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The Power of Words in Medieval Ireland

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Title The Power of Words in Medieval Ireland
Period 09 / 2006 - 08 / 2011
Status Completed
Research number OND1315520
Data Supplier Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek - NWO

Abstract

This research project proposes to study medieval Irish 'words of power' words with which one believed to be able to influence and transform reality. These words were uttered for good or for evil: for example, to protect, to harm, to exert power, to heal and to inflict diseases. Such words are commonly known as e.g. curses, blessings, spells, charms, incantations, and prayers. The aim of this project is to supply a survey and analysis of medieval Irish forms of 'words of power', by way of philological, diachronic and multidisciplinary study. A sample of the various forms, based on medieval Irish classifications, will be analysed with regard to 1) the contemporary use and context of the words; and 2) the ideology involved in world-views reflected in the texts and in the terminology used. Two sub-projects are envisaged: 1) on the words themselves; 2) on the users of the words. Medieval Irish words of power have been neglected in modern studies of medieval European 'magic'. Within Celtic Studies they form a challenge from the early years of the discipline but thus far not yet taken up. Celtic Studies was first dominated by an 'oral/pre-Christian orthodoxy' (c.1940-c.1970), followed by a new 'literate-Christian orthodoxy' (c.1980-present). These ambiguous verbal expressions, however, challenge the dichotomies designed by modern research. They cannot be classified as either pre-Christian or Christian; they are often seen as a popular phenomenon and yet, the elite preserved them in manuscripts. Because they usually are an intricate mix of religious elements, they cannot simply be seen as 'reconstructions of the pre-Christian past' either. A fresh study of this fascinating material is needed for the full picture of the diversity in belief and the complexity of the literary inheritance of medieval Ireland; the results will contribute to our knowledge of medieval European culture. According to legend, it was Saint Patrick who christianised Ireland in the fifth century. Numerous tales about his encounters with the king of Ireland and his druids exist. Thus we are told how a druid secretly tried to murder him by offering him a poisonous drink. The formula, with which the saint purportedly made the drink harmless, is found as follows in law texts and in hagiography: Gaibiu fi[u]s, ibiu fi[u]s, ibiu anfi[u]s Frisbru[u] úathu, ibiu líthu Christi Jesu. I take knowledge, I drink knowledge, I drink ignorance (or: great knowledge; or: the cup of knowledge) I smash terrors {supernatural beings}, I drink the feasts of Jesus Christ. This is a good example of the belief in the power of words: words are believed to influence reality in a material sense although not through empirically verifiable methods. Their power to transform reality is thought to be either intrinsic to them or brought about through the agency of a supernatural entity. The medieval Irish tradition is a treasure trove of such 'words of power', represented by e.g. praise, satire, blessing, curse, charm, prayer, taboo and injunction. Of special interest are those 'words of power' that exist in a religious twilight zone. It may be noted that the formula given above, attributed to St Patrick, does not conform precisely to modern expectations either of a 'prayer' (it does not open with a formula of supplication of the deity) nor does it clearly adhere to what might be expected of a 'spell' (since it is spoken by a Christian saint, and includes reference to "the feasts of Jesus Christ"). This free mingling of Christian mythic and liturgical referents in formulae of verbal power are very common in Irish sources; yet this syncretism does not fit within the theoretical frameworks of modern scholarship, in which a 'spell' is expected to be either evil, pre-Christian, or a form of popular religion, and a 'prayer' is expected to be good, Christian, and a recognisable part of official religion. Many other examples of early Irish 'words of power' could be adduced to show that these distinctions are often not clear at all in primary sources. There are prayers that seem to be contrary to Christianity, because non-Christian supernatural entities are invoked. There are charms that are concluded with the admonition to pray a paternoster. All textual material survives in Christian manuscripts. Similar research initiatives in various disciplines exist outside Celtic Studies. Historical texts and ritual practices from antiquities up to the present that used to be considered either bad religion or quasi science, which hence were hardly or not at all studied, are now being re-evaluated and studied in various new ways. Previously ignored material is being edited; textual comparisons are being made; cross-cultural perspectives are being implemented. A comprehensive study of medieval Irish 'words of power' will be a welcome contribution to European Medieval Studies, which thus far ignored the Irish material that covers the equally understudied period before the twelfth century, and to Celtic Studies, where this challenging material has been noticed but not received the scholarly attention it deserves. A fresh study of this fascinating material is needed for the full picture of the diversity in belief and the complexity of the literary inheritance of medieval Ireland; the results will furthermore contribute to our knowledge of medieval European culture. It is here proposed to make an in-depth study of the use and context of medieval Irish 'words of power', and the ideology present in both primary and secondary texts. The project consists of two components: a study of the words themselves by the project leader and a study of the performers that use these words by a PhD-student. The project will benefit from the international interdisciplinary research network on 'The power of words in traditional European cultures', which is directed by the project leader.

Related organisations

Related people

Project leader Dr. H.J. Borsje

Classification

A85200 Philosophy of life and religion
D34200 Middle Ages

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