12.01.12, Wooding et al., Adomnán of Iona

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Mark Stansbury

The Medieval Review 12.01.12

Wooding, Jonathan M., Rodney Aist, Thomas Owen Clancy, and Thomas O'Loughlin. Adomnán of Iona: Theologian, Lawmaker, Peacemaker. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2010. Pp. 335. ISBN: isbnIDNO. .

Reviewed by:
Mark Stansbury
National University of Ireland, Galway

Adomnán of Iona is well known in one sense, but quite elusive in another. As the eighteen papers collected in this volume show, he was a remarkably influential figure in the Insular church. As they also show, that influence was often exercised behind the scenes, as it were, for he stands behind the vivid portrait of Columba, behind Arculf and his tales of the Holy Land, and behind the Lex innocentium. We know that Adomnán is there; it is simply difficult to know precisely where. He tells us in the first preface of the Vita Columbae, for example, that he selected the episodes in the life from a larger number (pauca de plurimis), and we know that his selection and arrangement, to a large extent, created the figure of Columba that we study, yet we do not know the criteria for selecting the few from the many. All but three of the papers collected in this volume were presented at a conference held in 2004 commemorating the centenary of Adomnán's death in 704. Following an introduction by the principal editor, Jonathan Wooding, the contributions are organised in two groups as follows:

Part 1: Life and Cult

Brian Lacey, "Adomnán and Donegal," looks at the question of Adomnán's Donegal origins. The first part of the paper looks at the evidence from Adomnán's genealogy and the expansion of his relations, the Cenl Conaill. The second part provides a sceptical examination of the saint's supposed relationship to the church at Rapahoe.

Barbara Yorke, "Adomnán at the court of King Aldfrith," provides the context for two visits made by Adomnán to Northumbria and looks at their possible implications for political relationships.

Clare Stancliffe, "'Charity with peace': Adomnán and the Easter question," looks at Adomnán's attitude toward the Easter controversy. It offers a very clear explanation of the computistical and historical issues, and argues that Adomnán may have seen differences in celebration as a matter of local practice.

Jennifer O'Reilly, "Adomnán and the art of teaching spiritual sons," examines the relationship between the abbot and the monk as between a father and his spiritual son. After exploring episodes from the Vita Columbae she broadens out to look at this relationship as shown in three works of art, which offers interesting interpretations of otherwise obscure scenes.

James E. Fraser, "Adomnán and the morality of war," examines Adomnán's views toward war and the victims of war, focusing on the Lex innocentium, though perhaps a better term for the subject of this contribution would be the attitude toward conflict or violence rather than war.

Thomas Owen Clancy, "Adomnán in medieval Gaelic literary tradition," looks at Adomnán's Nachleben as a literary figure in Irish and Scottish sources. Although Clancy's conclusion is largely negative (these sources do not provide much new information about Adomnán), by showing how episodes from Columba's life moved seamlessly into Adomnán's, it is also extremely suggestive in showing how the fates of author and subject can merge.

Mary Low, "Adomnán among the bird-hunters: Tradition and creativity in Beannachadh Seilg," examines the poem Beannachadh Seilg, a blessing for a hunter, in which Adomnán's name is mentioned. The poem was first published and translated in the first volume of Carmina Gadelica in 1900 and Low is interested primarily in the theology of the poem.

Part 2: Adomnán the writer

Ewan Campbell, "The archaeology of writing in the time of Adomnán," looks at the evidence for the writing materials in Scotland roughly contemporary with Adomnán, but not at manuscripts or inscriptions. He raises the interesting point that the materials used by scribes (such as styluses for wax tablets and knives for parchment) are rare in monastic excavations.

Gilbert Márkus, "Adiutor Laborantium--a poem by Adomnán?," argues that homunculus in the abecedarian poem Adiutor laborantium is a Latin version of Adomnán's name (Cormac's glossary) and that it represents his authorial signature in the poem.

Rodney Aist, "Adomnán, Arculf and the source material of De locis sanctis," looks at the treatment of Jerusalem in De locis sanctis in light of other texts and the geography of the city.

Thomas O'Loughlin, "The De locis sanctis as a liturgical text," examines the possibilities of seeing De locis sanctis as a devotional text. The point made about brevitas as a hallmark of the intellectual culture of the sixth and seventh centuries is too broad, as a look at Gregory of Tours will show.

David Woods, "On the circumstances of Adomnán's composition of the De locis sanctis," examines the possibility that Adomnán composed De locis sanctis while in Northumbria in 702.

T.M. Charles-Edwards, "The structure and purpose of Adomnán's Vita Columbae," looks at the structure of the life, asking whether Adomnán fulfilled the premise that he sets out to organise it. There is an interesting comparison to the structure of Book 2 of Gregory the Great's Dialogues (on the life of Benedict).

Aidan Mac Donald, "Adomnán's Vita Columbae and the early churches of Tiree" examines evidence in the Vita Columbae and other lives, as well as the archaeological record, for evidence of monasteries on Tiree, an island about 30 kilometres (or 16 nautical miles) northwest of Iona.

Dan Tipp and Jonathan M. Wooding, "Adomnán's voyaging saint: The cult of Cormac Ua Liatháin," looks at the later tales of Cormac, mentioned three times in the Vita Columbae. They argue that Cormac may have been a more significant figure in the cult of Columba than the extant evidence would suggest.

Tomás O'Sullivan, "The anti-Pelagian motif of the 'naturally good' pagan in Adomnán's Vita Columbae," looks for elements of Adomnán's theology in two representations of pagan Picts whose lives were naturally good in the Vita Columbae.

Katja Ritari, "Heavenly apparitions and heavenly life in Adomnán's Vita Columbae," examines the ability of Columba to see supernatural phenomena, both on earth and in heaven.

Stephen Sharman, "Visions of divine light in the writings of Adomnán and Bede," takes up the theme of visions and light again, this time to compare those in the Vita Columbae and the works of Bede, concluding that Adomnán and Bede were working in the same tradition.

Such commemorative volumes are interesting because they provide the excuse for scholars who might otherwise never appear between the same covers to consider a common topic, which in turn provides us a snapshot of communal interest and opinion. One pleasure in reading such a collection of essays is seeing the themes that emerge among the contributions, some of which are pointed out in the texts themselves (p. 237, note 4, and p. 289, notes 1 and 2). Many of the contributors in this volume show great interest in using his works to talk about Adomnán's theology, though at times the reader may wonder where Adomnán's theology starts and his subject's ends. Still, as Adomnán eloquently reminded us, the kingdom of God is not found in the exuberance of eloquence, and so this may be just what Adomnán desired, as his pale outline disappears behind the subjects he shaped so vividly.

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Author Biography

Mark Stansbury

National University of Ireland, Galway