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21.01.07 MacQuarrie/Nagy (eds.), Medieval Cultures of the Irish Sea and the North Sea

The Medieval Review

21.01.07 MacQuarrie/Nagy (eds.), Medieval Cultures of the Irish Sea and the North Sea

The vital role of the Isle of Man in the political, economic, and cultural history of the North Atlantic world during the Middle Ages has been championed recently in a range of significant publications. [1] These studies show how the Isle of Man acted as a central node in the networks of communication, trade, diplomacy, and warfare throughout the period. The significance of its intermediary location between Gaelic-, English-, Welsh-, and Old Norse-speaking polities is increasingly being explored and recognised by historians, archaeologists, and literary scholars. Whether one speaks of the "Insular Viking Zone" or the "North Atlantic Archipelago" or, as in this case, the "Irish Sea Cultural Province," this conception of the Isle of Man as sitting at the heart of a broader, multilingual, cultural sphere is ripe for further study, which at first glance appears to be what is offered here, though the volume in reality is not so focused.

The Medieval Cultures of the Irish Sea and the North Sea emerges from an NEH-funded summer seminar on the "Irish Sea Cultural Province," which involved participants spending just over a month in 2015 in Belfast, Glasgow, and the Isle of Man. It is as contributions and responses to this seminar that the essays are gathered in this volume, without any shared thematic, disciplinary, or conceptual underpinning. As such, it lacks cohesion, and most readers will only be interested in one or two of the articles, depending on whether their research lies, say, in numismatics, Old English literature, reception studies or sociolinguistics. The editors valiantly attempt to give an impression of greater coherence than there is, partly by beginning and ending with contributions on Manx topics, and partly through a brief introduction by Charles W. MacQuarrie, in which the supernatural Irish literary figure, Manannán, and his associations with the Irish Sea, are invoked to frame the volume.

The first chapter comprises Helen Davies's clear and useful discussion of Manx coinage during the so-called late Viking Age. She argues that the diverse nature of the abundant foreign and domestic coin evidence surviving from the Isle of Man reflects its position as a centre for international markets and commerce. Davies also observes that coins represent a particularly useful case study in the phenomenon of cultural contact, since the first Manx coins were cast using a die from Dublin, whose own dies were modelled on those used in early medieval England. The use of a Dublin die to cast Manx coins is further evidence, Davies notes, of the ways in which Man was drawn into the political ambit of Dublin in the eleventh century.

In the second chapter, M. Wendy Hennequin reads the character of Hunferth in Beowulf in the context of Insular and Old Norse literary conventions of "incitement" before combat. In an illuminating and broadly convincing essay, Hennequin demonstrates how Hunferth's function within the narrative might have been understood by medieval audiences and her incisive reading cleverly resolves a number of apparent cruxes in the poem. I was more troubled, though, by appeals to a nebulous shared cross-cultural "tradition" as the reason for this "incitement" episode. Dismissing the possibility that Old Norse or medieval Irish conventions could have "mysteriously influenced Beowulf somehow" (44) feels a little unsatisfactory: given the recent scholarly foregrounding of international and multilingual literary networks in the medieval North Atlantic, such influence (and indeed the question of the possible direction[s] of influence) need not necessarily be "mysterious" and is deserving of further investigation.

Brian Cook turns our attention to Old Norse literature and offers a careful reading of the Ragnhild episode in Orkneyinga Saga. However, his understanding of Ragnhild as analogous to the so-called "Irish sovereignty figure" has now been seriously compromised by Gregory Toner's recent dismantling of that topos and Toner's convincing argument that the "sovereignty figure" is a construct of modern scholarly assumptions rather than a real presence in the medieval Irish literary corpus. [2]

These chapters do at least, to a greater or lesser extent, involve cross-cultural exchange or analysis. Other chapters engage far less with the "Irish Sea Cultural Province" theme. Stephen Kershner's contribution is an insightful and thought-provoking study of the relationship between Statius's Thebaid and its Middle Irish adaptation, Togail na Tebe, which argues that the medieval Irish author's shaping of his source text--and in particular the excision of Statius's more "metapoetical and self-reflexive" (102) opening and conclusion--works to bring Togail na Tebe into line with the "historiographical agenda" which characterises many Middle Irish adaptations of Classical literature (120). This is an excellent essay--arguably the strongest in the volume--but it feels unmoored from the rest of the book.

Furthermore, in spite of the volume's title, the rest of the disparate contributions are concerned with modern receptions of medieval sources. Rhonda Knight, for example, looks at the reception of Gawain texts in the seventeenth-century Percy Folio, in the light of the Stanley family's links with the Isle of Man and various border, or mixed, communities in Britain and Ireland. In an interesting study, she employs the textual theory of "discourse colonies" to reveal wider colonial contexts for this Early Modern manuscript. Maria McGarrity studies the political dimensions of Seamus Heaney's lexical choices in his translation of Beowulf. Ron J. Popenhagen (a theatre expert) reads the medieval Irish saga character Cú Chulainn's various physical distortions through modernist lenses of performance theory and stagecraft. Ethel B. Bowden (a children's and young adult literature specialist) also chooses Cú Chulainn as her subject but analyses his character as portrayed in Thomas Kinsella's translation of the Táin using theories of modern pedagogy, cognitive psychology, and young adult readerships. The volume concludes with Marc Pierce's modern sociolinguistic study comparing language death and language revival in the cases of Manx and Texas German. (One might note therefore that Wales is oddly absent throughout.)

I imagine that an edited volume was the required or promised output of the summer seminar which underlies The Medieval Cultures of the Irish Sea and the North Sea. However, the heterogeneous results leave one questioning its overall value. Individual contributions are useful and stimulating but disconnected from each other, and might have been better placed in subject- or discipline-specific journals. As it is, this book does not deliver what the title so tantalisingly promises.



1. Most notably, Seán Duffy and Harold Mytum (eds.), A New History of the Isle of Man, Vol. III: The Medieval Period, 1000-1406 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015), and Colmán Etchingham, Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, and Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, Norse-Gaelic Contacts in a Viking World (Turnhout: Brepols, 2019).

2. Gregory Toner, Manifestations of Sovereignty in Medieval Ireland (H. M. Chadwick Lectures 29; University of Cambridge Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, 2018).