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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  March 2000

MEDIEVAL-RELIGION March 2000

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Subject:

RE: Oengus

From:

"Maeve B. Callan" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

[log in to unmask]

Date:

Mon, 20 Mar 2000 01:39:39 -0600

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At 3:15 PM -0500 3/17/00, Francine Nicholson wrote: [selected snippings]

>  	Not to demean the importance of Stokes as a scholar, especially
>considering what he achieved at so early a time in the history of modern
>Celtic Studies, but a lot of work has been done since he was actively
>involved in the field.

One should hope so in the course of a century, but I haven't come 
across solid recent work on the Culdees.  A lot of studies mention 
them, but few discuss them in depth, and I remember thinking O'Dwyer 
was a start but much more needs to be done.  If you came across some 
good work on them in the course of writing your MA thesis, I'd really 
appreciate some references.  I can't remember anyone apart from 
Stokes and Kenney discussing the issue of Oengus's identity as a 
Culdee, but I thought Stokes' argument compelling enough to lodge it 
in my brain as a possibility for years, apparently, and more recent 
scholars' repetition of the assumption that Oengus was a Culdee 
without at least dealing with Stokes' reservations doesn't resolve 
the issue, for me anyway.

>Anyway, many years ago, I mapped out the saints
>mentioned by Oengus in the martyrology and the ones mentioned in the
>marginalia. I noted a strong correlation between them and the monasteries
>identified by Gwynn and Hadcock as strongly influenced by the Ce/li De/
>(though G&H didn't always say why they identified them as such). Even more
>to the point, perhaps, the longer and more elaborate the story found in the
>marginalia, the more likely it was that the saint was one of the Ce/li De or
>a founder of one of their monasteries.

Interesting--did you apply it to other works that may have come out 
of Tallaght?  What did you conclude about Samthann, if anything?  Or 
about Oengus's other home, Cluainednach, and its connections to Agha, 
the church Pete was asking about?

>
>  > I'm not debating his *importance*--the annals and his own accomplishments
>  > or attributed accomplishments testify to that, but they don't testify to
>  > his sanctity (nor, apparently, to his being a Culdee, according to
>  > Stokes), and the rather stereotypical bit about chanting psalms in an icy
>  > bath isn't very compelling either.
>  >
>	Perhaps they don't testify to his sanctity according to modern ideas
>of what constitutes sanctity, but they very much accord with the
>characteristics I identified (in my M.A. thesis) as being part of the
>marginalia's concept of sanctity. When I compared the marginalia's ideas of
>what consistuted the characteristics of a saint, they seemed to correlate
>with the Ulster cycle's concepts of heroism as seen in figures such as Cu/
>Chulainn, Fergus mac Roich, Conall Cernach, and so on. For example, where as
>a "secular" hero was expected to be master of many battle skills (such as
>Cu/ Chullain's salmon leap), saints were expected to be adept at feats of
>asceticism, such as standing for many, many hours in icy streams (in fact,
>this is a favorite act of asceticism in medieval Irish hagiography--even
>Adam and Eve in the Saltair na Rann are said to have done it in reparation
>for their sin). So, I'm inclined not to take any of the ascetic acts
>attributed to Oengus to be historic--they come from the common vocabulary.
>What such attribution does appear to suggest is that he had a cult following
>of some sort.


That's part of my point--it's (ie, icy bath) so generic for "Irish 
sts" that it lessens the possibility of an actual cult, in my 
opinion.  And my questions about his sanctity do arise from my sense 
of how medieval Irish portrayed their saints.  I'm curious, though, 
about what you meant by "among the Ce/li De/, all of the early 
reformers were considered saints by definition" ---what definition 
are you assuming?  Do you mean simply a person who has led a life of 
heroic virtue, or that an ascetic reformer is ipso facto a st?  There 
are myriad understandings of sanctity, and the term sanctus/a was 
often used without the greater trappings of sthood implied, but 
simply to mean a holy person, a good Christian.  The broad definition 
wouldn't necessarily involve a cult and a feast day, or belief in 
supernatural abilities to aid the faithful.  One of the things that 
struck me about the Culdees was the virtual absence of the 
supernatural--yes they perform amazing feats of asceticism, but these 
are usually very much within the realm of human possibility, whereas 
those with more developed cults could scarcely be bothered by human 
limitations. At any rate, I don't think Oengus would be considered 
one of the early reformers (even if assuming his status as a Culdee) 
and to say that he's a poet so thus saintly seems quite a stretch, 
given the many poets, both religious and otherwise, that we know of 
from pre-Norman Ireland who weren't considered sts, though they were 
highly respected as poets.


>
>	And again, I think that to monks of the pre-Norman period, the
>demonstration of poetic skill did indicate that Oengus had a pipeline to the
>heavens that was not granted to all--and that counted for more then than it
>may be valued by other eras.
>
>	Aside from Colum cille, the earliest saints were usually considered
>holy on the basis of their founding certain monasteries--just as today many
>founders of religious orders have an edge up on being considered for
>canonization. For one thing, they had an organization in place to keep their
>memory and achievements alive in tradition and practice, and promote their
>claims. A large number of stories in the hagiography of the Middle Irish
>period seem to have been written for the express purpose of promoting one
>saint's claims over another's.


Again, that's part of my interest, especially since Samthann is one 
of the few saints with vitae who did not found a monastery.  Why no 
Life of Máelrúain, founder of Tallaght?  While a Life might not be 
sine qua non for a cult, it certainly helps, and does raise the 
question for me whether he was considered a "saint" by medieval 
Irish, and if so, what kind of st [nb, I am not disputing a claim to 
sthood in the more basic sense--yes, he was widely respected as a 
holy man, but I don't think anyone claimed he could transform those 
he disliked into otters, or raise the dead, etc, and thus how 
effective would praying to him have been, or patronizing his 
monastery, etc]?  Also, several of the earlier saints  would see 
their monasteries radically change or disappear as early as the 
8th/9th centuries, and yet their vitae clearly remained popular down 
to the 14th century--even in the absence of an organization to keep 
their memory alive, or without claims to another monastery's tithes.

>
>  > Oengus himself is quite late, which makes a possible cult all the more
>  > interesting.
>  >
>	Actually, Oengus died around the beginning of the era when
>hagiography began to be used to argue the political claims of certain
>monasteries to tithes from territories or kin-groups. The promotion of the
>cult of Patrick by Armagh and its political allies is a classic example, but
>I think it was Kim Mc Cone who suggested that the Leinster clergy were just
>as active on the part of Brigit. And of course, Colum cille had his own,
>built-in PR machine, headed up by abbots who were usually his own collateral
>descendants. (See Ma/ire Herbert's writings on this).

Hagiography has been used for such purposes in Ireland since its 
known or at least still extant beginning--Cogitosus' Vita Brigidae is 
quite a useful tool for monastic propaganda and nearly meaningless as 
a source for the st's actual life [presuming she wasn't purely 
mythical].  It was well-developed well before the ninth 
century--making Patrick so keen on Armagh to begin with was quite a 
coup for Muirchú, et al,  in the 7th cen, for example.  Most of the 
hagiography is virtually impossible to date, outside of the most 
celebrated saints and/or the most celebrated Lives.  But what exactly 
does this have to do with Oengus?  Are you arguing for his use for a 
political claim, or against it, and hence no Life?

>	The ideas about imbas in relation to poetic skill persist until the
>late Indeed, I beleive that the existing manuscripts descruibing the
>training and skills of poets were recorded long after Oengus died.

Can you offer a reference for a source that clearly indicates this 
association [poet has direct line to God and thus is a st]?  And if 
it is was such an automatic and intense connection, why the many 
poets of Ireland who have not been claimed as saints?  Again, I'm not 
disputing that poets were revered in Ireland, or even that their 
abilities/functions were celebrated as divine, but that doesn't 
necessarily make one a saint.  And it's interesting to note that the 
poem from the Leabhar Breac says little about Oengus's poetic gifts, 
though it is the one source to most clearly suggest his sthood (and 
the poet would have had obvious reasons to extol the virtues of 
poetry--unless his saintly humility stayed his hand ;>).

I'm not trying to split hairs, but it struck me as unusual to see 
Oengus there among our saints of the day, since he was fairly late 
for an Irish st and since I didn't remember him as being regarded as 
particularly holy and I wondered what might be his claim to sanctity, 
apart from his Martyrology, and who venerated him as a st; even now 
that I've gone back over it and see the laudatory prologues and even 
more laudatory poem from the Leabhar Breac, I still don't think they 
attest to much of a cult outside an immediate connection with his 
work, as these bits of praise immediately preceded/followed his 
Martyrology; his inclusion in the Martyrology of Tallaght is no 
surprise considering his Martyrology was the primary source.  But 
from these thoughts about Oengus have arisen other thoughts about 
later Irish "saints", that is, from the late 8th-11th centuries.  I 
think it's been an ignored area, although maybe that's because I've 
been ignoring it (I focus on earlier saints and later heretics), but 
I don't think the issue has received much attention.  A facile 
explanation could be the one that's remained so popular despite 
several solid debunkings, that along came those evil Vikings and 
threw the Irish church/society into complete chaos.  Viking raids 
there certainly were but the murdered monks/nuns could easily have 
been venerated as martyrs by those who survived, or at their sister 
sites, like Kells and Derry for those massacred at Iona.  The annals 
refer to many men and women who were celebrated for their holy lives, 
and mourn the loss of religious murdered by the Vikings or by the 
Irish, yet we have no Lives of these later "saints" and little to no 
trace of a cult.  Not that this is a problem only for the late 
8th-11th cens; for example, we have the names of hundreds of early 
women saints (and references to so many anonymous others), but few 
can be identified, and only 4 have extant medieval vitae, 3 from the 
5th/6th cen, and Samthann from the 8th, an exception not only among 
female saints, but all Irish saints with Lives.  But to have no 
extant Lives and comparatively little to no trace of cults for 
"saints" in the late 8th-11th centuries strikes me as significant and 
worthy of further consideration.

Thanks for the musings and apologies for the lengthy ramblings,

Maeve

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