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Medieval Ireland: Ten Articles

Are you interested in Ireland in the Middle Ages? Here are ten recent articles that examine Ireland’s medieval history, all of which can be read for free.

Heroic biography and the Viking age around the Irish sea

By Lindy Brady

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature (2022)

Abstract: How was the Viking Age remembered in texts from the Irish Sea zone, and what can this tell us about the culture of this region? When considering historical representations of the Vikings, the most often-cited texts are contemporary and capture the emotional toll of raids on a civilian population, yet were largely written from a monastic perspective. This article argues that in ‘long twelfth-century’ texts from the Irish Sea zone, the Viking Age was remembered as a period of opportunity which provided the backbone for a shared genre of ‘heroic biography’ within the textual corpus of the region. Works describe the mustering of pan-Irish Sea zone forces in order to restore an unjustly banished, exiled or disinherited figure to his rightful lands and status. Within this group of texts, insular Viking activity provides a unifying and productive opportunity to regain something lost rather than a destructive force for societal disruption.


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The challenge of writing histories of ‘women’: the case of women and the law in late medieval Ireland

By Sparky Booker

Irish Historical Review (2022)

Abstract: Critiques of women’s history based on intersectional analysis have demonstrated the importance of recognising differences between women and the perils of assuming commonality of experience based on gender. The idea that we can treat women as a group in some meaningful way is further complicated in medieval legal history by the fact that women’s legal entitlements differed depending on their marital status. This paper examines women’s experiences of the law in the English colony in late medieval Ireland. It argues that, despite the importance of ethnicity, social status and marital status in shaping different women’s experiences of the law, gender played a significant role in their legal arguments and the ways in which juries and justices perceived them. Women’s experiences at law were influenced in myriad ways by shared societal assumptions about their vulnerability and subordination to men. These assumptions influenced women regardless of the many social divisions and circumstances that made each woman unique. This study finds, therefore, that ‘women’ is a legitimate and productive category for historical research in the late medieval legal context but urges historians to interrogate more robustly why ‘women’ is an appropriate analytical category for their specific historical questions.

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The Irish Receipt Roll of 1301–2: Data Science and Medieval Exchequer Practice

By Brendan Smith and Mike Jones

Irish Economic and Social History (2022)

Abstract: The English conquest and colonisation of Ireland, which began in the years around 1170 was accompanied by the introduction of an administrative system based on English models. From the point of view of the crown, perhaps the most important of the new offices of government that it established was the exchequer, which coordinated the financial exploitation of its Irish lordship. The exchequer generated a vast quantity of written documents recording its operations. This paper subjects one such document, detailing the sums received at the exchequer for the year 1301–2, to data science techniques in order to gain added insight into the routine functioning of the financial arm of English government in its oldest colony. It thereby also reveals previously unrecognised patterns in the nature of English power in Ireland. The purpose of the paper is not to assess the state of Irish finances in the early fourteenth century, but rather to argue that a deep reading of a single document produced by an elaborate bureaucratic system, combined with data science visualizations, can help to generate new research questions in relation to a substantial body of financial records which are soon to become more widely available to both scholars and the general public.


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‘The Child that is Born of One’s Fair Body’ – Maternal and Infant Death in Medieval Ireland

By Eileen M. Murphy

Childhood in the Past: An International Journal (2021)

Abstract: The paper explores the historical and archaeological evidence for maternal and infant death in medieval Ireland. An overview of a range of historical sources including law tracts, medical documents, and folklore are investigated for insights concerning the treatment of pregnant women, abortion, post-mortem caesarean, and the nature of herbs that were administered to assist with female reproductive matters. This provides the context for a review of 15 earlier and later medieval burial grounds in Ireland that produced 30 burials in which an adult female was associated with one or more foetal or perinatal infants. The individuals are considered to have potentially died as a result of obstetric complications. The overall frequency and age-at-death profiles of the women and babies are investigated. This is followed by an attempt to interpret the circumstances of each case to determine whether the death had occurred during pregnancy, childbirth or shortly after birthing.

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Legal Identity and 13th-Century English Ireland

By Stephen Hewer

Rechtsgeschichte – Legal History (2021)

Abstract: The study of legal status in 13th-century English Ireland has suffered from a lack of law-in-action methodology, so many 19th-century assumptions have endured without critique. This article sorts out defensive pleas and petitions from court judgments, and applies decolonial and intersectional feminist methodologies to the terminology regarding the medieval courts and peoples. It defines legal freedom under medieval English law in Ireland and delineates the methods used by the courts to determine legal freedom. A critical, forensic study of the surviving court rolls has revealed that there were several legal identities (generes) allowed to use the English royal courts in Ireland (legally »free«) and intersections with and within these categories. The court rolls also demonstrate that legal identity had different consequences in criminal proceedings than in civil, and that categories such as »the English« or »the Gaels« in medieval Ireland are too broad; the interaction of factors such as identity, freedom or unfreedom, gender, and social status have to be taken into account.

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History and Historiography in Early Christian Ireland

By Dominique Santos

História da Historiografia: International Journal of Theory and History of Historiography (2020)

Abstract: Despite modern writers noticing the importance of Premodern historiographical phenomena for a deeper comprehension of both Theory of History and History of Historiography, the Irish contribution to the subject is often left aside. Topics such as the Seanchas Tradition and Medieval Irish Classicism are not well integrated into such historiographical narrative. The Seanchaidh, the Irish Artifex of the Past, for example, is broadly mentioned as not a historian, but a chronicler, antiquary, genealogist, hagiographer or pedigree systematizer. This article addresses these issues and, more specifically, we focus on two Irish narratives produced in 7th century by Muirchú and Tírechán. Since they belong to the world of orality and bilingual literacy of Early Christian Ireland, perhaps their works could be understood as bounded by the Seanchas Tradition and Medieval Irish Classicism, hence, both could be considered as great examples of the producers of History and Historiography at the time.

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Was there a Jewish presence in medieval Ireland?

By Anna Matheson

Jewish Historical Studies: Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England (2020)

Abstract: At present, the Jews of Ireland receive little coverage in published histories of the Jews of medieval Europe and this may well be because it is commonly assumed that there were no Jewish settlements in Hibernian territory. This article aims to readdress the question by discussing what is known about Jewish contact with Ireland. A survey of current scholarship on the Jews in medieval Ireland will be provided and, in so doing, we will reassess a number of sources and revise many of the conclusions drawn from them by previous scholars. Most medieval Irish Chancery records of the English administration were burnt in 1304, when a fire destroyed the Cistercian abbey of St. Mary’s, Dublin, where they were stored. As a result, this previous scholarship is based mainly on English records housed in London such as the Exchequer Rolls and, to a lesser degree, Gaelic and Hiberno-Latin sources. Joe Hillaby has expertly commented on a number of these English records. The present study builds on his work by covering a wider range of documentary evidence and by including fresh analysis of the Gaelic-language material. The aim of this discussion is to raise the profile of this forgotten community and inspire future research on the topic. Further work on the subject would help gain a fuller sense of the legacy of the Jews in Europe, which legacy, as will be argued, reached beyond the Irish Sea.


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Climate, disease and society in late-medieval Ireland

By Bruce M.S. Campbell and Francis Ludlow

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature (2020)

Abstract: Palaeoclimatic data are used to track the significant changes in atmospheric circulation patterns and weather conditions that affected Ireland between 1000 and 1500 CE. How these climatic developments and associated shifts in the epidemiological environment were mapped onto Irish society is explored using a tree-ring chronology reflecting the retreat and advance of oak woodland. Years characterised by significant weather-related food scarcities are identified from the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish Annals in combination with the independent record of English chronicles, grain yields and prices. Between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries the experience of the two countries is shown to have diverged. It is suggested that in late-medieval Ireland scarcity heightened the resort to violence and from 1348 was often a proximate cause of plague outbreaks. In combination, scarcity, violence and plague helped entrap fifteenth-century society in a low-level equilibrium of sparse population, economic underdevelopment, scarcely disguised poverty and low resilience to natural hazards.

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A chronology for unenclosed settlements in early medieval Ireland: Settlement patterns in the late first millennium AD

By Emma Hannah

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature (2023)

Abstract: The remains of various early medieval enclosed settlements—earthen and stone-built ringforts, non-circular enclosures, and lake-side crannógs—dominate the Irish landscape. Other settlements from this period lacked an enclosing element and our understanding of these is poor, especially their chronology. This paper provides an overview of the archaeological evidence for unenclosed settlements and other non-enclosure settlement types and analyses associated radiocarbon (14C) data to provide a preliminary chronology for this collective of sites. Temporal trends indicate that settlement peaked between the eighth to mid-ninth centuries before an ostensible reduction in activity at the end of the first millennium AD. This paper then reflects on the latter pattern, acknowledging that this may represent past settlement change or be partly influenced by excavation and research biases. Future avenues of research in the study of unenclosed settlements are also suggested.

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A Community in Competition: The Barons of Leinster in Thirteenth-Century Ireland

By John Marshall

History: The Journal of the Historical Association (2023)

Abstract: Over the last number of decades, the relationship between king and magnate in medieval Ireland has been prominent in scholarship, but less attention has been given to the tenantry below. Drawing on a range of sources from chancery material to chronicle evidence, this article analyses one such tenantry community, the ‘barons of Leinster’. During the first half of the thirteenth century, the Marshal lords of Leinster clashed with royal authorities in Ireland on three occasions, and in these circumstances, the tenants of Leinster had to choose between their king and their lord. For the lords of Leinster, the support of their tenantry was not to be presumed, and hence they had to relentlessly compete for the allegiance of their tenantry with the other lords in Ireland and the king of England. This essay argues that status and marital ties influenced tenantry allegiance in Ireland, in particular that assimilation into a new lord’s household was more important for the lesser tenantry who held land in both Ireland and Wales than for the great landed barons who also benefited from royal patronage. Hence, this study contributes to the rich ongoing discussion on the importance and role of tenantry communities in the Plantagenet dominions.


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