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21.04.14 Edmonds, Gaelic Influence in the Northumbrian Kingdom

The Medieval Review

21.04.14 Edmonds, Gaelic Influence in the Northumbrian Kingdom


Received wisdom once pointed to the Synod of Whitby (664) as the moment in which Irish influence began to decline in Northumbria (and England as a whole). Despite a host of scholars--including Nora K. Chadwick, D. P. Kirby, Charles D. Wright, Patrick O'Neill, Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Colin Ireland, and this humble reviewer, among many others--who have argued for continued interconnection between England and Ireland throughout the pre-Conquest period, the Synod's decisive rejection of the Irish way of dating Easter and, therefore, of the Irish themselves, has been a difficult narrative to shake. With Fiona Edmonds' Gaelic Influence in the Northumbrian Kingdom, however, this remains true no longer. Edmonds draws on a staggering range of evidence (from kings and chronicles to place-names and brooches) to make a major, indisputable claim: "Gaelic-speaking and Gaelic-Scandinavian groups had a long-lasting and dynamic impact on the Northumbrian kingdom" during both the Golden Age and the Viking Age (219). Attention to this latter period is, perhaps, the book's most significant intervention, specifically in the way it draws out a complex web of interplay that goes beyond courts or monasteries and includes Gaelic-Scandinavian influence in its analyses. One of this study's most compelling claims is that during the Viking Age, when the kingdom of Northumbria was disintegrating, Gaelic influence reached its culmination. Edmonds has thought very carefully about the structure of this book, collecting and collating evidence thematically rather than chronologically. By separately tracing political relations, trade routes, ecclesiastical contacts, linguistic evidence, and material culture discoveries, Edmonds gives precise shape to the different types of influence at play in Northumbria and allows each thread to reveal further interconnections linking them all. Ultimately, she offers an enduring image of the vibrant early medieval North Atlantic community as it existed in northern England.

The first chapter frames some of the basic concepts underlying the book: defining the peoples who will be discussed in the study and the methodology behind the excavation of cultural contact in the period. Edmonds unpacks the first part of her title--Gaelic Influence--explaining that she uses the word "Gaelic" to allow for a more inclusive picture of influence from the Gaelic-speaking (Goidelic) world (including Ireland, the Isle of Man, and early Scotland). While purposefully not conflating these groups (and acknowledging more complicated local identities), Edmonds argues, however, that a broader sense of Gaelic consciousness existed and was perceptible to outsiders. Likewise, Northumbria was a discernible unit, especially from the seventh century to the eleventh. In establishing these peoples, Edmonds goes on to describe her concept of influence. This book proceeds from an interdisciplinary perspective, combining textual, onomastic, and material evidence in a cohesive way. The chapter ends with a brief historiographical discussion on why previous scholarship has overlooked Gaelic influence in Northumbria--the most important of which being the false stereotype, noted above, that English- and Gaelic-speakers occupied opposite and opposed spheres (further compounded by later colonialist prejudice).

The second and third chapters of this monograph treat the political sphere in the Golden Age and then the Viking Age. The connections of Oswald and Oswiu to Iona, Dál Riata, and the Cenél nGabráin during their exile are well documented, and Edmonds traces the continuing links through their rules and up to Aldfrith (who even has a wisdom text written in Irish attributed to him). Of course, not all interactions were peaceful: one of the first documented encounters was a battle at Degsastan in 603, and King Ecgfrith even attacked Brega in 684 (which Edmonds argues was precipitated by a desire for more power in the imported-goods trade in the Irish Sea). In the earliest period, much of the cooperation and confrontation was less about the Gaels as a whole and much more about the peoples and dynasties that lay various claims to the region. Edmonds then argues for a decline in Northumbrian-Gaelic "diplomatic contacts" in the eighth and ninth centuries, due especially to changing internal power dynamics. 865 marked a major change in Northumbria, as Scandinavian settlement opened up an axis between York and Dublin. While this axis would dissipate by the middle of the tenth century and York would be subsumed into the growing English empire, Edmonds carefully untangles the web of competing (English, Gaelic, Scandinavian) political interests in the west and north of the former kingdom.

Chapter Four broadly considers the routes of travel between the Gaelic world and Northumbria. Edmonds discusses the mode and method of transport, as well as the various roadways and waterways themselves. Much attention is also given to important ports and how they might have functioned. Meticulously working her way through the geography of Northumbria and beyond, Edmonds offers a wide range of means by which travel would have been possible during the period. Indeed, her evidence shows that such travel, especially by water, would not have been particularly difficult.

Much like the political chapters, the fifth and sixth chapters cohere in their study of ecclesiastical contacts in the Golden and Viking Ages. Chapter Five focuses its attention on the connections emanating from three ecclesiastical centers: Lindisfarne, York, and Whithorn. Lindisfarne, of course, had a close link with Iona since its beginnings, and that network only grew with the number of churches founded by the community. Edmonds argues not only that this connection continued into the Viking Age, but also that it extended to Kells, given the evidence of several later texts (Historia de Sancto Cuthberto, Libellus de Ortu Sancti Cuthberti, and Betha Adamnáin). The chapter next turns to York, exploring a variety of different connections throughout the period: Wilfrid's propagandistic impulse to claim authority over churches in northern Britain and Ireland; a continued link with (and perhaps even jurisdiction over) Mayo (founded by English monks who followed Colmán after Whitby); the tradition of céli Dé dwelling in York. Edmonds also treats Whithorn as a center for learning, examining its exchange of texts, scholars, and students with Ireland. Chapter Six shifts its focus more specifically to saints' cults and the founding of churches during the Viking Age. This strikingly creative and original chapter proposes, in part, that "Scandinavian settlers who converted to Christianity in Dublin's hinterland, the Isle of Man, and the Hebrides brought saints' cults to north-west England and south-west Scotland" (132), founding proprietary churches as landholders on their new estates. Edmonds offers a number of localized examples, focusing specifically on cults transmitted from the Dublin vicinity, north-eastern Ireland, and the Columban familia.

The final two chapters of this book take linguistic influence and the evidence of material culture as their topics. Chapter Seven reveals that linguistic influence is most felt not during the Golden Age but rather much later in the period--when Gaelic-Scandinavian settlers arrived in the tenth century and another wave of Gaelic-speakers came in the eleventh. Edmonds gives much attention to onomastic evidence: words such as OI áirge "herd of cattle, summer milking place," borrowed into Norse as ǽrgi and found in some eighty-five place-names in northern England, suggest mobile Norse speakers with links to the Gaelic world settled in these places. Likewise, personal names in the Liber Vitae, runic inscriptions, and the Domesday Book are surveyed. The latter group of names show a fascinating correspondence with Edmonds' distribution of ǽrgi place-names and previously discussed routes of communication between York and Dublin. In sum, the picture here reveals a deeply multilingual Northumbria. Chapter Eight takes on the massive topic of material culture and what it might tell us about Gaelic influence. Edmonds here focuses her attention on ecclesiastical sites (e.g., antae and shrines), stone sculpture (especially design motifs), and portable metalwork (e.g., dress accessories). Here again, the evidence accords with much of the other movements and patterns found so far in the monograph.

As a whole, this study is an important and overdue intervention in the field, revealing pre-Conquest Northumbria to be an ideal testing ground for conceptions of a multilingual, interconnected early medieval North Atlantic. Yet, the complexities of this changing kingdom also make clear the need for careful, interdisciplinary scholarship in order to begin to unravel its web of relationships. Edmonds ends Gaelic Influence in the Northumbrian Kingdom with the thoughtful acknowledgment that her book is a beginning rather than an endpoint: there are many more gaps to fill in this picture of Gaelic influence--not only in Northumbria, but also elsewhere in pre-Conquest England. This reviewer hopes Edmonds will lend her considerable talents next to another English kingdom, as she has here proven, without a doubt, that "Northumbrian history is best studied in its Insular context" (222).