Book Review: Historical Residues in the Old Irish Legends of Queen Medb: An Expanded Interpretation of the Ulster Cycle by Diana Dominguez
Edwin Mellen Press, 2010
Sometimes resources find you just when you need them, this was the case for me when I was in early struggles of resuming work on Teh Project and I came across a dissertation by Diana Veronica Dominguez exploring Medb of Connacht ‘s story using the theories of gender parody/performance. This study has now been published as this book, and I feel it is a transformational study leading to a deeper understanding of Medb, and perhaps women in the literature as a whole.
Medb is the most featured of all female characters in the Irish matter, let alone the most featured woman warrior, yet she’s often treated merely as a footnote, either a misogynist joke or a humanized Goddess. A predominant theory is that she was nothing more than an example of how wrong it is for a woman to be sexually free and to attempt to take on male roles. For others, she is seen as a humanized Sovereignty Goddess, conflated with Medb Lethderg despite no real connection being made other than the name, “redeeming” her sexuality as appropriate and laying the blame for all her “failings” at the feet of the “unworthy kings” she weds. Neither makes for a very complex figure.
Dominguez doesn’t dismiss these prevalent theories, in fact, she explores the cultural lenses that created them, as she addresses the idea that story depends on the view of the audience and how they read intentional and unintentional coding. Along with showing how Medb can be seen to enact both stereotypical feminine and stereotypical masculine traits to meet her needs, she shows how differing views, by various contemporary and later audiences, bring to life a more complex, multifaceted literary figure. Neither the coding nor the gender performance need to have been intentionally meant by the transcribers or tellers of a story, the coding and how recognizable it might be varies in the audience, according to their own cultural or sub-group knowledge. Having an understanding of the culture can help us determine what coding might have been read at the time.
Dominguez’ exploration of the culture of Ireland at the time included looking at the knowledge base of those who would have transcribed these tales, of native, Biblical and Classical traditions and of history. She also explores the possibility for actual women warriors, without getting into the romantic notions so popular today (although I, personally, find the Cáin Adamnáin
a little less hopeful as I note here
). She also discusses the real-life queens who lived at the time the stories were transcribed, who were clearly politically influential even if not titular, and that the Anglo-Saxon Queen Æthelflæd was well recorded in the Irish Annals. She notes that changes in Medb’s stories in later text may well have been influenced by these queens lives. She also reminds us of the potential for brother-less women to become temporary (as their inheritance would return to their father’s family) heirs; this may never have come up in regards to rule given “…there was never a shortage of males vying for ruling power…” but such a possibility may have been a consideration in the contemporary minds. This makes Medb and her sisters, with their brothers having been exiled for treason, more readable as exaggerated, but somewhat plausible, fictional rulers.
Whether such female leadership was acceptable as a reality to the original audience of the time, Dominguez reminds us that it certainly is accepted in some of the tales despite misogynist remarks in the TBC. Others come to her, not her huband(s), for counsel and even when Fergus goes to Aillil in Táin Aillil turns to Medb’s advice. In many of these cases her advice is labeled by scholars as flawed and malicious due to her gender, but the reality is that it is neither more nor less manipulative than counsel given by male characters and there are clear ends to be met, often to protect herself which protects her Connacht. Importantly, I feel, the idea that her reasons for going after the bull in TBC are often trivialized as “willfulness” and a “marital spat” is taken to task here. Dominguez points out that she had very real reasons for being at war with Conchobor who was not only her former husband but her rapist, killer of her son, the killer of one of her husbands, the man who humiliated her and her father. This was not about a frivolous seeking of fame or one-up-man-ship over her current husband. It was a very real political issue, about saving face which was a serious issue in Early Ireland and her motives are really no less appropriate than a man in this situation within this body of literature. In examining this, Dominguez also brings Aillil up from the typical reading of a weak cuckold, showing his reason for also wanting war with Ulster, the political implications for him in this situation and a reading that that, yes, there was a true partnership in this marriage.
Likewise, Dominguez makes a case for Medb as a a military leader, noting that many of “mistakes’ attributed to her “wrong-thinking” due to being female work as strategy. She shows that many of the decisions Medb makes that are written off by some scholars as “feminine whims” are actually very much in keeping with heroic male thought, while others are indeed performances of “feminine weakness” to get the men to take the action she wants and should responsibility for it. This also includes testing Fergus’s loyalty, and while Dominguez offers a more honorable reading of Aillil than many give, she shows Fergus was far more clearly duplicitous than often admitted to. Even Medb’s “humiliating” encounter with Cú Chulainn can be seen as performance and tactic, rather than a reversion to mythological state or depiction of her actually being a “weak and vile woman,” for the meeting buys time for her men to make off with the Brown.
In showing these various lenses, Dominguez shows us a multifaceted Medb, far from a saint, perhaps not everyone’s choice of role model (though I know a few who do claim her as such and will find this heartening), but a realistically portrayed literary figure who was likely understood differently by the original audience than by the Victorian critiques or ourselves today. She is not the first to do so, she has some good sources regarding seeing Medb a bit more complexly in the work of Ewa Sadowska, Doris Edel and Ann Dooley, but she certainly offers the most in depth look at Medb to be found to date. And this form of study leaves the door wide open for much further consideration.
On that, Dominguez wraps up by saying that she does not intend this to be the definitive exploration of Medb. She describes some of the many possible issues to still examine about this character who stands out in the Irish literature as a heavily featured woman. She comments that there are issues outside of the scope of this study that she only touched upon such as the relationship with Medb’s daughter Finnabair, the issues around the likely rather late, and very defaming, death tale Aided Meidbe. I hope that there are other scholars who will or are taking new lenses to her stories, taking up the challenge.
If this review seems uncharacteristically positive, keep in mind a couple of things. One, it’s hard to argue with someone pointing out that there are multiple ways to view something, because, well, there are just more views. But, full-disclosure, when I found the dissertation I looked Dr. Dominguez up and wrote her an email, because I am the sort of geek that writes fan mail to academics. I found this study to be not only informational, but very inspiring at a time when I was feeling out of sorts over my own project. I think that this study is a vital piece of the puzzle in understanding the place of women, especially women warriors, in the literature and it stands strong as part of what I think is a growing body of work on women of Early Gaelic culture, both literary and historical. So, yes, I highly recommend this book to every Celtophile out there who wants a deeper look at Medb, or women in general, in the culture. I would like to recommend it even more strongly to those who think they already have it all figured out.
The one real quibble I have with the book is something I suspect is in the publisher’s hands, which is that the index is clearly not as complete as it could be.
Copyright © 2011 Kym Lambert