Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland- Chapter 2

Chapter 2, “The Island and the World: Irish Responses to Literacy c. 600-850″ covers the progression/development of both Latin and Old Irish texts- both on the island and on the Continent. **By texts, I mean written texts.** It is important to note that this period sees the rise of the Carolingian court, which focused on learning and literature.

She examines Irish scholars and monks who remained in Ireland, went Britain, and went to the Continent. She notes that “[i]t appears that those who chose exile in Britain rather than on the Continent had far more chance of leaving an imprint on Ireland.” (48) My own MA looked at canon and secular law texts from Ireland and Britain, and canon law texts from Britain were extremely similar to those from Ireland. (Secular law texts do not line up as well, different systems at work). While I prefer to work with texts from the island- it is more relevant to my own research- there are a great deal of surviving texts from the Continent that really help an early medieval historian of Ireland out.

Johnston delves into peregrinatio at some length. “[P]eregrinatio was a form of exile for the sake of God” (43) but it did not mean that the individual was necessarily becoming a missionary. (44) As I said, I am concerned with those who remained on the island, so it took me a bit of thinking to solidify the distinction between the two. One point that really stuck out to me was this: “the peregrini were certainly not forgotten as a group, even if they were not always remembered as individuals”. (50) I wonder if this is because of where they went- A) Was it just geographically far from Ireland, like in the case of Bobbio? B) For those that went to the Carolingian court, is it possibly because there were so many “nationalities” that none stood out? (Please forgive my use of this modern word, my brain cannot produce a period-appropriate synonym at the moment) C) Is it because so many of them left that they weren’t unique? D) Is it possibly because they went to places that didn’t have the strong annalistic tradition that Ireland had? This brought many questions to my mind.

I found the last section of the chapter to be of particular interest, she begins looking forward from 850. I very much appreciate her “snapshot” of the status of each language at 850 (she argues that 850 is the watershed moment). As I noted in my review of the first chapter, I have a basic working knowledge of Old Irish, but I do not know the in-depth development of the language (or of any language, if I am being honest). I found her explanation of how Old Irish and Latin worked together despite being used for different purposes at this point in time. She finally gets into the annals- YES. I know that most historians do not love working with medieval Irish annals. They are very brief in their entries, it can be incredibly confusing to keep track of which king is from where and related to whom, and there is obviously always going to be a bias, but I find them fascinating. It’s like a giant puzzle to solve, and if someone would pay, I would literally work my way through each annal. Alas, no one has been begging me to start this work…. I look forward to chapter 3!

Until tomorrow,
The Historian!

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

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