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22.01.14 Plumb, Picts and Britons in the Early Medieval Irish Church

22.01.14 Plumb, Picts and Britons in the Early Medieval Irish Church

Oisín Plumb’s book is an ambitious study looking at migration narrative history between, as the title indicates, the Picts and Britons and the early medieval Irish Church. He looks at this migration narrative largely from written sources only, and through two lenses: documents from the fifth to ninth century; and then, how later centuries perceived and crafted such narratives (and in some instances re-crafted them for later ecclesiastical or political purposes, among other reasons).

The back cover of the book claims “...this volume offers important new insights into our understanding of the relationships between Britain and Ireland in this period.” Although Plumb establishes early on that migration narratives will be a focus of the work, too often the intensely detailed research and discussions on etymologies and prosopographical concerns tends to overwhelm that thesis of migration narratives, which gets lost within each chapter. Readers actually might come to this book through its title alone and expect a very different historical account than what is provided or indicated by the above statement. Initial expectations might include not just the movement of people (and explanations of who might actually be whom in those accounts), but an historical analysis of such connections and developments within the medieval Irish Church (as the series title also seems to indicate with the idea of land and sea as cultural spaces). Such a history could examine how, with the Picts and Britons visiting (or remaining there whether through choice or exile), they established or built (up) ecclesiastical centers. At a surface level, a clearer subtitle too might have helped. The current one--“Travels West Over the Storm-Swelled Sea”--is technically accurate given that it really is largely about who traveled where/when.

This work originated as Plumb’s dissertation work and the book still reads that way--written for a very select audience (dissertation committee members) and could have used more in the way of editing it out for a wider audience. This is a work of extreme specialization and for those whose research interests delve this deep and are as nuanced, this is an excellent book; for any audience outside that arena, even someone very familiar with Irish history, it can seem a “storm-swelled sea” of a work to navigate. The overall narrative structure is very dense in places and honestly does not need to be.

The inclusion of many more maps, at least one per chapter, also would have been of phenomenal help to assist readers in “seeing” where much of this book is occurring. Even for someone familiar with Irish topography, and with the changes in place names throughout the centuries within the discussion, it would have helped to have some more visualization of these discussions of the migration narrative. There is only one map for the entire book, and it applies largely just to one chapter’s worth of discussion.

The concluding chapter (Ch. 8) is probably the clearest of all the chapters in the book, and the book would have been better served by it as the introduction to the overall work. I would highly recommend that any reader who attempts to pick up this work start there, then return to the actual Introduction (Ch. 1) and continue forward. Chapter 2 is also exceptional in its analysis and discussion of the sources used for this work, and here Plumb excels. He utilizes not only well-known works but has also delved into a few very lesser-known works that this reviewer appreciated learning about! (The bibliography at the end is a phenomenal resource for scholars here.) As readers continue on, though, they will need to keep Ch. 2’s information strictly in mind as the discussions again begin to weave in and out of all of those sources at a sometimes-staggering pace. The extensive use of these primary source materials (some Latin, some Old Irish) is a significant assist to researchers, as are the translations that follow; however, they sometimes also overpower the analysis in terms of content, for they take up more space than the summaries at times.

The comparative historiographic analyses throughout also are extremely good and here the writing is a deftly presented examination of the topics. Because of this they provide the reader with clear understandings for how the author reached his own conclusions, even if the conclusions themselves are not as secure as the evidence might seem to present. Three examples of this might help demonstrate what I mean here.

“Once a hypocorism was in use, it could eventually become detached from the original name-form, with the original link forgotten. This could result in the separation of what had been a single historical individual into separate saints with different names.” (39)
“ is impossible to do more than tentatively suggest possible means by which a tradition or traditions of British women active in Ireland at the time of Patrick could take the various forms in which they ended up being presented.” (70)
“There is sufficient material to begin to sketch the haziest of outlines of the political and ecclesiastical context of the Orcades and its relations with external forces.” (146)

Notice the language here: “could eventually become,” “could result,” “impossible to do more than tentatively suggest,” and “sketch the haziest of outlines.” Plumb knows his material well, again as evidenced by the amount of sources he investigated and how closely he read the material, but to frame the concluding remarks for these sections in such a way seems to show a lack of confidence in those conclusions. These types of conclusions certainly show the difficulty of this type of work and research, as well as the availability of evidence to demonstrate certain concluding statements. Whereas Plumb has certainly done his best to disentangle these traditions and sources throughout, again it is the overall narrative style that sometimes impedes progress toward understanding better how these migrants truly had an impact on the early medieval Irish Church.

“Each migrant whose life can in any way be glimpsed in the source material, as with those whose activities have been entirely lost, travelled under their own unique set of circumstances. However, every individual migrant contributed their own thread to a complex tapestry of relations between norther Britain and Ireland.” (165). It seems to this reader, to use Plumb’s analogy, that Plumb spent too much time on those threads rather than stepping back to look more often at the tapestry as a whole as such a discussion could have enhanced this book’s migration narrative analyses. What Plumb deserves much credit for is that his examinations of those threads provides future researchers a much stronger, brighter palette of colorful threads to even better view and understand (reassemble?) that tapestry someday.