Feond Mancynnes: The Enemy of the People

The information and views set out in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the Medieval Institute or the University of Notre Dame.

For Halloween this year, we continue our discussion of rhetorical representations of the monstrous in Beowulf by framing the poem in our current political climate and historical context. In my previous blog, “Mearcstapan: Monsters Across the Border” (July 20, 2018), I explored various interpretations of the Old English compound mearcstapan, used to describe the Grendelkin in Beowulf, and discussed the rhetorical implications of translating the compound as “border-crosser” when teaching or reading the poem in the United States in 2018. Placing the term mearcstapan in conversation with the current administration’s immigration policies (and President Trump’s rhetoric on immigration) emphasizes the othering force of being categorized as immigrant, foreign, or alien. These labels encourage an emotional response due in part to the in-group and out-group dynamics encoded in the language of migration, and the ramifications for certain immigrant groups living in the United States are dire.

Mexican emigrants crossing the Rio Grande near El Paso, Texas. Image by Danny Lehman/Corbis.

In Beowulf, Grendel is repeatedly described as the enemy of the Danish people and is characterized as the arch-nemesis of the heroic protagonist. Beowulf describes the monster as feorhgeniðla “mortal enemy” (969) to the Danish king, Hroðgar, whose hall was the focus of Grendel’s wrath and terror for twelve years. Hroðgar later refers to Grendel as ealdgewinna “old enemy” (1776), a satanic epithet and translation of the Latin hostis antiquus “old enemy.” Although the monster is Hroðgar’s long-time foe, in this description, the Danish king ominously characterized Grendel as something demonic—intuitively or unwittingly reinforcing the narrator’s designation of the Grendelkin as the monstrous progeny of Cain (102-114). This spiritual overlay frames the narrative, and Grendel’s dual characterization as the respective enemy of both the Danes and God is twice corroborated by the narrator’s explicit references to the monster as Godes ondsaca “adversary of God” (786, 1682).

Today, I will consider the Old English satanic epithet feond mancynnes “enemy of the people,” used by the narrator in Beowulf to describe Grendel and modeled on hostis publicus “public enemy” in Latin. The term dates back to Roman antiquity, and the senate famously pronounced emperor Nero a hostis publicus in 68 CE. This epithet has since been leveled against political opponents throughout history and in many languages. The term emphasizes animosity and frames whomever is designated hostis publicus as working against both the will of the people and the greater good. Embedded in this description are pathetical appeals to both fear-mongering and tribalism. Feond mancynnes stresses the majority group (mancynn “mankind” or “the people”) as in a position of moral superiority and opposed to a hostile minority group (feond “the enemy”). This adversarial aspect simultaneously encourages in-group and out-group mentality and emphasizes the danger inherent in hostility.

“The Roll Call of the Last Victims of the Reign of Terror” by Charles Louis Lucien Muller (1860), housed at the University of Notre Dame’s Snite Museum.

The epithet ennemi du peuple “enemy of the people” was employed by Maximilien de Robespierre during the French Revolution, and referred to a legally punishable group of socio-political opponents charged with moral depravity and disseminating false news. This epithet vrag naroda [враг народа] “enemy of the people” gained traction in the Soviet Union because it highlighted economic disparity and social class, emphasizing both the strength of a unified public and the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Once in power, Vladimir Lenin used this epithet to characterize the political leadership of the Constitutional Democratic Party as public enemies in the decree of 1917. Other similar epithets featured prominently in Soviet rhetoric aimed at demonizing socio-political opponents include vrag trudyashchikhsya [враг трудящихся] “enemy of the workers,” vrag proletariata [враг пролетариата] “enemy of the proletariat,” and klassovyi vrag [классовый враг] “class enemy.”

‘Enemies of the 5-Year Plan’ by Viktor Deni 1931, Soviet propaganda targeting landlords, kulaks (wealthy farmers), journalists, capitalists, White Russians (anti-communists), Mensheviks (moderate socialists), priests, and alcoholics.

As during the French Revolution, the term became legally formalized in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and similar articles codified versions of the term in other Soviet Republics. Mao Zedong also referred to dissenters as “enemies of the people” in his 1957 speech, On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People. In each appropriation of this epithet, both moral and political animosity is linked to social otherness. The rhetoric of hostis publicus may have been used to depose a tyrant in Roman antiquity, but modern dictators have consistently used the epithet to target their political rivals. More recently, after the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the Daily Mail labeled the presiding judges “enemies of the people” for ruling that consent from British Parliament was necessary for departure from the European Union.

Image of Lord Chief Judge John Thomas featured in the Daily Mail’s article headlined “Enemies of the people” (November 3rd, 2016).

The epithet is famously the title of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s En folkefiende, “An Enemy of the People” (1882), and Shakespeare appeals repeatedly to this Roman designation in Coriolanus, when Caius Marcius Corliolanus is charged as “chief enemy to the people” (I.I.5), “enemy to the people and his country” (III.III.119) and “[The] people’s enemy” (III.III.138). However, Beowulf and the Old English Juliana also participate in the epithet’s rhetorical tradition and appropriate the Latin political designation by transforming it into a satanic epithet. The Old English feond mancynnes represents an Anglo-Saxon appropriation of the Roman designation, which frames the antagonism in spiritual rather than political terms. In this way, Christian morality is emphasized and opponents are represented as demonic.

“Hell” by Hans Memling, Right Hand Panel from the Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation (ca. 1485).

This shift reflects the semantic evolution of the Old English feond “enemy” into the modern English “fiend,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines primarily as “An evil spirit or demon.” In Juliana, the demon who visits the saint is designated a public enemy, thrice referred to as feond moncynnes (317, 523, 630). The demon comes disguised as an angel to deceive the protagonist and tempt her into sin, but Juliana conquers the monster with her saintly virtue. Once she identifies her visitor as demonic, she commands him to disclose his plot: þu scealt furþor gen, feond moncynnes,/ siþfæt secgan, hwa þec sende to me “you must still say further of your journey here, enemy of mankind, and of who sent you to me” (317). The demon boasts how he successfully overcame Nero, Neþde ic nearobregdum þær ic Neron bisweac “I dared venture with wicked tricks when I deceived Nero”(302), but laments that he cannot overpower Juliana:

                           Næs ænig þara
þæt mec þus bealdlice         bennum bilegde,
þream forþrycte,   ær þu nu þa
þa miclan meaht         mine oferswiðdest,
fæste forfenge,         þe me fæder sealde,
feond moncynnes,        þa he mec feran het,
þeoden of þystrum,         þæt ic þe sceolde
synne swetan.  

“There were no any [others] who have so boldly laden me with bonds or overcame me with rebuke, before now when you seized me firmly and overpowered my great strength, which my father gave me, the enemy of mankind, when he commanded me to journey forth, a prince from the darkness, so that I should sweeten your sins for you” (520-525).

St. Juliana defeating a demon, in “Jerusalem Psalter,” The Hague, KB, 76 F 5, f. 32, (ca. 1190-1200).

Eventually, seeing that he is no match for Juliana, the demon flees from the saint:

                                 þa seo eadge biseah
ongean gramum,         Iuliana,
gehyrde heo hearm galan         helle deofol.
Feond moncynnes         ongon þa on fleam sceacan,
wita neosan,         ond þæt word acwæð:
“Wa me forworhtum!         Nu is wen micel
þæt heo mec eft wille         earmne gehynan
yflum yrmþum,         swa heo mec ær dyde.

“Then blessed Juliana gazed at the angry one, she heard the devil from hell sing his torment. The enemy of mankind began then to retreat in flight, seeking punishments, and spoke these words: “Woe to me, forwrought! There is now a great expectation that she will again humiliate wretched me with evil calamities, as she did to me before” (627-34).

In the first and third instances, the satanic epithet feond moncynnes is used to describe not the demon’s father (i.e. Satan), but rather the demon himself. These references to devils as “enemies of the people” elevate the Roman epithet hostis publicus by presenting the term in a spiritual context, thereby shifting the focus from political opponents to moral adversaries.

“Hellmouth,” image from Hours of Catherine of Cleves, Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.945, f. 107r (ca. 1440).

Ælfric refers to the devil as mancynnes feond in two of his Catholic homilies. In one homily, he makes a direct appositive association linking mancynnes feond with awyrigeda deofol “accursed devil” (II.31-32), and in the other Ælfric positions awyrigeda engel “accursed angel” (II.38) in apposition with the satanic epithet. Moreover, mancynnes feond appears in two anonymous Old English homilies. In one of these homilies (contained in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 121), the Latin political epithet hostis publicus is combined with a Latin satanic epithet, hostis antiquus “the old enemy,” and expanded into the Old English epithet se ealda feond mancynnes “the old enemy of mankind.” Additionally, mancynnes feond is used as a satanic epithet in Old English prose hagiographies, twice in a vita of St. Giles and once in two vitae of St. Guthlac.

This demonic epithet also features in Beowulf and is twice used to describe Grendel, marking him as demonic. The narrator characterizes Grendel as feond mancynnes in his initial description of the monster’s carnage wreaked in Denmark:

                            se æglæca   ehtende wæs,
deorc deaþscua,   duguþe ond geogoþe,
seomade ond syrede,   sinnihte heold
mistige moras;   men ne cunnon
hwyder helrunan   hwyrftum scriþað.
Swa fela fyrena   feond mancynnes,
atol angengea,   oft gefremede,
heardra hynða

“The fearsome marauder was attacking the veterans and young warriors, the dark death-shadow lied in waiting and plotted. In the endless night, he ruled the misty marshes. Men did not know whither the hell-wonders glide in turns. So the enemy of mankind, the terrible lone-goer, often performed many crimes, hard humiliations” (159-66).

Saturno devorando a su hijo, “Saturn eating his son,” by Francis Goya (1819-23).

The narrator’s second reference to Grendel as mancynnes feond comes over a thousand lines later, during his description of Grendel’s defeat:

                                he þone feond ofercwom,
gehnægde helle gast.   Þa he hean gewat,
dreame bedæled,   deaþwic seon,
mancynnes feond.

“He (Beowulf) overcame the enemy, humbled the hellish ghost. Then he, the enemy of mankind, departed humiliated to see his death-place, bereft of joy” (1273-76).

In both these descriptions of Grendel, hel “hell” is directly referenced (163, 1274), which both reinforces the satanic undertones implied by feond manncynnes and further signals Grendel’s affiliation with the demonic. By characterizing the monster as “enemy of mankind” (164, 1276), the narrator emphasizes both the existential threat posed by Grendel to the Danish people as well as the spiritual doom which awaits them. The Danes are explicitly condemned as hæðen“heathen” by the narrator (179), especially for offering worship to the devil, described as gastbona “soul-slayer” (177). In this way, physical and spiritual devastation are fused—uniting the political and moral implications of hostis publicus or feond mancynnes represented as a terrifying monster in Beowulf.

Of course, in Trump’s America,  the phrase “enemy of the people” calls to mind the president’s repeated use of the term to demonize the media.

President Donald Trump, photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters.

President Trump regularly resorts to scare tactics—portending doom—such as when he threatened an economic depression if he were to be impeached. However, the president has especially targeted the media as political and moral adversaries, and their designation as public enemies has resulted in threats of physical violence.

On February 17, 2017, Trump’s rhetorical appropriation of this epithet erupted on Twitter, when the president declared: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

Trump repeated his designation of the press as “the enemy of the people” on February 24, 2018: “A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people and they are. They are the enemy of the people.” On June 25, 2018, the president condemned journalists as “fake newsers” and “the enemy of the people”during a rally. After his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland (July 15, 2018), in his response to criticism by the press, Trump tweeted on July 19, 2018: “The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media.”

Trump and Putin hold a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki (July 16th, 2018), photo by Grigory Dukor/Reuters.

Trump has drawn criticism from international organizations such as the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for his targeting of journalists and the institution of the free press. Still, the president’s attacks on the media have continued, despite that his administration is investigating the abduction and apparent murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist for The Washington Post. Turkish media reports that he was tortured, executed and dismembered shortly after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. Despite political pressure, the president has not toned down his rhetoric, and Trump praised Montana Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte for assaulting a reporter on October 19, 2018. The president applauded Gianforte’s violence and complimented the GOP Congressman saying, “any guy who can do a body slam, he’s my kind of… he’s my guy.”

Trump supporting Greg Gianforte after “body-slamming” a reporter, photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP Images.

While rhetorical demonization of political opponents as “enemies of the people” is by no means new, in the past it has proven effective in arousing fear and hatred, paving the way in many cases for atrocities. By painting the free press as a public enemy, Trump has appropriated this political designation (and satanic epithet), applying it to those who would criticize him and sanctioning violence against them. The president uses the term as a rhetorical weapon—a tool which both challenges the credibility of his dissenters and conjures the specter of conspiracy against him. Even this past week, after pipe-bombs were sent to some of his most prominent political targets (including CNN and members of the previous administration), Trump persisted in his rhetoric against the media. Despite the ongoing manhunt for a serial bomber (which apprehended the alleged perpetrator, Cesar Soyac), the president tweeted on October 25, 2018: “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”

Trump followed this up a few days later with another tweet, again designating the media as enemies of the people and blaming the free press for the recent surge in politically motivated violence, declaring on October 29, 2018: “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame…”

Until Trump’s presidency, attacks against the free press were primarily associated with the Nazi regime, which appropriated the 19th century political term lügenpresse “lying press” for their propaganda efforts against the free press in Germany. However, the alt-right movement in the United States has more recently appropriated this Nazi epithet to attack the media as pathological liars, and the president has adopted this rhetorical position. The New York Times has pointed out that the president’s demonization of the media frequently follows moments of crisis and criticism, comparable to the propagandizing use of lügenpresse by Nazis and vrag naroda by Soviets.

Nazi propaganda poster “We Workers Have Awakened” for the 1930 election in Germany, targeting political opponents including communists and the lügenpresse (lying press).

When Trump designates the free press as “the enemy of the people,” he appeals to the political tradition of hostis publicus, but invokes also a moral—even spiritual—component emphasized in the satanic epithet feond mancynnes used for the demon in Juliana and Grendel in Beowulf. The president has weaponized the rhetoric of monstrosity against his most vocal critics and whistleblowers, those who might hold him accountable for his actions through their reporting or political opposition. In placing Old English literature (such as Beowulf and Juliana) in conversation with global trends in political rhetoric, we find that the epithet feond mancynnes resonates with Trump’s ethical appeals and demonization of the media as “the enemy of the people.” In this way, the rhetoric of monstrosity displayed in these medieval poems can speak to the current crisis of credibility plaguing American politics. The narrator’s designation of Grendel as feond mancynnes sanctions vengeance against him in Beowulf, and similarly the president’s rhetoric both condones and encourages violence against the free press and his political adversaries.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

 

Further Reading

Feldman, Thalia Phillies. “A Comparative Study of FeondDeoflSyn, and Hel in Beowulf.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 88 (1987): 159-74.

—. “Grendel and Cain’s Descendents.” Literary Onomastics Studies 8 (1981): 71-87.

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the ‘Beowulf’-Manuscript. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1995.

—. A Critical Companion to A Critical Companion to ‘Beowulf’. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003.

Vinsonhaler, Chris. “The HearmscaÞa and the Handshake: Desire and Disruption in the Grendel Episode.” Comitatus 47 (2016): 1-36.

 

Grotesque Ghosts and Moral Reproof in Middle English Literature: The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyn

The day has suddenly turned to night; King Arthur and his knights are all frightened; and Guinevere, who is accompanying the entourage, begins to cry when out of nowhere the woods ring with terrible sounds of howling and wailing and grievous lamentation. A female-seeming being approaches Sir Gawain, having risen from a lake, and

Bare was the body and blak to the bone,
Al biclagged [clotted] in clay uncomly cladde […].
On the chef [head] of the cholle [neck],
A pade [toad] pikes [bites] on the polle [skull],
With eighen [eyes] holked [sunken] ful holle [hollow]
That gloed [glowed] as the gledes [coals]. (ll. 105-106, 114-117)[1]

The apparition continues to yell and murmur and groan as if it were mad and is shrouded in some sort of unfathomable clothing, covered by toads and circled on all sides by snakes.

Gawain finds his courage and, brandishing his sword, demands that the specter give an account of herself. She concedes, saying that she was once a queen—the fairest in the land—and was wealthy and privileged beyond compare, even more so than Guinevere. But now she is dead, having lost all—her body a filthy, rotting corpse—and, she says, “God has me geven of his grace / To dre [suffer through] my paynes in this place” (ll. 140-141).

The place that she is referring to is the Tarn Wadling, a lake in Cumbria, just south-east of Carlisle by about ten miles.[2] Tarn (< ME terne, tarne) is a word that originated as a local northern English term (< ON *tarnu, tjorn, tjörn) meaning ‘a lake, pond, or pool,’ but it has since come to be used to mean specifically ‘a small mountain lake, having no significant tributaries.’[3]

Entrance to the woods surrounding the Tarn Wadling.

King Arthur and crew come upon the Tarn Wadling during a hunt in Inglewood Forest. The finery of the court—and especially of Guinevere—is described in several stanzas, much as the ghost describes the splendor she once enjoyed a number of stanzas later. After Gawain talks with her for a bit, she begs to see and speak to Guinevere. We quickly find out why, for she proclaims to Guinevere, “Lo, how delful [doleful] deth has thi dame dight [left]” (l. 160)! The spirit is her mother, and she urges Guinevere to “Muse on my mirrour” (l. 167). Death will leave her in such a fashion too if she does not give thought to her actions and the afterlife.

Arthur and Guinevere. London, British Library, MS Royal 20 D IV, f. 207r[4].
The first thing that Guinevere’s mother counsels is that, if you are rich, you should have pity on the poor, for it is in your power to do so. When you are dead, nothing will help you at that point, but “The praier of poer may purchas the pes” (l. 178). She stresses this to Guinevere and holds herself up as a counterexample. She failed, and now, she says,

“[…] I, in danger and doel, in dongone I dwelle,
Naxte [nasty] and nedefull, naked on night.
Ther folo me a ferde [troop] of fendes of helle;
They hurle me unhendely; thei harme me in hight [violently];
In bras and in brymston I bren as a belle [bonfire].
Was never wrought in this world a wofuller wight. (ll. 184-189)

While Guinevere’s mother advocates for compassion and generosity, we discover, however, that it was lust and the breaking of her marriage vows that landed her in torment. These sins bear obvious relation to Guinevere’s own life, and the author doesn’t even feel the need to clarify. Her mother is a mirror.

Guinevere and Lancelot. London, British Library, MS Additional 10293, f. 199r[5].
Nonetheless, it is interesting that what this text emphasizes the most is the need for all to have and to practice charity. Sin is bad, of course; and pride is the most hateful fault, as Guinevere’s mother explains. But the Awntyrs is not a treatise on the sins; it is a work that teaches that, of the virtues, “[…] charité is chef [paramount], and then is chaste [chastity], / And then almessedede aure [above] al other thing” (ll. 252-253). The duty of the Christian, according to the author of the Awntyrs, lies in each person’s responsibility towards every other. And this extends ad infinitum, for the prayers of those on earth are succor to the dead. The audience learns this because Guinevere promises to provide Masses for her mother’s soul, praying that Christ will bring to bliss she for whom he was crucified, he to whom she was dedicated in Baptism, though her mother stresses again that Guinevere must also provide for those living who lack food.

Before Guinevere’s mother departs, Gawain pipes in, having clearly been listening. He asks about those nobles and knights who enter other’s lands in territorial expansion, crushing under their heels the people and seizing the glory and the riches without any right. Now, if anyone is familiar with Gawain, this is rather too self-aware for his character—clearly the author is speaking here. The royal wraith responds by denouncing Arthur as too covetous a king and saying that the court should be wary. The second half of the Awntyrs deals precisely with these problems of excess and conquest, and I leave this part of the plot for readers to explore on their own.

Concerning the fifteenth-century text that has reached us, it is preserved in four manuscripts: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324; London, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 491.B; Lincoln, Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 91 (Thornton Manuscript); and Princeton, Princeton University Library, MS Taylor 9 (Ireland Blackburn Manuscript).

The beginning of The Awntyrs off Arthure.f. 1r of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324 (c. 1450-1475)[6]. Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
The underlying dialect in the manuscripts is northern, being locatable most likely to the historic county of Cumberland (now part of Cumbria), which is also where the action of the narrative takes place. The work is extremely ornate, making use of both alliteration and rhyme. And as the text’s editor, Thomas Hahn, also notes, given the themes, it is quite probable that the author was a cleric, possibly residing in Carlisle. The Latin exempla tradition most certainly influenced the text, but the genius of the author was to weave his moral teaching into an exciting Arthurian tale, sweetening the medicine, as it were, with a captivating literary exterior.[7]

Be this as it may, the Tarn Wadling has always been eerie, emitting strange sounds and even once having an island appear and then disappear. It is hard to say whether it was due to a desire to bring an end to the place and quash superstitions or increase his arable land and acreage that Lord Lonsdale ordered the lake to be drained and filled in sometime during the nineteenth century.[8] Sadly, the tarn itself is no more, but the stories persist—as perhaps do the spirits.

 

Hannah Zdansky, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

 

[1] The edition used is the following: “The Awntyrs off Arthur.” Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales. Ed. Thomas Hahn. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995. This can be found online here: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hahn-sir-gawain-awntyrs-off-arthur. And here is an introduction: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/hahn-sir-gawain-awyntyrs-off-arthur-introduction.

[2] You can find information about the location here: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/wood/4726/tarn-wadling/.

[3] See the entry “tarn” in the Oxford English Dictionary as well as “terne” in the Middle English Dictionary.

[4] The entire manuscript is digitized here: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Royal_MS_20_d_iv. Dated c. 1300-1380, it contains part of the Lancelot of the Vulgate Cycle. The image shows Arthur and Guinevere receiving news from a damsel.

[5] See the catalogue description with some images here: https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=18463&CollID=27&NStart=10293. This manuscript contains another copy of the Lancelot, c. 1316.

[6] See images here: https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/inquire/Discover/Search/#/?p=c+0,t+,rsrs+0,rsps+10,fa+,so+ox%3Asort%5Easc,scids+,pid+f03eea52-0af3-4ff7-9069-c41a4b2f6c6b,vi+6e581efc-2391-4258-b621-0f85fe45f40f. You can find more information here: http://medievalromance.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/A_ghostly_encounter.

[7] On this, see especially David N. Klausner’s “Exempla and The Awntyrs of Arthure.” Medieval Studies 34 (1972): 307-25. Thomas Hahn provides further reading, editions with introductory material as well as scholarly articles, at the end of his introduction (see note 1).

[8] For more on the history of the Tarn Wadling, go here: https://www.cumbriacountyhistory.org.uk/tarn-wadling-background.

Love and Commitments in Early Medieval Ireland: The Account of Líadain and Cuirithir

Medievalists and medieval enthusiasts have no doubt encountered stories of lovers who reach an impasse between their affections for each other and deeper, more personal obligations that they may hold, whether an obligation to another, to an institution, or to God. We might think, for example, of the end of Marie de France’s Eliduc in which Guildeluec and eventually Guilliadun take the veil and Eliduc joins a monastery. The very end of the Arthurian cycle also comes to mind in which both Guinevere and Lancelot commit themselves to the religious life (though this is after much grave harm has been done). One may even be reminded of the real-world historical figures of Abelard and Heloise, albeit unfortunate circumstances abetted certain choices in their life stories. All of these narratives deal with themes that can be found in a much older tale, though this is not in any way to suggest lines of influence.

While lacking the supernatural, adventurous, and tragic elements of other Old Irish love narratives—Cú Chulainn for Fand, Deirdre for Naoise, Gráinne for Diarmuid—the Comrac Líadaine ocus Cuirithir tells a tale—for all intents and purposes based on historical persons—that at once demonstrates its inheritance to traditional Irish love stories as well as concerns that we see reflected in a host of medieval European literatures.[1]

As with most Old Irish literature, the manuscripts that preserve the account of Líadain and Cuirithir date much later. Only two contain the story: Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS 1337, p. 759 (olim H. 3. 18) (15th-16th centuries)[2] and London, British Library, MS Harley 5280, f. 26 (16th century).[3]

London, British Library, MS Harley 5280, f. 59. While this folio does not contain our text, note the decorated initial and script used.

There is evidence, however, that the couple and text were widely known among Irish literati. As the work’s early editor, Kuno Meyer, notes, there is a reference to Líadain as a renowned poet in the introduction to “The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare,” and a tenth-century metrical treatise offers one of her stanzas in our text as an example of treochair metre (8-9).

Given that the preservation of much of Old Irish literature can be attributed to Christian churchmen (the same is also true for other pagan literatures), some of the Christian themes in the story have been thought overlays. For example, in the forward to her translation of the text, Moireen Fox refers to “acts of pious vandalism” enacted against ancient works, the forcing of “old legends into the boundaries of the new faith” (7).[4] Be that as it may, thinking of an earlier, “pure” literature as somehow sullied by Christian influences short-changes the vibrant, syncretic culture that preserved it—a culture that one sees refracted through Líadain and Cuirithir’s lives.

What we have in the Comrac Líadaine ocus Cuirithir is a narrative that relates the following. Recounted in prosimetrum form, we learn that Líadain, a celebrated poet from Corkaguiney, a barony in County Kerry that comprises most of the Dingle Peninsula, is on tour in Connacht.

Gallarus Oratory on the Dingle Peninsula. Photographed by Hannah Zdansky.

While there, she meets Cuirithir, also a poet—both likely lived in the seventh century—with whom she falls in love. Cuirithir urges that they unite, saying that if they had a son, he would surely be famous, but Líadain resists. She does not want her agreed-upon schedule of travels and literary engagements jeopardized. Instead, she tells Cuirithir that once she has finished, he can leave Connacht to come visit her at her home.

Clew Bay from atop Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo (Connacht). Photographed by Hannah Zdansky.

When Cuirithir finally heads south to meet Líadain, he accompanies her to the religious man Cummaíne Fota, and they place themselves under anmchairde, ‘soul-friendship’ (cf. Lat. amicitia). Though the text is sparse in the details, one can infer that this is Líadain’s idea. This notion of soul-friendship is something treated often in later theological treatises, and we can think especially of St. Aelred of Rievaulx (c. 1110-1167). Spiritual marriage, as a concept, becomes a repeated theme in hagiography and in the lives of religious women, especially during the High and Late Middle Ages. What is so intriguing about the story of Líadain and Cuirithir is how early it is—ninth or the beginning of the tenth century.

One can only guess at the reasoning behind Líadain’s decision to become a nun. Perhaps it was entirely religious. Perhaps she also did not want to give up her intellectual and artistic calling to have child after child—a valid response that women of different cultures and time periods during the Middle Ages shared. One need only peruse a work like Hali Meiðhad to catch a glimpse of how motherhood was perceived by some.

Nonetheless, much of the verse in the text is filled with regret. The two seem to occupy separate oratories, overseen by the monk Cummaíne Fota, and are only allowed to walk about at different times. During one of these times, Cuirithir, now a monk himself, is in his hut, and Líadain speaks to him. Cuirithir replies:

Beloved is the dear voice that I hear,
I dare not welcome it!
But this only do I say:
Beloved is this dear voice! (19)[5]

To this Líadain responds:

The voice which comes to me through the wattled wall,
It is right for it to blame me:
What the voice does to me, is
It will not let me sleep. (19)[6]

It is very clear that both long for physical and emotional closeness, and Líadain asks Cummaíne for a reprieve from their separation, which is granted so long as a student in the community sleeps between them as a guard. It must be concluded that this does not work, for Cuirithir is moved to another location and then goes on pilgrimage within Ireland. Líadain sets out in search of him, and it is during her final soliloquy that the power of her poetry truly comes to the fore. Although she made her choices, the remorse is profound:

Cen áinius
in chaingen dorigenus:
an rocharus rocráidius.

Joyless
The bargain I have made!
The heart of him I loved I wrung.

Ba mire
ná dernad a airer-som,
manbad oman ríg nime. (22)

‘Twas madness
Not to do his pleasure,
Were there not the fear of the King of Heaven. (23)

Ní bú amlos
dó-sum in dul dúthracair:
ascnam sech péin hi pardos.

To him the way he has wished
Was great gain,
To go past the pains of Hell into Paradise.

Becc mbríge
rocráide frim Cuirithir:
fris-seom ba mór mo míne.

‘Twas a trifle
That wrung Curithir’s heart against me:
To him great was my gentleness.

Mé Líadain,
rocarus-sa Cuirithir:
is fírithir adfiadar.

I am Liadain
Who loved Curithir:
It is true as they say.

Gair bá-sa
hi coimthecht Cuirithir:
fris-som ba maith mo gnás-sa.

A short while I was
In the company of Curithir:
Sweet was my intimacy with him.

Céol caille
fomchanad la Cuirithir
la fogur fairce flainne.

The music of the forest
Would sing to me when with Curithir,
Together with the voice of the purple sea.

Doménainn
ní cráidfed frim Cuirithir
do dálaib cacha ndénainn.

Would that
Nothing whatever of all I might do
Should wring the heart of Curithir against me!

Ní chela!
ba hé-som mo chrideṡerc,
cía nocarainn cách chenae.

Conceal it not!
He was the love of my heart,
If I loved every other.

Deilm ndegae
rotetaind mo chride-sae,
rofess nícon bíad cenae. Ce. (24)

A roaring flame
Dissolved this heart of mine,
However, for certain it will cease to beat. (25)

The text clarifies afterwards that “how she had wrung his heart was the haste with which she had taken the veil” (27).[7] When Cuirithir hears that Líadain is searching for him, he takes to the sea and travels to distant lands to continue his pilgrimage. They never see one another again. While we could view Cuirithir’s harsh parting as vengeful, it could also be attributable to a wish to help both of them live out their vows—though these are vows upon which Líadain insisted. However, Líadain’s feelings towards her earthly love never diminish: “The flagstone upon which he was wont to pray, she was upon it till she died. […] And that flagstone was put over her face” (27).[8] We are reassured, though, that her soul is in Heaven.

Part of what makes this account so moving is the tension between their commitments and their love for one another, especially on Líadain’s side. She voices far more of the lines in the text than Cuirithir. Indeed, one could argue that she is the central figure, being that she is the one so vexed and pulled by competing desires. She wants to have it all and cannot, a situation that can ring as true today as ever it did. We also get a strong sense of her talent as a poet, a gift that she did not wish to squander, and indeed, it is her fame, not her partner’s, that is preserved in Irish literary history. When Cuirithir arrives at her abode in Munster, he addresses her thusly:

O woman with the firm foot,
Thy like for great fame I have not found:
Under nun’s veil will not be known
A woman with more sense. (17)[9]

But with her strength, intellectual abilities, and renown also came great sorrow, a sorrow she was never able to overcome.[10]

Hannah Zdansky, Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame

 

[1] For the edition and translation utilized here, see Liadain and Curithir: An Irish Love-Story of the Ninth Century. Ed. and Trans. Kuno Meyer. London: D. Nutt, 1902. Available online here: https://books.google.com/books/about/LIADAIN_AND_CURITHIR.html?id=qkNT8Th48DsC&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[2] See a catalogue description of the manuscript here: https://www.vanhamel.nl/codecs/Dublin,_Trinity_College,_MS_1337. Some of the manuscript, which has been split into different volumes, is available here: https://www.isos.dias.ie/english/index.html. However, our tale has not yet been digitized.

[3] See a catalogue description here: https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=7375&CollID=8&NStart=5280.

[4] See Liadain and Curithir. Trans. Moireen Fox. Oxford: B. H. Blackwell, 1917.

[5] “Inmain guthán rocluniur, / fáilte fris nocho lamur, / acht is ed atbiur nammá: / is inmain in guthán sa” (18).

[6] “Guth domadbat trie clethae / is maith dó domincrechae: / is ed dogní frim in guth, / nachomléci do chotlud” (18).

[7] “Is é didu crád dorat sí fair-som a lúas rogab caille” (26).

[8] “Ind lecc fora mbíd som ac ernaigthe, robói sí for inn leicc sin co n-erbailt sí […]. Conid ind lecc sin dochóid dar a hagaid-si” (26).

[9] “A ben cosind remorchois, / ní fúar do ṡét di márchlois, / nícon festor fo chailliu / banscál badid cíallaidiu” (16).

[10] For further studies, see those listed here: https://www.vanhamel.nl/codecs/Comrac_Liadaine_ocus_Cuirithir.