Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland- Chapter 1

This post will be my thoughts on the first chapter of Elva Johnston’s Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland. (Citation below) I have studied with Elva and I am particularly interested in her works. If money were no object, I would most likely be studying Irish literature in the early medieval period. I will be posting my thoughts chapter by chapter, to serve two purposes- 1. To allow myself to slowly read and digest it, and 2. To not throw an entire essay at you.

The first chapter, “Irish Literacy in a Late Antique Context” examines the role of Latin in Europe, Britain, and Ireland specifically. She does a great job of explaining the linguistic intricacies, in addition to placing them within their historical context. I enjoyed her brief discussion of the Ogham stones, but it would have been nice to have a bit more information on Ogham. I have read a bit on it, but nothing in depth, but it frequently arises when looking at early Irish literacy. If anyone has any suggestions on readings, please send them along! She also covers Patrick and Palladius- quickly, but to be honest, anyone who has any interest in this field has probably read on them already or at least has the ability to find something.

I personally found the strength of this chapter to be her examination of the fili or filid. She broaches the Nativist/Anti-Nativist debate- I agree that each extreme is flawed, but both do have something to offer. I wonder if it would be more helpful for modern readers if fili was no longer translated (to poet or anything else), as the modern connotations of medieval ideas can distort very quickly. This statement in particular stuck with me: “It is extremely limited to view filid as wandering poets catering to popular tastes”. (20)

She argues that an important element of Irish literacy is the fact that it “was an elite pursuit and product that function in a non-urban environment“. (21, own bolding) I know that every historian strives to say, “My subject area is unique, it’s different  and important.” However, I find it very interesting that Ireland seems to buck the trend of urban literacy. I appreciate her point that Irish civilisation although mostly rural was still sophisticated and “not backwards” (22). The dichotomy between Old Irish and Latin is not terribly complex, though I would hazard a guess that it would be a little difficult to understand her full points if there is no previous knowledge. I have only a very base knowledge of Old Irish, but thankfully it does include the linguistic development. (Old Irish, you were the bane of my MA, but at least you are serving a purpose now!)

Towards the end of the chapter, she brings up Hiberno-Latin literature. This is my particular interest, so I’m looking forward to seeing it discussed later in the book.

Hope you enjoyed this post!

Johnston, Elva. Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland. The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, 2013.

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