Thursday 13 December 2012

Report of Quiggin Lecture 2012

Helen Oxenham, a doctoral student in ASNC, writes:

One of the highlights of the ASNC year is always the annual E.C. Quiggin Memorial Lecture, begun in 1993, to commemorate Edmund Crosby Quiggin, the first teacher of Celtic at the University of Cambridge.  This year's lecture was as highly-anticipated, well-attended, and fascinating as usual.  On the 29th November at 5pm, the ASNC department was very pleased to welcome Professor Ruairí Ó hUiginn of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, to speak on the subject of ‘Marriage, Law and Tochmarc Emire (‘The Wooing of Emer’)’.

The lecture began with a summary of the tale of Tochmarc Emire – a tale in which the hero Cú Chulainn pledges fidelity to Emer, and then proceeds to break his pledge with multiple women, while Emer remains faithful – and then moved on to an analysis of the surviving manuscript sources for the various sections and versions of the tale.  Then came the main body of the lecture, which focused on the connections between the earliest versions of Tochmarc Emire (dating to between the eighth and the eleventh centuries) and the early Irish legal material.  Professor Ó hUiginn argued convincingly that Tochmarc Emire can be viewed as a negative exemplary tale through an analysis of certain legal prescriptions.  The legal text Cáin Lánamna, for example, carefully regulates a wide range of types of sexual union, both permanent and transitory.  Cú Chulainn, however, enters an unregulated union with Aífe, a female warrior, which ultimately leads to him killing his own son.

The combined use of a vernacular prose tale and the early Irish legal texts threw new and interesting light onto the ways in which such tales might be analysed within their early medieval context, the underlying messages being given greater resonance and meaning through this wider understanding.

It is traditional at the Quiggin Lectures that questions be reserved for the time at which the visiting speaker has a glass in hand, so after the launch of the pamphlet for the previous year’s lecture (Professor Odd Einar Haugen on The Orthographic Reform of the Old Icelandic First Grammatical Treatise) the assembled audience moved out of the lecture room for a feast of wine and canapés, to continue discussion and bombard Professor Ó hUiginn with questions. We look forward to seeing this lecture in print about this time next year.

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