There’s so much more to Medieval Ireland than just one invasion after another…
The University of Liverpool’s Clare Downham has just published a major text which challenges a lot of the staid assumptions about Medieval Ireland.
It paints a picture of a much more complex and sophisticated society than thought, writes INIGO PURCELL
The discovery last week – or the announcement of it – that a significant Viking settlement at Cork predated that at Waterford (previously thought to be the oldest in Ireland) by about fifteen years, suggests that Cork may be the oldest urban settlement in Ireland.
In addition to somewhat irritating the people of Waterford, this challenges preconceived notions of Irish history in the middle ages. For a long time, the prevailing view of medieval Ireland has been that it was largely uneventful, in between invasions.
A new book seeks to challenge that assumption, providing a look at a thousand years of the history of the island of Ireland, from the arrival of St Patrick in the 5th century to the political and religious events of the late 14th century.
The book, by Dr Clare Downham of the University of Liverpool, resists the tendency to define Irish medieval history by certain landmark dates, such as the arrival of the Vikings c.800, or the invasion of Ireland by Henry II of England in 1171.
Dr Downham’s reasons for this are compelling: an Irish person in 1175 is unlikely to have viewed them self as in a fundamentally different society as someone ten years before, and many of the changes in medieval Ireland, such as the increase in literacy and improvements in farming technology, were both far more gradual and far more wide reaching than the events of any single date.
Dr Downham resists drawing too much of a distinction between the different groups present in medieval Ireland: the Gaelic Irish, the Vikings and the ‘English present in Ireland’.
They were, still, in the same place and the same society, co-existing and disputing depending on what else was going on at the time.
She makes the point that Ireland’s medieval history is much more than a ‘history of invasions’, and that there was, instead, an adaptable and dynamic society in which the balance of power shifted to and from the same groups multiple times. For example, despite the marginalisation of the Gaelic royal dynasties in the late 12th century, by the end of the Middle Ages, English power had shrunk to only the areas around Dublin and Drogheda, and those royal dynasties had regained much of their power.
There may, too, have been laws enforcing the division between the Gaelic Irish and the English in Ireland, but these laws were frequently flouted: laws are seldom put in place because no one is tempted to break them. This is not to suggest that the cultural and political divisions were resolved: political antagonism has existed in Irish history for a long time, but often it’s effects have been uncertainty, or gradual change that is reversed over time.
Both imperialist and nationalist traditions of Irish history have miscategorised Irish institutions as archaic and unchanging.
In the case of anti- Irish traditions, the motivation for doing this is to portray the Irish as backwards, in the case of nationalist traditions, a drive to portray a kind of innate Irishness, which is unchanging and resilient. In fact, as in many things, the truth is far more complicated, and the changes that took place in medieval Ireland were considerable.
‘We may do a disservice to historical figures if we judge them simply as foreigners or natives, without trying to empathise with the values of their times’ argues Dr Downham.
While the identities of the four provinces were established in their familiar form by 1100, the physical landscape of Ireland at the time was quite different. Early medieval Ireland was covered in dense forest, which began to be stripped away as improvements in agricultural technology emerged.
Even later medieval Ireland was far more densely forested than today, and a second major clearance of forests happened in the 12th century, as agriculture advanced further and the people living in Ireland sought to reshape it for their own purposes.
She notes how ‘in every century after 1500, writers of different political persuasions would look back to the middle ages and spin the origins of ongoing political divisions’ and that this is a topic of historical interest of itself, so longstanding is the urge to find a definite reason for the state of things, or to find history taking one’s own side. Which, of course, it seldom neatly does.
Much of the reasons for such divisions are linguistic: most of the sources for Irish history before 800 are in Irish, and tend to get categorised separately to later sources, even if the topics or events covered have far more in common than is immediately obvious. Sources in Irish tended to be ignored, until the late 20th century, at which point there may have been an over-correction: focusing on these in detail, but in isolation.
The book is structured around the themes of landscape and economy (which are intimately linked), society, politics, religion and the arts, with two chapters for each of these, one covering the early middle ages and the other covering the late middle ages. It stresses the importance of the last two items on that list as means of understanding ‘the mental and cultural world of the middle ages’.
Likewise, while major political and religious leaders are covered, Dr Downham makes the point that ‘leaders and visionaries can only succeed if they are in tune with the society that underpins their status’.
Dr Downham says because of the scale of her task, tackling a thousand years of history across such varied subjects, such a work can only ever be a survey, but hopes that her work will serve as ‘portal to further reading and a greater understanding of Irish Medieval History’. And we know from last week’s flurry of tweets that the neighbourly rivalry between Waterford and Cork will probably add to the pursuit of knowledge about that period and it’s legacies.