview of the evidence for Irish influence on OE literary culture, beginning with the seventh century and Bede's world, and correlating the broad outlines of that picture (much of it already available, of course) with a literary history of Ireland at the same time (again, some of this available). That would have given the reader interested in something besides apocrypha and the textual connections of a single strain of the tradition a more useful point of departure.

Wright's conclusion is modest. He says that further analysis of the Irish tradition must await better editions and commentary (p. 271). This is as obviously true today as it was fifty years ago. It has always been disappointing and frustrating for Anglo-Saxonists who wish to trace cultural connections between OE and OI literary sources to find, as Wright remarks (p. 11), how much Irish material remains unedited since the appearance of James F. Kenney's work on The Sources for the Early History of Ireland: Ecclesiastical (1929; a rare misprint on p. 11 gives the date as 1926, but the entry in the bibliography, p. 299, is correct). Kenney's survey was extensive but not complete, and although some great work has been done in the area since, no comprehensive attempt to recover the records of early Irish ecclesiastical history has been made. Many Celticists pursue only the secular side of the vernacular texts, and only a few scholars--Patrick P. O'Neill, Richard Sharpe, Patrick Sims-Williams, and Wright among them--work with ecclesiastical texts and traditions. That is a short and incomplete list of experts, but also a formidable one. Let us hope that one of these writers will take up a broader study of the Irish tradition and its Anglo-Saxon reflexes that addresses the variety and range of the evidence, the needs of scholars working generally in both areas, and the relevance of new developments in cultural and literary history to their comparative endeavors.

In part my expectations of this book were created by the series in which appears, and two books in particular, Mary Clayton's The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Anglo-Saxon England (1990) and Sims-Williams' Religion and Literature in Western England, 600-800 (1990). Both books outline traditions at the same time as they deal with specific texts. Both are as methodologically unself-conscious as Wright's book, but both seem more rewarding to me. A book similar to either of them--the book suggested by Wright's title--would have been an exciting contribution to Irish and to Anglo-Saxon studies. Wright's book is a fine one, informative and clear. Those interested in the subject of apocrypha in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England will find it especially valuable. Those whose interest spans "the Irish tradition in Anglo-Saxon literature" can hope that the next book in the area, building on Wright's and other studies like it, will approach the topic more generously.