12.11.06, Edmonds, and Russell, eds. Tome: Studies in Medieval Celtic History and Law

Main Article Content

Lisa Bitel

The Medieval Review 12.11.06

Edmonds, Fiona and Paul Russell. Tome: Studies in Medieval Celtic History and Law, in Honour of Thomas Charles-Edwards. Studies in Celtic History. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011. Pp. xvii, 238. ISBN: 9781843836612.

Reviewed by:
Lisa Bitel
University of Southern California

Under the cover of this book are nineteen short articles, none more than fifteen pages long, presented in honor of Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards at his retirement from the Jesus Chair of Celtic Studies at Oxford. During his long career, Professor Charles-Edwards has published extensively on the history and literatures of early medieval Ireland, Wales, and Britain. He has also fostered an entire tribe of successful and skillful scholars of Celtic Studies--the list of authors, all former students or associates of Charles-Edwards, reads like the editorial board of a prestigious Celtic Studies journal. There are nods to the Professor Emeritus throughout this book, including affectionate jokes, but his legacy is most obvious in the diversity of topics covered by the essays. All of the articles are worth reading, at least to scholars acquainted with the multidisciplinary field of Celtic Studies, and many should prove interesting to other medievalists as well. In what follows, however, I invoke the reviewer's privilege of commenting on selected essays selected rather than describing the contents of all nineteen.

The book is informally organized, according to its editors, into halves. The first ten essays cover "historical aspects of Britain and Ireland" (xi) and include articles on Christianization, monastic practices, church organization, dynastic politics and territories, and episcopal privilege. The second half of the book is dedicated mostly to Irish and Welsh laws and legal history, as well as aspects of life governed by those laws during the early Middle Ages, e.g. property, kinship, and marriage. A couple of articles focus on works of Old Irish literature. The book finishes with a bibliography of Charles-Edwards's vast published corpus.

Despite the editors' claims, however, the essays are only vaguely related, mostly by evidence of Charles-Edwards's influence and references to the long-lasting academic debates in which he has participated. For example, articles by Susan Youngs (hanging bowls in early medieval England), Elizabeth O'Brien and Edel Bhreathnach (ferta, burials mounds and/or boundary markers), and Nancy Edwards (sculpture in "Viking-Age" northwest Wales) share little except that they draw on archaeological evidence in order to draw conclusions about the creation and use of religiously charged objects and monuments. However, the Youngs and Edwards essays also resonate with Clare Stancliffe's review of the textual sources for Saint Columbanus's monastic ideology, because all three make a case for regular cultural exchanges between insular and continental Europe. The question of the islands' alleged isolation from the Christian mainstream is an old and still contested one. Similarly, essays by Catherine Swift (Irish priests and parochial contexts), Thomas Owen Clancy (succession squabbles in the parochia of Saint Columcille), O.J. Padel (Asser's use of parochia in Exeter), and Marie Therese Flanagan (a 12th-century Irish bishop who granted indulgences at Bath) all speak to the organizational hierarchies of ecclesiastical institutions. Gender issues pop up in essays from both halves of the book, although Charles-Edwards is not best known for his attention to such issues.

Six articles in the volume deal with medieval Irish laws, some more lucidly than others. Robin Stacey contributes one of her typically insightful examinations of this difficult genre of evidence, specifically the 8th-century tract Berrad Airechta on suretyship and contract. Scholars have regarded this tract an important source of ancient oral legal tradition (fénechas). However, by analyzing the tract's rhetorical style and references to other texts, Stacey shows that its author emphasized the importance of written authorities as well as oral traditions and precedents. By comparison to Stacey's accessible essay, other articles on legal sources--such as Wendy Davies' study of charter evidence for judicial presidency and Fergus Kelly's comparison treatment of laws regarding recovered property--read like condensed notes for longer essays. Non-specialists will have trouble appreciating them.

Three articles offer skillful rereadings that should interest both non-specialists as well as experts in Irish and Welsh literatures. Elva Johnston reinterprets the early medieval tale of elopement and vengeance, Longes mac nUislenn, which is more widely known through Irish revivalist versions such as Synge's Deirdre of the Sorrow. Recently, scholars have been reading this tragic tale as a comment on female agency, but Johnston sees it as a meditation on the nature of kingly power (I'm persuaded.) Similarly, Máire Ní Mhaonagh uncovers echoes of Gregorian ecclesiastical reform and religious satire in the late medieval romance called Compert Mongáin ("The Birth of Mongán," alternatively "Mongán's Love for Dub Lacha.") Huw Pryce's essay on the Descriptio Kambriae of Gerald of Wales is a small masterpiece of contextual rereading. Pryce shows how Gerald's selective use of earlier British historiography, particularly Gildas's fifth-century lament, turns his ethnographic description of the Welsh people into propaganda for their conquest by Anglo-Norman marcher lords of the twelfth-century.

Some essays in this tome return, as Gerald of Wales did, to ancient history--quite literally, by rehearsing topics and referencing academic debates from yesteryear. Not only Charles-Edwards but his teachers and their teachers hover over the book. What's more, the structure and organization of this book evokes the age of Rudolf Thurneysen, D. A. Binchy, and James Carney, when editors often entitled volumes like this one "miscellanies," thus advertising a diversity of topics while also hinting at the varied quality of essays contained therein. American academic presses have given up publishing such eclectic collections. It's a pity. The community of Celticists represented in this volume, bound together by their loyalty to an exclusive academic field and their shared admiration for Professor Charles-Edwards, represent a gentler era when knowledge was useful for its own sake, and acolytes of a renowned expert might offer printed tribute to their academic master. In those days, getting published was less important than advertising the contents of a neglected manuscript or pointing out patterns in obscure legal traditions. Whether you're nostalgic for the university world we have lost or simply want to know what some of the best scholars of medieval Britain and Ireland are doing now, find this volume and spare a few hours for it. Either way, you will come to appreciate the effect that one thinker can have on a whole generation or two of medievalists.

Article Details

Author Biography

Lisa Bitel

University of Southern California