ROMANCE (Medieval Ireland)

The study of romance in medieval Ireland has been hindered by doubts about its literary merits, a certain prejudice against its foreign origins, and by the sheer number of such works and the lack of printed editions. Thus, it is not yet possible to offer a full assessment of the influences that shaped Irish romance or of its place in Irish literary history. The period of written romance in medieval Ireland broadly coincides with Early Modern Irish (1200-1600).

The earliest evidence for romance occurs in an Irish manuscript of the late twelfth century that contains a catalog of traditional tales, among them one called Aigidecht Artuir (The entertaining of Arthur). Several trends were converging about this time to make Ireland more receptive to Continental literature. Ecclesiastical reforms brought Continental religious orders and a realignment of the Irish learned classes. The new learned class, the bardic families, concentrated on eulogistic poetry designed to flatter the numerous petty kings that emerged after the Anglo-Norman invasion. One casualty was the traditional repertoire of Irish prose tales, which lost much of their raison d’etre in the changed literary and political order. Moreover, the new Anglo-Norman ruling class favored French literature, especially romance.

The influence of foreign romance at first manifested itself indirectly. The traditional Irish tales continued to circulate, but they were now altered in quantity and quality under the influence of foreign romance. Thus, the number of tales that enjoyed currency became much smaller. A principal casualty was the cycle of Historical Tales (or King Tales). Even the other two major groups of tales from Old-Irish literature, the Mythological Cycle and the Ulster Cycle, underwent a process of severe selection. Most of the newly selected tales dealt with love or the marvelous or lent themselves to ready expansion with numerous incidents of the marvelous—all characteristic features of romance. Moreover, the tone was transformed. It is telling to compare the ninth-century tale Longes Mac n-Uislenn with its fourteenth-century revised counterpart, Oidheadh Chloinne hUisneach. The former is marked by a heroic ethos, austere style, and tight narrative in contrast with the romantic ethos, verbose style, and loose structure of the latter. A fourth group of traditional tales, the Fenian Cycle, which related the deeds of Finn Mac Cumaill and his fiana (band of warriors), had the advantage over the older cycles of being still in formation after the Anglo-Norman invasion. Thus, it could accommodate itself more easily to contemporary literary tastes. It also had a wealth of romantic matter: elements of the marvelous (from folk tradition), heroes, and the ill-starred lovers Diarmait and Grainne (compare Tristan and Iseult). The trend of tailoring native tales to romantic tastes continued as late as the fifteenth century.

By the fifteenth century the influence of foreign romance became overt. The Norman-English settlers had become so wedded to Gaelic society that they were in a position to influence it directly, a process helped by the fact that the English administration was preoccupied with the political turmoil in England that culminated in the Wars of the Roses. Romantic tales of English and French origin, a central part of the Anglo-Norman literary heritage, were now translated into Irish. Representative works of the well-known cycles of romance appear in translation: from "The Matter of Britain," "The Quest of the Holy Grail," from "The Matter of France" tales from the Charlemagne Cycle; from "the Matter of Greece and Rome," Stair Ercuil (based on Caxton’s English translation of the French); and from Middle English (fourteenth century) such romances as William of Palerne, Guy of Warwick, and Bevis of Hampton. In addition, translations were made of certain works that, although not romance, contained elements of the marvelous; notably, The Travels of Marco Polo, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, the Letter of Prester John, and the Book of Alexander.

Such were the foreign influences at work in the shaping of the Irish Romantic Cycle (Ir. roman-saiocht). Its individual tales (in prose) are very difficult to date since most of them are anonymous and written in a standardized literary language. Although appearing mostly in manuscripts of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, they were composed well before that time as suggested by the presence of a few of them in fifteenth-century manuscripts. Their authors were professional men of letters, knowledgeable not only in the native repertoire of stories and folk motifs but also in foreign romances. In origin literary (rather than oral) productions, they were intended for oral delivery to an aristocratic audience.

For the most part their subject matter is drawn from the exploits (real or imagined) of characters from Ireland’s literary history: the court of Conchobar of Ulster and his opponents, as portrayed in the Ulster Cycle; Finn Mac Cumaill and his fiana as found in the Fenian Cycle; the Tuatha De Danann, descendants of a pre-Celtic people, who inhabited the Other-word—although their role is more as catalysts than protagonists—and occasional "historical" provincial or high kings. At least one foreign cycle is evident, the Arthurian. Although Irish in subject matter, these romances share the same themes as their Continental counterparts, adventure and love, narratively framed as a quest conducted by an individualized hero. More specifically, they often have as a theme a conflict between an Irish hero and an enemy from outside, whether foreigner or someone from the Irish Other-world. The foreigner, alone or with an army, invades Ireland and after a long struggle is defeated. Elsewhere, the foreigner is imbued with magical powers (often because he is of the Otherworld) and can only be defeated with the help of friendly supernatural agents. The most popular theme involves the hero in an external adventure, either outside Ireland or in the Other-world, a genre known as Eachtrai. As with Continental romance, the adventure involves a quest: for a woman who has been carried off; for someone bound by enchantment; on behalf of a foreign woman in trouble; or to satisfy a requirement imposed by a wicked character. Likewise, the Irish romance is often composed structurally of a chain of loosely connected episodes. Unlike most other types of medieval Irish literature, the romance survived the collapse of the Gaelic order in the sixteenth century, finding a new home in the folk tale.

Next post:

Previous post: