Monday, January 20, 2014

The Council of the Cursed

The Sister Fidelma series by Peter Tremayne deals with the exploits of a seventh century feisty Irish sister who solves crimes in her native Ireland and beyond. She is called "Sister" Fidelma because she is a brand of religious that they had in Ireland at the time. The author refers to her using the French term religieuse. Because Fidelma is married she is not what Roman Catholics would think of as a nun; rather her status is comparable to that of what today we would call a tertiary. Her husband Eadulf should be seen as the same, although he is not Irish but an Angle. I recently read one of the more recent books, called The Council of the Cursed, which I found to be an excellent mystery story as well as a source of information about the Dark Ages. In Tremayne's point of view, it was dark everywhere but in Ireland, which in the Fidelma novels is the happy land of Tír na nÓg, where women have equal rights and slavery is unknown. Tremayne's real name is Peter Berresford Ellis, a Celtic scholar who is in love with Ireland, although his Ireland may be a bit over-idealized.

According to Kirkus:
Sent to France as advisors to the Celtic church, Fidelma of Cashel and her husband Brother Eadulf find dissension and murder.
Bishop Leodegar of Autun, who is hosting church leaders from various areas of western Europe, is an innovative administrator whose community has recently embraced celibacy, a new departure for the Roman church in 670 CE. Monks living at his abbey have been forced to put aside their wives and children, most of whom are now living at the Domus Femini under the rule of iron-fisted Abbess Autofleda. Fidelma and Eadulf arrive on the heels of a murder: The corpse of Hibernian Abbot Dabhóc has been found in a room with two unconscious clerics, who both deny any complicity in the crime. Leodegar finds it distasteful to have a woman investigate, but Fidelma’s reputation (Dancing with Demons, 2008, etc.) precedes her, and the powerful papal delegate knows her from a former case. A slave trader, a young monk whose love is missing from the Domus Femini, and the passive, carousing local governor’s powerful mother all come under Fidelma’s scrutiny. Suspecting that there is more to this murder than meets the eye, she resists pressure to come up with a quick solution, putting her life in danger to save innocent lives and reveal a complicated plot.

One of Fidelma’s best, and the subject of clerical celibacy is particularly relevant today.
Reading The Council of the Cursed made me want to refresh my memory about Celtic monasticism, and so I did a little research. It seems that from the beginning of his apostolate St. Patrick founded monasteries in which married couple were welcome to live as part of the community. This does not mean that the Irish did not value celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, since many people sought monasteries to live as genuine monks or nuns. There is much written in the Irish monastic writings extolling virginity, and the Rule of St. Columbanus is as strict as the Rule of St. Benedict that Fidelma dreads. Irish monasticism, however, was more permeable than monasticism on the continent. According to one source:
In permeable monasticism, people were able to move freely in and out of the monastic system at different points of life. Young boys and girls would enter the system to pursue Latin scholarship. Students would sometimes travel from faraway lands to enter the Irish monasteries. When these students became adults, they would leave the monastery to live out their lives. Eventually, these people would retire back to secure community provided by the monastery and stay until their death. However, some would stay within the monastery and become leaders. Since most of the clergy were Irish, native traditions were well-respected. Permeable monasticism popularized the use of vernacular and helped mesh the norms of secular and monastic element in Ireland, unlike other parts of Europe where monasteries were more isolated. Examples of these intertwining motifs can be seen in the hagiographies of St. Brigid and St. Columba.[68]
One of the main characters in The Council of the Cursed, Bishop Leodegar, is none other than the martyr St. Léger; like most non-Celtic characters in the novel he is shown in a negative light: harsh, authoritarian, rigid and sexist. Tremayne is under the impression that monks and nuns were allowed to get married. While married men were often ordained to the secular clergy as this time, celibacy was one of the ancient pillars of the monastic life Although double monasteries, which included both men and women, existed from the early days of Christianity and later were popular in the Middle Ages, the men and women usually had separate quarters.  Such monasteries were often for noble ladies in that they were ruled by an abbess from a great family; with the exception of the priests, the men were there as monks to work in the fields which supported the monastery. However, in The Council of the Cursed celibacy is treated as some radical innovation and a departure from tradition, which of course it was not.

As much as I enjoyed my first Fidelma book, especially the witty repartee between Fidelma and Eadulf as they quote the Fathers in Latin, I do find that the anti-Romanism in the book reminds me of the Protestant myths about the Celtic churches being forerunners of Protestantism. This and the view towards clerical celibacy hampers my enjoyment because I feel the authenticity is compromised. Otherwise I find the characters and their adventures to be enjoyable. Share

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