Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Legalizing the Fall of Man

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Legalizing the Fall of Man

Article excerpt

The Early Middle Irish Adam and Eve story in the tenth- or eleventh-century biblical poem Saltair na Rann includes an exchange between the devil and the snake in paradise. The devil seeks to persuade the snake to corporeal cohabitation in order to further his desire to bring about the fall of Eve and Adam. Lucifer's argument to the snake stresses the snake's hierarchical superiority to Adam, an idea that, as Brian Murdoch points out in his commentary on the poem, 'is a simple reprise of Lucifer's' earlier argument against subservience to God.1 But Lucifer's encouragement of the snake is capped by the singular plea, '"denamm cotach is carddess"' ('"let us make a bargain and treaty'") (lines 1150).2 To this, the pragmatic serpent responds, '"Cia lúag nom thá, fiad each thur / ... ar failti duit im churp chain, / cen nach locht dom chomaittreib?"' ('"What reward have I, before every host ... for welcoming you into my fair body, to live together with me without any fault?'") (lines 1165-8). The reply: fame. The devil cunningly promises that his union with the snake will '"be continuously mentioned'" in ages to come ('"bid do gres ar n-anmnigud"', line 1176).3 The devil offers an assurance partly based on form. The language he uses, in referring to making a treaty or a proper arrangement, or an alliance - however one translates 'cotach' - elevates the discussion to a formal level, as he offers the snake a verbal contract: if you will do this for me, I will assure you of this result, or, you give me that, and I will give you this.4 The legalistic language of the encounter marks a convention in perception of the Fall, one visible in another early medieval Insular poem on the Fall, the perhaps tenth-century Old English Genesis B, and in legal texts themselves.5

The Fall has a long history of reference in law, the Irish aspects of which Damian Bracken explores in his study of 'The Fall and the law in early Ireland'. Bracken demonstrates that 'clerics with an interest in the explanations of the opening of Genesis were involved in writing the laws of early Ireland' and that lawyers subsequently maintained a 'very practical use of the theology of the Fall', using it as a prime example:

The Fall and its consequences are the basis for discussion of matters like free will and perhaps that most Christian of ideals - the attempt to go beyond law and its technicalities to a psychological consideration of motive and intent. The early lawyers use the theology of the Fall in just this context: whether the accused was incited to commit the crime, whether he committed the crime with malice aforethought, whether he was fully aware of all circumstances before entering into an agreement.6

Texts concerning the rules of contracts demonstrate especially well this practical applicability in a central area of the law. Fergus Kelly in his study of early Irish law asserts that 'The commonest legal act in early Irish society was no doubt the verbal contract or cor bél (lit. "putting of lips") often referred to simply as cor. This term covers all commercial undertakings, as well as agreements to marry, to foster, to engage in co-operative farming, to enter clientship,' and so on.7 One collection of early Irish texts on contracts, what Neil McLeod identifies as 'perhaps the central text on the subject', is Di Astud Chor, On the securing of Contracts', which McLeod dates to the eighth century, at least in the compilation as it now exists.8 Perhaps the best known and the largest of surviving Old Irish legal texts is, however, the Senchas Már, or 'Great Tradition', which has a substantial introduction that has also been dated to 'probably' the eighth century, though at least part of it pre-dates Di Astud Chor? Both Di Astud Chor and the introduction to the Senchas Mar utilize references to Lucifer's and to Adam and Eve's fall to confirm a legal point, while both poetic treatments of the Fall, the Early Middle Irish Saltair na Rann and the Old English Genesis B, employ contractual language similar to that in the law texts. …

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