Dr Fangzhe Qiu | Intertextual networks and reproduction of law: lessons learned from late medieval Irish legal digests

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This week at the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies, we were treated to a wonderful talk entitled X by Dr Fangzhe Qiu, assistant professor and Ad Astra Fellow in the School of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore at University College Dublin.

Dr Qiu is the the principal investigator of the ERC-funded project ‘Fluid texts and scholars’ digests: (re)production of law in medieval Ireland (FLEXI)’, which runs from 2023 to 2028. The project focusses on studies four sets of lesser-studied late medieval Irish legal ‘digests’. It traces and measures the sources used in these digests quantitatively, using linked data model and network analysis to show their compilatory principles and text reuse patterns. It also looks for possible influences from external legal traditions and develops software for automated detection of intertextuality.

Today’s talk introduced the material and research questions for the upcoming project. The FLEXI project looks at a total of 220 texts from the Irish legal corpus. This makes up around 1/10 of total legal corpus, and consists of collections of citations and commentaries, split up into four digests that have had varying degrees of editing. All of the digests date from the late 16th century and originate from various Irish legal traditions.

Despite the lack of evidence of authorship, there are various commonalities between the various texts. Most have headings stating a legal principle or topics, with no distinctions made between different sections or commentaries for the most part. An example of this structure might be the liability of a leader for his crowd; the text opens with quoted extract from an Old Irish legal tract, and is then followed by commentary and explanations.

Dr Qiu posits that there is an innovative structure to these texts. Digests are a different form of text organisation, with various influences. They cover wide range of topics from various sources and do not follow the expected structure, however common-law traditions may serve as a comparable model to these texts.  

There is a notable lack of critical editions, translations, or much study of these texts exists. Typically, older texts have been the focus of study, rather than the layers added by later medieval scholars. However, these later texts demonstrate the relevance of law to the time that the commentaries were written and the scribes’ interests in system building.

That is to say that late medieval scholars updated and applied laws from the existing canon to the time they live in, deviating from canonical tracts where necessary. Dr Qiu views this as deliberate organisation rather than casually lumping together, and reveals evidence of systematicity in these texts.

Using software, Dr Qiu can visualise the mix of laws referenced in these texts, and how they relate to each other. This reveals the intellectual landscape of the late medieval jurists. The software analysis suggests certain groupings or themes across each of these digests – similar topics seem to be grouped together in each digests, but these similar topics are arranged differently across the four digests. When the digests are compared, there are still some common thematic chunks, but similarity ends there.

A major question to ask is why are the texts are organised in such different ways? Answering this question involves the need to research the detailed rules in the different sections. Assuming these digests are intentional, systematic produces of scholarship, they compile texts on principles, and they form intertextual, intellectual networks with rest of legal corpus. The legal quotations therein and their selection and arrangement show how texts are related to each other, and that these networks represent the extent and structure of knowledge available to scholars at this time.

The FLEXI project uses digital tools to explore the reproduction and transmission of law texts quantitatively via intertextuality and text reuse patterns, seeing these patterns as reflective of physical, social, and conceptual networks among the contemporary legal minds. To explore this, the project asks the following questions. What sources were available to scribes at the time? How where they selected? How were they related to social reality?

The project is made up of four work packages. The first involves digitising texts, processing, ontology design, and adding metadata; tagging and coding these texts to create a linked database. The second looks at variation in the digests: inconsistencies, interpretative techniques, linguistic glossing, dialectics by jurists, and rhetorical techniques. The third consists of structure and network analysis, exploring the patterns of compiling in digests, and text reuse networks; asking how early texts were reused in the later period. The fourth work package aims to build digtal tools to automatically detect text reuse.

These texts have huge potential for interdisciplinary study, and the FLEXI project could change the landscape of late medieval Irish legal texts as we understand it. We are looking forward to hearing more from Dr Qiu in the future!

Erin McNulty

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