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Matters Of Time: Manipulation Of Memory In Early Irish Hagiography

Matters Of Time: Manipulation Of Memory In Early Irish Hagiography

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"Matters Of Time: Manipulation Of Memory In Early Irish Hagiography" by Diane Peters Auslander from a paper given at the 22nd Annual UC Celtic Studies Conference, March 16-19, at UCLA, 2000
"Matters Of Time: Manipulation Of Memory In Early Irish Hagiography" by Diane Peters Auslander from a paper given at the 22nd Annual UC Celtic Studies Conference, March 16-19, at UCLA, 2000

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Published by: oldenglishblog on Mar 21, 2011
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Matters Of Time:Manipulation Of Memory In Early Irish HagiographyIn
Phantoms of Remembrance
Patrick Geary sets out to explore “thecomplex process through which ordinary individuals order, understand,and retrieve all sorts of information that together provide the referentialfield within which to experience and evaluate their daily experiences andto prepare for the future.”
This complex process involves the use of cultural memories that give meaning and authority to the present. Gearyposits that remembering and recording what is remembered was an act of conscious choice in which what one chose to forget was as important aswhat one chose to remember. Thus memory sifts the past for usefulinformation and, in this dynamic process, transforms or, as Geary says,distorts the past it purports to remember. Medieval authors, then,manipulated memory for the purposes of defending tradition,consolidating power, and validating their views of the present and futurethrough the creation of a perception of continuity with the legitimatingpast.The process by which memory of the past was applied to the needs of the present was always mediated by the context in which it took place.Actually it is more appropriate to think in terms of contexts in the plural,as the events and influences that affected the uses of memory rangedfrom the very broad based to the local, institutional, and even familial.
Patrick Geary,
Phantoms of Remembrance, Memory and Oblivion at the End of the First Millennium
(Princeton, 1994);28.
MATTERS OF TIMECopyright © 2000 Diane Peters Auslander 1
On the most general level, the essentially oral nature of medieval culturemust be taken into account. As Geary saysThe context established by oral culture was essential for the trainingin selecting and interpreting that which was written . . . the cultivation of oral memory was essential to all literate societies of antiquity and theMiddle Ages . . . the two work closely together, both subject to the sameprocesses of transformation.
 Christianity itself, in the Eucharist that is, at its heart, an act of remembrance, and in the memorializing of the dead, provides anotherbroad context for the use of particular memories. Classical memorytraditions were also well known to medieval intellectuals through theunique mediation and interpretation of Augustine. In Augustine’sunderstanding, memory had the impossible task of accessing andrecreating the past as it was. In examining how people of the Middle agesovercame this Augustinian dilemma and transformed their past, Gearylooks at the systems used to express memory. Personal names, physicalobjects, landscapes, and particular features of the landscape were allused to link the past to the present in both oral and written contexts. Asa student of Irish hagiography I seemed to detect an aura of familiarity inthis list of systems. Could it be because Irish hagiography, indeed earlyIrish literature in general, is rife with such references to personal namesand local landscapes? Yes, I think so. But, are Gearys theories, which heapplies to highly Romanized, urban areas of central Europe in theeleventh century, workable for a non-Romanized, and, to use the time-honored phrase, ‘tribal, rural, hierarchical and familiar’ Ireland in theseventh and ninth centuries? Once again, yes, I think so and I intend todemonstrate this by applying these theories specifically to a comparisonof incidents in Cogitosus’ seventh-century Latin
Life of St. Brigid 
and theanonymous ninth-century, mostly Old Irish
Bethu Brigte
.Besides the differences just mentioned between the two geographicaland temporal areas there is also a difference in the degree of theirChristianization. Geary’s Europe is assumed to have been thoroughlyChristianized, whereas seventh-century Ireland was decidedly not. Even
MATTERS OF TIMECopyright © 2000 Diane Peters Auslander 2
in the ninth century the pre-Christian past was not too far away, yet inthis very fact lies the first of several similarities. In examining thesesimilarities it is important to note that Geary focuses on Neustria,Bavaria, and the region of the Piedmont and lower Rhone during theeleventh century because this was a time of disruption during which theculture was recovering from the demise of the Carolingian Empire andattempting to preserve a continuity with a past that had been fractured,dislocated, and at least partially lost. Power had been loosed and madeavailable to those with the strength and ingenuity to grab and hold on toit and the reconstruction and representation of memories of the past wereimportant factors in the validation or condemnation of claims to local orregional authority. Dynastic families and ambitious monastic institutionsalso manipulated their pasts in an effort to serve their best interests in thepresent and future.In the seventh and ninth centuries, Ireland too was in periods of disruption and/ or recovery from disruption. These discontinuities calledfor the use of memory to legitimate new systems and traditions. Not onlywas Christianity still being assimilated, along with its dedication to thewritten word, but major changes had been taking place in the balance of dynastic power. Authority was being consolidated in the hands of fewerand newer families while older kin groups were being pushed to thehinterlands where the agricultural land was poorer and the pickings wereslim. The monastic reforms of the late eighth and early ninth centuries, aswell as the beginnings of Viking activity in Ireland make the ninth centurya time of discontinuity and recovery as well. Thus it is appropriate toexamine the differences between the Cogitosus life and the
Bethu Brigte
inthe light of questions prompted by Geary’s work. By doing so I hope toadd depth to our understanding of these complex and often bafflingsources of information.How memory functioned in pre-Christian Ireland can only be sketchilyinferred. The learned class, the
aes dána
, that, along with the language,provided an infrastructure to loosely hold the disparate peoples withinone cultural unit that could be labeled “Irish” was particularly associatedwith the uses of memory. Privileged to move freely from one part of the
MATTERS OF TIMECopyright © 2000 Diane Peters Auslander 3

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