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22.04.24 Boyle, History and Salvation in Medieval Ireland

22.04.24 Boyle, History and Salvation in Medieval Ireland


The prolific scholar Elizabeth Boyle brings her attention to select surviving literary witnesses for early medieval Ireland as they relate to salvation history. This literary conception of an “Old Testament Ireland” is, she posits, a result of conscious myth creation feeding into a demonstratable and significant refashioning of Irish society via Old Testament models. The period examined in this book is shaped by the survivability of sources and covers the period 600-1200, but with an emphasis on Middle Irish texts from 900 to 1200. Boyle lays out at the start of the volume the cultural contexts for these texts as briefly defined by education, geography, ethnicity, language, law, and history, all bound by the deep connections between literacy in Ireland and conversion to Christianity. The subsequent examination of select Irish texts as they relate to the influence of the Old Testament are thematically informed by the Old Testament examples of Moses, King David, the Psalms, Babylon, and the end of idolatry as principally represented by the New Testament and the apostles and, of course, by Patrick as the apostle to Ireland.

Having sketched her areas of interest, Boyle sets about examining her selected texts within the selected biblical models. Her first chapter examines how the early medieval Irish incorporated the image of Moses into their providential and historical conceptions of themselves as a chosen people. The image of Moses as a nation builder and a law creator is related to Patrick by Tírechán and Muirchú in their respective lives. Subsequent attempts to strengthen this connection between Patrick and Moses is manifested in reports that Patrick himself was descended from a Jew exiled by the Roman emperors Titus and Vespasian during the First Jewish-Roman War. Boyle points out the centrality of Jerusalem in Irish literary culture, often at the expense of that of Rome. These attempts to place the Irish as a chosen people in salvation history--as the inheritors of the Jewish covenant--are, as Boyle suggests, not without tension: adopting a Jewish past while rejecting Jews is tricky. She explores vehement Irish anti-Semitism alongside counters from Canterbury over continued Irish support for outmoded Old Testament laws concerning marriage and divorce, and the way Ireland’s literary output was subsequently shaped by these criticisms around 1100.

Moving to the inspiration of King David, Boyle explores how Davidic biblical narratives were woven into Irish literary culture. She examines five narratives from the Yellow Book of Lecan concerning Irish adaptations of David and Goliath, David and Absalom, the Death of Absalom, David and Solomon, and David and the Beggar, noting the reuse of these biblical narratives in medieval Irish saga literature. David is paralleled with mythic Irish figures such as Cú Chulainn, and the Davidic narratives are often significantly reworked to emphasise local legal perspectives. For example, David’s murder of Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, is unforgivable not because of his adultery with Bathsheba, but because of his treachery to Uriah. Boyle tracks how a similar legal emphasis in the story of David and the Beggar (as it relates to the threefold division of property between the church, the lord, and the kin) is devolved from a point of Old Testament law in the tenth century to a tale of religious edification in the twelfth century before finally becoming a denuded and ultimately “illogical” tale in the thirteenth century. This is paralleled in an evolution of the role of the wife from that of a wise person, to a harridan, to disappearing from the tale completely. This literary examination points to a profound change in the way the Irish approached the Old Testament from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries.

The significance of the Psalms forms the basis of chapter three. While the Psalms were normally divided into five groups, in Ireland they followed a threefold division, or the “three fifties,” and were taught as an essential part of elementary schooling, thus forming a ubiquitous literary influence. Using the example of the poetry of Airbertach Mac Cosse (d. 1016), Boyle shows how the Irish shifted from a Christological approach to the Psalms in the sixth century (as exemplified by the Cathach of St Columba) to a focus on the historical meaning of the Psalms as a way of situating both David (as perceived author of the Psalms) and the Irish within salvation history. The threefold division placed a special emphasis in Ireland on Psalms 50 and 101. Subsequent surviving Irish psalters indicate a shift from historical readings to more allegorical or moral readings in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Boyle also explores the significance placed on Psalm 119--the Beati--as representing the meeting of the Old and the New Testaments and the culmination of salvation history. She subsequently details the utilisation of Psalm 119 as a lorica within tenth-century Irish narrative traditions, presenting the Psalms as having exceptional salvific powers, but also having significant powers of malediction.

Babylon is the thematic focus of chapter four in the way that it mirrors the transience of secular power in salvation history. While Babylon is often seen as an anti-Jerusalem, the Irish also pondered its historical role in the captivity of the Jews and its role as the source of the division of language, as represented by the Tower of Babel. Here, as Boyle shows, the Irish connected Babel with Pentecost, and the apostles speaking in tongues, to affirm the right of Irish to be a holy language and to sanction the use of the vernacular in preaching. Babylon was also a developing metaphor for an increasing interest in urban space as Ireland evolved its own urban culture in the period under discussion, particularly with the cultural impact of the Norse. Boyle charts the shift in the idea of Babylon as a type of anti-Jerusalem and shaper of the history of the Jews to one of an urban centre in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, particularly as it relates to the “imperial” ambitions of Brian Boru (d. 1014), self-proclaimed emperor of the Irish. She shows the Irish as moving from a historical conception of Assyrian history as it relates directly to Irish history to a more flexible political and urban conception as relating more immediately to contemporary cultural influences such as the Crusades.

Chapter five brings us back to Patrick, this time not as a type of Moses, but as a New Testament apostle whose destiny is to end idolatry. Boyle posits two possible interactions with idolatry that may have framed this emphasis: the first, obviously, that of the initial conversion of the Irish in the fourth and fifth centuries, as represented by Patrick; the second, the interaction between Ireland and the pagan Norse in the ninth and tenth centuries. She explores how the Irish related the martyred apostles to the crucifixion of Christ and to the end of idolatry. The Old Testament was subsequently used to historicise the creation of the first idol, in order, in a sense, to historicise the end of idolatry, as brought about by Christ and the apostles. The triumph of conversion in an Irish context, Boyle argues, is deeply linked to the abolition of idolatry, and it is this act by Patrick, above all others, that draws Ireland into salvation history.

Elizabeth Boyle’s use of rarely explored early medieval Irish literature and her useful translations, often first editions, establish the fundamental importance of teleology on Irish historiography. The tension of being a chosen people not identified in the Bible clearly informed Irish attempts to insert themselves within salvation history. She also points to the need for further investigation into these often-neglected texts. Having said this, the structuring of the book along literary themes sometimes works against a teleological reading of these texts as they relate to salvation history within the history of Ireland. Important connections between the chapters are sometimes left to the reader, and related ideas within chapters are sometimes not signposted well. The book also tends to dwell on Ireland as a homogenous and harmonious culture whereas it had significant periods of fracture, and perhaps these texts could have been read in this way also. Despite these structural criticisms, Boyle has highlighted some significant survivals in a medieval literary archive strongly impacted by destruction. I hope her suggestion for further work on these texts is taken up.