Conversing with Angels and Ancients: Literary Myths of Medieval Ireland

Conversing with Angels and Ancients: Literary Myths of Medieval Ireland

Conversing with Angels and Ancients: Literary Myths of Medieval Ireland

Conversing with Angels and Ancients: Literary Myths of Medieval Ireland

Synopsis

How does a written literature come into being within an oral culture, and how does such a literature achieve and maintain its authority? Joseph Falaky Nagy addresses those issues in his wide-ranging reading of the medieval literature of Ireland, from the writings of St. Patrick to the epic tales about the warrior Cú Chulainn. These texts, written in both Latin and Irish, constitute an adventurous and productive experiment in staging confrontations between the written and the spoken, the Christian and the pagan. The early Irish literati, primarily clerics living within a monastic milieu, produced literature that included saints' lives, heroic sagas, law tracts, and other genres. They sought to invest their literature with an authority different from that of the traditions from which they borrowed, native and foreign. To achieve this goal, they cast many of their texts as the outcome of momentous dialogues between saints and angelic messengers or remarkable interviews with the dead, who could reveal some insight from the past that needed to be rediscovered by forgetful contemporaries. Conversing with angels and ancients, medieval Irish writers boldly inscribed their visions of the past onto the new Christian order and its literature. Nagy includes portions of the original Latin and Irish texts that are not readily available to scholars, along with full translations.

Excerpt

Among the more important issues to have occupied the attention of Irish intellectuals of the early medieval period (seventh to ninth centuries) was the controversy over the proper dating of the movable feast of Easter. the tension between the system of dating still used by the Irish and the new system promulgated by the church in Rome, as well as by some Irish churchmen, generated debate, giving life and special meaning to concepts such as orthodox and heterodox, and old and new. Not surprisingly, the Easter question left its traces in rish literature, even in texts produced after the Roman system of dating and its proponents had generally prevailed. in the following scene from the Vita Munnu, an Irish saint's life written perhaps as early as 800 or earlier, two holy men stage the following contest concerning the matter of Easter:

Then, Saint Munnu said to the abbot Laisrén in the presence of all the people: "Now it is time for this council to be brought to a close, so that everyone may return to his home." Since they were still contending over the proper date for the celebration of Easter, Saint Munnu said: "Briefly, let us debate; but in the name of God, let us reach a decision. Three options are available to you, Laisrén: to throw two books in the fire, one proclaiming the old date for Easter, the other the new, and to see which one is saved from the flames; or to shut two monks, one of them mine and the other yours, in the same house, set the house on fire, and see which of the monks survives intact; or let us go to the grave of a deceased righteous monk, resurrect him, and have him tell us by which method of calculation we should arrive this year at the date for celebrating Easter." "We . . .

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