The Insular Mirabilia: History, Text and Multilingual Context

The Middle Ages were a time of miracles and marvels. Christianity, which shaped medieval European culture and its worldview, is based on stories of miraculous conception, birth, life, and death. Indeed, the marvellous and the supernatural were omnipresent in everyday life, and this preoccupation can be found all through medieval literature. Miracles are not only ubiquitous in written lives of the saints or in sermons, but also richly attested in worldly literature, especially in romance. Likewise, miracles were abundantly recorded in (pseudo-)historical narratives and chronicles.

However, one specific genre that concerned itself with specifically local, European accounts of the marvellous, the so-called mirabilia, appears to have gained a special popularity in the British Isles. As these texts are written in the various languages current in the medieval British Isles – Welsh, Latin, Norman French, and Irish – there are many parallels and overlapping accounts that point to a common background which suggests that they can be regarded as shared insular motifs.

Various versions of this lore were transmitted as lists of marvels, mostly of natural phenomena such as stones, springs, and lakes. The earliest attestations date from a 9th-century Latin chronicle, but the transmission continues down to the 16th century and comprises a significant manuscript tradition in four different languages. Moreover, to understand why so many insular mirabilia were inserted into chronicles especially, thus shaping the national narrative of so many princedoms and kingdoms in the British Isles, this genre needs to be thoroughly mapped out and put into its proper historical and literary context.

Still, these texts in various languages, and the tradition behind them, clearly have not received the scholarly attention they deserve. The mirabilia Britanniae are a vast and mostly under-researched field since both the great bulk of material (texts and manuscripts) and the genre as a whole (function, transmission, reception, interrelation of these texts) remain virtually unstudied. The proposed contribution to this topic will therefore close a gap in our understanding of medieval British and European literature and culture.