03.03.20, Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church

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Dorothy Ann Bray

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.020


Harrington, Christina. Women in a Celtic Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. x, 329. ISBN: 0-19-820823-5.

Reviewed by:
Dorothy Ann Bray
McGill University

The history of women in the medieval church has received considerable attention within the past several years and has generated in a relatively short time a vast body of scholarship. Works by scholars such as Joanne McNamara, Jane Schulenberg, Elizabeth Clark, and Stephanie Hollis, to name only a very few of the very many, have contributed to and increased our knowledge and understanding of the lives of those women of Europe in late antiquity and the Middle Ages who chose to enter a religious life. The body of scholarship on women in the medieval Irish Church is, by comparison, not as vast but is becoming substantial nonetheless. What it has lacked up until now is a book-length study covering the fifth to the twelfth centuries, from the establishment of Christianity in Celtic Ireland to the influx of continental monastic orders and reforms. Christina Harrington is the first to offer such a study and it is as welcome as it is timely.

This is an ambitious book in its scope; it situates the lives of Christian virgins, nuns and abbesses in the context of the history of the early Irish Church, and its relationship to continental churches (especially the growth of monasticism), and to the authority and doctrines of Rome with respect to issues of gender. Harrington divides her chronology into three main periods: the fifth and sixth centuries (the "conversion period"); the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries (the period of monastic growth and further development of the Church hierarchy and canon law); and the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries (from the impact of the Vikings after the ninth and tenth centuries through a period of reform, increasing influence from the continent, and eventually the denouement of the native Irish Church in the twelfth century and the rise of a "Europeanized" Church in Ireland). Harrington carefully sifts through an impressive amount of historical material in order to piece together the lives of these women of the Church and she presents a picture that is as well-documented as it can be, given the nature and scarcity of sources especially from the earliest period. For this era, she must necessarily paint in broad strokes (drawing mostly upon the Lives and traditions of St Brigit of Kildare and other women mentioned in the hagiography) but nonetheless provides a likely sketch. For the later periods, where the sources are more plentiful, she is on firmer ground and presents her arguments with authority and conviction.

Harrington's main thesis throughout the book is that women in the early Irish Church enjoyed a high status (not a new idea but more fully emphasized here) and that their religious careers were relatively unproblematic. Harrington seeks to overturn those previous arguments which saw a misogynistic streak in the Irish ecclesiastical establishment. She argues that women were accepted by their male colleagues and superiors without the kind of sexual tension and anxiety which developed into extreme misogyny on the continent. Male-female friendships were normal and appreciated. In her penultimate chapter, she draws a stark contrast between the situation on the continent, where women were "viciously demonized," to that of religious women in Ireland where a kinder, gentler and more sympathetic attitude prevailed, especially toward clerical marriage and cleric-female relations. This polarization seems a little too black-and-white and a bit utopian with respect to Ireland, but it is backed by a strongly articulated argument. In the final chapter, she reviews the religious models of women available to Irish writers during the tenth and eleventh centuries, the years of reform on the continent, and concludes that the Irish maintained their more respectful attitude toward women in the Church; she ends with the words of St Paul from Gal. 3:28, quoted in a Latin Life of St Monenna, that in Christ there is "no male or female" (289) (she attributes this to Corinthians, and unfortunately, does not translate the Latin, although elsewhere in the book she does provide translations for those readers whose knowledge of Irish and Latin may be limited).

Although Harrington claims to base her arguments on empirical evidence, much of that evidence is drawn from hagiographical sources and she does have to resort to generalizations and speculations. Harrington does her best to deal with the problems which this genre offers and which she fully recognizes, but she is surprisingly reticent on the scholarship in this area. She does not, for example, explain why the "reluctant bride" is a hagiographical topos but the wandering saint is not (nor does she explain the meaning of topos); indeed, she provides a set of maps detailing the extensive journeys of saints Brigit, Samthann and Monenna, drawn from the evidence of their Lives, thereby reinforcing the idea that these journeys are historically true. She also claims that Irish female saints' lives "are more grounded and considerably less formulaic than many surviving in other areas of Christendom" (285), but provides no supporting evidence for this statement.

There are other troubling elements. Harrington in her Introduction gives a very useful overview of the academic historiography regarding the early Irish Church as well as the popular perceptions of early Irish women and Celtic Christianity, and traces how such perceptions may have come about. But she goes on to chastise modern scholars for doing little to correct those contemporary popular notions regarding Celtic Christianity and early Irish culture which are misleading. Today's scholars, in her opinion, have failed to reach out to the interested layman. "The abyss," she says, "between the Ivory Tower dweller and the Waterstone's Bookshop browser has never been wider" (9). In the period of 1890-1930, there was much more scholarship that reached out to the man on the street, mostly because it was published in book form, rather than journal articles where much of it is published today. The perpetuation of outmoded ideas on the early Celtic Churches, Irish paganism, and women saints is not the fault of modern popular writers, but of scholars who have failed to make themselves accessible (10). Today's scholars, she contends, "can be derisive of modern Celtic Christianity" (12) without taking into consideration its origins, which are partly in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholarship; and later she states that they are "prone to scoff at Celtic Christians, religious feminists, and modern pagans" without taking into consideration "that a spiritual movement's validity is not dependent on the historical accuracy of it origin myths" (16).

Thus it would appear that the interested layman, who may be misled by late-Victorian scholarship, which influenced such people as Jan de Vries or Jean Markale, and by the work of more recent popular writers, such as Peter Berresford Ellis, Mary Condren, and John and Caitlin Matthews, is just a poor soul who doesn't know any better (and doesn't tend to read journal articles -- and probably not scholarly book reviews, either). Modern academics, according to the author, have done a great disservice to themselves and to the public by not publicly engaging with and questioning these writers' assertions and by scorning alternative spiritualities. This is a rather sweeping indictment, unaccompanied by any supporting evidence. Harrington takes it upon herself to reach out to the interested layman, to be the corrective to all those negligent and aloof academics who not only do not deign to write popular and accessible works, but whose own scholarship may be wrongheaded; the aim of her book, she makes clear, is to amend both the misguided popular notions of the lay reader and the erroneous scholarship of academics who ought to know better, and she will do so on the basis of empirical evidence which is not colored by ideological or theological beliefs. This tone of antagonism and condescension is somewhat disconcerting, and especially so when it intrudes upon her arguments at various points throughout the book.

Harrington also positions herself quite firmly against those feminists, both scholarly and lay, who in her eyes perceive women's history as a history of oppression, against those folklorists who see pagan "survivals" in any Celtic Christian context, and against feminist spiritualists who look for proof of a matriarchal, goddess-worshiping society in early Ireland which Christianity destroyed. Most scholars, however, both feminist and folklorist, would agree with her on that last point, something even she admits (14). With respect to feminist scholarship in Irish history, she directs most of her criticism against the idea of a misogynist attitude in the early Irish Church and cites, for the most part, a 1986 article by Lisa Bitel on monastic enclosure. She does not engage Bitel's Land of Women (1996), but rather dismisses it in passing (105). Yet surely this is a book, not article, which the interested lay reader, her intended audience, just might find on the shelves of Waterstone's. She is much kinder towards Peter Berresford Ellis's book, Celtic Women (1995), gently correcting only one of his more egregious statements, an interpretation regarding St Brigit's sexual orientation (90-91). But Ellis is an avowed popularizer and non-scholar, largely ignored by mainstream Celtic scholarship, whose books are to be found in the "pop Celtic" sections of bookstores.

There are also some curious and puzzling omissions in this work. For example, in a section on the Irish views of the Virgin Mary in the later period (280-82), she states that a "full-scale study of the Irish cult of the Virgin would fill a book on its own" (280). Here one might expect at least a passing reference to Peter O'Dwyer's Devotion to Mary in Ireland 700-1100 (1976), but instead it is buried in a footnote on the next page. In her Introduction, speaking of the nineteenth- and early twentieth- century scholarship which gave rise to popular notions of the romantic Celt (11), she does not make reference to Patrick Sims-Williams's article, "The Visionary Celt: The Construction of an Ethnic Preconception," Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 11 (1986), 71-96, which ought to be required reading for all Celticists, both scholarly and lay.

In a discussion of fire and light imagery with respect to St Brigit, Harrington points out that the Bible also contains much of this imagery, but cites only those works which offer an example of the pagan survivalist solar-cult approach (64). She does not cite "Saint Brigit and the Fire from Heaven," Etudes Celtiques 29 (1992), 105-113, which also points out the biblical fire imagery; nor, in a discussion of the masculine virtus of certain female saints, like Monenna, does she cite "The Manly Spirit of Saint Monenna," in R. Black et al., edd., Celtic Connections: The Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Celtic Studies (1999), 1: 171-181, which tackles that very subject. This little complaint could be construed as personal pique on my part, since these last two articles were penned by myself. Not at all. Given Harrington's rather astringent position against feminists and folklorists, I'm rather relieved. Far more serious, however, is the lack of reference to Margaret MacCurtain's 1980 article, "Towards an Appraisal of the Religious Image of Women," The Crane Bag 4.1, 26-30 or to Padraig O Riain's "Sainte Brigitte: paradigme de l'abbesse celtique?" in P. Rouche and J. Heuclin, edd., La femme au moyen-âge (1990), 27-32, a work which deserves to be better known.

In an otherwise excellent chapter on early Christian models for female religious, she raises the hagiographical topos of the reluctant bride, citing saint Brigit as the most famous example and stating that her two earliest Lives, Vita I and Cogitosus relate how she destroyed one of her own eyes to dissuade a suitor (61). I am unable to find this anecdote in Cogitosus, just as I am unable to find any reference to a druid father figure in Cogitosus's Vita although she claims all of Brigit's Lives contain this motif (64). Unfortunately, Catherine McKenna's article, "Between Two Worlds: Saint Brigit and Pre-Christian Religion in the Vita Prima," in J.F. Nagy, ed. Identifying the Celtic (CSANA Yearbook 2) (2002), 66-74, appeared too late to be used here, as did McKenna's previous article, "Apotheosis and Evanescence: The Fortunes of Saint Brigit in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries," in J.F. Nagy, ed., The Individual in Celtic Literatures (CSANA Yearbook 1) (2001), 74-108. It is to be hoped that these, and other, errors and omissions will be corrected in a second edition of Harrington's book.

And a second edition there should be. Despite its flaws, this book makes a worthy contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the lives of religious women in medieval Ireland. The bibliography alone attests to an impressive amount of scholarship and Harrington offers several interesting insights and observations. Although one wonders if this book will really reach out to and convince her intended audience, it will certainly be of value to another constituency, that is, interested students. For it is largely in the classroom, rather than in publication, that modern scholars enter into the fray against those outmoded misconceptions and "pop" preconceptions which Harrington aims to correct. This book will give instructors in early Irish history and their students much to think about and debate -- and learn from.

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Dorothy Ann Bray

McGill University