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Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland

Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland

ELVA JOHNSTON
Volume: 33
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 248
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt31njhm
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  • Book Info
    Literacy and Identity in Early Medieval Ireland
    Book Description:

    Much of our knowledge of early medieval Ireland comes from a rich literature written in a variety of genres and in two languages, Irish and Latin. Who wrote this literature and what role did they play within society? What did the introduction and expansion of literacy mean in a culture where the vast majority of the population continued to be non-literate? How did literacy operate in and intersect with the oral world? Was literacy a key element in the formation and articulation of communal and elite senses of identity? This book addresses these issues in the first full, inter-disciplinary examination of the Irish literate elite and their social contexts between ca. 400-1000 AD. It considers the role played by Hiberno-Latin authors, the expansion of vernacular literacy and the key place of monasteries within the literate landscape. Also examined are the crucial intersections between literacy and orality, which underpin the importance played by the literate elite in giving voice to aristocratic and communal identities. This study places these developments within a broader European context, underlining the significance of the Irish experience of learning and literacy. Elva Johnston is lecturer in the School of History and Archives, University College Dublin.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-134-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
    (pp. vii-viii)
  5. 1 IRISH LITERACY IN A LATE ANTIQUE CONTEXT
    (pp. 1-26)

    The modern Western world assumes that literacy is widespread and necessary, its skills as important as breathing, eating and sleeping. We need the skill of writing to type internet addresses; we require the skill of reading to understand them. Graphologists even interpret needs and neuroses by the way we form our letters. Simultaneously, we experience symptoms of non-literate or even post-literate environments. Game interfaces may depend on icons rather than writing. The images that dominate our screens sometimes appear to operate outside the written word and create non-verbal ‘texts’. These are not trends of future-shock: instead they are features of...

  6. 2 THE ISLAND AND THE WORLD: IRISH RESPONSES TO LITERACY c. 600–850
    (pp. 27-58)

    Early medieval Ireland’s two languages and two literatures existed in relationship to each other. The nativist and anti-nativist models which have been offered to explain, or explain away, this relationship have frequently obscured that reality. This is best seen in the two distinct views of the island, implicit in the discussion at the end of the last chapter concerning the origins of Irish literate communities. On the one hand there is an Ireland of Hiberno-Latin writers, respected scholars of international repute such as Columbanus, Virgilius of Salzburg, Dicuil, Sedulius Scottus, Eriugena and others;¹ it is the home of computists, exegetes,...

  7. 3 THE ISLAND AS THE WORLD: COMMUNITY AND IDENTITY c. 750–950
    (pp. 59-91)

    The last two chapters touched on the centrality of monasteries to Irish literate culture. In effect these were the linchpin of the literate communities because of their pivotal role in the emergence and development of Hiberno-Latin and vernacular writing. Their contribution proved crucial to the construction of social, religious, cultural and political identities on the island: writing and language helped to shape and articulate them. It was pointed out earlier that the literate elites were in a privileged position as a result of their access to both the oral and written, allowing them the chance to define the social and...

  8. 4 CHANGING PATTERNS OF MONASTIC LITERACY c. 800–1000
    (pp. 92-130)

    The central function of monasteries in the formation of the literate elites can be traced in two main ways – through an examination of the writings produced in them and through an identification of the writers. The former is less problematic than the latter, despite the usual difficulties of linguistic and historical contextualisation. As the last chapter showed, written sources offer insights into the nature of the literate elites, the socio-political environments in which they flourished and their responses to social and political change. Thus, the different genres produced by Irish writers – literary, legal and genealogical – partially map their world and...

  9. 5 CIRCUITS OF LEARNING AND LITERATURE c. 700–1000
    (pp. 131-156)

    Early medieval Irish literacy was not isolated in monasteries, even if important practical aspects such as manuscript production were arguably confined to them. It flourished within a wider learned hinterland defined by its secondary-oral culture. Literacy can only be fully appreciated by situating it within this broader social dynamic. The experiences of the ecclesiastical elite, as the last two chapters have shown, brought them into close contact with the secular world and its concerns. Monastic writers were integral to the formation of Irish secular identities. For example, they helped maintain the genealogical superstructures which played such a prominent role in...

  10. 6 LITERACY, ORALITY AND IDENTITY: THE SECONDARY-ORAL CONTEXT
    (pp. 157-176)

    It has been stressed throughout this study that early Irish literacy functioned within a secondary-oral environment, an environment in which the oral and written were in continual interaction. At one end was the monastic literatus whose writings were part of the intellectual world of Christianity and who relied on a whole infrastructure of literacy based on ecclesiastical institutions, books and pedagogy. At the other were more transient contributors to this culture, individuals such as the baird and the lower ranked among filid. These, despite their limited literate skills, still partook of the accepted social realities articulated by the literate elite....

  11. APPENDIX: THE CHRONICLES AS A RECORD OF LITERACY, 797–1002
    (pp. 177-202)
  12. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 203-226)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 227-238)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 239-241)