Clare Downham

title.none: McDonald, Manx Kingship (Clare Downham)

identifier.other: baj9928.0805.012 08.05.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Clare Downham, University of Aberdeen,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: McDonald, R. Andrew. Manx Kingship in its Irish Sea Setting 1187-1229: King Rognvaldr and the Crovan Dynasty. Portland, OR: Four Courts Press, 2007. Pp. 254. $65 978-1-84682-047-2. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.05.12

McDonald, R. Andrew. Manx Kingship in its Irish Sea Setting 1187-1229: King Rognvaldr and the Crovan Dynasty. Portland, OR: Four Courts Press, 2007. Pp. 254. $65 978-1-84682-047-2. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Clare Downham
University of Aberdeen

To date the history of the Isle of Man during the later Viking Age has not received as much attention as it deserves. R. Andrew McDonald is therefore to be congratulated for his study of the career of King Røgnvaldr (1187-1229) and his broader analysis of Manx kingship and politics during the early thirteenth century. The strategic location of Man at the centre of the Irish Sea brought its kings into contact with the political affairs of Scandinavia, Ireland, Britain, and the Vatican. McDonald has drawn on a wide range of sources to show how Røgnvaldr's reign can shed light on a broad field of north European politics. The text is clearly written and accessible to undergraduates, including those who are not already familiar with the Isle of Man. Extensive footnoting and a good bibliography also make this book a useful resource for those wishing to study Manx history in greater depth.

Despite these manifest strengths there are a few weaknesses which serve to undermine the overall quality of this work. These are (1) a rather over-inclusive approach to what constitutes "evidence"; (2) the author's opinion alters at different places in the book without adequate explanation; (3) occasionally the author indulges in speculations without having done enough research to make a convincing (or realistic) argument.

In respect of the use of evidence, McDonald sometimes uses late medieval texts to shed light on events centuries earlier, without giving adequate justification. For example, a 1511 abstract of an inquisition of 1414 is used as evidence that Røgnvaldr was the founder of a Cistercian nunnery at Douglas (200). Information from centuries before Røgnvaldr's life is also drawn on in what may be an anachronistic way. For example, a quotation by D.A. Binchy concerning eighth-century Irish law is used to suggest that a king had to be "unblemished" to rule Man (172). This seems to me an issue apart from the general (and obvious) argument that someone who had been blinded and castrated was at a great disadvantage in competing for the kingship in Røgnvaldr's day.

Inconsistency can be seen in the discussion of genealogical links. Røgnvaldr's father is at one stage identified as the son of Affrica of Galloway (27) and some pages later as the son of Ingibjorg of Orkney (111). Two mothers would be remarkable. The former connection, which is recorded in Chronica Regum Manniae, seems more likely. A more minor discrepancy is found in the discussion surrounding a son of Røgnvaldr's called Guðrøðr, who was blinded and castrated in 1223. McDonald suggests that Guðrøðr may be the same man as Guðrøðr "Don," son of Røgnvaldr, who joined a military expedition in 1228/9. Nevertheless McDonald admits surprise that a man so disabled might participate in such a venture and he puts forward the idea that Røgnvaldr may have had two sons called Guðrøðr one of whom bore the sobriquet "Don," perhaps to distinguish him from his brother (86). This seems to me probable because the Manx royal dynasty drew from a restricted pool of names for potential heirs. Since 1103 all the kings of the Manx royal family were called Óláfr, Røgnvaldr, or Guðrøðr; so choices for a royal or successful sounding name which could distinguish father from son were limited (and the name Óláfr may have been unpalatable for a son of Røgnvaldr as it was borne by his lifelong rival). However, elsewhere in the book (96, 247) this theory is removed and Guðrøðr "Don" is identified with certainty as the man who was mutilated in 1223.

With regard to ill-founded speculation, one example relates to the identification of a name found in the Gaelic praise-poem about Røgnvaldr. In discussing Røgnvaldr's "crushing defeat on Maelbheirn," McDonald does not consider that Maelbheirn must be identified as a personal name ("Devotee of Bran"). Instead he presents a linguistically contorted and unconvincing case that this name identifies a battle at Morvern, Argyll (115-116). Another example where further research would be desirable is in the discussion of military levies (206). McDonald states that it is "generally agreed" but "contentious" that kings of Man levied ships using the Scandinavian system of leidang, adding that "the minutiae of the debates need not concern us here." However a detailed analysis of the relevant debates would in fact have been very useful, particularly in light of the assertion made a few pages later that "the military lordship of the Manx kings rested to a large degree upon institutions like the leidang" (210).

At the start and end of the book McDonald presents an image of Manx kingship in the thirteenth century, with one eye looking back to its mixed Gaelic and Scandinavian heritage and with the other looking forward to embrace changes in political culture which were sweeping across Christendom. Perhaps in working to secure his position Røgnvaldr would not have perceived such a sharp dichotomy between old and new. The traditional structures of kingship were maintained rather than being condemned and new elements were incorporated or added on, in a process (dubbed the "Europeanization" of Man) which itself took centuries and which began long before Røgnvaldr came to power. The contrast between past and present in Røgnvaldr's long and important reign may have been a little exaggerated by McDonald for dramatic effect.

Although there are some weaknesses in this book, I should not wish to deter anyone from reading it. It covers a significant period of Manx history and it will long remain an authority on the reign of King Røgnvaldr. The general character of the volume is approachable and helpful. At times it may be a rather wayward instructor for undergraduates, but it is an agreeable companion for researchers. This contribution to our understanding of medieval Insular history is certainly to be welcomed.