Documentary evidence for domestic buildings in Ireland c.400-1200 in the light of archaeology

Documentary evidence for domestic buildings in Ireland c.400-1200 in the light of archaeology

By Hilary Murray

Medieval Archaeology, Vol.23 (1979)

Introduction: Excluding archaeology there are three sources of primary information concerning domestic buildings in Ireland in the period A.D. 400 to 1200; (1) historical references, (2) contemporary representations of buildings, and (3) stone skeuomorphs of wooden constructions. This article is an attempt to examine the documentary evidence, including written descriptions and drawings of buildings of the period, with reference to the archaeological material.

The most detailed descriptions are well known as they have frequently been used in discussions of early Irish buildings, but the limitations of the source material have not always been considered.

A major problem is that many of the sources were written in Old or Middle Irish, and the original meaning of a word is often lost. If the word has not survived into Modern Irish its meaning can only be guessed from the context in which it is found and from its possible roots in other languages. Clearly this presents some difficulty in understanding technical vocabulary. This is exacerbated by the fact that many of the main texts are only available in old, inaccurate editions and translations. A second problem, which applies to many of the early descriptions, is that the authors, who were describing structures which would be familiar to their contemporary readers, often omitted fundamental details. In Crith Gablacli, for example, the size of the houses is described by a single measurement, but as the ground plan is not specified, this could apply to the diameter of a circular building or to one dimension of a rectangular one.

A further difficulty arises in separating the original texts from the later glosses and commentaries which were added to them. A specific problem of the secular laws is that they represent an ideal, schematic, picture of a society which was probably already archaic when they were written down, as they were based on earlier oral tradition. Many of the details may be regarded as legal ideals, but they must have been based on actual buildings and can be treated as a reliable source of information.

The secular sagas and poetry present different problems. Many of these contain deliberately exaggerated descriptions of the houses of rich or royal families. The stories were intended to entertain, and accuracy was ofsecondary importance. Many of them are only known in late written versions, but the internal evidence suggests that they stem from early, possibly Iron Age, oral tradition. As a result, the meaning of some details may have been lost in the later versions because the storyteller misunderstood the descriptions of archaic structures and confused them further by his own exaggeration. Basic details such as wall materials are, however, unlikely to have been altered.

In contrast, the descriptions of houses in the Saint’s Lives and Penitentials are purely incidental to the intention of the writer and are probably reliable as there was no need for him to exaggerate or conform to a literary ideal. A few ‘Lives’, such as the Life of Columba by Adamnan, are of particular value because they can be closely dated by identifying events or people mentioned in them. Many are difficult to date, however, as they were rewritten on numerous occasions.

Apart from these difficulties of interpretation, the basic information from all the sources appears to be fairly reliable, and is considered, without further qualification, in relation to each of the main structural details of the buildings.

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