The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 751-752
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The Celtic West and Europe: Studies in Celtic Literature and the Early Irish Church. By Doris Edel. (Dublin: Four Courts Press. Distributed in the U.S.A. by ISBS, Portland, Oregon. 2001. Pp. 320. $65.00.)
This book consists of a collection of Doris Edel's papers produced previously over the last fifteen years or so. Most were not published in English, and also in sources not necessarily widely available, and so this is a most welcome opportunity to have wider access to works by this scholar of Celtic literature. The papers have where necessary been translated by the author, and none of the slight idiosyncrasies (such as "fase" for "phase") make the meaning unclear. There is some slight repetition between chapters as some of the introductory rubric necessarily had to be repeated in separate publications, but overall the collection allows for the development of several key themes in Celtic literature and culture. In the space for this review, only some of the themes will be explored at length, though others will be mentioned.
Edel sets out her view of the source materials and the ways in which they should be interpreted in Chapter 1. It is an elegant scene-setter for the whole volume and highlights the position which then underlies many of the later emphases and interpretations. It should probably be read first, whatever else might be used in this book. Here one of the great debates regarding early medieval Ireland is explored—to what extent was there continuity of pagan practices and beliefs into the Christian period? Edel is a supporter of the indigenous view, which considers that much of pagan culture survived Christian conversion, albeit in modified form. Such a view also accepts Celtic as a valid category, beyond that of language, which also now has many opponents in history and archaeology. The alternative, held by many including this reviewer, is termed the new orthodoxy by Edel and considers that the conversion caused a major break in many aspects of culture.
Identifying what may have come from an earlier, and potentially pagan, oral tradition has long been a theme of early medieval Irish textual scholarship. Edel provides some valuable insights and arguments on this matter in many chapters. These include "The Early Church and Literary Imagination," which examines sea voyages (Chapters 4-6), "In Search of the Tradition" (Chapters 11-12), and "Wales and Arthurian Literature" (Chapters 17-19). Though the last is later material, the linking back to past traditions in the Arthurian material and even in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth provides insights highlighted by taking an indigenous view. Studies in the Táin Bó Cúailnge (Chapters 13-16) emphasize the continuities that the texts may reveal from before conversion. Edel follows Jackson's view that the Táin offers a "window on the Iron Age," rather than the revisionist interpretations of the new orthodoxy which are much more cautious in that regard. The section "Church and Society" (Chapters 7-9) again links to the themes of oral and written, pagan and Christian. Here there are also papers on Europe, in considering Willibrord, and Northumbria, though of course each has a strong Celtic element. [End Page 751]
The section entitled "People in Early Ireland" contains two papers that provide a contrast to the other material which inevitably concentrates on the interests of secular or ecclesiastical elites. "Women in Celtic Culture" (Chapter 2) examines categories of women in literature and law—the queen (also explored regarding Queen Medb in Chapter 10), tragic heroine, wife, and learned woman. This provides an important framework for considering gender in the Celtic world. Such a topic links neatly to the consideration of common people (Chapter 3), where status, sex, and age all affected rights and obligations. Edel manages to probe beneath the literary and legal conventions to glimpse how those other than the elite could operate in early medieval Ireland.
This collection provides much food for thought, and access to...