Obscure Style in Medieval Irish Narrative c.1000-c.1400: A Comparative Approach

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic


Medieval Irish narratives are difficult: spoken non sequiturs, illogical imagery and ethically ambiguous non-Christian otherworlds in religious texts all pose interpretative problems.
Peculiarities have been read as caused by, for example, the conflation of tales, scribal errors or tensions between opposing belief systems. Individual analyses increasingly reveal obscure elements as coherent narrative components. Nonetheless, idiosyncrasies in one text are not generally linked to those in another; the prevalence of obscure episodes across medieval Irish textual material has not been scrutinised as a cohesive, stylistic phenomenon.

I will ground my research in medieval discussions of links between obscure language and poetry and in Christian semiotic theories which accord obscure language revelatory potential. I will connect these to modern poetic theories which give prominence to formal complexity: difficulty is deemed to provoke attentive effort, thereby slowing down perception on an object. Furthermore, I will consider these in conjunction with recent work by cognitive linguists Dan Sperber and Deidre Wilson on Relevance Theory, which argues that obscure language is pleasurable not only because of the acquisition of a hidden truth but also because of, and during, the acquisitive process.
Medieval Irish literati were interested in obscure language, reflected by discussions of obscuritas in grammatical treatises. Moreover, Irish vernacular writing is the oldest in the western world: by c.1000 composition was well established. It is worthwhile, therefore, to approach narratives with an interpretative method attuned to obscure style and to be wary of dismissing difficulties as indicative of ineptitude. R. M. Scowcroft's study of 'abstract narrative' in early Irish literature considers 'fantastic interruptions' in which plausibility is subordinate to imaginative creation. Scowcroft's conclusions regarding the genesis of abstract techniques in mythopeoia can be linked to theories regarding unique
ontological explanations of medieval Irish otherworlds. Scowcroft's investigation resonates with medieval and modern discussions of obscure language in verse. Further, he suggests that abstraction, or obscurity, represents a deliberate aesthetic choice. I shall extend the implications of Scowcroft's study to later compositions. Further, I hypothesise that one effect of obscure style is poetic: estrangement of the object is provoked, thereby constructing a self-reflexive, observational distance upon episodes.

Obscurity in narratives can produce a poetic effect which, alongside semantics, is crucial in conveying meaning. For example, I am currently researching two Early Modern prose texts, Echtrae Airt meic Cuinn (EA) and Altrom Tige Dá Medar (ATDM). Both involve peculiarities which do not fit the narrative flow, for instance, Bécuma's unexplained lie in EA that she is Delbchaem, her own rival. However, these aspects coalesce with other oddities and contribute to broader poetic effects in both, whereby perspectives are repeatedly interrupted and redirected towards the mechanics of storytelling itself.
I intend to demonstrate stylistic sophistication in late medieval Irish literature and simultaneously to demonstrate that difficulties in narratives should not be cursorily dismissed as errors. Further, I hope to show how Early Modern Irish prose (1200-1600) incorporates inward-looking tradition alongside outward-looking innovation; to this end I will compare texts with earlier Middle Irish and concurrent medieval French narratives.


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