Time is short: The eschatology of the early gaelic church

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"GREAT FEAR FELL AMONG THE MEN of Ireland before the feast of John [the Baptist] of this year [1096], until God spared [them] through the fastings of the successor of Patrick and of the clergy of Ireland besides." 1 The panic of 1096 is a curious episode in Irish history, and this laconic statement in the contemporary chronicle known as the Annals of Ulster is one of its few records of society beyond the powerful princes and higher clergy. This cultural terror at the approach of a saintly festival that the Gaels believed to be a preview of the Day of Judgment leads to the question of why they were prepared to believe in the disasters associated with an event whose horrors were unknown elsewhere in Europe? Part of the answer is that the panic of 1096 reflects the interest in eschatology found among the Celtic peoples of Britain and Ireland. With the advantage of hindsight, that panic can be seen as the logical conclusion to ever greater speculations about final judgment that had become embedded in medieval Celtic intellectual and popular culture and reached a climax in Ireland in the eleventh century, as even sober historical texts concluded their factual narratives with accounts of the world's end? This is most visible in works from the Gaelic-speaking lands where, in the rich harvest of literary and theological works, the theme of Last Things is found frequently and prominently, so much so that an excessive interest in eschatology and the supernatural has become an accusation hurled at medieval Irish theological works.3 The development of ideas about the final days that were important and, to the Gaels, believable found inspiration from a variety of sources, of which the Bible was the basis, especially the apocalyptiC passages in the Gospels and the Book of Danie1.4 In addition there were apocryphal texts such as the Apocalypse of Thomas, the Life ofAdam and Eve, and the Vision of Paul that were circulating throughout Europe.5 To these was added an original element from the heroic and adventure tales, with their rich store of pre-Christian belief, in which mortals and spirits together fought and loved in a landscape that was at the same time reassuringly familiar and hauntingly different. The resulting literary creations varied in content, from scholarly considerations of the Last Judgment (with descriptions of hell and its horrors as well as of heaven and its joys) to tales of fantastic voyages in which sailors met souls in the shape of birds waiting for the end of time or conversed with Judas, who was chained to a rock in the ocean. Two works-the Voyage of St. Brendan and the Vision of Tnudgal-passed into the general canon of European literature. The Voyage of St. Brendan was circulating round Francia during the early eleventh century, when a monk of Cluny named Raoul Glaber incorporated several episodes in his Five Books of Histories.6 By the following century, a Norman-French version of Brendan's voyage was composed for the court of the English king Henry I (1100-1135). The author, known only as Benedeit, had as a patroness Henry's queen, either his first wife Matilda or his second wife Adeliza? The Vision of Tnudgal became no less popular after its composition (in Latin) circa 1149, and its international popularity ensured that this vision would be translated into numerous vernaculars during the Middle Ages before it was finally written down in Irish, the language of its author, in the sixteenth century.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationLast Things
Subtitle of host publicationDeath and the Apocalypse in the Middle Ages
PublisherUniversity of Pennsylvania Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)0812235126, 9780812217025
StatePublished - 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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