The Cult of Relics in Early Medieval Ireland, by Niamh Wycherley

The Cult of Relics in Early Medieval Ireland, by Niamh Wycherley Niamh Wycherley’s monograph study assesses the evidence for the cult of relics in early medieval Ireland by examining literary sources, linguistics and archaeological finds from approximately the fifth to ninth centuries. The majority of the sources and consequently most emphasis relates to developments in the seventh- and eighth-century Church, a famously dynamic period in Irish history. In the book’s six chapters, she briefly sketches the history of relic culture in the world of Late Antiquity (ch. 1), outlines the origins of the cult of relics in Ireland (ch. 2), discusses the importance of translatio (translations) in relic culture (ch. 3), the role of relics in church consecrations (ch. 4), the varied uses of relics (ch. 5) and the link between relics and identity which had implications for power and control in early medieval Ireland (ch. 6). She endeavours to associate relic culture in Ireland with broader trends in European Christianity; the presentation of the material, including associating early medieval practices with ‘relic’ cultures of different types in the modern world, lends accessibility to the work. Wycherley’s broad knowledge of the source material is apparent throughout, and her discussion of the varied terminology applied to relics (helpfully presented in an appendix) will be useful for subsequent scholarship on this topic. The attention paid to recent developments in Irish archaeology is commendable, especially when physical remains challenge the (often scanty) written evidence, and underlines that historians must be cautious when extrapolating general trends from limited sources. She also sets out to integrate the cult of relics into discussions of developments in wider society, such as the promulgation of law codes. The book succeeds in demonstrating how widely accepted relic culture was in early medieval Ireland, and Wycherley engagingly associates attitudes to patron saints with earlier reverence for ancestors indicating continuity between early medieval and pre-Christian Ireland in what would appear to be an ostensibly Christian practice. Most of the book is based on written evidence, and several sources repeatedly appear as witnesses to different aspects of relic culture. The Patrician material is clearly significant in understanding Irish attitudes to relics, not least because Armagh was without Patrick’s body and resorted to promoting other types of relics in bolstering its claims to primacy in the Irish Church. Their inventive approach is apparent in sources such as the Book of the Angel, and Wycherley carefully explicates the complex nature of relic veneration in Armagh. However, while she clearly knows the source material, insufficient attention is paid to these sources’ context: for example, when looking to texts such as the Book of the Angel (e.g. p. 169) or the later Tripartite Life of Patrick (first introduced on p. 77), considering when and why they were written is essential to understanding the extent to which they serve as witnesses to specific cases rather than widespread trends. This uncritical approach to textual sources is heightened when the Irish annals are introduced. The annals are preserved in a range of later manuscripts, such as the Annals of Ulster, Annals of Tigernach, Chronicum Scotorum and others, all of which post-date the early medieval period: indeed, the latest witness, the Annals of the Four Masters, was compiled in the seventeenth century, though this is never mentioned when it is cited here as evidence for the eighth and ninth centuries (e.g. pp. 86, 98, 165, 184). Similarly, when these sources disagree (for example, the Annals of Inisfallen and the Annals of Ulster provide conflicting information for the imposition of Emly’s law on Munster), this is introduced without comment (pp. 148–9). There is a brief attempt to consider the nature of the annals in the Appendix, ‘Hiberno-Latin: (B) martyr’ (pp. 200–202). In asserting that there is a distinction in the terms used for martyrs in the seventh and eighth centuries, the reader is told that ‘scholarly work’ (p. 201) shows a discernible shift in annal entries in this period, and the footnote refers to A.P. Smyth, ‘The Earliest Irish Annals: their first contemporary entries, and the earliest centres of recording’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, C lxxii(1972), and the opening of Nicholas Evans, The Past and the Present in Medieval Irish Chronicles (2010), pp. 1–6 (p. 202, note 20). This ignores much recent scholarship on the origin, provenance and composition of the annals—for example, that of Thomas Charles-Edwards and Daniel P. Mc Carthy, to name but two—and inaccurately implies a scholarly consensus where there is none. While Wycherley may have wanted to avoid getting mired in such debates, neglecting contextual considerations weakens the book’s argument. The wide-ranging nature of this study allows for a broader assessment of relic culture than has previously been possible: the concerns expressed here notwithstanding, Wycherley’s multidisciplinary approach presents a nuanced interpretation of the nature and practice of the cult of relics in early medieval Ireland. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The English Historical Review Oxford University Press

The Cult of Relics in Early Medieval Ireland, by Niamh Wycherley

The English Historical Review , Volume Advance Article (562) – Mar 15, 2018

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved.
ISSN
0013-8266
eISSN
1477-4534
D.O.I.
10.1093/ehr/cey079
Publisher site
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Abstract

Niamh Wycherley’s monograph study assesses the evidence for the cult of relics in early medieval Ireland by examining literary sources, linguistics and archaeological finds from approximately the fifth to ninth centuries. The majority of the sources and consequently most emphasis relates to developments in the seventh- and eighth-century Church, a famously dynamic period in Irish history. In the book’s six chapters, she briefly sketches the history of relic culture in the world of Late Antiquity (ch. 1), outlines the origins of the cult of relics in Ireland (ch. 2), discusses the importance of translatio (translations) in relic culture (ch. 3), the role of relics in church consecrations (ch. 4), the varied uses of relics (ch. 5) and the link between relics and identity which had implications for power and control in early medieval Ireland (ch. 6). She endeavours to associate relic culture in Ireland with broader trends in European Christianity; the presentation of the material, including associating early medieval practices with ‘relic’ cultures of different types in the modern world, lends accessibility to the work. Wycherley’s broad knowledge of the source material is apparent throughout, and her discussion of the varied terminology applied to relics (helpfully presented in an appendix) will be useful for subsequent scholarship on this topic. The attention paid to recent developments in Irish archaeology is commendable, especially when physical remains challenge the (often scanty) written evidence, and underlines that historians must be cautious when extrapolating general trends from limited sources. She also sets out to integrate the cult of relics into discussions of developments in wider society, such as the promulgation of law codes. The book succeeds in demonstrating how widely accepted relic culture was in early medieval Ireland, and Wycherley engagingly associates attitudes to patron saints with earlier reverence for ancestors indicating continuity between early medieval and pre-Christian Ireland in what would appear to be an ostensibly Christian practice. Most of the book is based on written evidence, and several sources repeatedly appear as witnesses to different aspects of relic culture. The Patrician material is clearly significant in understanding Irish attitudes to relics, not least because Armagh was without Patrick’s body and resorted to promoting other types of relics in bolstering its claims to primacy in the Irish Church. Their inventive approach is apparent in sources such as the Book of the Angel, and Wycherley carefully explicates the complex nature of relic veneration in Armagh. However, while she clearly knows the source material, insufficient attention is paid to these sources’ context: for example, when looking to texts such as the Book of the Angel (e.g. p. 169) or the later Tripartite Life of Patrick (first introduced on p. 77), considering when and why they were written is essential to understanding the extent to which they serve as witnesses to specific cases rather than widespread trends. This uncritical approach to textual sources is heightened when the Irish annals are introduced. The annals are preserved in a range of later manuscripts, such as the Annals of Ulster, Annals of Tigernach, Chronicum Scotorum and others, all of which post-date the early medieval period: indeed, the latest witness, the Annals of the Four Masters, was compiled in the seventeenth century, though this is never mentioned when it is cited here as evidence for the eighth and ninth centuries (e.g. pp. 86, 98, 165, 184). Similarly, when these sources disagree (for example, the Annals of Inisfallen and the Annals of Ulster provide conflicting information for the imposition of Emly’s law on Munster), this is introduced without comment (pp. 148–9). There is a brief attempt to consider the nature of the annals in the Appendix, ‘Hiberno-Latin: (B) martyr’ (pp. 200–202). In asserting that there is a distinction in the terms used for martyrs in the seventh and eighth centuries, the reader is told that ‘scholarly work’ (p. 201) shows a discernible shift in annal entries in this period, and the footnote refers to A.P. Smyth, ‘The Earliest Irish Annals: their first contemporary entries, and the earliest centres of recording’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, C lxxii(1972), and the opening of Nicholas Evans, The Past and the Present in Medieval Irish Chronicles (2010), pp. 1–6 (p. 202, note 20). This ignores much recent scholarship on the origin, provenance and composition of the annals—for example, that of Thomas Charles-Edwards and Daniel P. Mc Carthy, to name but two—and inaccurately implies a scholarly consensus where there is none. While Wycherley may have wanted to avoid getting mired in such debates, neglecting contextual considerations weakens the book’s argument. The wide-ranging nature of this study allows for a broader assessment of relic culture than has previously been possible: the concerns expressed here notwithstanding, Wycherley’s multidisciplinary approach presents a nuanced interpretation of the nature and practice of the cult of relics in early medieval Ireland. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

Journal

The English Historical ReviewOxford University Press

Published: Mar 15, 2018

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