Robin Stacey

title.none: Pryce, ed., Literacy in Medieval Celtic societies (Stacey)

identifier.other: baj9928.9902.006 99.02.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Robin Stacey, University of Washington,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Pryce, Huw, ed. Literacy in Medieval Celtic Societies. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, Vol 33. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xii, 297. $59.95. ISBN: 0-521-57039-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.02.06

Pryce, Huw, ed. Literacy in Medieval Celtic Societies. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, Vol 33. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. xii, 297. $59.95. ISBN: 0-521-57039-5.

Reviewed by:

Robin Stacey
University of Washington

Ov er the past twenty years, literacy has become something of a hot topic for historians of medieval Europe. The publication in 1979 of Michael Clanchy's From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307 traced the tremendous changes in the use of the written word taking place in twelfth and thirteenth-century England. And Brian Stock's subtly argued The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries caused something of a sensation when it appeared in 1983. Neither Clanchy nor Stock had much to say about literacy in the early medieval period, but Rosamond McKitterick's two fine volumes on the subject (The Carolingians and the Written Word, published in 1989, and The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe, published in 1990) and Michael Richter's The Formation of the Medieval West: Studies in the Oral Cultures of the Barbarians (1994) have gone a long way towards filling that gap.

In none of these works (with the exception of Richter, who is primarily interested in oral culture) does the issue of literacy in the Celtic-speaking societies of the Middle Ages feature very prominently. Apart from an important article by Jane Stevenson on the Book of Armagh, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Brittany have been essentially left out of the discussion. That this should be so is not entirely surprising. Celtic-speaking peoples have had a long history of being studied in isolation from other contemporaneous European cultures, by Celticists and historians of English and continental traditions alike. In this case, however, the separation may reflect more than a traditional disciplinary divide. For as Huw Pryce's excellent new collection of essays on the subject, Literacy in Medieval Celtic Societies, makes clear, the experiences of the Celtic-speaking nations with respect to learning and the written word differed from those of the rest of Europe in important and interesting ways.

Perhaps most immediately relevant to any discussion of literacy in the Celtic lands are the nature and extent of the extant sources. Despite the linguistic and historical links that allow us to term these cultures "Celtic," it is clear that their experiences with and attitudes towards the written word were in some ways very different. Certainly there are striking regional variations in terms of what has survived. Ireland preserves more vernacular material than any other early medieval European culture, including Anglo-Saxon England. Thomas Charles-Edwards sums up the situation very nicely: "A scholar turning from early medieval 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" (p. 62). By contrast, relatively little remains from early medieval Wales; however, both vernacular and Latin texts exist in abundance from that country from the twelfth century on. Scotland and Brittany are different still: very little Gaelic language material survives from medieval Scotland, and the situation is similar for literature in Breton until the late middle ages. Many Latin genres, on the other hand, are better represented in those regions than they are in Ireland: only ten Latin charters of the European type remain from the kings of twelfth-century Ireland, while 160 are extant for the mid-twelfth-century king Mael Coluim IV of Scotland alone.

Such a peculiar distribution of documentation requires some explanation. An obvious question is whether what survives ought to be regarded as at all representative of what once existed, in terms both of quantity and genre. Many of the essays in the book address this question directly. Patrick Sims-Williams takes what might be termed a "broad" view of the the dearth of extant manuscript material from early Wales, arguing persuasively that what remains extant today is likely but the tip of a once considerably larger iceberg of written material. (His essay begins with a hilarious story concerning "broad" versus "narrow" interpretations of a grazing cow, which Celticists will enjoy particularly for the opportunity it affords to speculate on which scholar took what position on the subject.) Katherine Forsyth takes a similar stance with respect to Pictland, observing that biblical, liturgical, and computistical texts must surely once have existed within the Pictish church, and while there is no evidence of pragmatic literacy, the existing corpus of inscriptions and symbol stones suggests the presence of a distinctly literate culture. And Dauvit Broun engages in some impressive linguistic detective work to argue for the continuity of literacy in Gaelic in eastern Scotland into the thirteenth century despite the lack of extant documentation.

A great deal of attention is paid in this book to the issue of why texts might or might not have survived. Textual transmission emerges as a key question in many of the essays. Manuscripts penned in the British Isles and Ireland, for example, tended not to survive unless they were taken to the continent--a fact that has clear implications not only for the number of extant texts but for their genre and language as well, as Sims-Williams and others point out. Changes in the political orientation of rulers and patrons were also an important factor. Noel-Yves Tonnerre argues for an important break in cultural patronage and production in Brittany in the late twelfth century as the ducal house grew away from its "Celtic" roots and closer to Plantagenet and French traditions. Similarly, Broun's argument for continuity is set against the backdrop of an acknowledged decline in Gaelic culture in Scotland as a result of the European orientation of rulers like David I.

An essential aspect of the question of textual survival--and one that separates discussions of Celtic literacy from similar discussions focusing on England and the continent--is the impact of the native learned classes on the creation and preservation of a literate culture. Ireland, Wales and (probably) Scotland all possessed native traditions of learning which, while dramatically influenced by Christianity and ecclesiastical tradition, were not synonymous with it. It is to the efforts of the guardians of these traditions that we owe the composition of many written works of poetry, history, and law; and it is to their efforts also, or at least to the efforts of their intellectual successors, that we owe the fact of the preservation of these texts in later medieval manuscripts. Much of the impressive corpus of vernacular Irish law, for example, which is unparalleled elsewhere in Europe, owes its existence not only to the jurists of the seventh through ninth centuries who composed it initially, but to the legal specialists of the high and late middle ages who chose to recopy and hence preserve it. In places where these specialists did not exist, like Brittany, or where intellectual priorities had changed dramatically in the interim, like Scotland, such texts either did not survive, or may never have existed in the first place.

The existence of a native learned class coexisting and to some extent overlapping with ecclesiastical learning and personnel raises a number of questions. Indeed, the intersection of native and Christian culture is a major theme of the book as a whole. What impact did the culture of the written word have on native tradition and the classes who perpetuated it? Such issues are taken up in various ways throughout the book. Thomas Charles-Edwards's discussion of the relationship between learning and social rank in Ireland complicates the prevailing historiographical vision of specialists in native and in Christian learning as a single "mandarin class." And Katherine Simms examines the impact of writing on the poetic classes, pointing to the manner in which native conceptions of the poetic class were reshaped by the advent of Christian learning, and documenting the ways in which oral and literate came together in the work of the high and late medieval bardic poets. Sioned Davies and David Thornton take a more text-centered approach to the subject, examining the manner in which oral genres and literate construction intersect over time. Davies makes the case that the demands of oral performance played a significant role in the construction of the stories of the Mabinogion as we have them today. Specifically oral performative characteristics are, she argues, still visible in our extant texts, and should be taken as an indication of the importance of the performance of these stories through reading. David Thornton examines the impact of writing on a previously oral genre, the genealogy, arguing that textualization was not the enemy of fluidity, but actually assisted it in various ways. The emphasis in both studies is on the coexistence of the oral and written modes rather than any hard and fast opposition between them.

Other themes also emerge in the book, including many familiar to historians working in the English or continental traditions. Literacy as a component of personal or political identity is an idea visible both in the Charles-Edwards article on rank and in Marie Therese Flanagan's study of Latin charters in twelfth-century Ireland, where the use of European-style charters functioned as a badge of the reform movement. The issue of lay literacy is taken up both by Llinos Beverly-Smith and by A.D. Carr in their respective examinations of deeds and other written instruments in late medieval Wales. And in a convincing, if singularly depressing essay, Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan argues that there is little evidence to support the idea of widespread female literacy and that women's culture in medieval Wales was probably principally oral in nature.

"Pragmatic" literacy--that is, the use of written documents to advance or facilitate governmental or bureaucratic initiatives--is little in evidence in this book, a fact which stands in stark contrast to the articles in the MicKitterick collection, which focus by and large on precisely this type of documentation. The reason for this is simple: there is surprisingly little evidence in the Celtic countries for "pragmatic literacy" of this sort until the late Middle Ages. Wendy Davies examines the evidence for the production and functions of charters in early Celtic societies and finds tremendous regional variation in the use of such texts. In Ireland, charter writing appears not to have caught on very strongly at all; in Brittany, by contrast (the main focus of her article), they are well represented in the extant documentation and fill a wide range of functions. Meanwhile, Beverley-Smith argues that it was not until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that a "literate mentality" comparable to the one described by Michael Clanchy for twelfth and thirteenth-century England developed in Wales.

This is an exceptionally strong collection of essays. Indeed, there is not a dud in the bunch. The introduction by Huw Pryce is extremely helpful--one of the best I have seen in the genre. And while some of the issues the collection asks readers to consider will seem exotic or unfamiliar to historians of England or the continent, this is in itself a good thing. Only in such a manner can we hope to understand the impact and parameters of the written word across all of