restricted access Juxtaposing Cogadh Gáedel re Gallaib with Orkneyinga saga
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Juxtaposing Cogadh Gáedel re Gallaib with Orkneyinga saga

It is probably fair to say that following the argument of a comparativist scholar increases in difficulty in direct proportion to the number of cultures invoked or examined. If such is the case, then it can also be said that constructing a comparative argument increases in difficulty exponentially with each new case or example.1 Yet some scholars, notably John Miles Foley and his teacher Albert Lord and his teacher’s teacher Milman Parry, made careers built on the work of comparison. The scholarship of Foley, for instance, challenges the Classicist skilled and sensitive to the subtleties of the aorist and the past contrafactual to look for parallels to Homeric epic in the singing of Bosnian villagers from Interwar Yugoslavia. He challenges the Anglo-Saxonist, learned in the monastic culture of late first-millennium England, and potentially quite amenable to imagining the conviviality and orality of a Bosnian village, to contemplate the complexities of Homeric Greece thousands of years in the past. It is perhaps not surprising, given the challenges of such research, that scholars of the latter half of the twentieth century increasingly abandoned comparative perspectives in many fields of the humanities. Not only did comparative research lose appeal for scholars and readers, but comparativist scholars themselves became suspected of disciplinary transgressions, accused of lacking rigor or commitment, like roving men: one foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never. As approaches to single cultures became the norm, comparative findings became marginalized, dismissed at times as superficial, spurious, or insignificant. And even as the humanities contracts throughout North American and European academia today, the scholarly commitment to monoculture remains strong in American research universities.

My intent in the following paper is to make a case for the usefulness of comparative analysis in a narrower and more specific context, that is, in examining two fascinating but often marginalized medieval works: the Irish Cogadh Gáedel re Gallaib (modern Irish Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh [“The Battle of the Gaels and the Foreigners”]) and the Icelandic/Orcadian Orkneyinga saga (“The Saga of the Orcadians”). The Irish text relates the travails of Irish kingdoms in withstanding the depredations of Viking invaders over the course of several centuries, leading to the emergence of the Dál gCais Bóruma dynasty of Munster, the rise of its greatest son Brian Bóruma (Boru) to the lofty title of High King of Ireland (a rank seldom held by the kings of Munster), and his subsequent fall and death in an insurrection led by revolting Irish and Scandinavian populations in the fateful Good Friday Battle of Cluain Tarbh (Clontarf) on April 23, 1014. The Old Norse text relates the settlement of Norse colonists in Orkney and the establishment of a jarldom/earldom at first independent, but gradually brought under the contending influence of both Scotland and Norway. The saga follows the ups and downs of the islands’ tumultuous dynastic history, focusing attention on particularly famous earls, such as the Earl Sigurðr, who lost his life fighting against Brian Boru’s forces in the Battle of Clontarf of 1014. Where Cogadh Gáedel re Gallaib ends with that fateful battle, Orkneyinga saga continues its narrative long after 1014, but features the battle as a very important moment in the earldom’s history. Both texts, then, narrate a period of extensive intercultural contact between Norse (Norwegians, Danes, Orcadians, and Icelanders) and Celts (specifically, Irish and Scots) over a number of centuries.

I posit that comparison between these two works and the remarkable vernacular prose traditions they reflect reveals complex, apparently shared processes of cultural characterization and contrast, an “immanent” (Foley 1991; Sigurðsson 2004) narrative account of a cultural meeting that transformed both the Celtic and Viking worlds. Within this shared narrative that proclaims inexorable difference between Norse and Celt, we can also recognize surprising rapprochement, the product of long histories of contact, trade, and intermarriage. I hope to suggest that examining the disjunction between a rhetoric of cultural opposition and a reality of cultural merger can shed valuable light on contact situations in general and serve as a much needed...