More on Nature on the Fringes

In the last post, we noted that, at the edges of things, the order of nature breaks down.  Exhausted by the work of creation, she begins to tire of her labor and the whole tapestry begins to fray.  It resembles the sea, unfathomable and vast, mysterious and dangerous.

There’s another factor on this particular edge, Ireland, which also disrupts the order of things.  Its roots lie in the deep connection between the natural and social orders.  At their heart the two are inseparable, both facets of the larger harmony of Creation as it extends through space and time.  To skip a good bit of exposition on the character of creation in medieval thought, we might get an idea of the general understanding by picturing an infinite and beautifully arranged series of imperfect mirrors, all reflecting a light so bright that it appears as darkness beyond black (cf. fuligin).  The natural and social orders are both a subset of these mirrors, simultaneously interlinking with and reflecting each other, giving us glimpses, tantalizing fragments, of the primal order which underlies them both.

The immediate consequence of this in Gerald of Wales is that the social structure of the bounds of the world mirrors the natural, less refined, unpredictable, raw and not fully formed.  Thus, the barbarism of the Irish,

They are a wild and inhospitable people.  They live on beasts only, and live like beasts.  They have not progressed at all from the primitive habits of pastoral living (101).

He tells us with astonishment of sailors venturing near the extreme edge of the island encountering truly barbarous folk, men wearing only hides who had never seen bread or cheese, even taking some home to show their people as a wonder, who knew nothing of Christ (110-112).  Such men could only exist on the outskirts, beyond the pale of civilization (to say nothing of the customs which Gerald describes on the preceding page, kings confirmed in their dominion by intercourse with a mare).  On the fringes of the edge, where nature herself has grown tired, so to do the structures of man fail to take root.

Thus also, the forthcoming disruption of the Norman Invasion, which precipitated Gerald’s visit to the island and the writing of his account, is presaged by the warping of nature.  A frog, a poisonous beast which ought to have died upon contact with Ireland’s soil due to the island’s natural enmity towards the venomous is found alive after many days,

While the English, and more so the Irish, regarded it with great wonder, Duvenaldus, the king of Ossory, who happened to be there at the time, with a great shaking of his head and great sorrow in his heart at last said: ‘That reptile brings very bad news to Ireland.’ (52)

So too does the appearance of a fish “of unusual size and quality” possessing (among other wonderful things) three gold teeth prefigure the imminent conquest of the country.  Wales, Gerald tells us in his description of traveling through that country, experienced similar portents on the eve of their subjugation by the English.  Beware unusual fish.

Perhaps it is the fraying of nature and the corresponding simplicity of the political order which allows for an immediacy to the Irish encounter with nature, an immediacy which leaves the men closer to beasts, but which gives fuel to the fire of monastic devotion that even Gerald can’t help but praise.  This immediacy, the close connection to nature on the edges, provides the locus for the characteristically Irish devotion of exile and solitude which seeks the boundaries, places which lay bare the energies of nature in which we might glimpse flashes of her Creator and Guide.

Indeed, the predominance of miracles in Gerald’s account are nature miracles, animals behaving strangely, mysterious wells, holy hedges.  Like nature, there is a dangerous inscrutability to the saints of Ireland.  They are a vindictive bunch, inclined towards cycles of revenge and anger, capable of great holiness, but with danger lurking just under the surface (91).  In them we see a mirror of the order of the world in which they live-nature wild, unfathomable, and raw; society barbarous, violent, and unformed-for the sacred is a mirror too.

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