The Heroic Age

Issue 6

Spring 2003



  The Epics of Celtic Ireland

 Medieval Warfare

 Alban and St. Albans

 The Earliest English Kings

Jean Markale. The Epics of Celtic Ireland: Ancient Tales of Mystery and Magic. Translated by Jody Gladding. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2000. ISBN 0-89281-815-8.


Reviewed by Linda A. Malcor, Aliso Viejo, CA

This translation of Jean Markale's L'Epopée celtique en Irlande (Payot, 1984) should come with a warning label: "Use with extreme caution." Occasional flashes of insight are buried in the text, which reads more like a stream of consciousness than a scholarly book. Commentary flows into summaries that merge into direct translations (or sometimes even translations of translations) and then back into commentary with occasional quotation marks or indentations as the only signals to the reader that a transition has occurred. Sometimes a section is pure commentary; sometimes it is pure translation; most often it is some sort of blend. There does not, however, appear to be any governing editorial policy behind why some sections contain commentary, why some don't, why some texts are summarized, why others aren't, and why the two are frequently blended together. Also, I suspect that the translator is not herself familiar with the Irish epics or the scholarship in the field, since many spelling choices are archaic and diacritics are frequently missing. The result is a work that is extremely hard to follow.

Markale's scholarship is sloppy throughout. For instance, he often states hypotheses as facts. He claims to be "correcting" the epics to their original forms, writes of medieval scribes "correcting" texts from the oral tradition, and complains that some of those same scribes "corrupted" the text as it came to them, all of which is sheer conjecture on his part. We have no idea what the "originals" of these texts looked like, nor do we have any idea what the text of the performance of the epic that was recorded by each scribe did or did not contain. For all we know, the Christian references were a part of the tradition as the scribes knew them rather than clerical additions. Given what narrative cycles usually look like, there probably was no one "correct" version of any of the tales; rather, several variants were probably in circulation at the time the scribes recorded their texts.

Markale is also incautious in his presentation of details. To describe the Irish as "Celts" rather than as descendents of the Celts is misleading. Markale frequently comments that something is the result of parallel development in diverse Indo-European cultures or the result of direct transmission to or from the Celts without any evidence to back up the claims. He also identifies narratives as "Celtic" when they are widely known beyond the cultural areas inhabited by the descendents of the Celts. On p. 164 he claims that "The Roman type of king is a dux," which is not what a dux was at all. A Roman officer who took his troops outside the area over which he had military jurisdiction received the title of dux for the duration of that particular military action. Markale mentions parallels between Cuchulainn and the Greek Herakles (although the text uses "Hercules", which refers to the Roman demigod), but he does not mention that the most common scholarly identification of Cuchulainn is as "the Irish Achilles."

Sometimes Markale blatantly contradicts himself. For instance, on p. 15 he identifies the Fir Gallian as the Gauls, and on p. 21 he glosses the Fir Gallian as the Welsh. There is a world of difference (not to mention a considerable span of space and time) between the Gauls and the Celtic descendants who came to be identified as the Welsh.

The end result is that the insightful points Markale does make about various texts, clever interpretations of certain scenes and thought-provoking parallels to other traditions get lost in the disorganized verbiage of the text. If you already know the material well and are wary of the pitfalls of the text, the book is probably worth the effort it takes to read through it critically. But someone who is approaching the Irish material for the first time would be well advised to start somewhere else.

Everett U. Crosby, Medieval Warfare: A Bibliographical Guide. New York: Garland, 2000. ISBN 0-8153-3849-X. 215pp.

Reviewed by Rebecca Umland, University of Nebraska at Kearney

This important reference guide is volume 21 of the "Garland Medieval Bibliographies" series and volume 2224 of the ongoing "Garland Reference Library of the Humanities." It catalogues some 3,000 books, collections of essays, and articles up through 1999 relevant to its topic. The bibliography is divided into 18 chapters, the first of which is a broad survey, "Warfare in the Middle Ages." Ensuing chapters move to more specialized topics: "Battles," "Seiges," "Naval Operations," "Arms and Armor" "Archery," "Cavalry," "Gunpowder, Firearms, Artillery and Seige Weapons," and "Fortifications." Others feature works related to "Rural, Urban, and Coastal Defenses," "Recruitment and Services," "Finance and Supply," and "The Spoils of War, Booty and Ransoms," while later chapters focus on "War and Peace," "The Laws of War," "War and Literature," and "Military Treatises," ending with "Warfare Illustrated."

The individual chapters themselves are organized clearly into subcategories, beginning with "General Works," and then grouping entries by periods ("Late Roman Empire," "Early Middle Ages," "Later Middle Ages") and/or by region: England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, France and the Low Coutnries, Germany and Switzerland, Spain and Portugal, Italy, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, and Byzantine and Muslim States, although some chapters combine regions when the subjects are more specialized (e.g., "Naval Operations") or dispense with them altogether for the same reason (e.g., "Archery,").

The author admits that, in the face of a subject so daunting, his choices for topics may seem arbitrary. He also concedes that despite the generous number of entries, the work is less than comprehensive, yet he hopes that it will serve "as a checklist," so that "new and fruitful avenues for research can be laid out" (xv).

This bibliographical guide, with its user-friendly organization, is essential for libraries. It is also a useful resource for specialists interested in this important part of life in the Middle Ages.

Alban and St. Albans: Roman and Medieval Architecture, Art and Archaeology. Edited by Martin Henig and Phillip Lindley. British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions XXIV. Leeds: Maney, 2001.

Reviewed by Michelle Ziegler

Martin Henig and Phillip Lindley have put together a very nice volume of papers that spans all aspects of life, culture and history of the city of St. Albans. As the editors note, this book represents only the beginning of study at St. Albans. Topics range from the pre-Roman settlement on the site through the late medieval period. Although the majority of the book is concerned with post-1000 AD St. Albans, there is still much of interest for early medieval scholars. Richard Sharpe's discussion of the role of St. Germanus of Auxerre in the development of the cult of St. Alban and in the Passio St. Albani will give early medievalists a great deal to think about. There is something for everyone interested in the early medieval church in Britain in this volume and I heartily recommend it.

The contributions are:

D.P. Kirby. The Earliest English Kings. Revised Edition. New York and London: Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0-415-24211-8

Reviewed by Michelle Ziegler

The arrival of this revised edition of Kirby's 1991 edition of The Earliest English Kings is a cause for celebration among all serious students of the history Early Medieval Britain and the context of Old English literature. Kirby's book stands out as the only attempt to write a comprehensive narrative history of the Anglo-Saxon period from their arrival in the fifth century through the reign of Alfred. By trying to provide a narrative history for the English as a whole, rather than an individual kingdom, Kirby moves from one major kingdom to the next as the power of one waxes and the other wanes. Therefore, the book concentrates on Kent, Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. If you are looking for the history of a minor kingdom like Lindsey, this book is not going to provide much detail but it will provide the a good indication of the broader picture in the period of interest. For a dynastic perspective, see Barbara Yorke's Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, which does treat the royal dynasty of each kingdom individually. Yorke's and Kirby's books together form an indispensable set of source books for the study of Anglo-Saxon England. They compliment each other perfectly. Kirby's Earliest English Kings is first and foremost a political history, with scant mention of the church, literature, or other cultural topics. One of the advantages of Kirby's book in particular is that he discusses British, Irish, and Pictish people and kingdoms when necessary, rather than referring to them as a collective whole against which the English conflicted.

This revised edition does not make many significant changes to the 1991 text. The content revisions are restricted to updating the endnotes. This revised text does still contain Kirby's one-year revision of all Northumbrian dates, a practice that has not caught on among other historians. The book has been retype-set and the chapter endnotes have been moved to the end of the book. The new layout design is attractive and newer publishing methods have made for a more compact book (without loss of content) for which students and those of us who tote around books as we work should be grateful. This book is heartily recommended for anyone interested in the political history of Early Medieval Britain. However, if you already have the first edition, the changes made to this revised edition are probably not substantial enough to warrant purchase of the revised edition.


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This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2003. All rights reserved.