Cultural Identity and Cultural Integration: Ireland and Europe in the Early Middle Ages

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Cultural Identity and Cultural Integration: Ireland and Europe in the Early Middle Ages. Edited by Doris Edel. (Portland, Oregon: Four Courts Press, c/o ISBS. 1995. Pp. 208. $49.50.)

Because of its vague title, I expected this collection of essays to resemble many others, that is, to be disorganized and eclectic. But, surprisingly, this is a relatively coherent, thematically linked set of articles, originally delivered at a conference on Celtic Studies at the University of Utrecht, held in celebration of the seventieth anniversary of a chair in the same discipline. Although the authors include both old hands and new faces, and although the book is divided into two sections ("Literarization" and "Christianization"), almost all the essays discuss the effect of Latin cultural influences on a society that never officially hosted the Romans as invaders. And despite the very short introduction, the essays readily reveal their connecting themes.

Every medievalist agrees that Ireland was different in the Middle Ages. Debates in recent years have focused on the quality and quantity of difference.The editor and authors of this book hold that the Irish participated vigorously in the Christian culture of the continent, but that they became literate and practiced literacy differently.This occurred for three reasons: because the Irish accepted literacy willingly, not as part of an imperialist culture imposed by Romans; because the "native"people (the Irish) had been in place for centuries before they became literate (unlike, say, the Germanic tribes) and hence could more easily assimilate their traditions and the written word; and because literacy was not, by itself, transformative of the culture. Laws, for instance, retained an archaic, poetic component and preserved ancient institutions once finally committed to writing. …