The Medieval Review 17.03.08

Flechner, Roy and Sven Meeder, eds. The Irish in Early Medieval Europe: Identity, Culture and Religion. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. pp. 288. $39.99 (paperback). ISBN: 978-1-137-43059-5 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Alexander O’Hara
University of St Andrews

One needs to be wary in reading and assessing this book. There is much good in it with some fine contributions, but it is deeply flawed.The editors Roy Flechner and Sven Meeder seek to debunk so-called myths: in this case the influence of Irish monks and scholars in early medieval Europe. In a previous publication, Flechner suggested that Saint Patrick was a tax dodger, arguing that he came to Ireland as a tax exile to avoid the fiscal burdens his decurion father would have bequeathed him. Flechner manages to sound convincing despite the fact that the imperial tax system was obsolete in Britain by the time Patrick came to Ireland, while blithely dismissing Patrick's own testimony in his two surviving written accounts. We see a similar deconstructionist vein at work in this volume which seeks to present "an academization of the debate" vis-à-vis the more gullible work of previous scholars of a "bygone golden age when religious piety and intellectual endeavor could coexist would like to steer away from crippling biographical reverence and engage in some debunking of myths" (1).

The first myth to be debunked is that of the image of Ireland as an island of saints and scholars, which the editors claim only gained currency from the seventeenth century onwards and which they pass off as an early modern phenomenon. This is false. Already from the seventh century Irish monks who travelled to the Continent were self-consciously shaping this image of their homeland. It can be seen in the poem on Ireland, written probably by one of Columbanus' Irish monks, which the Italian monk Jonas of Bobbio inserted at the beginning of his Life of Columbanus and in Jonas' comment that the Irish flourished in Christianity more than any other people.

The perception of Ireland and the Irish as a holy island and people can be followed like a thread from Jonas to Bede's comments on Ireland at the beginning of his Ecclesiastical History to Ermenrich of Ellwangen's riff on Bede's comments in which the island is presented as an allegory of the universal Church and in the poetry of Irish religious émigrés like Colman nepos Cracavist and Bishop Donatus of Fiesole. The perception of Ireland as an insula sanctorum was not invented by seventeenth-century émigré Irish Franciscans or by nineteenth-century Catholic revivalists, but is a perception that we find already in the early medieval sources.

Despite the agenda of the editors, the volume is saved by some fine contributions. The scope of the volume is comprehensive with short chapters (indeed the brevity of the chapters is one of the laudable features of the book, as is its affordable price) that encompasses communication networks, religious exile, Irish monasticism on the Continent, especially in relation to Columbanus, biblical exegesis, penance, the liturgy, science, scholarship, ethnicity, and book production.

Following a short historiographical introduction, Christopher Loveluck and Aidan O'Sullivan provide a survey of the latest archaeological research on trade and travel to and from Ireland (c. 400 to 1100) showing that there was a growing surplus economy in this period and that the island was well plugged into commercial networks, especially through the salt and wine trade with western and southern France and later from the ninth century onwards with the Scandinavian world when Dublin became a slave-exporting hub during the period of Norse settlement.

The theme of travel is continued in Elva Johnston's contribution that emphasizes the fluidity and variety in the Irish practice of religious exile (peregrinatio) grounding this socially subversive phenomenon ever more firmly within the Irish social context. With her customary balance and lucidity, Johnston substantially updates and modifies Thomas Charles-Edwards' seminal article on peregrinatio from 1976 and the two should thenceforth be read together.

We follow the peregrini to France in Yaniv Fox's study of the literary representation of Irish monks in later sources. The title of the chapter is misleading, as it does not address the political context of Irish monasticism in seventh-century Francia, but the way some figures were represented in later sources. The historically well-attested cases of Columbanus and his Irish monks, Fursa, his brothers Foillan and Ultan, Cellanus of Péronne, Colman nepos Cracavist, (for which we have near contemporary sources) are passed over to focus instead on historically dubious cases. A more interesting question is why so many hagiographers sought to bestow Irish origins on obscure saints (like Sigisbert of Disentis, Magnus of Füssen, and Fridolin of Säckingen, one of the cases discussed by Fox). For Fox, these characters are empty narrative catalysts wheeled out like figures in a medieval town clock; for this reviewer they reflect the outer shock waves of an historical phenomenon and an attempt to link later foundations to seventh-century Irish founders. Even as late as the twelfth century one wily hagiographer in northern Britain sought to give an Irish ethnicity to Cuthbert, an undeniably Anglo-Saxon saint, and there are many other comparable examples which are not dealt with in this book.

The next three chapters focus on the bête noir of the Irish exiles abroad, Columbanus. Albrecht Diem provides a good overview of the diverse monastic rules written by Columbanus and his Frankish successors. He is right to point out the diversity within the Columbanian movement and how the different rules reflect contested monastic ideals and approaches to Columbanus' legacy.

Ian Wood queries the concept of Columbanian monasticism itself by situating it within the polemical context of Post-Reformation scholarship and especially French Catholic revivalist scholarship of the nineteenth century. While this historiographical context is important and no doubt influenced modern scholarship on Columbanus, it is only half the story. Nineteenth-century French Catholics did not trump the impact of Columbanus ex nihilo, this perception can already be found in early and high medieval sources from Walahfrid Strabo, Ermenrich of Ellwangen, to Orderic Vitalis, and Bernard of Clairvaux. It would be inaccurate to give the impression that Columbanus first became a poster boy for biased Catholic revivalists when medieval contemporaries long before acknowledged his influence. Wood is right to stress the continuity with fifth-century Gallic monastic traditions, the dynamism of Gallo-Roman monasticism, and to be cautious about hero-worshipping Columbanus as the single-handed saviour of Europe. His reservations are warranted and clearly Columbanus was part of a much broader cultural trend that was hybrid in nature combining both Irish and Frankish agents to which equal weight needs to be given.

However, it is undeniable that Columbanus' exile and monastic foundations on the Continent spearheaded a major nouvelle vague in monastic foundation and a dynamic period in cultural change. Part of Columbanus' success was that he inadvertently tapped into already developing social trends and, for whatever reasons, his model of monastic foundation proved attractive to the new Frankish elites. There is a danger of unproductive hair-splitting in defining what was and what was not Columbanian monasticism. Very simply, Columbanus was the founder of Luxeuil (among other foundations), from which a number of monasteries were founded, or modelled on, or affiliated to, and whose ideals influenced Frankish court culture: ergo the use of the term Columbanian. There are enough common factors to characterize Columbanian monasticism as a distinct, though not monolithic movement, as Yaniv Fox has explored in his excellent recent book Power and Religion in Merovingian Gaul: Columbanian Monasticism and the Frankish Elites (Cambridge, 2014). Wood's statement that "leaving aside the saint's own writings and the Vita Columbani, Columbanus himself only appears in the Chronicle of Fredegar--and, as a heretic, in Bede" is manifestly wrong (96). There are numerous other contemporary sources (hagiographical, diplomatic, and epistolary) that mention Columbanus, while Bede never referred to him as a heretic.

The issue of heterodoxy which plagued Columbanus in relation to the dating of Easter and the complex issues surrounding this debate is the subject of Caitlin Corning's contribution, which is the best overview to date on this complex issue. She explains the arcane science and the background in a clear and accessible way that will be of much benefit to students who have long puzzled about what all the fuss was about.

Mark Stansbury tackles the vexed question of Irish biblical exegesis (and whether there was such a thing) and specifically Bernhard Bischoff's attribution of over forty early medieval works of exegesis as Irish or Irish-influenced based on a number of criteria he found in these works. For Stansbury, Bischoff was guilty of shooting first and then drawing the target in ascribing supposedly-Irish features to these works (125), without taking into account the whole corpus of early medieval exegesis. This is a spurious and unfair argument against a meticulous and renowned scholar who was well versed in the material. Bischoff had extraordinary knowledge of Latin pre-800 manuscripts and their patristic sources. After a study of thousands of manuscripts, he found that one group stood apart by reason of symptoms he classified. The patristic scholar Roger Gryson noted the similarities of the body of texts identified by Bischoff as representative of the Irish school of exegesis. Gryson observes that it is difficult to deny the intellectual relationship that unites the greater part of these writings. It is also interesting that the work of Martin McNamara, one of the pioneering scholars in Irish biblical exegesis, is nowhere cited.

The deconstructionist line is continued in Rob Meens' chapter on the Irish contribution to the Irish penitential tradition in which he tries to argue against the long-standing scholarly consensus that insular monks introduced novel penitential practices to the Continent, especially in relation to tariffed private penance. Meens, a Carolingianist, would rather see private penance as coming to the fore only in the Carolingian period and does not believe that insular monks were overly concerned with lay penitents. One wonders what to make of his bizarre statement that "there is no notion of private penance in any insular source" (132) which is clearly contradicted by a close reading of Adomnán's Life of Columba or Columbanus' Penitential which is also concerned with the laity and which was clearly influenced by his Irish formation.

In doubting the influence of Irish monks in promoting the practice of private penance amongst the laity, Meens states that "There are many indications that penance could take many shapes and forms in the period before the year 600" (132) which references his recent book, Penance in Medieval Europe, pp. 12-36. While Gallic bishops may have advocated the importance of penance, this is not the same as the practice of tariffed private penance that insular monks advocated also for the laity. Indeed, Meens does not present a single concrete case for private penance from the conciliar material on which he relies from sixth-century Gaul--there was certainly no concept of private tariffed penance before insular monks introduced this practice to the Continent during Columbanus' period.

The distinctiveness of the Irish liturgy is also called into question by Yitzhak Hen who argues that it was a form of the Gallican rite, which is not surprising given that this was the predominant rite in northern Europe at this time and given the roots of the Irish Church in Romano-Britain and Gaul. Hen does not discuss Agrestius' criticisms of the liturgy as celebrated in Columbanus' Luxeuil which suggests that this was one issue of contention and his statement that "the Irish-origin of the seventh-century Antiphonary of Bangor is nothing more than an intellectual guesswork" (149) would not be shared by most scholars, including the editor of the work he cites.

The scientific originality and advances of Irish monks and scholars, especially in the field of computus, is well brought out in Immo Warntjes' chapter where he states: "Insular scholars of c. 680 to 730 laid the foundation for what is often called in grandiose terms, the Carolingian Renaissance, at least for its scientific strand" (168). Warntjes' has the scientific background to back up his argument including this assessment of Dicuil's Liber de astronomia which "may well be described as the most unconventional and original scientific text of the Carolingian period" a work of such genius and sophistication "that contemporary scholars found difficult to digest" (171). Such unambiguous statements clearly sat uneasily with the editors' agenda which prompted them to respond to Warntjes' statement in their conclusion that: "Whether originality, when it is present, can be directly linked to a scholar's Irish heritage is a matter of contention" (240). I wonder whether they would make a similar statement about Wilfrid, Boniface, or Alcuin?

Such subtle, but nonetheless pervasive dismissiveness of Irish learning and influence is clearly seen in the two editors' own contributions. Meeder acknowledges the reputation of Irish scholars as grammarians and scholars, but they easily assimilated into the international scholarly community of the Carolingian court once they arrived on the Continent. The Carolingians were receptive to Irish scholars and the assertion of their Irishness was an important marker of their acumen as scholars. But he situates this clique within the multi-ethnic makeup and internationalism of the imperial court, where scholars such as Sedulius Scottus, Eriugena, and Martin Hibernensis "had outgrown their Irish roots and were now performing on a world stage" even to the extent of adopting the new style of handwriting known as Caroline minuscule instead of insular script (189). Contrast Meeder's statement with that of Elizabeth Duncan's in the final chapter of the book where she provides a technical, but nonetheless interesting and balanced overview of insular script and book production. In referring to Sedulius and Eriugena in particular she writes: "Some surviving manuscripts written in insular script are associated with these two Irishmen and their scholarly circles and provide evidence for the beginnings of the next generation of insular script" (223). To Meeder's confident assertion that "There is no evidence that monasteries such as Luxeuil, Honau or St-Gall, nor indeed other religious centres in this period, were either dominated by Irish monks or preserved a monastic identity that was defined by their Irish heritage" (186), Duncan draws attention to centres like Echternach, Bobbio, and St-Gall where there is considerable evidence for insular influence: "Bobbio appears to have been a conduit of Irish influence between Ireland and Northern Italy within which insular-style manuscripts were written and developed. Insular influence on manuscripts written in the following century [the eighth, she noted nine manuscripts from the seventh and eighth centuries] at Bobbio is also marked. For example, eighth-century manuscripts written in continental scripts at Bobbio still display insular abbreviations and some insular influence in morphology and initials" (221). Much the same could be said for some deluxe tenth-century manuscripts produced in Bobbio.

Meeder's bizarre statement that insular influence at St-Gall was minimal, is also found in his co-authored chapter with Roy Flechner where they write about the abbey of St-Gall that: "it does not appear that the Irish origin of their patron saint was a significant factor in the institutional identity of the abbey" (203). One wonders what sources they have been reading, given the rich hagiographical corpus on the patron saint that survives from the early medieval community. One need only read Walahfrid Strabo's Life of Gall, Notker Balbulus' Martyrology, or Ermenrich of Ellwangen's Letter to Abbot Grimald to realize that Meeder and Flechner present not only a false impression of the source material, but a skewed and inaccurate interpretation.

Also problematical are their comments on Columbanian monasticism. Their statement that the Luxeuil monk Agrestius "made slanderous remarks about fellow Irish inmates" (195) is nowhere found in Jonas' Life of Columbanus--Agrestius attacked the monastic practices and the legacy of Columbanus, not the Irish monks, most of whom had left for Bobbio with Columbanus upon his expulsion in 610. Similarly: "the Gallic episcopacy is depicted as hostile both by Columbanus and his hagiographer Jonas. In the rhetoric of the hagiography and of Columbanus's letters...the Easter controversy is portrayed as a major bone of contention" (198). While this is true for Columbanus's letters, it is not true for Jonas, who mentions nothing about the Easter controversy, because it had been such a contentious issue, and is careful not to overtly criticize the Gallic episcopacy as they were now key patrons of the communities.

The trajectory of Gallic monasticism prior to Columbanus gave no indication that a revolution in monastic foundation would take place in conjunction with secular elites in the second half of the seventh century and their attempts to play down Columbanus' role as a catalyst in this regard is unconvincing. While social trends and the formation of new elites at this time complimented and facilitated the new wave of monastic foundation, it was by no means an inevitable development without the influence of Columbanus and his Frankish monastic successors. Indeed, running throughout Meeder's and Flechner's chapter is subtly disguised racism masquerading as historical objectivity which can be detected in such remarks as "hard to swallow for some proud Irishmen", "we meet another proud Irishman" (205), the aforementioned "Whether originality, when it is present, can be directly linked to a scholar's Irish heritage is a matter of contention" (240), and in their attempt at every opportunity to minimize the distinctiveness of Irish influence on the Continent. Their eagerness in debunking myths leads them to questionable historiographical methodology and a failure to engage with the sources on their own terms. While there is much to recommend in this book, it needs careful handling, as I hope this review has shown.

Copyright (c) 2017 Alexander O’Hara

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