14.09.26, Johnston, Literacy and Identity

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Jennifer Dukes-Knight

The Medieval Review 14.09.26

Johnston, Elva. Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland. Studies in Celtic History. Woodbridge:Boydell Press, 2013. Pp. vii, 238. ISBN: 9781843838555 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Jennifer Dukes-Knight
University of South Florida

In Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland, Elva Johnston offers a close study of the men who composed early Irish literature, in both Latin and the vernacular. She examines what literacy meant to the men who formed the literate elite of early Ireland, and how their literacy was influenced by, and helped to create, the world around them. This work provides an admirably fresh perspective on the long-standing 'nativist debate' in Celtic Studies by seeking meaning in the composers and audiences, rather than origins, of early Irish literature. Instead of focusing on pagan survivals and Indo-European roots in the literature that cast Ireland as "closer in soul and structure to Vedic India than...early Medieval Europe" (27), Johnston examines the legal, annalistic, and literary corpus for connections between Latin and vernacular, and literacy and orality, to provide insightful new conclusions about the role literacy played in forming the identity of elite society in early Ireland.

The first chapter seeks to set Ireland within the wider European world of Late Antiquity. While this has become a truism, Johnston succinctly lays out Ireland's unique situation at the close of antiquity due to its lack of the vestiges of Roman imperial authority. As such, Irish remained the language of the land, and the first hints of literacy took the form of the runic ogham alphabet. Even as Christianity introduced Latin as a prestige language, originally central to literacy, it never displaced the Irish vernacular. As a result, Ireland came to produce the largest and earliest body of vernacular literature in Europe. Scholars have long debated the origins of this body of literature: while earlier models saw the corpus as preserving the mythic threads of the ancient pagan past, more recent scholarship emphasizes its Christian and biblical influences. Johnston breaks free of the origins debate to seek the often-ignored variety present in the literate communities; from monastic scholars to filid (secular poets) to illiterate audience members who participated with the texts through performance.

In the following chapters, Johnston goes about elucidating this variety by examining the various groups involved in literacy, and how literacy in each case contributed to their self-identity and a growing Irish identity. Chapter 2 examines the role of the Hiberno-Latin writers, who composed their works for an international Christian audience. This group, and the peregrini movement of travelling scholars that characterized it, cultivated a version of Irish identity that was closely aligned with scholarship. As courts around Europe came to associate Ireland with this scholarly identity, this further contributed to a strong Irish self-identity among travelling scholars, as in the case of Sedulius Scotus (defined as Irish in his very name). At the same time, contemporary Irish attitudes toward the peregrini were more ambivalent. The annalistic evidence demonstrates that these men were far more influential abroad than at home. At the same time, while the peregrini movement was characterized distinctly by Latin scholarship, back in Ireland the vernacular had begun to eclipse Latin as the primary language of composition.

In Chapter 3, attention is turned to these "stay-at-home" scholars (58). Johnston argues that the well-known major social changes brought about by the Viking Age forged a stronger relationship among the elite. As smaller, local communities were absorbed by the growing dynastic powers, the political and social identities of these groups were created and re-created by the literate elite through the massive corpus of genealogies. This trend ultimately culminated in the invention of the Milesian scheme, which allowed all of the great families to be connected to the country's origins through the legendary and prolific first human inhabitant, Míl Espáne. Johnston argues that a new world order emerged out of the Viking Age, but not one of decline in traditional Irish values in favor of violence and corruption as has been previously argued. Rather, it was a world increasingly defined by hierarchy, which was delineated by the literate elite and significantly benefited their standing.

Chapter 4 delves into the early Irish chronicles in an attempt to gauge the spread of literacy and reveal changes in scholarly identities over time. Johnston utilizes the death notices of scribes and heads of monastic schools to examine changes in the terminology used to describe scholarly activity. Through this approach, she hopes to access changes in the types of learning and scholarship that were active and valued for record. For example, she argues that the term sapientes distinguished specifically Latin scholars, and the near disappearance of this term from the annals after the mid-tenth century is indicative of the shift toward vernacular literacy. While annalistic changes in nomenclature have usually been attributed to simple translation of terminology with the shift from Latin to Irish as the primary language of composition, Johnston argues for a change in substance as well as style here that generally aligned with broader social trends towards elitism and the centralization of power.

Chapter 5 deals with the concern that the Christian clerics of early Ireland produced so much literature celebrating the heroes of their country's pagan past. While this simple fact has often troubled scholars, Johnston develops the important insight that we need not seek an 'excuse', per se, for the composition of vernacular secular literature in the ecclesiastical setting of early Irish monasteries. The vernacular corpus was not composed to meet theological needs, but because the inhabitants of the monasteries were members of the Irish aristocratic society in and around their monasteries, and were deeply embedded in this cultural milieu. She also takes on the delicate task of examining the historical record as it relates to the secular learned class, the filid. In this, she convincingly argues that the clerical class and the filid intersected and overlapped in many ways, but one was not necessarily supplanted or absorbed by the other. Moreover, she sees the filid as being the vital link between secular and ecclesiastic worlds that made the production of native vernacular literature possible. Participating in both the literate world of the monastery and the oral world of the court, the filid provided the necessary glue of the "secondary oral culture" that she argues helped to create a cohesive identity among the elite (154 and throughout).

In Chapter 6, Johnston returns to the 'nativist debate' to take up another of its foundational points of contention: the relationship between oral and literary composition. "A new question needs to be asked," she states, going on to address the role of native literature in a society where both oral and written modes were active and mutually influential (161). She begins with the transmission of written texts to the non-literate elite: that is, the aristocratic courts that dominated the political and social landscape of early Ireland. The term mebair (derived from Latin memoria) distinguished the cultivated memory of the literate elite from that of the non-literate storytellers. The influence of literacy did not stop at the vellum, but influenced the non-literate through public readings and memorization. The literate elite, however, maintained control of this knowledge in both its written and oral forms. Performance therefore acts as a point of confluence between the literate and non-literate elite, and a main point at which literacy came to influence and shape the identities of both groups. Rather than focus on the indeterminable origins of early Irish narrative literature, Johnston examines its function within the "secondary-oral culture" where those who could read and compose met with those who listened. While the tastes and interests of the non-literate elite as consumers of literary works likely guided the selection of certain themes and topics, the literary compositions of the literate elite gave voice to aristocratic concerns and shaped the communal identity of this group. Literacy thus allowed the elite to tie themselves to the past, from which they derived much of their power and authority, as well as their sense of self.

Johnston's perceptive analysis is detail-driven: she mines the annalistic record and various genres for references to individual careers with circumstances supporting her arguments. At times, this approach runs the risk of assuming too much consistency across time and space, and within professions. In Chapter 4's discussion of the evolution of terminology associated with scholarly individuals in annalistic death notices, for example, one cannot help but wonder if term usage was as technical and consistently schematized as her arguments seem to require.

Nonetheless, this book provides many fresh perspectives on some of the thorniest issues of Celtic scholarship. By locating her focus in the social milieu of composition, Johnston creates an interesting and compelling argument for the centrality of literacy to Irish elite identity in the early medieval period. While Celticists are likely to feel that some of the discussions relating to the 'nativist debate', the political changes of the Viking Age, and the rise of dynastic powers tend to re-tread some already well-worn ground, these discussions are foundational and will be vital to those less familiar with Celtic scholarship. Johnston builds many innovative structures upon these old fittings, and it is hoped that this insightful work represents a growing trend in new Celtic scholarship that will continue to question and supersede the frameworks that have guided discussion for so long.

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Author Biography

Jennifer Dukes-Knight

University of South Florida