Roundtable The Sacred and the Secular: The Effects of Ecclesiastical Literary Culture on Early Irish Society

AHA Session 179
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Arlington Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Catherine McKenna, Harvard University
From Paganism to Christianity: Relics and Social Customs in Seventh-Century Ireland
Niamh Wycherley, University College Dublin, Humanities Institute of Ireland
The So-Called "Monastic Rules" of Early Ireland
Patricia Kelly, University College Dublin

Session Abstract

Although current historiography has emphasized the influence of “secular” Irish literature and culture on the church, this discussion seeks to note the complex ways in which the literature of the church has influenced early medieval Irish society. Moreover, this discussion represents an important intervention in the traditional academic emphasis on the insularity of early medieval Ireland from the Continent, as the panel will investigate the demonstrable connections between Irish ecclesiastical culture and the larger context of early medieval Europe. Chaired by Dr. Catherine McKenna, the Margaret Brooks Robinson Professor of Celtic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, this discussion will bring together an international complement of scholars of medieval Irish history. The panel will address current historical approaches to medieval Irish ecclesiastical sources, and focus in large part on genres of monastic composition – in particular, on hagiography, the study of saints' lives. Although the value of hagiography as an historical source has been disputed in previous decades, recent scholarship has noted the significance of this literature as a valuable record for the reconstruction and study of pre-modern Christianity in Ireland. Each of the four presentations will introduce one aspect of the church's influence on early Irish society. Robyn Neville (Emory University) offers an innovative socio-historical analysis of early medieval Irish hagiographical narratives through her examination of disability, a theme that has been overlooked in the study of medieval Ireland. Another area that has attracted very little scholarship is the cult of relics in Ireland. There has been limited research undertaken in this area, considering the comparatively rich examinations carried out on the continent. Niamh Wycherley (University College Dublin) hopes to begin redressing this imbalance in her analysis of the early Irish sources. Continuing on this theme, Tomás O'Sullivan (St. Louis University) provides a welcome re-evaluation of a text that was once dismissed as historically worthless. His analysis of the Life of Mac Creiche demonstrates that literary agendas of spiritual edification can be hidden within seemingly secular texts. Similarly, Dr. Patricia Kelly (University College Dublin) seeks to reassess texts that were once simply characterized as "monastic rules". Through a textual exploration of monastic authors and their audiences, she advances a new understanding of their function in Early Irish society. As a whole, the panel represents diversity in nationality, age and gender and will appeal to a wide audience of medievalists and generalists alike. Above all, each speaker will present an investigation of sources that have been hitherto undervalued in the study of early medieval Irish society. This panel therefore offers modern perspectives and exciting possibilities for future research, as each speaker demonstrates that the reappraisal of these sources will shape a new understanding of the complex interaction between church and society in early medieval Ireland.

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