Seminar CLXXIX: mocking Irish clergy in the tenth and eleventh centuries

Once returned to the UK after the trip to Catalonia lately recounted, I was happy to be heading back to the Institute of Historical Research, whose Earlier Middle Ages Seminar has in these last two years run to a shortened programme in the summer. First up in the summer 2013 series on 22nd May was Elizabeth Boyle, an old acquaintance from Cambridge. I would therefore have been down to London for this anyway, but her title, “Lay Morality, Clerical Immorality and Pilgrimage in 10th- and 11th-Century Ireland”, also intrigued. Since the IHR has been in exile for some years now, it took some finding, but finally with us all gathered in a huge basement room where we could hardly see people come in to find us, Lizzie told us a couple of excellent but odd Irish stories and drew some tentative points of bigger social import out of them.

Folio 53 of the Book of Leinster

Book of Leinster, folio 53” by Áed Ua Crimthainn et al (12th century) – Laighean53a at web site of Trinity College, Dublin. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The common links between the stories are firstly that they are next to each other in the so-called Book of Leinster, secondly that they both involve unnamed kings acting to correct the morals of Irish clerics fallen into sin, and thirdly that they relate to pilgrimage, which was where Lizzie had come in as she was at this time working on a project comparing contacts with Rome between England and Ireland in the tenth and eleventh centuries.1 This seems to have been a period in which there was both a substantial rise in pilgrimage (which has certainly been detected in Catalonia too, though there it could be just more evidence; not so in Ireland, where there is actually far less evidence than in the centuries before) and also a current of scepticism about the practice.2 This was neatly expressed in an anonymous ninth-century verse Lizzie gave us in the handout (in both Old Irish and her translation, but I shall stick to the latter because I can’t really even pronounce the Celtic languages, let alone understand them):

“Going to Rome:
great hardship, little benefit.
The King you seek here:
if you don’t take Him with you, you won’t find Him there.”

These stories are in something of the same vein. In the first, Cethrur Macclérech (‘Four Junior Clerics’), the protagonists, whom Lizzie compared to gap-year students, head for Rome and are put up by ‘a renowned man of the Franks’, who makes roughly the above point to them and persuades them to accept a living from him in exchange for their prayers. They go to Rome anyway but when they come back he throws a local hermit out, who is obviously delighted by this further adversity (apparently really),3 and they are just moving in when one of them says, “May it be lucky,” at which point the king responds: “‘Out of the country with them! they are heathens! Let them not even drink the water of the country.'” So they head off dejected, but next day while washing in a stream a box floats down to them and bounces into the arms of their leader (called a bishop, now) and he sends it back to the king. It turns out to contain six bars of silver and one of gold, all of equal weight, and the king expounds this as an allegory on the days of the week and Sunday observance, but accepts the clerics back as long as they never think of “‘luck'” as long as they live. It looks as if there were several moral points knocked into a single story here, but the point about luck being superstition is the one the scribe ran with.

Manuscript depiction of medieval Rome as widow during the period of the Avignon Papacy

This is really nothing to do with the post, but it came up as I searched for medieval images of Rome and is just too much fun not to include, Rome shown as a widow during the residence of the papacy in Avignon. Seriously: how many of the Avignon popes were good husband material, Mrs Allegorical Rome? Consider your options! “BNMsItal81Fol18RomeWidowed“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The second interested me more, since I found in it faint points of contact with other stories I know dimly, not least from Chrétien de Troyes, that feature a King of the Greeks (and there are five more of these in the manuscript, apparently).4 Here, that king is the unfortunate butt of the story, but certainly its moral champion. A bishop who has gone to Rome on pilgrimage determines to go on to Jerusalem, and meets a “wonderful king” of a land on the way who points out to him that “God is in every place” and installs him as the royal confessor, and indeed also treasurer. Because the king was frequently out, the bishop heard the queen’s confession more often than the kings and eventually wound up, er, giving her something worth confessing, an incident that quickly becomes habit-forming. The king is told and comes back and besieges his wife and the bishop in their ‘stone mansion’. She won’t open up and in the night the bishop repents, does 300 prostrations and faints, and the angels come and carry him to his church, where he wakes and gratefully starts celebrating nocturns. The king then hears and realises his suspicions are misplaced, so goes to abase himself before the bishop, who is at least conscious that he hasn’t really deserved this break (“It is not upon me alone that disgrace from the devil has been exercised”) and resumes his pilgrimage. The real winner here is the queen, to whom the king had to pay compensation for false accusation so that she would remain with him (which is Irish law, not Roman, as Lizzie noted). The point here is supposed to be that we can’t know what God will or won’t forgive, but again it seems clear that there’s a lot of other points you could make with this tale.

The early medieval Gallerus oratory in County Kerry

A stone mansion of the sort imagined by our story-teller? The early medieval Gallerus oratory in County Kerry. The linked page gives you a handy short account of the debate over the Céli De.

The points that Lizzie chose to emphasise, at least, hung around the purity of the clergy. This is a fairly obvious target of both these stories, albeit perhaps an incidental one, but there was at this time in Ireland some dispute over the peculiarly Gaelic clerical movement known as the Céli De, ‘clients of God’, who do not easily fit into our categories either of reformers or hermits, being something of both and not enough of either for the Gregorian Reform movement and those moving within it to be quite happy with them.5 They did undertake lay ministry and confession, and these were far from the only tales about how that could go wrong (a style of story I attempted to classify as “swyve or shrive?” in questions, gleefully ignoring the fact that this only works in a different dead language). Whether the clerics here are actually supposed to be Céli De is unclear, however (though the bishop of the Gaels in the second story is so called in its last line) and the manuscript context may even suggest that these were tales in which Céli De poked fun at their mainstream, travel-happy brethren. In the end what was mainly clear here is that there were some moral arguments going on that the writers and users of this manuscript and those who copied its tales were pursuing through low humour, and anything we might want to say beyond that about authorship, purpose and reception was hard to settle. But medieval use of humour is itself worth remembering, and unlike many these stories’ fun has held some of its meaning.6


1. The Book, or Lebor na Nuachongbála to its old friends, is Dublin, Trinity College MS H 2. 18, and is printed as R. I. Best et al. (edd.), The Book of Leinster, formerly Lebar na Núachingbála (Dublin 1954-1983), 6 vols, or so says Lizzie’s handout. Meanwhile, investigation by web reveals that this paper is now published as E. Boyle, “Lay Morality, Clerical Immorality, and Pilgrimage in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century Ireland: Cethrur macclerech and Epscop do Gaedelaib” in Studia Hibernica Vol. 39 (Dublin 2013), pp. 9-48, so you can follow up the references and see if the conclusions changed from what I heard if you like!

2. The locus classicus here is Kathleen Hughes, “The Changing Theory and Practice of Irish Pilgrimage” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 11 (Cambridge 1960), pp. 143-151, but I guess there must be more now, and that Lizzie will be providing yet more shortly! The Catalan side of things is covered, again classically, in Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, Els primers comtes catalans, Biografies catalanes: sèrie històrica 1 (Barcelona 1958, repr. 1980), pp. 302-313.

3. Lizzie’s translation has it as: “‘I give thanks to God’, said the hermit: ‘My earthly king ejecting me; my heavenly king coming into it.'”

4. Chrétien de Troyes, Cligés, ed. P. Kunstmann in Base de français médieval, online here, last modified 31 July 2013 as of 27 April 2014, ll. 43–58. For interpretation I’m only immediately able to proffer Barbara N. Sargent-Baur, “Alexander and the Conte du Graal” in Arthurian Literature Vol. 14 (Woodbridge 1996), pp. 1–19, but there must be something more general about the world of the Greeks in romance… Aha! Regesta Imperii proffers Rima Devereaux, Constantinople and the West in medieval French literature, Gallica 25 (Cambridge 2012), which I haven’t seen but must at least be relevant.

5. Lizzie cited the work of Westley Follett, Céli Dé in Ireland: monastic writing and identity in the early Middle Ages (Woodbridge 2006) here, but her handout also offers Aubrey Gwynn, The Irish Church in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries, ed. G. O’Brien (Dublin 1992), which may be what Follett is kicking against? I dunno guv’, this is really not my field!

6. Jokes are a medium hard to interpret over a thousand years and a linguistic divide, but that doesn’t mean they should be forgotten: here Lizzie cited, as would I have, Guy Halsall, “Introduction: ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got the key'” in Halsall (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 1-21.

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4 responses to “Seminar CLXXIX: mocking Irish clergy in the tenth and eleventh centuries

  1. Thanks for the generous write-up, Jon. If anyone’s interested, an expanded version of my seminar paper has just appeared in Studia Hibernica 39 (2013). A PDF is available on my academia.edu site: https://www.academia.edu/3821168/Lay_Morality_Clerical_Immorality_and_Pilgrimage_in_Tenth-Century_Ireland_Cethrur_macclerech_and_Epscop_do_Gaedelaib

  2. Paul McCotter gave a great talk on this subject at this years Irish Conference of Medievalists: ‘Celibacy and the medieval Irish monk’.

    Re: 11th/12thC he pointed out that…’the sources do mention people described as ‘Céli Dé’ or simply ‘the poor’ (bocht) and, while some of these do appear to be celibate communities, others would seem to be communities where otherwise ‘incontinent’ or married clergy could come on ‘retreat’ to gain spiritual growth. Again, such ‘communities’ appear to be associated with property ownership, and often have leaders who are clearly married clergy’.

    Nothing like a bit of Irish ecclesiastical gossiping.

  3. Pingback: Seminar CLXXX: hiding English coins in tenth-century Rome | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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