- The Sea and Medieval English Literature
In this book, Sebastian Sobecki makes an ambitious attempt to place medieval English literature's presentation of the sea into broader contexts, chronological, geographical and disciplinary. In this, he is only partially successful. Chronologically, he gives a deeply interesting context from classical poets to Winston Churchill. Geographically and politically, he betrays a limited understanding of the makeup of the British Isles in both medieval and modern times, which damages the credibility of his overall argument. I would also argue that his understanding of the role of the sea in early medieval insular [End Page 252] communities is flawed, leading to significant problems in his attempt to situate his core material in a continuum with early medieval Gaelic attitudes to the sea.
As early as the introduction, Sobecki asserts that '[u]ntil the unequivocal formulation of the notion of territorial waters … the sea is in constant movement [and] can only be traversed by man or, for purposes of fishing, visited' (p. 5). The evidence he evinces for this in the very early period seems sound enough, incorporating Pliny the Elder, Plutarch and Gregory of Nazianzus. However, he leaps unconcernedly thence to Bernard of Clairvaux, seemingly ignoring the 700-odd years in between.
As an early medievalist, I take exception to this dismissal, but it is soon contradicted by a discussion of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's report of the three Irishmen who landed in Cornwall in 891. This discussion on the one hand, admits that the Irish had a more trusting relationship with the sea than did the English, and on the other hand denies any difference between the conditions in the English Channel that had hindered Julius Caesar and those in the Irish Sea with which the Irish were apparently quite at home.
This leads Sobecki to a discussion of Paolo Squatriti's 'paradigm-shifting' suggestion that the Irish Sea formed a Mediterranean-style connectivity rather than a barrier. This suggestion clearly does not shift any paradigms, being a restatement of paradigms widely accepted by those who study this region, and stated many times over by numerous authors over many years.
Sobecki moves on to a discussion of the so-called 'peregrinatio pro amore Dei', and supports his contention that pilgrimage was an essential part of a scholar's life by citing Thomas Charles-Edwards' claim that Bede did not consider a man a peregrinus until he had travelled to Ireland or the Continent. Few, however, would be reckless enough to suggest that Bede was not a scholar, but it is generally accepted that he never left Northumbria. The point might have had more weight (or indeed not been attempted) had Sobecki actually read Charles-Edwards' article, which he cites out of context through a secondary reference. The citing of reasonably accessible primary and secondary literature through secondary references is common throughout Sobecki's book, and leads one to wonder just how thorough his research can have been.
A chapter titled 'Deserts and Forests in the Ocean' deals with Benedeit's Voyage de Saint Brandan and Thomas of Britain's Tristan. The former is inevitably compared to the Irish Navigatio Brendani, not always successfully. [End Page 253] Having acknowledged David Dumville's translation of immram (the generic Old Irish name for this kind of tale) as 'rowing about', Sobecki then gives an altogether inaccurate description of the journey. He begins by claiming that the journey is undertaken in an 'unseaworthy' coracle (p. 49), a suggestion for which there is no evidence in the sources. He describes the 'refusal to use one's oars and/or rudder' (p. 50), apparently ignorant of the fact that a coracle does not have a rudder and that there is again no evidence in the sources that oars were not used. Citing Immram Snédgus ocus Maic Riagla, Sobecki relies on Whitley Stokes' century-old translation, and even so, asserts that the monks 'discard their oars' (p. 50), which is stated in neither the original...