Linguistic Anthropology

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  • Topic: Irish language, Irish mythology, Middle Ages
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Early Irish kingship ideology and history

Early medieval Irish literature thoroughly discusses the ideology of kingship; the tales about kingship both acted as exemplum literature for early Irish kings and, for modern scholars, elaborate on early Irish society's values. Although there is no specific evidence which indicates that the tales were used as exemplum, it seems fairly clear. Certainly there was literature designed to educate king's about their responsibilities. Audacht Morainn, a letter from an advisor to a prince, was clearly designed for just that purpose. The extent of the concern which early medieval literature has for kingship and, specifically, the values of kingship, indicates that this literature was intended for the education of kings as well as for entertainment. Having good kings was certainly very important to the medieval Irish; a good king secured peace and prosperity for his land. The reasons for the likely existence of exemplum literature for kings does not, however, indicate that the ki!

ngship literature must include that exemplum literature. What does indicate that kingship literature is, or at least includes, exemplum literature, is that the major themes in kingship literature deal with either how to be a good king or how not to be a bad king. As justice is perhaps the single most important quality of a king, it is unsurprising that much of the kingship literature pertains to good and bad judgments. Kingships are gained and lost through the justice, or lack thereof, of a king's judgments. These tales investigate what distinguishes a good judgment from a bad and why bad judgments are made. Significantly, in the kingship tales, bad judgments almost always occur when a king attempts to judge his own kin. The tales serve as a warning to kings to either avoid judging their kin or to be particularly careful to be just while doing so. They advise a king that success in battle is necessary to keep the throne. They reveal what situations trickery is accept!

able in and in what situations it is not acceptable. Or rather, they indicate that trickery itself is acceptable, but that disloyalty or using trickery to abuse the justice system is unacceptable. The connection between the kingship and the supernatural is also significant and provides a great deal of insight on what was important in early Irish judgments. It was the responsibility of the Otherworld to judge the kings and to keep a just ruler on the throne. According to the tales, the Otherworld certainly did depose numerous kings for unjust actions, but how it decided which kings were just and which unjust is reveals even more about the early medieval Irish sense of justice. The Otherworld did not depose kings based solely on a single unjust action; rather, it judged them as they themselves judged others. If a king acted precipitously, he was judged precipitously; if he was patient, he was given time to prove or disprove himself. Despite the tales' harsh criticism of k!

ings who allow their emotions and kinship loyalties to interfere with their judgments, early Irish justice was not supposed to be unaffected by the personalities of those being judged. It was important for the kings not to be partial, but a just judgment took into account the temperaments of those involved. One of the primary roles of kingship literature was to educate kings and future kings about how to fulfill their duties properly; in addition to serving this purpose, it now reveals a great deal about early Irish kingship and social values.

Kingship and social values are considered to be among the most important themes which Early Gaelic literature discusses. However, while even the study of Early Gaelic or Old Irish can be considered recent in comparison to academic studies on other languages from the eighth to tenth centuries, within the study of Early Gaelic, the study of literature as literature rather than literature as myth or literature as history is even...
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