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22.09.13 Newman et al. (eds.), Columbanus and Identity in Early Medieval Europe

22.09.13 Newman et al. (eds.), Columbanus and Identity in Early Medieval Europe

The past decade or so has seen much scholarly attention devoted to Columbanus, the archetypal Irish peregrinus, whose memorable activities in Frankish and Lombard territories around the turn of the seventh century announced the arrival of Irish Christianity in the mainstream of the Latin West. Amongst this attention three conferences took place in 2015, hosted at Bangor, Bobbio, and Luxeuil, which formed part of a single research network emerging from a project whose home was in Galway. The volume here being reviewed constitutes the proceedings of the Bangor conference; the collected essays emerging from the Italian and French conferences have already been published, in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

This volume divides its contents into three main sections. Only the third of these sections firmly addresses the putative focus of this particular volume as suggested by the title; it is only 125 pages into the volume, with Patrick Geary’s essay, that we first get a methodologically informed discussion of identity in early medieval Europe. The four chapters in this third section have a fairly close relationship to each other and to the title, sharing a number of common concerns about issues of identity (especially ethnic identity) in the Europe that Columbanus knew. Geary (125-34) gives a brief but informative discussion of how Columbanus identified himself and how identity functioned in the societies he journeyed to as a peregrinus; Michel Sot (135-41) discusses cultural, political, and religious identities in the Gallo-Frankish world that Columbanus encountered in the 590s; Alessandro Zironi (143-51) similarly explores ethnic, religious and linguistic identities in the Lombard kingdom of the early 600s; while Klaus Oschema (153-66) ends the group with an interesting account of Columbanus’s place in the history of the concept of Europe, based on the monk’s two mentions of Europe in his letters.

The earlier two divisions of the volume are noticeably more disparate. Part Two is made up of a single long chapter on the recent archaeological work and excavations at the monastic site of Cleenish, Co. Fermanagh, which may be where Columbanus received part of his education before moving to Bangor. Conor Newman, Ros Ó Maoldúin, Roseanne Schot, Emmet Marron and Linda Lynch (93-122) provide an admirably thorough and detailed account of the site and their investigations there. In practice, the chapter seems to have been included to give an Irish counterpart to the discussions of the French and Italian sites of Columbanian monasteries in the previously published volumes. It is a valuable piece of work, although necessarily it does not intersect thematically with most of the other contributions to the volume. Part One is dedicated to “Christian Identity” but neatly divides into two distinct sections. The first two chapters by Clare Stancliffe (25-38) on the status of Jerome for Columbanus and Ali Bonner (35-47) on the influence of the writings on Pelagius on Columbanus form an obvious diptych: not just because they are textual investigations of the influence of late antique theology visible in Columbanus’s writings, but, more significantly, because both stress the importance of British Christianity on the Irishman’s intellectual and religious background. The other two chapters in Part One explore particular texts: Elaine Pereira Farrell (49-62) discusses the penitential ascribed to Columbanus while Dominique Barbet-Massin (63-89) argues that an anonymous text known as Ratio de cursus qui fuerunt eius auctores provides a defence of the Luxeuil liturgy by a seventh-century Columbanian monk.

It should be obvious that the volume as a whole varies in its focus and the relevance of its contents to the topic of “Identity in Early Medieval Europe.” I would have appreciated more of the self-awareness that the authors of Part Three show regarding the use of the term “identity” throughout the volume, and a stronger editorial steer as to how the different chapters come together to contribute to our understanding of Columbanus or the Europe of his day. While the editors are clear that the papers here published “do not represent a unified theory of identity or answer the question ‘What did identity mean for Columbanus?’” (21), their introduction and Dáibhí Ó Cróinín’s conclusion are particularly, albeit subtly, interested in the question of how “Irish” Columbanian monasticism might have been. The spectre of recent critique of some of the significance of Columbanus to changing the course of European monasticism lurks in the background here.

Perhaps this reviewer can hazard a few comments that pick up on connections to be made across the different sections of the book that point in a less familiar direction. While Stancliffe and Bonner stress the importance of the British element in shaping the Christian culture and learning that Columbanus took to the continent, Geary points out that Columbanus travelled first to British/Breton Christians on the continent--that shared Insular heritage which explains Columbanus’s great respect for Gildas was not just historical, therefore, but meaningful in Columbanus’s own present too. The Ratio de cursus consistently links the Irish and the Britons in terms of their liturgical performance, while Klaus Oschema suggests that Columbanus’s use of Europe as a term suggests “a special place for the islands of Britain and once part of Europe, but at the same time distinguished from the continent” (159). To use an image that the editors employ, are these individual tesserae from a mosaic that our focus on ethnicity has made it traditionally difficult to recognise: a self-conscious Insular (for want of a better term) identity? Dangerous stuff to be thinking about in the Age of Brexit and perhaps an odd conclusion to take away from a volume on early medieval Ireland’s most “European” figure, but there does seem to be something here that should encourage somebody to make a more concerted effort to join the dots.

If the volume is varied in terms of focus, so unfortunately is it somewhat variable in quality. At least one of the chapters has been translated into English by a non-native speaker, with not always very successful results; this seems unnecessary in a volume which includes French and Irish essays, so good French would surely have been more desirable than poor English. In part the problem seems to be a lack of consistent copy-editing: a reasonably high number of typos, missing bibliographical entries and mistakes in written English have slipped through to the finished product. On the other hand, the quality and the number of the images (many in colour) included to support the chapter on Cleenish is most impressive, especially considering the very reasonable price of the book.

This book will be most informative when viewed in dialogue with its two companion volumes. Filled with numerous short but effective scholarly pieces, pushing forward new pieces of evidence, raising new questions or complicating old ones, these three volumes together are a reminder that almost a millennium and a half after Columbanus stirred up high feelings across a swathe of early medieval Europe, there is much more still to say about the monk and his world.