Review | Medieval Ireland

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Clare Downham Medieval Ireland (Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. xv, 394 ISBN:  9781107651654 (Ppk) Cambridge University Press site | Amazon link
Clare Downham Medieval Ireland (Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. xv, 394 ISBN:  9781107651654 (Ppk)
Cambridge University Press site | Amazon link

This is a first-rate comprehensive synthesis of the current state-of-play of the history of medieval Ireland, 400-1500 A.D. – but with limitations suited to a book in the Cambridge Medieval Textbooks series.  For starters, though the author makes good use of such primary sources as saints’ lives and chronicles and sagas and penitentials and law codes, these are mostly cited not from their own editions but from secondary sources (the book’s unitary bibliography does not distinguish between primary or original sources and secondary).  Additionally, the author’s own period of expertise seems to lie in the Viking age (c.800) and after, perhaps accounting for the otherwise inexplicable absence, from the bibliography, of any works whatsoever by such noted contemporary historians of early Christian Ireland as Michael Herren (not even his editions of the Hisperica Famina, which is cited instead from Jenkinson’s edition from more than a century ago), Colin Ireland, or Michael Lapidge and but a single article by Tom O’Loughlin (not to speak of my own work).  Still, the ground is thoroughly covered.

Clare Downham is a senior lecturer in Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool.  Upfront, she explains that she is writing a history of the island of Ireland, ‘rather than the history of an ethnic group.’  Thus, little mention is made of the notable contributions of the early medieval Irish who went to Britain or the continent.  She explains her aim as one of avoiding the conventional approach of ‘Irish history as a history of invasions.’  This we can only applaud.  No genuflecting – thankfully – to the long-standing image of the Most Oppressed People Ever.  And so, for instance, the only sequential accountings of kings and battles and Viking invasions in the first part of the book amount to but some 20 out of its 180 pages.  A similar proportion of such accountings this time of English and Scottish invasions prevails in Part II.  Nor will the reader find any credence whatsoever paid to the equally long-standing claim that the early Irish Christians ‘saved Western civilization’ (here I must ask:  Why mention Cahill’s tripe at all, even to dismiss it?).  Rather, Downham provides an accounting of the very real intellectual and artistic achievements of these early Irish ecclesiastical scholars (particularly in the areas of biblical exegesis and the computus– the calculation of the date of Easter – and in manuscript illumination).

The book is divided into two parts, 400-1100 and 1100-1500, each part comprised of five self-contained chapters covering Land Use and Economy, Society, Politics, Religion, and the Arts (Part I begins with an introductory chapter on ‘Ireland in the Fifth Century’).  There can be an oddly depersonalized feel to a good deal of the text, focused as it is on physical and institutional realities and developments.  Pages pass without a named person making an appearance but, again, this is appropriate given Downham’s aim of producing a history of the ‘island’ (though, here, I must note a peculiarity to the Index where such major figures as Columbanus and Adomnán and even Patrick appear not alphabetized under their own names but strung together under ‘St’).

The coverage of the physical landscape is exemplary.  For instance, climatic changes, deduced from observations noted down in native chronicles, compared with the record of tree-ring growth, combined with the impact on the population and on farming practices of disease and plague (particularly Justinian’s plague from c.540) may have led to a shift ‘in eighth-century Ireland away from heavy dependence on dairy cattle towards more grain production.’ The author, with a light but all-inclusive touch, sets out for us as well the built-landscape and the behavior of its inhabitants:  settlement patterns, ringforts and crannógs (with a most helpful illustration of the former); the bonds of clientship and the importance cattle played in the wealth and status of the elite; quernstones and kilns and the early development of water mills (another key illustration, this one of the earliest known watermill in Europe, dating from c.619); the significance of wordworking with its ranking in early Irish law amongst the most prestigious crafts (most early Irish churches were built entirely of wood); the development of roadways, ranging as codified in the law codes from highways broad enough for two chariots to pass down to paths or tracks wide enough for two cows; the centrality of slave raiding and trafficking in both pre-Christian Ireland and during the many early centuries of Christianity (slavery had died out in Ireland by c.1500).

Early medieval Irish society was highly stratified, with opportunities for social advancement limited.  There was a multilayered plethora of kings.  At the bottom were the kings of one túath, ‘a small but distinct community with its own king, its own church, a poet and an ecclesiastical scholar.’  With a proliferation of heirs, downward social pressure laid to intense competition over status; as a result, ‘Irish chronicles provide a dizzying tally of violent deaths among the male upper classes.’  There were four family groups, from the gelfine(those related from a common grandfather) to the indfine (related through the male line within six generations).  There were nine forms of union, ranging from marriage between two people of equal rank to sex between two people who were insane and therefore incapable of raising a child.  Human relationships in this society were complex but well-defined.

Not all such features of pre-Christian society were suppressed (just as many Gaelic customs in marriage, landholding and inheritance, fostering of children, and clientship survived the English invasions and conquests of the later middle ages).  Druids were done away with, but the roles of judge and poet were adapted to Christian use.  Thus, the complexity of society at large was reflected in the development of the Church so that, as but one example, manaig(‘monks’) not only described cenobites but a broad category of people subject to the jurisdiction of a church leader, regardless of their lay or clerical status.  The thoroughness of coverage, the densely-applied detail, and the clarity of Downham’s exposition throughout are most impressive.  This is a model of its kind.

The five historical maps of the entire island of Ireland grouped at the book’s beginning are fittingly supplemented by a projection on a longitude/latitude grid of Ptolemy’s map of Hibernia (from the second century A.D.).

Source: Clare Downham, Medieval Ireland
Source: Clare Downham, Medieval Ireland

Clare Downham Medieval Ireland (Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. xv, 394 ISBN:  9781107651654 (Ppk)
Cambridge University Press site | Amazon link

A review copy of this book was received.

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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.