Friday 12 March 2010

Report of H. M. Chadwick Lecture 2010

Ronni Phillips writes:

On Thursday, 11th March the ASNC Department held the 21st annual H. M. Chadwick Memorial Lecture.  The lecture was delivered by Professor Joseph F. Nagy of the University of California Los Angeles.  Its topic was "Merchants of Myth in Ancient and Medieval Celtic Traditions".  Professor Nagy began his lecture with reference to H. M. Chadwick’s work The Heroic Age, which argued that the Celtic literary ‘heroic milieu’ – like other heroic literatures – was peopled only by royal or noble families and their households, but depicted no representatives of merchants, farmers or artisans.  These mercantile figures were thus defined as representing a more cosmopolitan ‘medieval’ era, set in opposition to an ancient ‘heroic’ age.

Professor Nagy argued for a more nuanced understanding of representations of merchants and mercantile behaviour in medieval Celtic literature. Drawing on texts ranging widely from the early Irish glossary Sanas Chormaic to the twelfth-century Middle Irish Acallam na Senórach, he noted various depictions of characters engaging in mercantile behaviour, such as negotiating, bargaining and exchanging.  He argued that these examples reflected networks of trade, cultural and intellectual exchange that existed prior to Viking – and indeed Roman – settlement.  This was not to say that such representations of mercantilism depicted it in an entirely positive light.  Rather, Professor Nagy explained that the ambivalence with which negotiating and bargaining for goods and wealth was portrayed in some texts, and the fact that liminal figures such as the Fenians in Acallam na Senórach were often portrayed as displaying mercentile behaviour may have reflected unease about such behaviour.  In projecting it onto the marginal Fenians, it kept mercantilism safely Other, while still engaging with it on an intellectual level. 

This argument draws on some of Professor Nagy’s earlier research from his book of 1985, The Wisdom of the Outlaw.  In that book he noted that fénnidi occupy an uneasy position in medieval Irish literature as ‘social outcasts forever denied adult status’, but whose position as outsiders allows them to gain wisdom not available to fully integrated members of society and bring the benefits of this wisdom back to society.  Mercantile behaviour, perhaps, was another such marginal activity – at least within literature – and depicting fénnidi as engaging in it allowed writers to reflect on the benefits of trade and exchange while keeping it safely confined to marginal figures. 

Professor Nagy’s Chadwick Lecture will be published by the ASNC Department.

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