Robin Stacey

title.none: Smith, ed., Britain and Ireland 900-1300 (Stacey)

identifier.other: baj9928.0007.004 00.07.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Robin Stacey, University of Washington,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Smith, Brendan, ed. Britain and Ireland 900-1300: Insular Responses to Medieval European Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. vii, 276. $59.95. ISBN: 0-512-57319-x.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.07.04

Smith, Brendan, ed. Britain and Ireland 900-1300: Insular Responses to Medieval European Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. vii, 276. $59.95. ISBN: 0-512-57319-x.

Reviewed by:

Robin Stacey
University of Washington

The media fervor surrounding the advent (or not) of the millennium has drawn attention to what is perhaps the most significant development in the historiography of the medieval West over the past fifteen years: the willingness to probe, or even reject outright, traditional notions of periodization and chronology. Once scholars believed unhesitatingly in an ancient and a medieval world starkly distinguished from one another by the disappearance of Roman rule--but Peter Brown and the other excellent Late Antique historians who followed him put paid to that. Equally sacrosanct, and now equally under assault, is the notional divide between the "early" and the "high" middle ages. Whereas once it was simply obvious that the turbulent chaos of the late Carolingian world had little or nothing to do with, for example, the glittering court life conjured up in the writings of the troubadour poets of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, now such matters seem far less secure. Debates over feudalism (or not), familial structure, and the nature of power itself have inspired a new willingness to look across this traditional divide, to contemplate anew the manner in which what came before gave rise to what came after.

In British and Irish history also the contrast between "before" and "after" has played a major role in shaping scholarly inquiry, although the boundaries in this case have been largely drawn along the lines laid down by the events of 1066 and 1169. But even these demarcations have been called into question in the recent literature, as has indeed the (English) royalist perspective to which they speak. A significant development within the field of late has been the increasing tendency of historians to eschew the traditional focus on England and Englishness in favor of a broader perspective centered on the Irish Sea province as a whole. Both of these new approaches are very much to the fore in Brendan Smith*s new collection of essays, Britain and Ireland, 900-1300, a volume that had its origins in an international conference held in 1996 at Bristol. In this volume, which transcends the traditional divisions of pre and post-Conquest, England lurks always in the background, but the focus is clearly on Britain and Ireland as a whole, as entities bordering a common sea. The topics covered run the gamut from secular to religious, political to social, and it is a tribute to the editor, the conference organizers, and of course the authors themselves that the volume is as unified thematically as it is.

One of the most valuable aspects of the collection is the care the authors have taken to link their specific topics and findings to issues of concern to Europeanists as a whole. Nationalism and cultural identity emerge as themes in a number of the papers, including Maire Herbert*s examination of the shifting relationship between Irish and Scottish Gaels in the period before 1169, Dauvit Broun*s assessment of the relative importance of Irishness to medieval Scottish identity, and R. Andrew McDonald*s study of the subtle shifts in cultural practice marking the assimilation of the Hebrides into the kingdom of Scotland. Two of the essays examine specific individuals and families (John de Courcy, the de Vescy family) whose holdings and outlook transcend the Irish Sea and for whom the issue of identity was particularly complex. Adherence to the chivalric code as a marker of cultural identity is the key theme in John Gillingham*s study of the killing and mutilating of political enemies over the course of the late twelfth to the early fourteenth century. And Marie Flanagan takes up the issue of ecclesiastical reform and its relationship to colonization and the exercise of power in Ireland. Historians who do not themselves specialize in the history of the British Isles and Ireland will find much in this volume that they recognize and care about.

Other topics in the volume will be of most direct interest to those engaged in the study of British and Irish history specifically. England looms large over the collection, as one might expect. Benjamin Hudson documents the role of the English king in Irish Sea trade; Robert Bartlett examines the reception of the cults of Irish, Welsh, and Scottish saints in England. Sean Duffy tackles the issue perhaps most directly, investigating the role played by the 1169 invasion of Ireland in determining the future course of relations between Ireland and Wales. Several essays make the point that the embracing of a common cultural or religious ethic (e.g. the adoption of Celtic cults by English churchmen, or the acceptance of the chivalric code among the Welsh and Scottish) did not in any way prevent medieval Englishmen from looking with scorn and disdain on their Celtic counterparts. Many papers are concerned less with England than with interactions among the Celtic-speaking peoples themselves--Herbert on the Irish and Scots, McDonald on the Hebrides, for example--and here the theme is the frequent interaction between these lands that makes it unwise to consider each in isolation from the others.

Perhaps the Loki of this volume is Alfred Smyth, who to judge from the tone of his article, would likely relish the role. To the extent that his essay (on the effects of the Vikings on the British and Irish churches) addresses the issue of cultural interaction, it is in keeping with the general themes of the volume. However, there is no summons to reconciliation to be found here. Readers familiar with Smyth*s many interesting publications will perhaps not be surprised at the intensity of expression that characterizes his work in general. In this essay, however, he is at the height of his rhetorical powers-- bitterly critical of the tendency of recent scholarship to downplay the havoc wrought by the Norsemen on western European culture. He uses language clearly designed to provoke the members of what he calls the "'pro-Viking' lobby" (38) into an equally vigorous retaliatory response. His favorite betes noires are scholars Roberta Frank, Peter Sawyer, and Donnchadh O Corrain, whose work he characterizes as "partisan," (37) "dubious" (33), and even "statistically flawed and lamentably lacking in historical judgement". (31) A few examples will suffice to give the sense of the tone of his treatment of the Norse. He speaks of pagan Norse society "still languishing in a pre-literate warrior Iron Age while its victims in the West had moved on into a sub-Roman world heavily influenced by an advanced religion and the rudiments of Graeco- Roman philosophical thought". (37) The Vikings were at the time of their raids lingering in a "cultural time-lag" (26), a "state of bloody barbarism" (38), and their eruption "out of the prehistory of the North" (38) shook a society that was self-evidently "more developed" (25) to its very foundations. The language of Smyth*s essay is inflammatory and judgmental, and his attacks on fellow workers in the field are not softened in any way by the conventions of scholarly discourse. One can only look forward to the response.

What follows is a short summary of each essay for those who wish to know more of the specifics of the work:

Alfred Smyth argues in "The effect of Scandinavian raiders on the English and Irish churches: a preliminary reassessment" that the Vikings were, contrary to much modern scholarship on the issue, immensely destructive to the cultures upon which they intruded.

Benjamin Hudson charts "The changing economy of the Irish Sea province," arguing that what had been in the tenth century a politically diverse and precociously unified commercial world in the tenth century had become, by the late thirteenth, shaped primarily by the priorities of the king of England.

Robert Bartlett examines the "Cults of Irish, Scottish and Welsh saints in twelfth-century England," arguing that whereas in the early eleventh century, the cults of these nations had not overlapped substantially with those of England, the twelfth century saw greater intermingling in the sphere of cults. Some English clerics borrowed Irish material (or entire vitae) to aid in the construction of their saints; Norman clerics in Wales began to identify with and appropriate the local saints associated with their churches. In Scotland, the boundaries were even more fluid, with a network of personal and cultural contacts binding these two religious cultures to one another.

Maire Herbert*s essay on "Sea-divided Gaels? Constructing relationships between Irish and Scots ca. 800-1169" traces the manner in which relationships once conceptualized in personal and genealogical terms came over time to focus on territory, a key step towards the recognition by the twelfth century that Ireland and Scotland were embarked on their own separate paths to kingship.

Sean Duffy argues that we should indeed see "The 1169 invasion as a turning-point in Irish-Welsh relations," noting that the invasion at once disrupted traditional cross-channel links and reinforced them, since so many lords ended up owning land on both sides of the Irish Sea.

John Gillingham*s "Killing and mutilating political enemies in the British Isles from the late twelfth to the early fourteenth century: a comparative study," points to an interesting contrast between Wales and Scotland, which had adopted chivalric values by the mid-thirteenth century, and Ireland, which had not.

Dauvit Broun*s study of "Anglo-French acculturation and the Irish element in Scottish identity" examines both the persistence of the Celtic element in Scottish notions of identity and the manner in which that changed during the course of the wars of independence.

Marie Therese Flanagan focuses on a single individual and his relations with the Irish church in her essay on "John de Courcy, the first Ulster plantation and Irish church men." In it, she traces the manner in which de Courcy*s own territorial needs came together with the desires of clerics within the Irish reform movement to realize their reform agenda.

R. Andrew McDonald argues in his "Coming in from the margins: the descendants of Somerled and cultural accomodation in the Hebrides, 1164-1317" that the integration of one political entity within another is a matter of more than just military conquest. He traces the importance of various forms of cultural accommodation--naming patterns, marriage patterns, the adoption of chivalric and knightly ideals--to the assimilation of the Hebrides within the Scottish kingdom.

Keith J. Stringer examines the complex identity issues faced by a family whose lands spread across the British Isles and Ireland in his "Nobility and identity in medieval Britain and Ireland: The de Vescy family, c. 1120-1314."

Brendan Smith and the contributors are to be praised for their contributions to an increasingly important field of inquiry. This is a volume in which many will find much of value.