Blake, Martin. 2009. Aelfric's De Temporibus Anni. Anglo-Saxon Texts 6. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. xii + 177 pages. ISBN 9781843841937.
Aelfric's De Temporibus Anni is one of the prolific Anglo-Saxon author's least studied works. A short handbook of computistical and general scientific information, it was edited last in 1942 by Heinrich Henel for the Early English Text Society. Since Henel's edition, the work has been the focus of no large-scale studies and rarely merits more than a passing mention in general studies of Aelfric's writings. For these reasons and because of the overall high quality of the volume, Martin Blake's 2009 edition of De Temporibus Anni is a welcome and much-needed contribution to the field of Aelfric studies.
Henel's edition of De Temporibus Anni has long been accepted as the standard version of the work, and Blake sticks very closely to the text established by Henel (which is essentially the text as preserved in one of the nine manuscripts in which DTA is found). Even a casual comparison of the content of the two editions, however, is enough to see that Blake's focus is different from Henel's. Henel's edition contains a solid introduction, but the majority of the volume is occupied by the text and parallel columns containing sources and analogues. In Blake's edition, the text takes up only twenty-one out of 177 pages, with an additional eight pages devoted to parallels. The remainder of Blake's volume is comprised chiefly of his very thorough and informative introduction, which not only treats standard issues such as manuscript relationships (here discussed magisterially by Blake) but also offers brief and useful surveys of medieval cosmology, the field of computus, and Aelfric's writing career. At times, indeed, the general usefulness of the information Blake provides outweighs its clear connection to his edition of DTA. Blake's discussion of the medieval field of computus distills an exceedingly complex subject in clear and lucid terms, but it does not explain very fully how Aelfric's work fits into the field overall.
The text of Blake's edition is, as stated above, essentially that used by Henel. Blake offers no major deviations from Henel's readings, though he does arrange the text in a much more conventional and convenient manner, replacing Henel's chapter and line references with running line numbers throughout the text. What is new in Blake's edition is his Modern English translation of De Temporibus Anni, which is supplemented by a full glossary at the end of the volume. There is good cause for such a translation, even beyond Blake's stated aim of rendering the text of DTA more accessible to students and those unable to read Old English. The most recent published translation of the text is that contained in Oswald Cockayne's 1866 Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft, although another translation by Peter Baker has been online for some time (http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/aelfric/detemp.html). Blake's translation is generally accurate and assured, accomplishing his goal of accessibility. In a few cases, however, Blake translates very loosely, sometimes obscuring or even misrepresenting Aelfric's original text. The opening sentence, sometimes called the "preamble," of the work in OE reads as follows:
Her æfter fyligð an lytel cwyde be gearlicum tidum þæt nis to spelle geteald, ac elles to rædene þam ðe hit licað.
Blake has translated this sentence as:
"There follows hereafter a short treatise on chronology; it is not intended as a homily, but can be read otherwise by whomsoever it pleases."
Few sentences in De Temporibus Anni have received more attention than this one, which appears to speak to both Aelfric's purpose and his intended audience but which is also open to some interpretation. In fact, Blake discusses this sentence at some length in his introduction, arguing effectively that Aelfric uses terms like cwyde and spell interchangeably elsewhere and that previous scholars may have overstated the distinction between the terms in an attempt to classify the genre of DTA. But Blake's translation of Aelfric's phrase be gearlicum tidum (literally "concerning the times of the year") as simply "chronology" is a bit misleading. As Blake himself admits in his note to this line, the original phrase is ambiguous. In such a case, perhaps it is best to communicate that ambiguity by translating as literally as possible. Similarly, in the next sentence, Blake translates Aelfric's phrase be ðæs geares ymbrenum (literally, "concerning the courses of the year") as "about the progression of time." Since so much of this work does focus on the calendar and the structure of the year (indeed the longest chapter in DTA is that headed "De Anno"), there seems little reason to remove the reference to the calendrical year in this opening sentence.
A more troubling translation occurs slightly later in the first section of the text. When recounting the seven days of Creation, Aelfric states, somewhat puzzlingly, that on the fifth day God created eal wyrmcynn (literally "all kinds of serpents"). Aelfric here appears to be either misreading or misremembering the first chapter of Genesis, which assigns only the crawling things of the water to the fifth day of Creation, while placing the creation of the cattle, reptiles, and beasts of the earth on the sixth day. Blake chooses to obscure this issue by translating wyrmcynn as "crawling things," rather than the more usual "serpents." That translation may be justifiable (perhaps by analogy to the Latin reptile in the Vulgate passage) but would require at least an explanatory note, which Blake does not provide. In fact, he does not comment on the misreading at all, which is disappointing since the instance appears to offer us a glimpse into Aelfric's use of scriptural sources.
These minor flaws do not much detract from what is a very useful and well-researched volume overall. It is hoped that Blake's edition of De Temporibus Anni will signal the beginning of renewed interest in this fascinating and neglected work.
William H. Smith
Bremmer, Rolf H. 2009. An Introduction to Old Frisian: History, Grammar, Reader, Glossary. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins. xii, 237 pages, 3 tables, 2 maps. ISBN 9789027232564.
Except as part of a survey of all of the oldest Germanic languages, I have never taught Old Frisian to my students. This has nothing to do with the notion that it is peripheral in the Germanic language family (it is in fact quite central for some of the most important issues concerning that group), nor because its modern descendent is spoken by relatively few speakers (on that basis Gothic would never be studied at all). Rather, it has had to do with the lack of a good introductory work to the language in either German or English, preferably the latter.
In most respects, this attractive work fills the gap. Written by a well-known scholar of the language, this work attempts to serve the interests both of first-time students learning to read Old Frisian texts on their own, and of more advanced students and scholars interested in comparative Germanic linguistics and in the complexities of the linguistic relations between Old Frisian and its closest relatives. As the author notes: "Serving two masters is a dangerous endeavour: some may think that what is being offered here is too much, while others would have wished for more" (x).
On the whole, I feel the author has avoided most of these pitfalls. I do think more advanced scholars would have to move on from this book pretty quickly. The observations the author makes on, for example, Old Frisian dialects are more in the nature of bullets; one is made aware that a phenomenon exists, but for a fuller documentation one would have to consult other less friendly sources written (sometimes in German or Dutch) for a more specialized group (the author being part of that group).
In my opinion, then, the master that this book serves best is the beginning student of Old Frisian. And for these students, we have a wonderful, and quite traditional, primer. Chapter 1 (pp. 1–19) discusses in brief the history of the Frisian people and of their language (including a discussion of the principal texts and manuscripts in Old Frisian). To my mind, the author at this point overly avoids the question as to whether the earliest Frisii were a Germanic-speaking group at all (the alternative being that they were overrun by, and merged with, Germanic groups moving through on their way to Great Britain), but he does bring it up briefly. He does, however, present nicely one of the central questions of Old Frisian studies (returned to again in the book), namely whether the most basic divide between Old Frisian texts should be characterized as an East/West distinction or an Older/Newer distinction, the latter view represented most prominently by Bo Sjölin.
Chapter 2 (pp. 21–51) gives an overview of the phonology of Old Frisian. Although at the end of the chapter the author does give a synchronic inventory of the vowel and consonant phonemes of the language, with indications of their historical sources, most of the chapter is diachronic in orientation, describing in some detail the sound changes that differentiated Old Frisian from the other Germanic languages. Since it is difficult to establish exactly when a sound change took place, the author is concerned with the relative chronology of the various changes, grouping them then together as West Germanic, Ingvaeonic/North See Germanic and Proto-Frisian phenomena. Oddly, given the almost relentless chronological orientation of this chapter, the author discusses Grimm's Law and Verner's Law (both Proto-Germanic changes) right in the middle of his Proto-Frisian changes. The reason for this placement is not clear, to me at least.
It is notable that among the processes the author ascribes to Proto-Frisian are a number of changes found also in Old English, or sometimes in part of Old English. These include the fronting of short a to æ (written <e>), the palatalization and assibilation of the velar stops k and g, the "breaking" of short e and i to the diphthong iu when followed by velar fricative clusters, and the metathesis of r preceded or followed by V to the opposite order. The author is forced to treat Frisian separately from English with regard to these phenomena not only because of some differences in the conditioning factors for the changes in the two languages, but also because of the importance he attaches to their relative ordering with respect to yet other changes: if an apparently shared phenomenon responds differently in English and Frisian because it is sensitive to conditions created uniquely in each of them, then it is not the same phenomenon (see p. 31, Remark 1 for a clear statement of this principle).
I have two comments to make on this, somewhat at cross-purposes with each other. First, in several places the author points out that some sound changes can be perseverant, in the sense that they may operate again when their conditions show up again (examples include his statements on breaking on p. 35 (Remark 2), and metathesis on p. 40). Important, however, and not really articulated by the author, is the fact that the conditions for a sound-change may also generalize over time. Thus one could imagine that both English and Frisian might share an early sound change before any significant split from each other, but later show significant differences in that phenomenon because of significant differences in perseverance and generalization.
The other observation, which the author himself suggests in Chapter 7, is that "the parallels are not purely the outcome of a shared origin in a hypothetical Anglo-Frisian mother dialect, . . . but are also the result of cultural developments that reach back to before and after the migration of the Anglo-Saxons to Britain" (128). Well then, perhaps they are in some sense the same phenomena after all, once one gives up the Stammbaum kind of organization found in Chapter 2.
I will be brief in my comments on Chapters 3 through 7. Chapter 3 is a concise and traditional presentation of the parts of speech and their paradigms in Old Frisian (my main objection here being that the weak adjective declension is not "like that of the weak nouns" (66), as a comparison of p. 66 with p. 59 will show). Chapter 4 is a discussion of types of word formation in Old Frisian, and then of various sources for borrowed words in that language. Chapter 5 (Syntax) doesn't even try to cover all of the possible topics that could fall under that rubric, but limits itself to basic facts about concord, cases and case usage (including a comprehensive list of prepositions), verbal moods, tenses and periphrastic forms, and a rudimentary discussion of word order and various construction types.
Chapters 6 and 7 are certainly meatier than 3 through 5, in that they discuss important issues in Old Frisian scholarship in an informed, if telegraphic, way. I have already touched on the nature of the Dialectology chapter (6): interesting bullets, but still bullets, pointing scholars to interesting phenomena separating the Old Frisian dialects from one another. Chapter 7, besides talking about how to account for the many similarities between English and Frisian, has an interesting discussion ("How Old is Old Frisian?"), dealing with the ways in which the Germanic languages are periodized, and whether it is appropriate to put Old Frisian on the same linguistic level as, say, Old High German and Old Saxon. The author's conclusion: it depends on your criteria. Most sensible, I think.
The parts of this book that will really make it a boon to beginning students and their teachers (if any) are the reader and glossary. The reader is a graded one: at the beginning the author has introduced a certain amount of regularization, but the readings get progressively more difficult. The author has attempted to include texts from a variety of manuscripts treating a variety of subject matters (granting that most of the many texts in Old Frisian are legal ones, as the author makes clear from the beginning of the book—this is one of the reasons that one may want to study Old Frisian). The author has useful introductions and explanatory notes throughout, and occasionally historical commentaries ("Insolent Frisians," "Dehydrated corpses as legal evidence" (!), etc.) that contextualize and liven up the readings. The glossary, finally, for ease of translation contains every form to be found in the reader, with cross-references to the infinitive, nominative singular and so on.
In sum, then, this is a good and a very useful introduction to the history, language and texts of Old Frisian, which I can hardly wait to use with my students!
Orrin W. Robinson
Carver, Martin, Catherine Hills, and Jonathan Scheschkewitz. 2009. Wasperton: A Roman, British and Anglo-Saxon Community in Central England. Anglo-Saxon Studies 11. Woodbridge: Boydell. x + 372 pages + 2 color plates. ISBN 9781843834274.
Situated on the River Avon in central England, the cemetery of Wasperton was excavated between 1980 and 1985 by Birmingham University's Field Archaeology Unit. Also excavated were ten hectares of surrounding landscape, including Roman and prehistoric features. Two hundred and forty-one burials were recorded in the completely excavated cemetery, providing researchers with a close look at the dynamic choices individuals made regarding burial practice in the fourth through seventh centuries A.D. in the Avon valley. Both Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon burial traditions are present in the cemetery, making this site significant to current discussions of migration, acculturation, and identity.
Carver, Hills, and Scheschkewitz, along with many specialist contributors, provide a thorough and well-developed analysis of the site, and should be commended for producing the report, as the data from the site had long gone without an in-depth analysis. The present report builds upon research presented in Jonathan Scheschkewitz's doctoral thesis, undertaken at the University of Kiel, in which he analyzed the grave good assemblages in comparison with Continental finds, placing them in a broad chronological context.
Recognizing a need for an analysis of this significant cemetery site to be published in English, support was provided by English Heritage for a new research design which would include radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis, along with concise specialist reports on textiles, human bone, metallurgy, pottery, and wood, horn, and leather objects. Expanded specialist reports are held in an online archive hosted by the Archaeology Data Service, a URL to which is provided in the report.
The excavation report is presented in two parts. Six chapters cover the site, its character, assemblages, suggested sequence, and its context in the Avon valley. Finally, a catalogue of the cremations and inhumations concludes the report.
In chapters one and two, Martin Carver describes the history of archaeological excavations at the site and the research design the researchers employed. Carver here expresses one of the main theoretical themes that underpins the research presented in the report: that burial rites are selected and performed in local contexts, and do not necessarily follow or respond to larger social trends. This view is formed in reaction to the interpretive frameworks of the past, when authors of cemetery analyses strove to answer big-picture questions about religious and ethnic change in early medieval Britain. Carver explains that the research strategy was to discover how people thought about themselves at one locality through time.
Additionally, the authors advance the idea that grave goods do not necessarily correlate with ethnic identity, and that the use of culturally Germanic grave good assemblages within England may have communicated other aspects of identity, such as ideological or political affiliations. Recognizing this, the researchers employ radiocarbon dating, stable isotope analysis, and stratigraphic and special relationships to determine the cemetery sequence, placing the artifact evidence in a secondary role. The goal was to uncover the sequence of burial rites practiced at the site. Variation in the rite would indicate an active choice made in light of current ideological and political environments.
The features of the site are explored in chapter three. The cemetery was placed in a landscape already full of features, including Neolithic ring ditches, a Bronze Age barrow and rectilinear enclosure, and Iron Age dwellings. Corn-driers, querns, and baking ovens indicated a period of intensive grain processing in the later Roman period. Finally, a cemetery was founded in the fourth century inside of an earthwork enclosure, which was used until the seventh century. Both culturally Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon burial rites were performed. The researchers have done a thorough job determining the site's sequence, determining that many features had been placed in the landscape in relation to older features, such as the Bronze Age mound, which would have been visible throughout the usage of the site.
In the following discussion of the features of the cemetery, Martin Carver discusses the form, position, and orientation of the cremations and inhumations, and also analyses the complex spatial organization of the cemetery, coming to the conclusion that the cemetery sequence represented a continuous place of mortuary significance, with long-lived, polyfocal plots that may represent family groupings. While the sequence began with Roman activity, intrusive burials of the Anglo-Saxon period do not disturb the earlier burials. In fact, it seems that the new cultural group was allocated a portion of the cemetery by those maintaining the site.
Both the human remains and the grave good assemblages are discussed in chapter four. Of 215 inhumations, only fifty-four contained osteological remains, most in poor condition. Although not the fault of the investigators, the lack of human bone is unfortunate; analyses of both sex and age are therefore limited. The investigators were able, however, to determine that individuals of all age groups were buried at the cemetery. Gender was harder to interpret from the bone; hence most designations of gender in the catalogue are based on associated artifacts, a method which is not ideal.
However, other scientific analyses were carried out that provided information not yet common in Anglo-Saxon cemetery studies: radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis. The results indicated activity in the cemetery began in AD 125–350 (95% probability), and lasted for 180–420 years (98% probability). Admittedly, the resulting date ranges are centuries long, but they do broadly confirm the dates indicated by the artifacts, although some culturally Anglo-Saxon graves are dated to the fourth century. It is admirable that the researches use multiple avenues to determine the sequence of activity on the site, rather than relying on artifacts alone to date the burials. An analysis of oxygen and strontium isotopes was completed on twenty burials. The results indicated that while most individuals had local origins, some individuals in both early and late phases of the cemetery appeared to have origins in the Mediterranean. Analyses of this type have the potential to reveal much about population movement in early medieval Britain.
In the second part of the chapter, the specialists discuss each artifact type, including brooches, beads, spearheads, textiles, shields, buckles, knives, and pottery. Finally, the provenance and the dates of the grave good assemblages are discussed. Using Scheschkewitz's original research, the assemblages are placed into six broad period designations. However, it is acknowledged in the discussion that many of the objects in the assemblages were available for a long period of time, and may have been curated for some time before being deposited in graves, thus the periods suggested are fairly flexible.
In chapter five, evidence from analyses of the stratigraphy, burial alignment, radiocarbon dating, and assemblage dating are brought together to create a chronological sequence for burial activity at Wasperton, and to determine differences in mortuary rites between spatial groups. What emerges is a picture of ritual activity spanning six periods beginning in the fourth century with furnished Roman burials, unfurnished burials in the fifth century, and culturally Anglo-Saxon furnished burials at 480, lasting until the early seventh century when a few moderately wealthy individuals are buried. The authors argue that ritual activity was likely continuous at the site, as later burials consistently respect the layout of previous burials.
The final chapter places the cemetery at Wasperton in a wider cultural context. Carver draws comparisons from other cemeteries both in the wider Avon valley and the rest of Britain, and concludes that different periods of political alignment can be seen manifested in the cemetery. From these observations, he addresses some of the broader questions central to the study of early medieval Britain: questions of immigration, acculturation, and religious change. Helpfully, he explains the current arguments dealing with the extent of Anglo-Saxon migration. His conclusion is that ethnicity is not easily read from burials. Furthermore, he argues that religion and ethnicity are constructed locally and are thus difficult to categorize broadly. He suggests, instead, that we speak of identities and ideologies rather than ethnicity and religion. At Wasperton, Carver sees a community that held diverse ideological views, and that both British continuity and Germanic intrusion likely occurred. While the first culturally Anglo-Saxon graves are intrusive, Carver sees no sign of abrupt change or violent takeover in the cemetery.
This analysis is an exemplary early medieval cemetery report. Few cemeteries of this period have been completely excavated, and, similarly, few cemetery reports include the scientific analyses utilized for Wasperton. The interpretation of the site's chronological sequence and cultural context is supported well by the archaeological evidence. Of note is the particular attention the writers pay to placing the cemetery in its local context, rather than simply making broad generalizations that correlate with current historical models.
There are few limitations to this excavation report. One aspect that could have been improved upon is the reproduction of images. Photographs of artifacts included in the discussion are only reproduced at a scale of 3:4, and most artifacts in the catalogue are reproduced at a 1:2 scale, limiting some of the value for readers interested in viewing iconographic details on brooches or other decorated objects, for example.
Wasperton: A Roman, British and Anglo-Saxon Community in Central England is an important contribution to early medieval cemetery studies and will be of great interest to scholars of the period.
Heather M. Flowers
Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota
Fulk, R.D., ed. and trans. 2010. The "Beowulf" Manuscript. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 3. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. xvii + 288 pages. ISBN 9780674052956.
The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML) is a new and ongoing series from Harvard University Press intended to fill the historical gap between the venerable Loeb Classical Library and the I Tatti Renaissance Library launched in 2001. Currently under the general editorship of Jan M. Ziolkowski, the DOML is dedicated to making available to a global audience original-language editions and facing-page English translations of the medieval classics in Latin and at least two vernaculars, Old English and Byzantine Greek. According to the Dumbarton Oaks website (www.hup.harvard.edu/doml), the editors have maintained the possibility of adding other languages later. This linguistic range sets the DOML apart from the Dallas Medieval Texts and Translations series, which is dedicated exclusively to Latin. The DOML volumes are bound in dark brown cloth and jacketed in bronze paper; they are the same, larger size as those of the I Tatti Renaissance Library (8¼"h x 5½"w), but have in-sewn blue ribbons, which is unique to this series. The first three titles were introduced in late 2010: The Vulgate Bible, Volume I: The Pentateuch (Douay-Rheims translation), The Arundel Lyrics and the Poems of Hugh Primas, and The "Beowulf" Manuscript. At least four more titles are scheduled for the first half of 2011, including further volumes of the Douay-Rheims, as well as a collection of Old Testament narratives in Old English.
The DOML's Old English series is overseen by Daniel Donoghue, an editorial board of seven leading Anglo-Saxon scholars, and an advisory board of four more. That's a lot of cooks for any one soup, though still only about a third of the number involved with the I Tatti Renaissance Library. That Beowulf should be the first of the Old English titles seems proper; that it should be couched among the other four works included in the Nowell Codex (the second half of Cotton Vitellius A.xv.) is both refreshing and prudent, considering the glut of translations of Beowulf already available. That of Seamus Heaney comes itself in a facing-page, dual-language edition, and there seems little reason for competing with it directly. DOML's "Beowulf" Manuscript is, in fact, the first time the poem has been represented along with its manuscript's actual constituents, including The Passion of Saint Christopher, The Wonders of the East (more commonly called Marvels of the East), The Letter of Alexander the Great to Aristotle, and Judith. The Fight at Finnsburg is also appended. The arrangement is stimulating and much welcome, especially since an increasing number of studies since Kenneth Sisam in 1953 have argued that Beowulf and its manuscript are about monsters, human or otherwise. Andy Orchard's Pride and Prodigies (1995) remains the most serviceable and comprehensive, including as it does both the longer Old English and Latin versions of Wonders of the East, the Latin Liber monstrorum it influenced, as well as the Latin The Letter of Alexander the Great to Aristotle.
The editions and prose translation of all six texts were completed by R.D. Fulk of Indiana University, member of the series editorial advisory board and one of the triumvirate responsible for the fourth edition of Klaeber's Beowulf (corrected reprint 2009). Apart from punctuation, the Old English texts are presented free from editorial apparatus, including brackets and diacritics. The sole remaining lacuna, apart from the lost beginnings of The Passion of Saint Christopher and Judith, is in line 62 of Beowulf, which has a long and controversial history. Fulk keeps it blank—as it is in Klaeber—though it should be noted that even the line that remains must be reconstructed. Fulk's particular expertise in Old English textual and linguistic history is apparent in the introduction, as well as in the list of textual variants included in the notes (335–43). The latter seems a tad overly scholastic for inclusion in a general edition; a more extensive commentary than the one provided (343–57) would have been appreciated in its place, especially regarding some of the more debatable choices in translation. The apparatus also includes a select bibliography which is broken down among general studies of the Beowulf-manuscript and those of its specific works—the bulk is dedicated to Judith—as well as an index. It should be noted that not all Fulk's changes to the original texts are acknowledged, nor is that of Beowulf identical to that of Klaeber. For example, words connoting divinity, among them līffrea (16), metod (110 et al.), have been made into proper nouns (Lif-Frea and Metod) and translated accordingly; Klaeber affords the majuscule to the name God alone, while other editions of Beowulf, including Mitchell and Robinson (1998), leave the word lower-case.
Fulk's translation of the first three prose texts is deft and engaging, especially the syntactically challenging Letter of Alexander the Great to Aristotle. His rendering follows the Old English texts sentence-by-sentence, clause by clause; the choice of words, however, is governed by a modern sense of semantic correspondence, not by a preference for a certain etymological heritage. The product rings quite modern, and only seems problematic at times when a phrase or expression would have been better reworded entirely, as well as when the Latin original offers insights into some of the thornier passages. An example of both may be found in Alexander's report that, when suffering from thirst during their trek through the Indian jungle, some men ðonne of hiora scome þa wætan for þæm nyde þigdon (70). Fulk's unvarnished "then in their need consumed the liquid from their private parts" seems unnecessarily equivocal, while the Latin version—[u]idimus etiam plerosque pudore amisso suam ipsam urinam uexatos ultimis necessatibus haurientis—nevertheless reads that the act was done 'in shame,' not 'from their shame[ful parts]' (wæta(n) by itself can mean 'urine'). The phrase "drank their own urine" seems neutral enough, and more in tune with modern survival narratives. In The Wonders of the East, meanwhile, it seems misleading to render wælcyrian eagan as "Valkyrie's eyes"(18) when, in this context, the Anglo-Saxon Christians used the word wælcyrie not to refer to the warrior maidens of Valhalla, but rather to the Gorgons of the Classical tradition; to have the eyes of a Gorgon gives something a murderous stare. This conflation and demonization of pagan traditions extends to many other words and figures in Old English, most notably ylfe (sg. ælf), which is always tempting to render as 'elves', but is also clearly used by Anglo-Saxon scribes as a gloss for nymphs and dryads.
A good translation of Beowulf is, of course, very difficult to carry out, especially in prose. The emphasis of Fulk's product remains, as with the preceding prose texts, on readability, with a largely modern vocabulary and appositive phrases inserted into complete sentences. The layman should certainly find the translation accessible, and accessibility seems to be the only explicit guideline for translation the edition includes (as well as relegated to the rear flap of the book jacket). For those who have spent time studying Beowulf in the original, however, the result may seem too polished—a little too smooth a ride over a rugged and often pathless hinterland. Because the Introduction includes no rationale, it is difficult to know what exactly is intended, and how in particular the product should be compared with other translations. If one reads it aloud, one can often appreciate an attempt to retain the specific alliteration of the original, while some of the alliterative constructs themselves are delightful—i.e. weras on wil-sið (215) "men on a mission," sigeleasne sang (787) "triumphless tune," locene leoðo-syrcan (1890) "linked limb-mail," ac him hilde-grap heortan wylmas, / ban-hus gebræc (2507–8) "but a battle grasp broke the beat of his heart, shattered his bone-house." Fulk admits in the introduction that his choice of words, "ranges more widely than what is to be found in the glossary of [Klaeber]" (xxii), but sometimes this range circumvents some of the poem's most important analytical cruces, including æglaca (159 et al.) and lof-gearnost (3182), which Fulk translates as "troublemaker" and "honour-bound" respectively. As mentioned above, the language is also thoroughly Christianized, with Metod ([sic] lit. 'ruler') rendered consistently as "Providence" and all other references to divinity capitalized. Because the DOML "Beowulf" Manuscript constitutes the first major translation of Beowulf since the appearance of the new edition of Klaeber, and because Fulk is an editor of that edition, it does seem a bit curious that the translation does not adhere to Klaeber more faithfully. The translation of Judith that follows seems in some ways freer and more charming, possibly because it is shorter, but also perhaps because it is unhindered by the massive number of precedents and proposals that complicate Beowulf. In terms of editions, Judith and Beowulf are old bedfellows, and Fulk's translation of terms common to both poems remains consistent.
The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library's "Beowulf" Manuscript is certainly a handsome volume and a pleasurable read, and its editions of the Old English texts alone make it worth owning. As the first of the DOML's Old English series, it serves as a solid flagship, while its apparatus presents to the general public a firm invitation to further study and debate. Whether it and the DOML will last a hundred years—as the Loeb Classical Library and A.T. Murray's translations of the Iliad and Odyssey have nearly done—we can only hope that medieval studies should do so well in the early twenty-second century.
Harley J. Sims
Gunn, Vicky. 2009. Bede's Historiae: Genre, Rhetoric and the Construction of Anglo-Saxon Church History. Woodbridge: Boydell Press. 252 pages. ISBN 9781843834656.
Vicky Gunn's study seeks to uncover Bede's own understanding of historical writing as a genre. Gunn demonstrates that Bede was master of the conventions of historical and hagiographical writing handed down to him by classical, Late Antique, and patristic writers, and that he deployed these pre-existing textual conventions as part of his deliberate effort to elevate the status of Wearmouth-Jarrow and the Roman contingent of the Northumbrian church over their rivals (especially the Irish-influenced communities of Iona and Lindisfarne) through his writing of 'historiae.' Gunn argues that Bede developed a particular conception of history writing as a rhetorical exercise focused on portraying historical persons as examples of virtue to be imitated or vice to be avoided. This method of historical writing was based on Bede's reference to other accepted, textual models for portraying idealized 'types' as opposed to the describing the quirks and complexities of actual individuals. Bede's adherence to language and models from Christian textual traditions as a means of describing Anglo-Saxon church history in the sixth through eighth centuries suggests that his representation of individuals and events may be shaped more substantively by rhetorical and conventional expectations than historical facts. As Gunn points out, this has profound implications for our perceptions of Bede's historical accuracy and reliability as a source of knowledge for the early Anglo-Saxon church.
The introduction to Gunn's book situates Bede's Historiae as a bridge between two divergent trends in contemporary Bedan studies: the tendency of some scholars to treat Bede as a writer surrounded by books, with little concern for the political issues of his day (including Ray, Mayr-Harting, and Wormald), and the tendency of others to see Bede as thoroughly enmeshed in power structures of royal patronage and monastic prestige, using his historical writings to negotiate those structures with explicitly political aims in mind (including Goffart, Wood, and Kirby). By showing how Bede put rhetorical conventions culled from textual sources to use in order to further his monastic agenda and elevate the status of his own monastery, its founders, and its supporters, Gunn seeks to mediate the "seeming polarization in the historiography" of Bede (11).
Gunn's first chapter attempts to ascertain the audience for Bede's historiae, arguing that it is very unlikely that the dedicatee of the Ecclesiastical History, King Ceolwulf, would have been able to read the text in Latin, let alone understand its deeper significance or interpret Bede's erudition. She suggests that the actual gift of the manuscript itself, and the ritual with which it was likely to have been received, would have been more significant to Ceolwulf and his court circle, and more beneficial in securing royal patronage for Wearmouth-Jarrow, than the contents of Bede's work. Moreover, a full understanding of Bede's Latin—let alone his ideas!—was probably not widespread even among Bede's intended audience of educated monastic readers.
The second and third chapters map out in great detail the political situation of the Northumbrian church and its monasteries in Bede's day. Gunn claims that monasteries from both contingents, the Irish-influenced and the Roman-influenced, produced vitae of saints associated with their houses as a means of bolstering their influence and authority, especially in times of declining royal favor and patronage. Gunn characterizes early Northumbria as a land of dueling vitae-writers, where abbots and monks played calculated power games with their textual and saintly 'commodities.' The third chapter in particular makes a compelling argument that Bede's historiae were written in order to advance the prestige of Wearmouth-Jarrow by using the rhetorical conventions of insinuatio to downplay the role of the Irish-influenced figures in the Northumbrian church, including Wilfrid of York, and to play up the orthodoxy of Roman-influenced figures, such as Benedict Biscop and Abbot Ceolfrid, who were closely associated with Bede's monastery.
It is only in chapter four, however, that Gunn really begins to address the main idea of her study: Bede's understanding of the purpose and conventions of historical writing, and the significance and influence of the patristic textual tradition in his work. Here she explains her theory of Bede's conception of historia as a genre that employs rhetoric to describe individuals as models for imitation. She demonstrates that Bede would not have seen texts such as Gildas's The Ruin of Britain or Orosius's History Against the Pagans as histories in this sense because they focus instead on negative exempla and God's retribution and justice against sinning peoples and individuals. She also shows that Bede's conception of historia appears to differ from that espoused by Isidore of Seville (who defines history as an eyewitness account of events), and the so-called 'barbarian' historians, such Cassiodorus, Jordanes and Gregory of Tours, who primarily wrote histories of secular affairs with a Christian interest. Ultimately, Gunn comes to the conclusion that Bede's major model for his historiae is the church history of Eusebius; however, she gives very little discussion of Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, or how it influenced Bede's idea of genre or textual practice. Here and elsewhere in her study, Gunn spends more time refuting the ideas of others than she does developing those aspects of her discussion that seem more integral to her overall argument.
The next two chapters focus on case studies of two textual outliers in the field of Bede's historiae: the History of the Abbots and the Martyrology. Gunn's insightful discussion of Bede's History of the Abbots reveals that its generic peculiarities (lack of description of saints and miracles, focus on the material and intellectual wealth of Wearmouth-Jarrow) may be attributed to the fact that Bede was actually writing to argue for the superiority of the monastery over others despite Wearmouth-Jarrow's lack of a major saint's cult. The monastery itself and the wealth acquired by its abbots form the subjects of the historia and the objects of its praise. Gunn also identifies a source for Bede's text that clarifies the History of the Abbots' unusual focus: the Book of Pontiffs.
Gunn then argues that the History of the Abbots should really be considered an example of the genre of gesta, rather than historia, because it doesn't appear to fit the generic model of history as the depiction of individuals as idealized models for imitation. This seems problematic. The text is one of the three which Bede himself explicitly labels as historia in his bibliographic note at the conclusion of the Ecclesiastical History. Gunn's only evidence for the designation of gesta in this case is post hoc: a Carolingian text called the Gesta Abbatum Fontanellensium which uses Bede's History of the Abbots as a source. This is evidence of the reception of Bede's text in the gesta tradition, but not that Bede himself considered the text in this light. If Gunn's definition of Bede's understanding of the historia as a genre is based on her observations concerning the texts he himself labels as historiae, then that definition should be expanded to accommodate the 'peculiarities' of the History of the Abbots as well.
In the chapter discussing the Martyrology we face a similar problem. She begins by suggesting that since Bede's Martyrology was the first known martyrology to incorporate narrative details into its notices of martyrs deaths, it should be understood as also participating in the conventions of the historia genre. This interesting premise is soon left behind, as Gunn immerses us in a comparison of the Martyrology, not to other historiae, but to Bede's Greater Chronicle instead. While this comparison is interesting in and of itself, it leads her away from her focus on the rhetorical construction of historiae in their contemporary monastic context. Furthermore, this chapter, entitled "A Case of Innovation within Generic Boundaries," slips into the common trap of holding a medieval text accountable to a modern standard of textual production which values ingenuity over traditionalism, innovation over convention. Gunn appears to applaud Bede for "innovating" on the genre of the martyrology by adding more detailed accounts of the martyrs' deaths to his text, but then faults him because he "was not prepared to step outside the boundaries of the patristic influences so prevalent elsewhere in his works" (143).
Here I feel compelled to address what I consider to be a problematic aspect of Gunn's approach. In describing Bede's participation in the Christian textual traditions of the early medieval church and his dependence upon conventional models and language to interpret and describe historical individuals, Gunn expresses her analysis in overwhelmingly negative terms. Gunn's descriptions of Bede's textual practice routinely fault Bede for failing to live up to the expectations of modern historians, rather than the other way around. She characterizes Bede's appeal to saintly conventions in his representations of church figures as "deliberately misleading the audience" (150), and explicitly argues that much of Bede's historiae are "merely allusions" or "just standard convention" (152, 155, emphasis mine). Bede's histories are not "credible" or "authentic" (159), and as such, they may be read as "nothing more than a comprehensive set of literary references placed within annal-type information, disguised by Bede's undoubted rhetorical abilities" (175, emphasis mine). This type of condescending language predominates in Gunn's book.
Throughout much of the study, she appears to overlook the fact that Bede's own contemporaries, at least those with a substantial monastic education (his primary intended audience), would not have expected factual reportage, authenticity, or verisimilitude in the modern sense from Bede's historical accounts. Rather, sharing his immersion in and appreciation for patristic textual precedents, they would have been delighted to see how Bede had shaped history to suit their textually based, conventional understanding of Christian ideals. Given that Bede's immediate audience would have recognized and understood many of the textual allusions in Bede's works that historians of today find obscure and disingenuous, it seems very unlikely that Bede was attempting to "deliberately mislead" them. Gunn does address this issue at the very conclusion of her book, where she writes, "Bede's machinations are only really sinister if one assumes that he knew his immediate audience would be ignorant of both his understanding of historia and the methods he applied" (185). Coming, as this statement does, two pages before the end of the book, it is hard not to read this concession as an afterthought.
Unfortunately, the book as a whole is uneven. The introduction, chapter seven, and the conclusion appear to form a tight, thorough and convincing argument if taken together; but the six chapters which come in between need to be integrated into this argument more effectively. In the intervening chapters, it sometimes seems as if Gunn's discussion of Bede's use of rhetorical conventions in the texts and topics she is treating has been tacked on. Finally, the book's formatting is distracting. The publisher has printed it with endnotes rather than footnotes, and, as if that weren't burdensome enough, the endnotes are printed in two columns on the page, which is strangely disorienting. Also, much of the Latin is given in the endnotes, with all the longer in-text quotations given only in English translation. This makes it difficult to follow the Latin text, particularly when Gunn is analyzing it closely.
Cynical tone aside, however, Gunn's final chapter on "Bede's Compositional Techniques" presents several fascinating and well-supported discussions of exactly how various sources and conventions shape and determine Bede's representation of saintly abbesses and kings, and the consequences an awareness of this shaping has for our perception of Bede's 'accuracy' as a historian. For example, she demonstrates that because Bede intended to depict each historical individual as a model of a specific virtue or constellation of related virtues appropriate to that person's station or vocation, he tended to avoid presenting more than one individual displaying the same virtue as another in a similar context. For example, she suggests that Bede used two women, Saint Æthelthryth and Hilda of Whitby, to illustrate two separate but compatible ideals of female sanctity and virtue becoming of an abbess. Viewed together, Bede's depictions of Æthelthryth and Hilda present a "composite model drawn from two individuals" (181). Gunn argues that this idea of structural unity and avoidance of duplication of identical virtues may explain the short shrift given to the three other Northumbrian abbesses mentioned by Bede. Rather than viewing Bede's passing over Eanflæd, Ælflæd, and Æbbe as a slight on them motivated by hostility or political aversion (as historians have tended to do), Gunn argues that it is possible to explain the brevity of their depictions as motivated by literary concerns. The points presented in chapter seven show Gunn's insightful reading of Bede's text and demonstrate the overall potential that her argument has for the field of Bedan studies.
Alfred University, New York
Gwara, Scott. 2008. Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf. Medieval and Renaissance Authors and Texts 2. Leiden: Brill. xi + 419 pages. ISBN 9789004171701.
It is a truism of Beowulf studies that much of the difficulty we have figuring out how to read that most famous of the poems we have received from the Anglo-Saxons is a result of its singularity. If we had even one other Old English poem anything like Beowulf, say another extended heroic poem that focused on the deeds of a single hero, we would have more of a handle on the ways of making meaning associated with the genre (if it in fact was a genre in our terms: Beowulf could even have been an unusual composition in its own day, for all we know), and a better understanding of what devices or perspectives, if any, may have been innovatively or exceptionally exploited by this particular poem.
In the absence of such corollary evidence from cognate works, scholarship about the meaning and methods of the poem, that is, literary criticism of it, has tended to fall into two categories: either a restricted effort to decode a particular passage, character, or aspect; or a far-reaching reading of the entire poem. Despite a title that sounds like the former kind of book, Heroic Identity is the latter kind. Scott Gwara proposes a comprehensive reading of the poem as a nervous examination of the attractions, and social and political dangers, of a figure he calls—with reference to line 898—the wrecca, a strong hero and potential king who may use his extraordinary ability for the good of his people, but who may on the other hand be tempted by oferhygd (arrogance) or wlenco (pride, daring) into increasingly dangerous adventures that appeal to him as an individual, but bring danger to his people.
The Beowulf of Heroic Identity makes everyone worry. The coastguard immediately suspects the motives of the hulking stranger when he arrives but is perhaps mollified too quickly by pleasant speech; Unferth, although jealous of Beowulf and therefore a bit untrustworthy as a witness, nevertheless expresses the possibly correct suspicion of the whole Danish court that the visitor is an arrogant egotist unconcerned with the Danes and their future, and perhaps not nearly as capable as he seems, either; the nameless scop who tells the stories of Sigemund and Heremod after the death of Grendel, stories told apparently in praise of Beowulf, is in fact using both of those stories in implicit critique of a certain monster-slayer intent on self-aggrandizement and personal gain (cf. Sigemund) who could potentially become a vicious, self-serving, rapacious king (cf. Heremod); Hrothgar's sermon tries to turn Beowulf from the path exemplified by Heremod, and it is heard and takes effect immediately, as shown by Beowulf's mild demeanor and generosity on his return to Geatland; but could Wiglaf be right (3077 ff.) that the dragon fight was the ill-advised over-reaching of an individual will (and wrecca-like aspiration) impervious to the advice of others, one infected, in other words, with the oferhygd Hrothgar had warned against?
Heroic Identity uses all the resources of the contemporary critical toolkit in advancing its arguments, from philological investigation at one end of the scale to a post-modern awareness of the possibility of the text's openness at the other. Numerous words are studied in context and given new, sometimes Beowulf-specific meanings, including of course the important oferhygd, wrecca, and wlenco, but also less-central words like egesa (not a generalized term for a horrific event, apparently, but a specific reference to a battle involving an entire nation) and gidd (seemingly, not just any story or speech, but a term for a particular genre of stories intended to instruct by analogy). The gidds and other "digressions" in Beowulf, such as the Finnsburg episode, receive particular attention as loci of commentary on the main action. This is not in itself a new idea, though some of the readings are certainly innovative, such as the idea that the Fremu (a.k.a. Modthryth) digression is aimed at Beowulf himself rather than Hygd and shows that, like Fremu, he is tamed by Hrothgar's sermon, and is as mild-mannered and socially responsible on his return to Hygelac as Fremu was when married to Offa. In terms of contextual material brought to bear on the poem, a sustained examination of wisdom poetry such as Vainglory merits special mention as providing strong support to the view that arrogance and over-reaching in a king or warrior was a Germanic vice.
Gwara's strongest suit, in my opinion, is his willingness to contemplate the possibility of a poem that does not just tell us how to evaluate its hero, but gives us multiple perspectives, positive and negative, from which to conduct such an evaluation, and incites our interest in the problem of how we should, in the end, take the hero Beowulf. Though this attitude runs the risk of ascribing novelistic sophistication, and indeed post-modern novelistic sophistication, to an early medieval poem and its poet, it makes possible understandings of the work more sophisticated than those allowed to critics who assume that the poem can only see its main character in black or white, must therefore see him in white, and who for that reason take as axiomatic that Beowulf is only ever admired throughout the poem. Gwara's Beowulf is always potentially admirable, but also always potentially seduced by motives that are less than admirable, and thus potentially dangerous both to the Danes and to his own people (who do, of course, the poem predicts, suffer disaster as a result of his death in the dragon-fight). The reader's problem is how to take him at any one time, and overall.
It is unfortunate that the full exposition of Gwara's complex view has not allowed him much space to engage the many proponents of a less-fraught, wholly admirable Beowulf, except for an extended engagement with John D. Niles over the dragon-fight. The book for that reason could be said to present a compelling and plausible reading of the poem, one of great explanatory power, by pointing out a range of evidence that tells for the view propounded but with relatively more minor attempts to deal with kinds of evidence that would seem to tell against the reading. It is still a powerful book, and one that will open up new kinds of discussion of the poem.
University of Calgary
Higham, Nick, ed. 2007. Britons in Anglo-Saxon England. Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. 253 pages + 23 figures, maps, and tables. ISBN 9781843833123.
In his introductory essay, the editor of this collection Nick Higham poses three questions: (1) What happened to the Brittonic-speaking Celts of lowland Britain during the centuries that followed the Roman withdrawal from the island in the early fifth century? (2) How many native Britons remained in England after the influx of Germanic-speaking groups? And (3) how did these British people contribute to the development of a distinctively Anglo-Saxon culture and society before the Norman Conquest of 1066?
Higham splits his contributors on these questions into two camps, depending on the kinds of evidence they consider. Eleven archeologists and historians examine material culture and documentary records. They tend to stress continuities between Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon field systems, communication routes, and biological populations, which show no sign of major disruption during the fifth through seventh centuries, though there was a decline in the intensity of agricultural production. These scholars conclude that a much larger indigenous population emulated the language and cultural forms of a comparatively small number of Germanic newcomers after the collapse of confident Roman, British, Christian, or other forms of group identity.
This "elite emulation" model has been resisted by most historical linguists, however, five of whom are represented here. These scholars tend to emphasize the lack of influence upon the Old English language of Brittonic Celtic or Primitive Welsh, beyond a few special terms, place-names, or topographical words tautologically construed as place-names, like Dover or the River Avon from dwfr 'water' and afon 'river', respectively. This minimal linguistic impact suggests that there were very few Brittonic-speakers remaining in Anglo-Saxon England, a supposition supported by a contemporary witness Gildas in De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae 'On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain' (ca. 540 AD), passages in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the Nation of Angles, ca. 731), and several entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ca. 893). This more traditional model implies a kind of "ethnic cleansing," in which native Britons were destroyed, driven out, or so completely subjugated that they were forced to abandon any expression of ethnic identity beyond that of slaves to their new masters. Yet, no material evidence of such drastic genocide has yet been found in the archeological remains. Higham makes no attempt to reconcile these contradictory theories and conflicting bodies of evidence beyond weighting the number of contributions heavily in favor of the elite emulation model. Instead, the authors are each allowed to offer their own more circumscribed and nuanced conclusions with detailed studies of the particular regions and types of evidence in which they are expert. The editor supplies a basic index of names and terms, but no bibliography or list of references beyond footnotes to individual articles.
In "Part I: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives," Catherine Hills explores modern "Anglo-Saxon Attitudes" toward English ethnicity, showing that questions asked of the past are conditioned by the investigators' perception of their own identities in relation to the subjects of their study. Her point is well illustrated by Howard Williams in "Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon Archaeology," where he shows how nineteenth-century excavators simply labeled all grave finds from the period in question "Anglo-Saxon" in order to promote a triumphalist view of early English expansion across the island.
In "Invisible Britons, Gallo-Romans and Russians: Perspectives on Cultural Change," Heinrich Härke suggests that native cultures often become archeologically invisible after the collapse of empires with the "loss of political and cultural self-confidence and the search for new cultural models" (67), a point underscored by Nick Higham in "Historical Narrative as Cultural Politics: Rome, 'British-ness' and 'English-ness.'" Higham sees a crisis of British confidence in the sixth century, exacerbated rather than assuaged by Gildas's vehement castigation of his fellow Britons for cowardice and moral failure, in spite of that author's concomitant assertion that they also represent praesens Israel 'present-day Israel', an elect nation whom God is punishing for their sins through the instrument of pagan enemies. This Old Testament explanation of national disaster, particularly the disinheritance of the Britons from the better part of their Promised Land, was embraced with alarming alacrity by the newly converted Anglo-Saxons themselves, who had made a point of obedience (unlike the British churches) to the see of Rome: "Bede's portrayal of the English as a people of the Lord positioned within divine protection and in conformity with a Roman authority which the Britons opposed provides a powerful rationale for their geopolitical success" (77–78). Higham thus believes that "English-ness" won out over "British-ness" in the bid for authenticating "Roman-ness," prompting a mass defection of Britons to an English identity, a process he characterizes as "ethnocide, as opposed to genocide" (78).
In "Romano-British Metalworking and the Anglo-Saxons," Lloyd Laing more concretely sees the continuing presence of Britons with special technological skills in England, suggesting that native artisans introduced ornamental techniques like enameling and dress-accessories like the disc and penannular brooch to the Germanic immigrants, thereby supplying them with a set of artistic styles "that came to its full fruition in such later masterpieces as the Lindisfarne Gospels" (55). Gale R. Owen-Crocker sees a similar transfer of technology from natives to newcomers in "British Wives and Slaves? Possible Romano-British Techniques in 'Women's Work,'" in which she notes the presence of a type of Roman twill in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries not characteristic of Germanic weaves. The context for this transfer of technology, Owen-Crocker suggests, is marriage between Anglo-Saxon men and British women, the latter of whose contribution to a household's economy traditionally included spinning and weaving, or alternatively, the forced labor of natives skilled at textile production.
Damian J. Tyler considers "Early Mercia and the Britons" up to the end of Penda's reign ca. 655, proposing that there were three zones in that pagan king's sphere of influence: (1) an "outer zone" consisting of the Christian Brittonic-speaking kingdoms in Wales; (2) an "inner zone" comprising the Wreocensæte, Magonsæte, and Hwicce, "groups generally thought of as Anglo-Saxon but who appear to have been largely British in their cultural orientation" (100); and (3) a "core zone" of the Anglian kingdom itself, in which there remained a few prominent Britons. Tyler finds that under the polytheistic Penda aristocratic forms of group identity and patronage were more important than ethnic or religious affiliation.
Martin Grimmer looks further south to consider "Britons in Early Wessex: The Evidence of the Law Code of Ine," who ruled ca. 688–726. He compares wergild 'man-payment', or compensation schedules for injury and manslaughter, within the several social classes identified in Ine's code and finds a regular "disparity" within these ranks "between the value placed on the life of a Briton and that of a Saxon" (105). But Britons of all classes still enjoyed the king's protection under the law. Grimmer postulates that Ine offered his British subjects access to legal due process, though at a lower valuation of their lives, in order to encourage both their loyalty and their desire to acculturate to a West Saxon identity. This policy was apparently successful, since by the time of King Alfred's code in the later ninth century we find no distinction between Saxons and Britons in any social category.
In "Apartheid and Economics in Anglo-Saxon England," Alex Woolf also sees protection under the law and access to courts as a means by which Anglo-Saxon kings secured acceptance of their rule by subjects of British ethnicity, but one that also institutionalized their subordinate social status. As the South African analogy suggests, this process likely entailed a gradual loss of economic power in those parts of the kingdom that were predominantly British in population. These areas would have been characterized by "high production and low consumption, tribute and disproportionate legal costs flowing out and few gifts flowing in. The lack of opportunities for young British males to become retainers of chieftains would, perhaps, have encouraged them to leave for British-controlled kingdoms or led to increasing poverty as inherited farms became subdivided between co-heirs. In this long drawn-out process of economic decline, many individual Britons may have found themselves drifting into Anglo-Saxon households, as slaves, hangers-on, brides and so forth, but they would have come into these communities as one among many. Their ability to impact on the cultural or linguistic identity of the community would have been minimal, and such households would have become ethnic sausage machines, recycling stray biological material in such a way that it would not carry its ethnicity with it into the next generation" (129).
In "Welsh Territories and Welsh Identities in Late Anglo-Saxon England," C. P. Lewis studies territorial names of the western border shires mentioned in Domesday Book (1086 AD), describing them in the eleventh century in much the same way as Tyler does Penda's Mercia in the seventh, that is, not as "little Waleses within England," but rather as "multicultural societies . . . with plural identities, bicultural before 1066, tricultural afterwards" (142). And David E. Thornton examines "Some Welshmen in Domesday Book and Beyond: Aspects of Anglo-Welsh Relations in the Eleventh Century," concluding that a number of prominent persons and families in Wales were closely associated with Anglo-Saxon and later Anglo-Norman overlords, and may have owed "their initial rise to prominence" in their own country to these powerful connections (164).
In "Part II: Linguistic Perspectives," Peter Schrijver offers an original view of "What Britons Spoke around 400 AD," suggesting that Germanic-speaking immigrants "met predominantly, if not exclusively, speakers of late-spoken Latin when they arrived in the British Lowland Zone. The further north and west they came, the higher will have been the proportion of Celtic speakers they met" (170). Since the centers of Anglo-Saxon culture were all located in the lowlands, Old English "is unlikely to have undergone much in the way of Celtic substratum influence"; instead, the Old English vowel system was influenced by British speakers "of a variety of late-spoken Latin that was more or less identical with the Romance variety underlying Old French" (171).
In "Invisible Britons: The View from Linguistics," Richard Coates compares the minimal borrowing of words and place-name elements from Brittonic into Old English with those of Basque into Latin in the Pyrenees and Norse into Gaelic in Scotland. He finds this lack of borrowing inexplicable on any other but "the traditional view that in parts of what became England there were few visible Britons and that this state might have been achieved by emigration, annihilation or enslavement, for each of which there is evidence" in the written sources (188). O. J. Padel concurs in his study of "Place-Names and the Saxon Conquest of Devon and Cornwall," mapping the distributions of the Cornish place-name elements tre 'farmstead, estate' and bod 'dwelling, cottage' as opposed to Old English tun and cot, which had the same respective meanings. Padel adduces a North American analogy, "whereby a major replacement of population, language and place-names occurred over a large area in a comparatively short space of time" (228), concluding that "the western limit of the Saxon settlement serves to demonstrate the comparative absence of Brittonic place-names over most of England, in sharp contrast with those areas where a Brittonic language continued in use. It is difficult to explain that absence other than by positing a low density of native British population after the conquest and settlement by the Anglo-Saxons, whether caused by 'ethnic cleansing' or other factors" (230). Duncan Probert offers a similar though more precisely formulated opinion in "Mapping Early Medieval Language Change in South-West England." He observes the regular borrowing into Old English place-names of certain Brittonic vowels, consonants and other sound changes, concluding that Brittonic was still being spoken in southwestern England in the mid-sixth century, except for "parts of central and south Wiltshire," but that by "the mid-eighth century Old English speakers had reached the Tamar and south Devon, after which Brittonic speakers do not appear to influence the local Old English pronunciation of borrowed place-names" (243).
The only philologist to stand out sharply from her linguistic colleagues on these questions is Hildegard Tristram, who asks, if native Britons had survived in significant numbers in England, "Why Don't the English Speak Welsh?" Her answer is a surprising one. The English may not speak Welsh, but their language was very strongly impacted by grammatical features of Brittonic introduced by a large number of shifters from that language to Old English, initiating the loss of case endings and change from a primarily synthetic to a largely analytic grammar. Tristram argues that this "bottom-up" shift of sociolinguistic register often prompts the unconscious transfer of phonological and morphosyntactic forms into the new language, while it simultaneously discourages the more obvious and conscious choice of vocabulary items from the lower prestige language (214). The changes begun by Brittonic-speaking shifters to Old English do not manifest themselves clearly until the Middle English period.
In this interesting mix of views, one suggestive anecdote from Bede on the fate of the Britons in Anglo-Saxon England remains unexamined. This is the story of Cædmon, a herdsman at the monastery of Whitby ca. 680, only a couple of generations after the conversion of Northumbria to Christianity but many after the Anglian conquest of the northeastern littoral of England. Cædmon is the Anglicized form of a royal Brittonic name, appearing as Catumandus 'War-Pony' in Gaul of the fourth century BC, as well as in an inscription honoring a seventh-century king of Gwynedd in North Wales, Catamanus in late Brittonic Latin or Catmann (later Cadfan) in early Welsh, father of that Cadwallon who had ravaged Northumbria around the time of Cædmon's birth. How did this Englishman of servile status come to bear the name of Celtic kings and warriors? It is not inconceivable that Cædmon was named by his parents in admiration of impressive enemies, but it is perhaps more likely that he was a native Briton himself, at least by ethnic origin and family background, perhaps rather a distinguished one, if we imagine the cowherd's ancestors as chieftains of one of the nearby northern British kingdoms once controlling territory that eventually became part of Northumbria. Yet, Cædmon is clearly an Angle by linguistic and cultural identity—in fact, the very first known poet of the English language—who thoroughly (if miraculously) internalized the prosody of ancient Germanic alliterative verse to start a new tradition of biblical themes in Old English song. The case of Cædmon would seem to supply an answer to all three questions Higham asks in his introduction: (1) some native Britons and their descendents continued to live and work in Anglo-Saxon England in subordinate but not completely degraded social positions; (2) some of them adopted the language and cultural identity of their conquerors without necessarily losing all trace of their original ethnicity and social background, though they themselves may not have clearly recognized or valued these markers of their own heritage; and (3) some Anglo-Saxons of likely British descent, even those in humble station like Cædmon, could still contribute in unpredictable but striking ways to the unique cultural achievements of Anglo-Saxon England.
Craig R. Davis
McDonald, R. Andrew. 2007. Manx Kingship in its Irish Sea Setting 1187–1229: King Rọgnvaldr and the Crovan Dynasty. Dublin: Four Courts Press. 254 pages. ISBN 9721846820472.
It is rare when an author is able to create a text which brings an era to life for a reader; R. Andrew McDonald has done just that in his latest work on the Manx Kingship in its Irish Sea Setting 1187–1229: King Rọgnvaldr and the Crovan Dynasty. McDonald uses scholarship from several chronicles and annals to illustrate his understanding of this unique and vibrant period in the history of Great Britain. Each one, from the Manx Chronicle to the Orkneyinga Saga, highlights various issues of concern to the King(s) of the Isle of Man. King Rọgnvaldr Guðrǿðarson of Man and the Isles ruled for over forty years, according to the Manx Chronicle, which means he was in power as the last true king of the area for a greater length of time than most medieval sovereigns. McDonald repeatedly makes the point how important his position was during the period. Even though he had several offspring, Rọgnvaldr's legacy did not extend more than twenty years past his reign.
This book is very descriptive and gives a good account of the aggression between not only Rọgnvaldr's male children, but also their cousins and other aspiring rulers. These were not meek men, but violent and vindictive combatants. Some of the techniques employed as deterrents and punishment were the blinding, castration, and mutilation of enemies (96). The descriptions bring the text and the times alive, allowing the reader to visualize, maybe more than he or she wants to, the violent and creative nature of these men. This is important in a text, as it gives depth to the personalities involved. The audience gains a better understanding of these practices and why they were used. The use of castration effectively ends the lineage of the affected male, while also humiliating him. Blinding impedes the man's ability to lead an army or to fight, while mutilation puts others on notice not to engage or enrage an aggressor. These successfully discouraged further invaders and antagonists. McDonald is consistent in his descriptions of punishments and tributes, which allows the audience a balanced, yet vivid, account of the interactions between rulers.
McDonald includes maps showing the general, as well as specific, areas covered in the text, so the reader is able to reference them with ease. This gives more insight, highlighting the Isle of Man's centralized position in Great Britain and Ireland, as well as its location relative to the Hebrides, the Aran, and the Orkney Islands. Following these maps are two tables containing a detailed genealogy of "The Crovan dynasty" in Table 1 and "Sumarliði and his descendants" in Table 2 (27). The audience gains a better understanding of the relationships between the various family groupings when using the tables while reading the main body of this work. When combining these tools with the plates located between pages 128 and 129 illustrating the various abbeys and castles, the text takes on a new dimension, one that permits a three-dimensional point-of-view, so there is a greater depth of knowledge and understanding.
The only criticisms to be made about this book are unnecessary repetitiveness, too much conjecture, and a few proofreading errors. The author constantly refers to chapters four and five throughout the second and third chapters. The introduction gives a comprehensive synopsis of each of the chapters, so it is redundant to continue to refer to the contents of future sections. It seems like a tease to read, "[i]n addition to its significance for the question of the family and parentage of Rọgnvaldr, the whole issue is of considerable importance for the external relations of the Manx kings; the Irish connections of Rọgnvaldr and the Manx rulers are, accordingly, considered in more detail in the following chapters" (73). With each successive mention of further information, which will be relayed in later chapters, the reader becomes less interested in the content, and frustrated that the material is not included where referenced. The audience may be provoked by the excessive conjecture about births, interactions, and disagreements, which cannot be proven, nor disproven for that matter. While these disparities are disconcerting, a smaller annoyance is a lack of proofreading in some passages, such as where it states, "it also seems to suggest that he might become make himself king there" (118). There are few of these errors, but they do throw the reader off when analyzing and reading the text. Apart from these few issues, the text is very well written and captivates the audience's attention throughout the five chapters.
Collin College, Plano, TX
McMaster, Johnston. 2008. A Passion for Justice: Social Ethics in the Celtic Tradition. Edinburgh: Dunedin. Pages xiv + 242 + 15 maps and other figures. ISBN 9781906716042.
The author offers a meditation on ethical thought in early Irish tradition, hoping to demonstrate its relevance to the challenges that still face a divided people. In doing so, he simplifies and idealizes "Celtic Social Ethics" in terms intended to engage and inspire a contemporary readership. These principles are represented as hospitality, forgiveness, compassion, gender equality, environmental care, justice, and peace-building. All are manifestations of a distinctive "Celtic spirituality," according to McMaster, that stresses (1) a personal intimacy with the divine being over an insistence on God's authority and transcendence; (2) a relationship of mutuality with all other human beings, even enemies, over institutionalized hierarchies and social divisions; (3) a reverence for the natural world and the divine presence in all living things over a separate supernatural realm of the blessed and the damned; (4) a reliance upon "emotional thinking" over rational analysis, and poetic metaphor over formal dogma; (5) an individual's continuing quest for spiritual relationship rather than the arrival at some conclusive enlightenment; and finally, (6) a passion for justice in this world, rectifying social wrongs and inequities, over a desire for personal salvation in the next. These are some of the values that McMaster attributes to early Christianity in Ireland as it adapted attitudes of the pre-Christian Celtic religion to a new faith. In particular, he explores what tradition tells us of the early Irish saints, believing that these figures illustrate principles that should still inform ethical practice in the modern world, especially for those inhabitants of an island so embittered by sectarian and political grievances. McMaster's prose style tends toward the homiletic and recursive in its emphasis upon these few large themes, but the volume as a whole is designed as a kind of study text, with sixteen short, readable chapters, each concluding with a list of its main points and two final "test questions."
It takes a tuath to raise a child. In his first section, "Context for Social Ethics," McMaster argues that a communitarian ethos in Ireland derives from its ancient organization into decentralized kin-groups, the tuath 'tribe' and fine 'clan' or extended family, each of which undertook collective protection and oversight of its individual members. This family-oriented culture was replicated in the structure of the early Christian church, which spread during the sixth and seventh centuries into a network of rural monasteries, conceived as communities of equal but mutually responsible kinsmen, rather than subordinates in a hierarchy ruled by bishops from urban centers. It was not until the twelfth century that territorial dioceses under archbishops were established and the older patterns of monasticism reformed on a continental model. In 1155 Pope Adrian IV granted Ireland to the Anglo-Norman king Henry II, after which Roman Catholic and English styles of church and state governance came increasingly to dominate, but never completely erase, native outlooks and ideals.
In his second section, "Saints and Social Ethics," McMaster explores the lives of four early Irish saints with particular attention to their expressed concern for women, the poor and ill, and other outcast or marginalized people, which he demonstrates through anecdotes taken both from their own self-representations, as in Patrick's sixth-century Confession and Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, or from subsequent hagiography, as in the seventh-century "Lives" of Brigid by Cogitosus, of Columba by Adomnán, and of Columbanus by Jonas of Bobbio. Readers of The Heroic Age will rightly wonder about the accuracy and completeness of McMaster's evocation of the worldview and value system of early Irish Christianity even on the evidence of these particular sources. As an example of his method, McMaster warmly appreciates Patrick's respect for nature as expressed in the Confessions, which is "in keeping with early Irish spirituality," and is happy to see in that saint's insistence upon the doctrine of the Trinity an "experience of God . . . that was both relational and communitarian." Yet, McMaster dislikes Patrick's attempt to introduce a diocesan organization under his own ecclesiastical authority similar to the Church structures with which he was familiar in Britain, and especially regrets that in his stern letter to the abusive soldiers of Coroticus Patrick "falls into the trap of portraying God as a God of violence and the cause of suffering and retribution. This God image is unethical and detracts from the socio-economic, political roots of suffering" (34). Thus, when Patrick's writings can be construed to support the author's idea of a pacifist, nature-friendly and non-judgmental early Irish spirituality, his authority is cheerfully adduced, but when the saint's own words explicitly contradict that ideal, adducing a principle of divine justice taken from both the Old and New Testaments, as well as amply illustrated in traditional British and Irish narratives, that view is rejected as a regrettable error uncharacteristic of the spiritual sensitivity the saint is taken otherwise to evince. Brigid of Kildare, who may be entirely apocryphal as an historical figure, is similarly recruited as a proto-feminist, asserting the rights of women against a patriarchal ecclesiastical establishment. The warrior saint Columba, exiled from Ireland for provoking a battle over the possession of a psalter, and undertaking as penance to convert as many living Picts as Irishmen had been killed, is made, along with his successor Columbanus, an apostle of tolerant Christian ecumenism, unappreciated and finally defeated by a hegemonistic Roman Church and its worldly allies.
This reviewer, a friend to Ireland and those aspects of early Irish tradition he knows, both Christian and otherwise, would like to believe that there is something special about early Irish spirituality that reflects both its people's prior beliefs and a distinctive cultural attitude toward life. McMaster has attempted to isolate and revive for current use aspects of that tradition that he believes will offer a good way forward for his people. This moral purpose, however laudable its goals, does militate against a seriously critical and comprehensive representation of early Christian culture in Ireland, a period full of stark, not to say, shocking contradictions and paradoxes. Early Irish attitudes toward both the social world we live in and the spiritual world within or beyond it, were multiple, conflicted, interested, inconsistent, and politically divisive, then as now, but this fact does not obviate McMaster's good will in trying to find at least some positive continuities between past and present.
Craig R. Davis
Wiley, Dan M., ed. 2008. Essays on the Early Irish King Tales. Dublin: Four Courts Press. Pages 224. ISBN 9781846820458.
This collection of eight studies explores the rígscéla, 'king tales,' a large body of prose narratives, sometimes interspersed with verse, about the legendary rulers of ancient Ireland. The editor counts 137 extant tales in all, dating from the beginning of the eighth through the sixteenth centuries. Scholars have traditionally considered these legends to comprise a separate cycle of "historical" sagas, but Wiley notes that examples can be found among other branches of medieval Irish literature as well, like the mythological Fenian or Ulster cycles. He provides an inventory by province and dynasty, beginning at Tara in the territory of the Southern Uí Néill and proceeding clockwise around the island. The Uí Néill federation accounts for over one third of the rulers represented, since this group remained dominant, or at least highly influential, during most of the time these legends achieved written form. The king tales are distinctive in that they focus not so much upon the exposition of heroic character per se, as do the tales of Cúchulainn or Finn mac Cumaill, but upon events that are presented as crucial for later dynastic developments, especially in the contests between or within royal families for "provincial over-kingship or the legendary high-kingship of Ireland" (52). Wiley supplies a very useful index of these tales in alphabetical order with bibliographical references to the most recent editions and translations (54–67).
The other contributors provide more detailed studies of particular texts, often with an eye to their precise generic classification or recruitment of different types of traditional narrative. For instance, Joseph Falaky Nagy shows how the famous dialogue between characters representing different ages and aspects of archaic Irish lore in the Acallam na Senórach, 'Colloquy of the Ancients,' provides a synthesizing response to three branches of tradition: (1) the king tales, (2) the tales of Finn, and (3) the lives of the early Irish saints. Nagy finds that the Acallam validates the notion of dynastic authority promoted by the king tales, but also affirms the legitimacy of a parallel institution closely allied to kingship, the rígfhénnidecht 'leadership of a royal war band', which is here modeled on Finn's charismatic command of his roving fian. Tales told within the Acallam further depart from traditional versions of these stories with the introduction of St. Patrick, leavening what may be seen as the fruitless violence of the pre-Christian heroic era with intimations of God's power and protection. Plots are thus often developed in potentially dangerous directions only to deflect disaster through the intervention of the saint. Nagy finds the figure of Diarmait mac Cerbaill of the Southern Uí Néill to be the most overt case of re-imagining in the Acallam, in that the king is "remade in the image of his royal counterparts in continental romance," serving "as an ever-reliable and welcoming authority figure" (75).
Kevin Murray offers "Some thoughts on Baile Binnebérlach mac Búain" ('Sweet-voiced Baile son of Búan'), which he would differentiate from the king tales with which it is often associated. The hero Baile dies as a result of the false report of his beloved Aillenn's death, after which she too succumbs to grief. From the graves of the two lovers spring majestic trees at the top of which grows fruit resembling their heads. Murray finds very close links between this story and another tale of tragic love recounted in a late Old Irish poem, Úar in lathe do Lum Lain, 'Cold the Day for Lom Laine,' in the Book of Leinster. Here, the lovers, Tethna daughter of Cormac mac Airt and her sweetheart Lom Laine, are compared to Aillenn and Baile in their arborial forms as "the apple-tree of Aile" and "the yew-tree of Rath Baili," respectively. Murray thus believes that Baile Binnebérlach mac Búain is more usefully classified among the dinnshenchas, 'lore of places,' rather than with the king tales proper.
Michael Byrnes supplies, with a translation into English, "An edition of Esnada Tige Buchet ['The Melody of the House of Buchet'] from [Oxford, Bodleian] MS Rawlinson B.502." Buchet is not himself a king, but a very generous host, "a cauldron of plenty . . . for the men of Ireland" (101). Byrnes stresses the representative association of this character with the Mugdorna, a branch of the Airgialla, a powerful and expansive people in the seventh and eighth centuries, who became key vassals of the Uí Néill of Ulster, but had enjoyed a similar relationship in earlier times with the Laigin of Leinster. Buchet's interactions with his neighbors are made to recapitulate and authorize political developments of the historical period, particularly the "special relationship" that developed between the Airgialla and the Uí Néill. This alliance is explained in the story of Eithne Thóebfhata, a figure who in early Irish literature is associated with the "goddess of the Tara kingship" (93). This sovereignty princess is the daughter of the aged king of Leinster, Cathaír Mór, from whom all the ruling families of Laigin claimed descent. She is put into the care of Buchet as his foster-daughter, which explains the protection his people the Mugdorna (= Airgialla) once provided for the Laigin families of Leinster. Eithne, however, is abducted from Buchet's holdings by the future king of Ulster Cormac mac Airt, the ancestral figure from whom the Uí Néill and Connachta made their later claims upon the high-kingship of Tara. Cormac impregnates Eithne before she escapes back to Buchet, but Cormac wins Buchet's acquiescence, and thus that of the Airgialla, by making an honest woman of her and acknowledging his paternity of their son Cairpre, thereby earning at the same time his claim upon the Tara kingship. The political subtext of the story is that the Uí Néill could only achieve such power with the support of the Airgialla, rationalizing "the tradition that the Laigin held the kingship of Tara before it was wrested away from them by the Uí Néill" (97).
William Sayers discusses "Deficient royal rule: the king's proxies, judges and the instruments of his fate," in which the author examines the role of secondary characters in the king tales and their relationships with the royal protagonists. Each kind of "subaltern" figure is allowed the freedom "to assess the adequacy of royal rule" (104), the first being the fool, represented by Rómit Rígóinmit in Mesca Ulad, 'The Intoxication of the Men of Ulster.' The fool's physical features are "all antithetical to the royal 'capital' ideal of fair hair, blue eyes, white skin, styled beard and so on" (105). He carries no weapons but his horsewhip, making him a "kind of herdsman to the royal army": "the humiliation of being struck in public by a person of such inferior rank—still a royal functionary—would serve as incentive to courage and prowess in battle" (106). However, because of his extremely low status the fool is himself immune to social and even royal retribution, so he "can levy constructive or destructive criticism on the powerful because . . . it is literally beneath the king's or hero's dignity to silence such a critic" (106). In addition, "the fool's antics always dissipate want and sorrow—not too dissimilar from the functions of the just and successful king" (106). The paradoxical symbiosis between fool and king is dramatized in Togail Bruidne Da Derga, 'The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel,' where Taulchine entertains the court with his prophetic juggling: "the ordered passage of swords, shields and gold balls . . . through his hands is like the complex but peaceful and orderly rule of a just king . . . but the juggler Taulchine is prescient and this specifically with regard to the king's fate . . . and the balls tumble to the floor with a great clatter, in anticipation of the fall of Conaire's kingdom" (107). The druid is another kind of character who provides counsel to kings, anticipating the role of Christian clerics, who appear in later versions of these tales. However, Sayers sees clerics as substantially different in attitude from the druids who "acted in the interest of the king" (114), instead seeking to exploit the misdeeds of rulers to gain power for themselves. The Church competed with the monarchy for authority, so that cleric and king are often in conflict: "Where the fool was guileless but prescient . . . the cleric is forward, abrasive and righteous" (123). Clerical perspectives came to "overwrite" the function of the other secondary figures illustrating and thus valorizing "ecclesiastical influence on royal dynasties" (124). Even when the sovereignty goddess herself is introduced as another legitimizing character, her supernatural power is diminished and co-opted. For instance, in Aided Muirchertach mac Erca, 'The Violent Death of Muirchertach mac Erca,' the maiden Sin is first encountered by the king sitting next to a mound dressed in green, the "trappings both of the Otherworld and of the tutelary deity of the land" (119). Yet, Sin is shown to be no goddess, but merely a human woman whom Muirchertach has wronged and upon whom she seeks revenge. After the king's fall, Sin converts and is brought "into the fold of the Church" (120), confirming the power and importance of clerical authority in validating or retracting a monarch's right to rule.
In "Women, the world and three wise men: power and authority in tales relating to Niall Noígiallach and Lugaid Mac Con," Clodagh Downey argues that it is the quality of a king's judgment that provides the crucial indication of his legitimacy. She adduces the famous passage in Cath Maige Mucrama, 'The Battle of Mag Mucrama,' in which Cormac mac Airt disputes a poor judgment made by Lugaid Mac Con, revealing Cormac to be the true king. Downey sees the rendering of poor or wise judgments as mirroring the power struggles among contenders for kingship. Even the failure to decide can sometimes signify king-worthy wisdom, as when Eochaid Muigmedón declines to choose between his son and foster-son, passing off this task to the druid Sithchend to forestall the suspicion that family favoritism governed his judgment. Rather than a shirking of his duty, the king's indecision here is presented as a form of political prudence, since there are many parallel instances of the ill-effects of hasty judgments. The king's wisdom is not so clear, however, in his handling of his queen Mongfhind, mother of Eochaid's first set of children, for whom she works sorcery to ensure the eldest will attain the throne. When Eochaid fathers Niall on another woman Cairenn, Mongfhind forces her into servitude, demanding that she expose her newborn son without the king making an effort to intervene. Nor do the men of Ireland dare defy Mongfhind out of fear of her witchcraft. When Niall survives and asks his father to release his mother from her bondage, the king replies, "I would bestow (her), were she mine; I would not deny thee aught" (141). Downey reads Eochaid's inability to act here as culpable weakness, undermining his right to govern and preparing for the accession of his son. It is Niall himself who must stand up to his wicked stepmother, lead the people to overcome their fear of her, and win their consent to his rule: "but this was the voice of the men of Erin, that Niall should be king after his father" (144). The governed themselves are given the final judgment as to who should rule them, and successful governance is shown to derive from respectful "co-operation and reciprocity" between king and subjects (146), revealed nowhere so clearly as in the king's own capacity for wise judgments regarding their welfare.
S. Elizabeth Passmore takes a somewhat different slant on the legitimization of royal authority in "Prophecy and counsel in the kingship tales of Niall Noígiallach." She compares three versions of how Niall acquired the kingship of Tara, arguing that the authorization of his rule differs in each, reflecting changes during the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the role of court poet, the royal "historian" who recounted such tales. In the oldest version, the poetic Echtra mac Echach Muigmedóin, 'The Adventure of the Sons of Eochaid Muigmedón,' the half-brothers of Niall behave like passive puppets of the queen Mongfhind, while Niall is depicted as independent, forthright and decisive, behavior which indicates his superior capacity to rule. After surviving the death planned for him by his stepmother and freeing his birth mother from servitude, he bests his half-brothers at three successive tests of suitability for the throne. In contrast, the later prose Echtra focuses simply on the queen's hatred of Niall and his mother. Rather than demonstrating his fitness to rule through a sequence of noble deeds, this version simply introduces a sovereignty goddess to prophesy Niall's coming accession from the very moment of his birth. In the third text, Tarrnig in Sealsa ag Síl Néill, 'Síl Niall's Era Has Come to an End,' the goddess's prophecy is reworked to stress the end rather than beginning of Niall's reign, making way for the accession of his half-brother Brian, son of Mongfhind. This change is intended to validate the rule of Cathal Croibhdhearg, king of Tara from 1189 to 1224, whose descent was traced not to Niall, but to Brian. The prophetic delimitation of the good king Niall's rule makes him only one of the worthy sons of Eochaid, enabling his brother to approximate the superior prestige of the younger sibling through fraternal affinity. The poet even creates a warm camaraderie between the brothers, which directly contradicts their fierce rivalry in the earlier texts. They are shown working together to bring down a wild boar: "The five striplings from Conn's fortress hunted in the mound of Cnogba; the young warriors from sloping Tara captured a big strong spirited pig" (166). This harmony among the brothers identifies them all with Tara: any one of their descendents, like Cathal, might be seen rightfully to hold the high kingship.
Morgan Thomas Davies describes "The somewhat heroic biography of Brandub mac Echach," a late sixth-century Christian king of Leinster, who is subjected to a searching critique of his character and career. Davies notes that traditional story-patterns, like the hero's reluctant embrace of a loathly lady who then transforms herself into a beautiful sovereignty princess, are ironized or reversed. In this case, Brandub falls "prey to a transformation in the opposite direction," when he sleeps with the supposed wife of his rival, the king of Ulster, who then reveals herself as a "grey-backed mill-hag" (207). The conventional compunction of a pre-Christian king in accepting sexual union with a repulsive crone, thus indicating his superior throne-worthiness, is twisted into a greed for power that displays itself as a discreditable and degrading lust. Davies considers several historical kings, like the twelfth-century Diarmait mac Murchada, upon whom Brandub's story might be seen to comment.
The contributors to this volume offer an introduction to the early Irish king tales that is remarkable for its comprehensiveness, scholarly depth and range of compelling critical insights. The editor and team as a whole should be warmly thanked for their major advancement of our understanding of this important body of medieval Irish literature.
Craig R. Davis
(Warm thanks to Shannon Petsa for her help with this review)
Elliott, Anna. 2009. Twilight of Avalon: A Novel of Trystan and Isolde. New York: Touchstone. 448 pages. ISBN 9781416589891.
Twilight of Avalon is the first in a proposed trilogy of novels based on the Tristan and Isolde story. The plot is heavily influenced by other Arthurian legends—Isolde in this version is the widow of Constantine, Arthur's successor. The story begins with her trying to maintain the influence that she has as Queen of Britain, which is threatened by Constantine's would-be successors. Most prominent among these is Marche (Mark), the king of Cornwall. Isolde suspects that Marche intends to betray Britain to its Saxon enemies, and so resolves to escape from Tintagel into the countryside to find evidence of the treachery. A group of mercenaries, Trystan among them, assists her in her quest. Together they try to evade Marche's pursuit while finding out more about Trystan's past.
The novel sets out to bring new things to the Tristan and Isolde legend, most notably by placing Isolde at the forefront by relating events through her perspective. The narration is third-person, but its scope is limited to what Isolde herself knows and experiences. Trystan gets considerably less attention. The medieval narratives have precisely the opposite focus: Isolde appears relatively late in, for example, Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan. The shift in perspective accompanies a greater realism. The novel relates gritty detail about sixth-century living conditions and the hardships of the Saxon wars, and the supernatural elements are kept to a minimum. Where the realism falls a bit flat is in the characterization of (especially) Isolde and Marche. Anna Elliot, in the interview included in the book, calls Isolde "a feminist of her time," and her Isolde is indeed capable and headstrong. However, Isolde also frequently relies on men to save her. And Marche is a cartoon villain who commits every act of viciousness under the sun. Elliot attempts nuance by giving him homosexual desires and suggesting that public intolerance of these contributes to his villainy, but, problematically, she handles this so clumsily that Marche's homosexuality just comes across as another one of his reprehensible traits.
The most notable departure from the legend is the omission of the love story. I imagine that this will come in the later novels of the trilogy, but in this installment Elliot portrays trust, and the lack thereof, as the force that unites or divides Isolde and Trystan. The long scenes where Isolde contemplates Trystan's trustworthiness taxed my patience, but at least they are a more believable approach to bringing the characters together than the long-derided love potion.
Of course, the book should not be judged on its relation to other versions of the legend. It is a completely readable novel that kept me engrossed with its carefully paced revelations. Some contrived plot points annoyed me—the revelations are well-paced because Isolde conveniently has self-imposed amnesia!—but they did not prevent me from enjoying the novel. Twilight of Avalon might not be sufficiently interesting to be included on a modern Arthurian literature course, but it has much to offer to people looking for a good read.
Queen's University, Kingston