How different are we from the people who lived a thousand years ago or more? We all experience certain fundamental, universal emotions: grief, love, joy, despair. Sometimes we have to live through pandemics, natural disasters, and conflict, and yet we can simultaneously marvel at the beauty of the world and at the kindness of others – this is as true now as it was millennia ago. Even so, we are divided by time, technology, and social change.
I bring history and modern life into dialogue with each other.
My work as a historian of medieval Ireland has conditioned me to view life from a certain historical perspective, allowing me to make connections between past and present. In Fierce Appetites I bring together my own life experiences and those of the people around me in order to try to give shape to the past; and I draw deeply on the past in an attempt to make sense of the present. From my childhood and education, through my experiences of motherhood and addiction, to my current perspective in middle age, I bring history and modern life into dialogue with each other.
The history and culture of medieval Ireland – stories, poems, archaeology, and intriguing characters (both real historical figures and literary constructions) – provide the raw material for my examination of the past, offering us glimpses of a society as complex as our own.
Fictional characters who may seem familiar, such as Cú Chulainn, Medb (Maeve), and Derdriu (‘Deirdre of the Sorrows’) are subjected to some much-needed myth-busting. I place them in the intellectual context in which the authors who created them were working: a fiercely unequal, hierarchical and misogynistic society, but one which can still surprise us today in its views on life, loss, sex and nature.
The month-by-month essays of Fierce Appetites are centred on 2020 – the year in which I lost my father, ended a relationship, and turned forty; and also a year in which the world experienced collective traumas that we all dealt with in different ways. I use the personal and communal events of 2020 to dive back into the medieval past and explore some of the ways that people have dealt with human experiences, through responses that are unique but still resonant.
Rich bodies of medieval Irish, Welsh and Old English poetry offer reservoirs of wisdom and hope, but they are also complex texts which reflect aspects of societies that we would not necessarily wish to emulate. Saga narratives offer unexpected insights into human psychology. Families are shown to be as messy and complicated as our own. Life is full of temptations – sex, alcohol, pleasurable distractions – even for those who wish to live spiritual lives, and there are many who ‘sell their honour for beer’.
Fierce Appetites looks for consolation, instruction, and enlightenment in medieval Ireland and the wider pre-modern world, but finds those things as much in the present – amongst our fellow humans, in our communities, in our passions, and in our chosen families.
Elizabeth Boyle was born in Dublin, grew up in Suffolk and returned to live in Dublin in 2013. She is a medieval historian specialising in the intellectual, literary and religious culture of Ireland and Britain. A former Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Cambridge, she now works in the Department of Early Irish at Maynooth University, where she was Head of Department for five years until 2020. Fierce Appetites is her debut collection of personal essays.