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Why Ireland was like a ‘Garden of Eden’ during the Middle Ages

Tourism officials in Ireland are busy trying to promote the country to the world. If this was the Middle Ages, the would have a much easier time.

In her article, ‘The Other Paradise: Perceptions of Ireland in the Middle Ages’, Dagmar Ó Riain-Raedel discovers that public reputation of the country was very high during the medieval period, with many writers offering glowing reviews of the island on Europe’s western edge. It was even compared to the Garden of Eden, being another “land of milk and honey.”

One of the earliest medieval writers about Ireland was the seventh-century scholar Isidore of Seville. In his encyclopaedic work Etymologiae he notes:

Ireland, also known as Hibernia, is an island next to Britannia, narrower in its expanse of land but more fertile in its site. It extends from southwest to north. Its near parts stretch towards Iberia (Hiberia) and the Cantabrian Ocean (i.e. the Bay of Biscay), whence it is called Hibernia; but it is called Scotia, because it has been colonized by tribes of the Scoti. There no snakes are found, birds are scarce, and there are no bees, so that if someone were to sprinkle dust or pebbles brought from there among beehives in some other place, the swarms would desert the honeycombs.

Riain-Raedel compares this with the largely negative view of Ireland that comes from writers from antiquity. She notes that authors like Strabo, who said that its “climate causes its inhabitants to lead wretched lives,” saw the island as remote from the civilized world and the home of barbarians.

But by the Early Middle Ages, the perception of Ireland had changed dramatically – having converted to Christianity, its people and land was portrayed more positively. Bede, for example, writers in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, explains:

Ireland is broader than Britain, is healthier and has a much milder climate, so that snow rarely lasts for more than three days. Hay is never cut in summer for winter use nor are stables built for their beasts. No reptile is found there nor could a serpent survive; for although serpents have often been brought from Britain, as soon as the ship approaches land they are affected by the scent of the air and quickly perish. In fact almost everything that the island produces is efficacious against poison. For instance we have seen how, in the case of people suffering from snake-bite, the leaves of manuscripts from Ireland were scraped, and the scrapings put in water and given to the sufferer to drink. These scrapings at once absorbed the whole violence of the spreading poison and assuaged the swelling. The island abounds in milk and honey, nor does it lack vines, fish, and birds. It is also noted for the hunting of stags and roe-deer.

Riain-Raedel explains, that “in their descriptions of the heavenly paradise, the absence of snakes was cited enthusiastically by Christian writers. In Ireland’s case, the absence of reptiles was probably due to natural reasons but it nonetheless provided Christian writers, aware of the biblical analogy, with the possibility of creating an inverted parallel. As was well known, the blissful state of paradise had been terminated through the intervention of evil in the shape of the snake. In snake-less Ireland, on the other hand, where a sinful state had reigned before the advent of Christianity, the people had redeemed themselves, innocence had returned and they were now,  in the words of Bede, a ‘gens innoxia’. Within Ireland, therefore, the history of human salvation had come full circle.”

She adds that the connection between St.Patrick and the absence of snakes only formed slowly during the Middle Ages. In accounts of his life dating from the seventh century, it was troublesome birds that the saint had banished. It would not be until the 12th century that the story would change to venomous animals, and even then, writers such as Giraldus Cambrensis would challenge this idea:

that some indulge in the pleasant conjecture that St Patrick and other saints of the land purged the island of all harmful animals. But it is more probable that from the earliest times,  and long before the laying of the foundation of the Faith, the island was naturally without these as well as of other living things.

Finally, Riain-Raedel notes that the steady-steam of monks and priests who left Ireland to go to Britain and continental Europe helped to spread the message of what a great place their country was. Even by the end of the Middle Ages, the image of the island was very positive, as this 15th century description attests:

Now the island of Ireland has been set in the west. As Adam’s Paradise stands at the sunrise so Ireland stands at the sunset. And they are alike int he nature if the soil, to wit, as Paradise is without beast, without a snake, without a lion, without a dragon, without a scorpion, without a mouse, without a frog, so is Ireland in the same manner without any harmful animals, save only the wolf, as sages say.

The article  ‘The Other Paradise: Perceptions of Ireland in the Middle Ages’ appears in Between the Islands and the Continent: Papers on Hiberno-Scandinavian-Continental Relations in the Early Middle Ages, edited by Rudolf Simek and Asya Ivanova. Published in 2013 by the Vienna-based Verlag Fassbaender, it offers ten articles that focus on early medieval Irish history. Click here to visit the publisher’s website.

Dr Dagmar Ó Riain-Raedel has been a member of the Department of History at the University College Cork. She has lectured and published widely on the Irish monasteries and, in particular, the connections between these and Europe during the Middle Ages.

See also: Ireland’s Ancient East campaign to showcase country’s medieval sites

Top Image: Celtic cross in Ireland – photo by Andy Hares / Flickr

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