Medieval Irish Language and Literature: An Orientation for Arthurians

By Sayers, William | Arthuriana, December 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Medieval Irish Language and Literature: An Orientation for Arthurians


Sayers, William, Arthuriana


Reasons and means are outlined for students and scholars of Arthurians letters to familiarize themselves with a unique and rich corpus of medieval literature. (WS)

Medieval and early modern literature in Irish shows little of the passionate interest in the Matter of Britain that we otherwise find represented across a broad swathe of continental Europe, from the 'pre-Arthurian' Amadís de Gaula in the south to Erex saga in the north, from the Bohemian continuation of Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan in the east to Peredur in the west, back in Wales where the eponymous hero originated. At most we have tales entitled The Adventures of Melóra and Orlando, The Visit of the Grey-hammed Lady, and an early modern Irish translation of the Vulgate version of the Quest of the Holy Grail. Nor, to reverse our perspective, does it seem that Irish story-telling fed into the early Celtic legend of Arthur in quite the same way as Welsh and north British traditions are judged to have done. And, for the twelfth century, no one ascribes to Irish shanachies the same-undocumented-intermediary role as 'Welsh bards' and 'Breton story-tellers' in the transmission of la matiére de Bretagne to Chrétien de Troyes and his many successors.

This said, there has been a growing interest since James Carney's trailblazing study, 'The Irish Affinities of Tristan' in his Studies in Irish Literature and History (1955), in analogues, anticipations, echoes, ideological concerns at one end of the spectrum and motif clusters at the other-all the intriguing, fuzzy, non-historical kinds of correspondences between the detail of the Arthurian corpus and the great wealth of early Irish story and traditional lore. This interest has prompted a desire among Arthurian scholars to be better equipped to undertake the perilous quest through the thickets of early Irish culture and story, coincident with an expansion of interest among a very wide range of academics and amateurs, aficionados and creative anachronists, in the archaic Celtic world. But there are warnings from such friendly giants of Celtic scholarship as Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, who once averred that the early Irish language was so complicated that one could hardly understand how anyone spoke it at all. At the editor's invitation I have prepared this overview as an introduction to a scholarly discipline of vast richness and great rewards. The material is organized as follows:

1 Basic concepts

2 Language study

3 Dictionaries and grammars

4 General and cultural history

5 Histories of Irish literature

6 Series and journals

7 Anthologies and translations

8 Major tales, themes, and motifs

9 Scholarly milestones

10 Comparative studies

11 Irish studies today

12 Bibliographies

13 Online resources

14 Why Irish?

1) First, some basic concepts. The study of medieval Irish language and literature has preserved a broad framework established in the mid-nineteenth century, when efforts were first initiated to edit what was increasingly recognized as a national treasure of manuscripts. Old Irish is used for the medium of the first written records from the eighth and ninth centuries. Middle Irish designates the period from the tenth to twelfth century, followed by early modern and modern Irish. Early Ireland's huge corpus of vernacular writings represents a precocious literacy that came on the heels of the proselytizing efforts of St. Patrick in the fifth century and the introduction of Latin. The cumbersome Ogam or Ogham alphabet was chiefly used for epigraphical purposes, while Irish was written in a native adaptation of the Roman alphabet. Medieval Irish literature and its early scholarly study have striking parallels with the literature, literary history, and scholarship of medieval Icelandic language and literature, both in volume and in antiand post-colonial ideologies that sought to account for the flourishing, even idiosyncratic, state of letters in the Middle Ages. …

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