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Deutsches Seminar Workshop Medieval Irish Literature

"Ní hansa"- "Not hard to tell!": Extraordinary Accounts of Mediality in medieval Irish Literature (March 2012)

Abstract Workshop

Ní hansa - "Not hard to tell!" is probably one of the best known formulaic expressions in medieval Irish literature, introducing narrative plots which stand somewhat apart from the main narrative and thus warrant special attention. Its recurring use also draws attention to the heightened importance of issues of mediality (the telling of stories and the passing on of knowledge and information) in medieval Irish literature. Often the artistic and imaginative accounts of transmission that follow this formula are far from easy to tell but are elaborate poetic features and thus offer a fascinating insight into Early Irish Literature's poetic merit. The workshop aims to address some "extraordinary” accounts of communication in order to determine what their poetic function is and why they may have been stylized in such a way. Underlying this approach are therefore the broader questions of how information and knowledge were diffused or preserved in non-standard media and how they were nevertheless en- and decoded by protagonists. As such, the workshop allows scholars also of other literary traditions to discuss theories of performance and mediality while gaining exemplary knowledge of how these may occur in medieval Irish texts.
This will be achieved by a careful textual analysis of three very different texts, followed by interdisciplinary discussions. During the first session (Dr. Geraldine Parsons, University of Glasgow), the workshop focuses on the transmission of ancient lore through authorative figures, which guarantee authenticity and therefore allow for the preservation of (sometimes seemingly non-Christian) knowledge. Here, attention is drawn to the presentation of the roles of orality and literacy in the preservation of knowledge and how narratives are often elaborately constructed to guarantee an accurate transmission. Secondly, Dr. Dagmar Schlüter (Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg) will present the dindshenchas or "place-lore”, an integral feature of medieval Irish literature which links narrative plots with the actual landscape. Yet the dindshenchas often do not simply recount a place's name but give elaborate accounts of how it received that name, linking the land to literary narratives, history and people. The final session, presented by M.Phil. MA Sarah Erni (Universität Zürich) will focus on the medial function of bodies in discussing how a wounded body is "read” by protagonists to re-tell a battle account, thus being inscribed not just with visible marks but with a whole narrative. By discussing these accounts of decoding attention is drawn not just to the often ingenious ways in which information is presented and mediated but also to the cultural prerogatives which are necessary for their reading.
The workshop offers a rare chance to encounter Early Irish literature in its poetic peculiarities but at the same time allows the participants to practice methods of close reading and discuss theoretical frameworks which can also be applied to other literary traditions. For despite its focus on Irish Literature the workshop seeks to discuss the overreaching structures of medieval narratives and how they may be unearthed to facilitate further research. As such, no previous knowledge of medieval Irish literature is required (a short introduction will be given to allow the participants to appreciate the material) and participants from all disciplines are welcome. The primary texts (in English translation) together with select theoretical works will be sent to participants as a reader and should be read in advance and a printout be brought to the workshop. The workshop will be held in English.

Abstract Dr. Geraldine Parsons, University of Glasgow

"Geography and Story in the dindshenchas".  Dr. Dagmar Schlüter, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität, Heidelberg

Ní Handsa "not difficult" is one of the most frequent phrases of the dindshenchas. The dindshenchas is a unique genre of medieval Irish literature and is commonly translated as "placename lore". Almost every medieval Irish prose narrative contains dindshenchas passages. Dindshenchas in prose and verse are also transmitted in many medieval Irish manuscripts as separate passages. Previous research has mostly labeled the dindshenchas as etiology and as simple and unreliable medieval etymology. The edition of the prose and the verse dindshenchas respectively has paradoxically stalled any attempt to discuss the dindshenchas as an integral part of medieval Irish literature and historiography. Bus as Jan Assmann has reminded us in his ground-breaking book on cultural memory, spatialization has since antiquity been a medium of mnemonic theory. And this is of course exactly what the dindshencahs do: Not only do they simply name a place but they also impropriate the Irish landscape by telling the origins of how a specific place is named. The dindshenchas thus create a mnemotop. It is perhaps no coincidence that Lebor Gabála, the monumental Irish origo gentis, and the first recension of the dindshenchas, both of which focus on land-taking, originated at roughly the same time.

The session will re-asses the dindshenchas as important constituents and media of medieval Irish historiography by discussion how the interaction between geography and story in the dindshenchas works.

"From Body to Narrative: Reading Cethern's Wounded Body in the Táin Bó Cúalnge". M.Phil. MA Sarah Erni, Universität Zürich

Ní hansa - "Not hard to tell”, the title of this workshop, is perhaps the most famous expression in Irish narratives. Yet "very hard to tell” may be a more appropriate title for the current paper. For the story how the seer-physician Fingin and the hero Cú Chulainn read the wounded body of the hero Cethern mac Fintain in the epic Táin Bó Cúalnge (Recension II) is doubtless one of the most intriguing "deciphering” feats in medieval Irish Literature. Cethern, having been gravely wounded by several opponents, returns to camp and precedes to knock down several physicians, who all predict his death from the wounds. Eventually the king's own physician, Fingin, is called and he alone can examine the wounds sufficiently. As he describes them and gives a detailed account of what weapons inflicted them, Cethern gives a description of the warrior who inflicted each particular wound and Cú Chulainn, himself the greatest of the Ulster heroes, finally names the assailant.  Brief as the episode might appear, it raises numerous questions of how a body can be installed to create a retrospective battle account and how it may function as a medium even on a meta-textual level: by having not just physical wounds but, in extension, a whole narrative inscribed on it. The episode also raises issues of the restriction of "literacy” (being limited to a certain caste of people) and of en- and decoding and gives a magnificent example of the often extraordinary instances of deciphering a rather unusual medium which can be found in various disguises within Irish Literature. As such, the narrative not only offers a unique insight into the peculiarities of Early Irish Literature but also allows a discussion of more general modes of "reading” outside the bounds of common "literacy”.