Historical Residues in the Old Irish Legends of Queen Medb: An Expanded Interpretation of the Ulster Cycle

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Medb of Connacht, a central female character of medieval Ireland's Ulster Cycle is read traditionally as an example of a misogynistic, patriarchal Christian campaign to suppress and silence women in early Ireland, or as symbolic of a primordial, mythic pre-Christian goddess, exempt from patriarchal censure because her behavior is ascribed to her duties as a divine sovereignty figure. In addition, this work provides the first comparative and comprehensive character analysis of the Connacht warrior queen across numerous tales in which she appears as a major player, presenting a more complete picture of her character across the tales than has previously been offered. Such an approach also allows for a reading of Medb as a literary reflection of the socio-political tensions present in the historical period during which the texts emerged, and perhaps as a reflection of historical women who helped to produce those tensions in their societies, including gender-related tensions every bit as complex and complicated as our own are today.


“Dr. Dominguez reaches a comprehensive interpretation that incorporates what is best in previous readings. She neither denies Medb mythic resonances nor completely excludes misogyny in the texts. Rather, Dr. Dominguez negotiates a balanced interpretation with the potential to be the new standard.” – Prof. James Whitlark, Texas Tech University

“Dominguez’s study makes it possible not only to “remap” the medieval landscape portrayed in the Ulster Cycle tales and in historical documents, but also to deconstruct the gender assumptions of Old Irish scholars, particularly those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, under which Medb has been analyzed for so long. Dominguez presents a thoroughly-researched, cogently-argued, and compellingly-supported analysis that will no doubt create a stir in medieval women’s studies and Old Irish scholarship circles. This analysis also contributes in a valuable way to the body of work in gender and women’s studies.” – Prof. Teresa Murden, University of Texas at Brownsville

“Notably, while this study reads Medb as a literary figure to be examined based on textual analysis, more importantly, it also makes her an accessible figure of feminine power not as far removed from the daily lives of female "readers" of the text as once thought – audiences both contemporary to Medb's tales and of today. I believe that Dominguez’s book is well-researched and presents a compelling, convincing argument. It will add a great deal to scholarship in Old Irish literature, medieval women, and gender studies.” – Prof. Mary Jane Hurst, Texas Tech University

Table of Contents

List of tales analyzed in this study
Chapter I

"Ah indeed! That is Medb of Cruachan”: Critical and Literary Tradition
Traditional and Recent Feminist Approaches to Reading Strong Women in Literature
A New Approach – Gender Performance Theory
Literary, Social, and Religious Tradition of Early Ireland
Structure and Summary of the Ulster Cycle
Structure and Overview of Subsequent Chapters
Chapter II
"We need not doubt that there were many like her in real life": Medb as Realistic Reflection of Her Culture
Review of Traditional Scholarly Approaches
Questioning the Paradigms and Traditions
The Case for Warrior Women
Questioning the Sovereignty Myth
The Historical Dimension of the Warrior Queen
The Irish "Evidence"
Chapter III

"I was noblest and worthiest": Medb as Political Ruler
Traditions of Kingship
Early Irish socio-political traditions
Early Irish mythological (sacral) traditions
A Sumerian Precedent?
Reading Medb as Queen
The Gender Performance Approach
The Earliest Tradition - Conailla Medb Míchuru
Marriage as Political Survival – "Cath Boinde"
Qualifications – "Cath Boinde" and TBC II Prologue
Aspects of fír flaithemon (king's justice) – "Cath Boinde," "Táin Bó Flidais," and Fled Bricrend
Motivations and Predictors for The Táin - "Cath Boinde,"
"The Courtship of Ferb," Echtra Nerai, "Táin Bó Regamna," and TBC II Prologue
Chapter IV

"Mighty are the deeds of Medb": Medb as Military Commander
The Táin
Fergus and the Ulster Exiles
The Mustering
The First Encounter with Cú Chulainn
Engaging the Enemy
Resolution of the Raid – The Final Confrontation
Revenge – The Final Chapter of the Raid
Chapter V

"It is she who lives on in legend": Implications and Further Research


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