Matheson (Anna)

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  • scholars
Matheson, Anna, “New developments in the study of the Wild Man in medieval Irish literature”, in: Bouget, Hélène, and Magali Coumert (eds), Histoires des Bretagnes 6: quel moyen age? La recherche en question, Histoires des Bretagnes 6, Brest: CRBC, Université de Bretagne Occidentale, 2019. 213–236.
Matheson, Anna, “Was there a Jewish presence in medieval Ireland?”, Jewish Historical Studies 51 (2019): 301–325.
Matheson, Anna, “Itinerant drúith and the mark of Cain in O’Davoren’s glossary”, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 67 (Summer, 2014): 55–71.
Matheson, Anna, “Madness as penance in medieval Gaelic sources: a study of biblical and hagiographical influences on the depiction of Suibne, Lailoken and Mór of Munster”, Ph.D. dissertation: Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge, 2011.  
This thesis explores the biblical and hagiographical literary models that are drawn upon in depictions of mad figures in pre-thirteenth-century Irish and “Scottish” sources. I show that an association between madness and vagrancy is widespread in medieval Irish texts, evidenced even in glossary entries for terms denoting mental derangement. In some literary tales, the wanderlust of the madman takes on a spiritual significance and indeed is presented as a form of penance, thereby aligning the madman with the ailithir or “pilgrim exile” of insular penitential tradition. Building on recent work by Brian Frykenberg, William Sayers and Bridgette Slavin, I examine the extent to which ecclesiastical literary traditions concerning the madness of Nebuchadnezzar and the Coptic Lives of ascetic desert saints have influenced the depictions of the Irish madman Suibne in Buile Shuibne (“The Frenzy of Suibne”), the “Scottish” madman Lailoken in a text known as Lailoken A, and the madwoman Mór of Munster in the Irish tale Mór Muman ocus Aided Chuanach meic Cailchíne (“Mór of Munster and the Tragic Fate of Cuanu mac Cailchíne”). My main focus is on the latter two texts.

I demonstrate how the interactions between St. Kentigern and the mad Lailoken in Lailoken A closely mirror those between Zosimas and Mary in the Life of Mary of Egypt, a previously unrecognised influence in this tale. I show how cleverly the author drew upon Mary’s legend and the importance it places on her reception of viaticum in order to introduce into the text what was a lively theological debate in the medieval period: whether or not the mentally impaired are entitled to communion.

My study of Mór presents a fresh approach to her character by focussing primarily on the spiritual implications of her madness rather than on the secular allegory of her marriage to the king of Munster. This angle has proven particularly fruitful, as it reveals that her derangement is introduced with clear eschatological purpose: it is inflicted by a voice in the air when she affirms that she would rather suffer in the beginning than in the end. Her depiction in this late-ninth- or tenth-century text is the earliest vernacular literary representation of madness as a form of penance, and it further attests to the influence of the ecclesiastical legends of Nebuchadnezzar and Mary of Egypt in the portrayal of a mad person. Predating Buile Shuibne and Lailoken A by two centuries, Mór’s tale proves to be a significant text through which we can track the thematic development of purgative madness in the literature of Britain and Ireland.

This study is prefaced by a general discussion on the depiction of mad and mentally disabled persons in medieval Irish sources. The breadth of terminology believed to denote variant forms of illness in the legal, historical and literary texts has long been recognised as extensive and sophisticated, demanding further analysis and interpretation. In this first chapter, I therefore include a much needed study of the meanings of these terms and the mental states that they reflect.


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