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1 - The Church and the Otherworld: Sacred Spaces in the Matière de Bretagne and Medieval Ireland

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 April 2021

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Summary

There were various kinds of sacred space in the medieval world, as there still are: the consecrated spaces of churches and burial grounds but also the ‘Holy Places’ of pilgrimage. To these may be added locations pertaining to another version of the supernatural: the hills and lakes and wild places associated with the fairies, and Otherworlds outside the framework of mortal space. In the matière de Bretagne, and in the medieval Celtic literatures, these different kinds of sacred space are repeatedly juxtaposed, or even identified with one another.

In this contribution, I note those instances of such juxtaposition of which I am aware in Arthurian literature and in the Breton lais, together with a range of comparanda from medieval Ireland. Although I have a strong interest in Arthurian matters, I am by training a Celticist and not an Arthurian scholar per se: I offer the Irish specimens as parallels to a phenomenon that can be observed in the ‘matter of Britain’, in the hope that the resemblances may be of interest to specialists in the field. I do not, however, undertake to interrogate the evidence in terms of current Arthurian criticism, something for which others are better qualified.

Avalon and Glastonbury

Where is Avalon? The name first appears, so far as I am aware, in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1136): here we are told that this is the island where Arthur's sword Caliburnus was forged and to which the king was taken ‘for the healing of [his] wounds’, after having been ‘mortally’ struck in his last battle. This Avalon is evidently identical with the ‘Island of Apples’ (Insula Pomorum) included in a catalogue of islands in Geoffrey's Vita Merlini (c. 1150): the latter is described as a paradise of fertility and long life, ruled over by nine sisters who are skilled in healing and able to assume the forms of birds. ‘Morgen’ was the chief of these, and it was to her care that the wounded Arthur was entrusted. Thereafter, Avalon appears repeatedly in medieval literature as an elusive Otherworld, a place of delights and the home of beautiful fairy women.

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Arthurian Literature XXXVI
Sacred Space and Place in Arthurian Romance
, pp. 13 - 30
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2021

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