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24.01.04 Stone, The Rhetorical Arts in Late Antique and Early Medieval Ireland

24.01.04 Stone, The Rhetorical Arts in Late Antique and Early Medieval Ireland

According to the author, “a central argument of this book is that the early Irish were not isolated at the [Roman] Empire’s fringe or outside of European scholarly circles, but were immersed in the ecclesiastical and scholarly trends and debates of their time” (10), specifically in regards to the teaching of rhetoric. This “central argument” may seem a bit broad, perhaps even a bit too obvious for an academic readership. Even the superficial detail of the self-styled name of the (likely) Irish author Vergilius Maro Grammaticus proves Stone’s argument correct: it is safe to say that Irish authors, writing in Latin, who make literary use of non-Irish authors, and who even occasionally speak about Roman rhetoric, were influenced by and participated to some degree with their continental and British predecessors and contemporaries. But Stone’s book is much more than this central argument. It is a good introduction to Irish literary culture with a focus on rhetoric, and interesting analyses of Patrick’s two epistolae, the Hisperica famina, and early Irish secular literature.

After an introduction that addresses the early literary history of Ireland and the development of late antique Roman rhetoric, and a concise account on early Ireland’s legal culture (both ecclesiastical and secular), there follows a lengthy chapter providing further context but also essentially revealing Stone’s method for arguing his thesis. Because of the paucity of direct evidence for the continuation of the late antique Roman curriculum in Ireland, Stone has to find support for this argument in external and indirect data. Through a very thorough presentation of the evidence, we get summary accounts of contact between Ireland and Britain and the continent, of Irish authors using Latin discursive modes to participate in ecclesiastical debate, and of grammatical texts written in Ireland. Much of this chapter is interesting and informative, but Stone’s search for external evidence can seem at times a bit excessive in background detail, while at other times it is not precise enough. For one example, the definition of rhetoric itself begins to blur when Stone discusses “visual rhetoric” and “rhetoric of place and sacred space” (76-77), two potentially fascinating aspects that are unfortunately not picked up again.

The next four chapters narrow the topic into three case studies. The first two of these chapters focus on the Latin epistolary works of Patrick, mainly his Confessio and the Epistola ad Milites Corotici. Specialists may find sections on historical context (such as the thorny issue of Patrick’s identity and dates, or the origins of monasticism) overly long and distracting from the general argument. With that said, Stone makes a good case that Patrick is a product not of an isolated Irish tradition, but rather the broader European rhetorical movement, which he was born and raised in. One of the most interesting points Stone makes is Patrick’s use and imitation of the Pauline letters, which Stone situates in the history of epistolary rhetoric. In fact, as Stone unfolds his argument, the reader gets the impression that Patrick is far more invested in biblical rhetoric than the rhetoric of a formal Roman education. The chapter, however, has certain frustrating moments. There is some repetition of the discussion (Patrick’s figura etymologica appears on p. 136 and then again on p. 143; and section 2 of the Epistola ad Milites Corotici is provided on p. 126 and then again on p. 139 with a different translation), and a few digressions into the history of Roman rhetoric not relevant to Patrick are simply distracting. While Stone is often careful to provide background and context to the topic at hand, he has a tendency to use technical rhetorical terms without defining them well or at all. And in at least one instance, the spelling of the term is not even consistent: synkrisis becomes synchrisis after p. 145. Finally, Stone’s conclusions are too confidently stated for the evidence presented: his close readings categorize Patrick’s epistolary devices with terminology derived from Roman rhetoric, but the use of rhetorical terminology to describe stylistic devices does not necessarily mean that the author was trained in the tradition of Roman rhetoric and is using these devices because of that training.

In the following chapters, on the Hisperica famina and secular Irish literature, Stone’s argument is on firmer ground. As Stone’s contextualizing shows, there is little doubt that the Hisperica famina are participating in continental traditions of teaching rhetoric. He can, therefore, be selective and does well to focus more thoroughly on a few stylistic aspects of the Hisperica famina, such as the metaphor of bees collecting nectar and speech as a torrent, both of which find parallels in earlier literature on rhetoric. A highlight of this chapter is Stone’s discussion on the parallels between Ausonius and the Hisperica famina.

The penultimate chapter, mainly on the Irish Moí coire coir Goiriath, “Cauldron of Poetry and Learning,” is probably the strongest of the book. Stone opens with a good account of the filid, a poetic class of early Ireland with strict formal structure and regulation. The conceptual differences between early Irish secular poetic practice and Latin rhetoric have the potential for both ideological and literary tension. Stone argues, however, that against expectation Irish literature was much more amiable to the Roman rhetorical traditions and eager to adopt it, at least partially. For example, Stone argues that the three cauldrons, which represent the distribution of poetic craft, parallel a threefold division in Roman rhetoric on the “sources of facility in rhetoric” (221), corresponding in turn to three wine vessels in Apuleius (as argued by Corthals). The subsequent discussion on other parallels involving the number three digress from the topic of rhetoric, but make an interesting read nevertheless. A short conclusion follows this chapter, which summarizes the key points of the book and encourages more attention on future study of the connections between early Irish literature and the Roman rhetorical tradition.

Since, I think, the book serves best as a partial introduction to early Irish literary culture with a focus on rhetoric, some errata should be noted. The Vulgate is not based on the Septuagint, but rather the Hebrew Bible (1, n. 26; 100). Irish traders likely brought to Ireland the writings of Gregory, not Martin, of Tours (45). Aldhelm did not write in “hisperic Latin” (56; cf. 155, n. 2), and Gildas does not exhibit “hisperic tendencies” (70, italics in original); even if they did, it is not clear what is meant by that term in this book. Michael Lapidge is not the author of Irish Books and Learning in Mediaeval Europe (52, n. 35; 256)--Mario Esposito is (Lapidge is the editor). The phrase ad milites Coroticus (for the genitive Corotici), which appears in the title of chapter 4 and then in the header of every page of that chapter, may be an unfortunate though innocent mistake, but other serious problems with the Latin arise throughout. For example, the word daemoniorum does not mean “apostates” (134) but “demons”; lupus does not necessarily have the restrictive meaning of “she-wolf” (149) but rather “wolf”; abundat is not an adverb meaning “abundantly” (150, and spelled incorrectly as abundant in n. 79) but a verb; the semantic possibilities of lego in the context of Patrick’s letter do not extend beyond to “read out / recite” (152); and the singular of enigmata is enigma not “enigmatum” (185). Similarly, the author’s translations of the Latin are not at all to be trusted.

There are also a few lapses in the bibliography, particularly in fields straying outside of Ireland. For example, regarding Aldhelm, it is not Ehwald’s standard edition that is cited, but an article by David Howlett that Stone uses, strangely enough, retaining Howlett’s accent marks. Lapidge’s essay on the “Career of Aldhelm” (ASE 36 [2007]) is missing on p. 57, giving Dempsey the final word; and Augustine Casiday’s article on the bees in Aldhelm (ASE 33 [2004]) could have been consulted for the discussion of the bee metaphor in the Hisperica famina.

Finally, Amsterdam University Press needs to do a much better job at copyediting, especially in the notes, where spelling mistakes abound and capitalization often follows a semi-colon. Annoyingly, the main text suffers too frequently from simple mistakes, most commonly a missing space between words. The Latin texts, especially for the chapter on Patrick, were certainly not proofread or checked against the edition: remarkably, only a few quotations of Latin are without some transcription error. Amsterdam University Press has attracted serious scholarly attention, but as its reputation increases, so must its quality control.