Academic journal article Studies in Philology

"Ovre Londe" / "Irlonde": Appropriating Irish Saints in the Aftermath of Conquest

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

"Ovre Londe" / "Irlonde": Appropriating Irish Saints in the Aftermath of Conquest

Article excerpt

A pair of textual errors in the Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 108, South English Legendary Lives of St. Brendan and St. Brigid (ca. 1280-1320) misidentify these two saints as coming from "ovre londe" ("our land"; implicitly, England) and "Scotlond" instead of from Ireland. These errors reflect English anxiety about possessing and reclaiming Irish culture as well as Irish land during a period when Anglo-Norman forces are colonizing and occupying portions of Ireland. The Brendan error claims Ireland for England in order to justify England's colonization projects. The Brendan and Brigid errors also construct Ireland as well as Scotland as exotic spaces whose wonders distinguish them from England, while at the same time appropriating Celtic exoticism for English culture and Celtic lands for an Anglo-Norman empire.

SEint Brendan, pe holi man : was here of ovre londe.

Monek he was of harde liue : as ich me under-stonde.

[Saint Brendan, the holy man, was here, of our land. He was a monk of a difficult practice, as I understand.] (1)

HOW do colonizers imagine the lands that they have colonized? How do ordinary people, implicated in the acts of colonization which their compatriots and predecessors have performed, respond to that implication? A hundred and fifty years into the troubled and incomplete Anglo-Norman occupation of Ireland, a Middle English collection of saints' lives retells Irish stories. These stories demonstrate a telling pattern of errors and alterations that reflects English anxiety about possessing and reclaiming Irish culture as well as Irish land.

The Middle English Life of Saint Brendan in the Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 108 (Laud 108) text of the South English Legendary (SEL) collection identifies Saint Brendan as a man of "ovre londe," our land. But the saint in question is the well-known sixth-century Irish saint, Brendan of Clonfert, the Navigator, and other manuscripts of the SEL provide the reading "Irlonde," Ireland, in place of Laud 108's "ovre londe." The SEL, although it depicts the lives of saints located throughout the Christian world, is most interested in recounting insular English saints' lives for an English-reading and -listening audience. The Laud Brendan's introduction thus brings into question both Brendan's starting point in Ireland and Ireland's position within English territories.

Brendan is not the only Irish saint misplaced, or displaced, in the Laud 108 SEL recension. The Laud SEL introduces Saint Brigid as the descendant "of heize men : In scotlond," of noble men in Scotland, although St. Brigid of Kildare is another well-known Irish, rather than Scottish, saint. (2) Only one text in Laud 108, the SEL Saint Patrick's Purgatory, identifies Ireland correctly, describing it as Saint Patrick's home and the location of a pit that leads into hell. When Laud 108, a Middle English manuscript mainly produced at the end of the thirteenth and beginning of the fourteenth century, blurs the locations of origin of two Irish saints, the errors reveal perceived ambiguities about Ireland's place in the British Isles for English readers and writers. The two saints' lives construct Ireland (alongside Scotland) as an exotic space whose wonders distinguish it from England, while at the same time appropriating this Celtic exoticism for English culture. Their problematic features emerge from the aftermath of England's twelfth-century conquest of Ireland and exist in a present moment of colonial occupation. I will use the Laud 108 Lives of Saint Brigid and Saint Brendan to ask how one country, having conquered and occupied another land, responds to its colony's culture and justifies the process and results of colonization.

By the end of the thirteenth century, the time of the Laud SEL's production, Anglo-Norman forces had been occupying much of Ireland for more than a hundred years. In 1166, Diarmait Mac Murchada, exiled king of Leinster, a province in eastern Ireland, asked Henry II of England to help him reclaim his territory. …

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