Friday, March 17, 2017

Did the Irish save civilization? The reviewers of the Medieval Review weigh in

The Medieval Review

Flechner, Roy, and Sven Meeder, eds. The Irish in Early Medieval Europe: Identity, Culture and Religion New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Pp. 288. $39.99. ISBN: 978-1-137-43059-5.

Reviewed by Alexander O'Hara

University of St Andrews

One needs to be wary in reading and assessing this book. There is much good in it with some fine contributions, but it is deeply flawed.The editors Roy Flechner and Sven Meeder seek to debunk so-called myths: in this case the influence of Irish monks and scholars in early medieval Europe.

In a previous publication, Flechner suggested that Saint Patrick was a tax dodger, arguing that he came to Ireland as a tax exile to avoid the fiscal burdens his decurion father would have bequeathed him. Flechner manages to sound convincing despite the fact that the imperial tax system was obsolete in Britain by the time Patrick came to Ireland, while blithely dismissing Patrick's own testimony in his two surviving written accounts.

We see a similar deconstructionist vein at work in this volume which seeks to present "an academization of the debate" vis-à-vis the more gullible work of previous scholars of a "bygone golden age when religious piety and intellectual endeavor could coexist would like to steer away from crippling biographical reverence and engage in some debunking of myths" (1).

The first myth to be debunked is that of the image of Ireland as an island of saints and scholars, which the editors claim only gained currency from the seventeenth century onwards and which they pass off as an early modern phenomenon. This is false. Already from the seventh century Irish monks who travelled to the Continent were self-consciously shaping this image of their homeland.
It can be seen in the poem on Ireland, written probably by one of Columbanus' Irish monks, which the Italian monk Jonas of Bobbio inserted at the beginning of his Life of Columbanus and in Jonas' comment that the Irish flourished in Christianity more than any other people.

The perception of Ireland and the Irish as a holy island and people can be followed like a thread from Jonas to Bede's comments on Ireland at the beginning of his Ecclesiastical History to Ermenrich of Ellwangen's riff on Bede's comments in which the island is presented as an allegory of the universal Church and in the poetry of Irish religious émigrés like Colman nepos Cracavist and Bishop Donatus of Fiesole. The perception of Ireland as an insula sanctorum was not invented by seventeenth-century émigré Irish Franciscans or by nineteenth-century Catholic revivalists, but is a perception that we find already in the early medieval sources.

Despite the agenda of the editors, the volume is saved by some fine contributions. The scope of the volume is comprehensive with short chapters (indeed the brevity of the chapters is one of the laudable features of the book, as is its affordable price) that encompasses communication networks, religious exile, Irish monasticism on the Continent, especially in relation to Columbanus, biblical exegesis, penance, the liturgy, science, scholarship, ethnicity, and book production.

... Meeder's bizarre statement that insular influence at St-Gall was minimal, is also found in his co-authored chapter with Roy Flechner where they write about the abbey of St-Gall that: "it does not appear that the Irish origin of their patron saint was a significant factor in the institutional identity of the abbey" (203). One wonders what sources they have been reading, given the rich hagiographical corpus on the patron saint that survives from the early medieval community. One need only read Walahfrid Strabo's Life of Gall, Notker Balbulus' Martyrology, or Ermenrich of Ellwangen's Letter to Abbot Grimald to realize that Meeder and Flechner present not only a false impression of the source material, but a skewed and inaccurate interpretation.

Also problematical are their comments on Columbanian monasticism. Their statement that the Luxeuil monk Agrestius "made slanderous remarks about fellow Irish inmates" (195) is nowhere found in Jonas' Life of Columbanus--Agrestius attacked the monastic practices and the legacy of Columbanus, not the Irish monks, most of whom had left for Bobbio with Columbanus upon his expulsion in 610. Similarly: "the Gallic episcopacy is depicted as hostile both by Columbanus and his hagiographer Jonas. In the rhetoric of the hagiography and of Columbanus's letters...the Easter controversy is portrayed as a major bone of contention" (198). While this is true for Columbanus's letters, it is not true for Jonas, who mentions nothing about the Easter controversy, because it had been such a contentious issue, and is careful not to overtly criticize the Gallic episcopacy as they were now key patrons of the communities.

The trajectory of Gallic monasticism prior to Columbanus gave no indication that a revolution in monastic foundation would take place in conjunction with secular elites in the second half of the seventh century and their attempts to play down Columbanus' role as a catalyst in this regard is unconvincing. While social trends and the formation of new elites at this time complimented and facilitated the new wave of monastic foundation, it was by no means an inevitable development without the influence of Columbanus and his Frankish monastic successors. Indeed, running throughout Meeder's and Flechner's chapter is subtly disguised racism masquerading as historical objectivity which can be detected in such remarks as "hard to swallow for some proud Irishmen", "we meet another proud Irishman" (205), the aforementioned "Whether originality, when it is present, can be directly linked to a scholar's Irish heritage is a matter of contention" (240), and in their attempt at every opportunity to minimize the distinctiveness of Irish influence on the Continent. Their eagerness in debunking myths leads them to questionable historiographical methodology and a failure to engage with the sources on their own terms. While there is much to recommend in this book, it needs careful handling, as I hope this review has shown.
Image: I'd guess that this is a maximalist view.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:45 pm

    See below for a response by the editors of the reviewed volume (thise response was also published by the Medieval Review. Since O'Hara's review is rather biased and one-sided, the editors who were on the receiving end his review deserve to be heard as well.

    'Alexander O'Hara's review of our edited volume is scathing beyond reprieve. It is one of those unforgiving reviews that one must either embrace in its totality and damn the book's editors, or reject in its entirety and damn the reviewer. As pluralists we uphold the right of a reviewer to express his or her opinion and to criticise freely, even if we fundamentally disagree with the interpretation. Indeed, it is this very principle of pluralism and openness to a multitude of views which guided us in editing the contributions to the volume -- although the reviewer clearly believes that we tyrannically imposed a misguided revisionist agenda while bending the facts in an unsophisticated conspiracy to produce 'fake news'.
    Despite our recognition of the reviewer's prerogative to interpret and criticise, we draw the line at libellous slander. In his review O'Hara accuses us of racism, no less. Here is what he says: "Indeed, running throughout Meeder's and Flechner's chapter is subtly disguised racism masquerading as historical objectivity which can be detected in such remarks as 'hard to swallow for some proud Irishmen', 'we meet another proud Irishman' (205), the aforementioned 'Whether originality, when it is present, can be directly linked to a scholar's Irish heritage is a matter of contention' (240), and in their attempt at every opportunity to minimize the distinctiveness of Irish influence on the Continent."
    How these examples of the use of a narrative voice and a probing statement can be misconstrued as racism is beyond the understanding of the proverbial reasonable person, such as we consider ourselves to be. We invite O'Hara to publicly retract this fallacy so that we can move forward towards having a fruitful academic debate, free of the clutter of personal animus.
    As for TMR, we are disappointed and puzzled that the editors allowed the nonsensical and hurtful accusation of racism to be published without a basic check of its merits. We urge the editorial board to observe greater care when deciding to publish reviews sporting such accusations of inexcusable (and, in most countries, criminal) behaviour. We invite TMR's readership to convey to the editors that they hold TMR to a higher standard.'