Monday, September 19, 2011

On Wells and Origins

Michael P. Carroll writes scholarly works on popular or folk Catholicism, primarily in Italy.  In Irish Pilgrimage: Holy Wells and Popular Devotion, Carroll delves into folk religion in Ireland, in particular the once popular activity of "rounding" and pilgrimages to holy wells.

First Carroll takes the cudgel to the idea, long held by scholars, that rounding, moving in a circular patter around sacred sites such as collections of stones, is an ancient Irish practice.  Carroll compelling shows that there is no evidence that these practices existed in ancient Celtic culture.  The scant historical record simply does not show it.  This is also the case with visiting sacred wells.  Although the ancient Celts  invested considerable spiritual energy in places with flowing water, most of the sources which quote this are not for Ireland.

Carroll does not believe rounding and sacred well pilgrimages are an ancient practice, but a more modern innovation based on the reactions of Irish Catholics to the reforming elements of the Council of Trent.  It is a fine argument, but in the end it is based on just as much scanty or meager evidence as the “Celtic” hypothesis of the origin of these practices.  The argument from silence can run both ways in this case, and the reader is left wondering what conclusions can really be firmly made about the origins these practices.

Despite this difficult, the book is well-written and argued, and replete with fascinating examples of modern Irish folk practice.  Carroll is a scholar who is very adept at showing how creative rank and file Catholics are at adapting the faith to their particular needs; and as they needs evolve, so do the practices.  There are no static entities here; practice and belief and in constant flux.

No comments:

Post a Comment