09.06.01, Doran and Lyttleton, eds., Lordship in Medieval Ireland

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Lisa Bitel

The Medieval Review baj9928.0906.001


Doran, Linda and James Lyttleton, eds.. Lordship in Medieval Ireland: Image and Reality. Portland, OR:: Four Courts Press, 2008. Pp. 304. ISBN: 978-1-84682-041-0.

Reviewed by:
Lisa Bitel
University of Southern California

In medieval Europe, lordship had no simple meaning. Wherever men exercised personal power directly over other men and women--whether their subjects were ten or ten thousand, with results benign or appalling--that was lordship. Lordship intersected with kingship, nobility, feudalism, vassalage, homage, fiefs, and all the rest of the medieval kit, but it did not necessarily include all of those other features. Some lords measured their rule in estates and territory, others in men. Lords could be armed with swords or with Gospels, for Christian bishops were also lords of a sort. Even women could occasionally be lords. Every king was a lord, but not every lord a king. Lordship varied by period, region, and local culture. An English lord was not the same as a Norman lord, Irish lord, Anglo-Irish lord, or Cambrio-Norman lord. Medieval lords shared only their lordliness and the fact that, in the 1100s, their number was growing. As Thomas Bisson put it simply in his 1995 presidential address to the Medieval Academy of America, "most people must have equated lordship with the exercise and sufferance of power." [1]

Of course, lordship has also meant different things to different scholars of the medieval past. To earlier generations of nationalist Irish historians, lordship was what the Normans brought when they invaded. Before that, kings of tribal territories ruled the Irish with wisdom based on a happy combination of ancient Indo-European legal principles, inspiring prehistoric legends, and thinly christianized druidic lore. Sure, these torc-bearing monarchs wrangled and feuded, but thanks to their pure Celticity and the guidance of saintly monks, they resisted Viking infiltration and were even organized themselves briefly as a single nation led by the high-king Brian Boru--who was like Alfred the Great or Charlemagne but a few centuries late. According to Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating, d. 1644), author of Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, everything would have worked out just fine if in 1152 King Diarmaid Mac Murchadha of Leinster had not abducted the wretched wife of King Tigernan Ua Ruairc of Meath. Diarmaid eventually fled the combined wrath of his fellow kings to the continent where he sought aid from Henry II of England and his freeloading Norman knights.

Robin Frame, Brendan Smith, and many other recent examiners of the Irish medieval past have managed to demolish most of this romantic pseudo-history, but the assumptions behind the romance linger among Anglophone historians, who have never treated Ireland as part of the larger medieval world. Bisson's presidential address dealt mostly with France and Britain, with nary a word for Europe's fringes. Partly in response to this chronic neglect, the authors of this volume set out to locate Ireland in the mainstream historiography of medieval Europe by stretching the definition of lordship to its limits. Lordship was, in the words of Bernadette Cunningham's foreword to the volume, more than just "jurisdiction over territory." It was also "rights and privileged status" implied by jurisdiction and "a series of responsibilities and duties toward one's followers" (17). The earldoms and baronies of medieval Ireland, with their well-organized estates and castles, were just a degree of difference away from the pastoral kingdoms of Gaelic chiefs. Because the practice of lordship varied according to local situations, and because the boundaries between Irish and not-Irish lords became increasingly hard to distinguish, lordship was fundamentally the same on both sides of that ethnic divide. The authors of the nine essays collected here aim to demonstrate the infinite range of lordship's meaning in Ireland over the course of a couple of medieval centuries while, at the same time, noting the fundamental sameness of all lordships.

In some ways, Ireland offers the perfect test of Bisson's definition of lordship. It is, after all, an island. At the moment of Norman arrival, its political landscape was uncluttered by feudalism (whatever that was) and remnants of imperial governments. Welsh-Norman barons really did land with their armies in 1170 at the invitation of Diarmaid Mac Murchadha, one of the most powerful players in the hierarchical network of rulers that controlled the Irish and their lands at the time. Henry II of England asserted his dominion over lands taken by his vassals from the Irish. The new Norman lords of Ireland spoke French, built castles, and accrued wealth by exploiting peasant agricultural labor and trade through eastern ports. Irish leaders, meanwhile, were still calling themselves kings (ríg) but living in wattled houses not much different from peasants' huts. They calculated their wealth in moveables--mostly cattle--and the number of men they could muster for battle. Nonetheless, these native lords shared with foreign occupiers both their right to the land and their responsibility for the leadership and protection of its inhabitants. Their collective consciousness of lordly status made them more like each other than any of them was like his dependents.

The many lords of Ireland soon came to share much else, too, between 1170 and 1400, according to these essays. Each author offers a case study of a particular lordship, many using archaeological evidence and geographical method to discuss the material and social environments of lordship. The volume is part of a larger series sponsored by the Group for the Study of Irish Historic Settlement, which is dedicated to "reading the historical landscape in tandem with exploring extant archival sources and artifacts relating to early and medieval Ireland" (15).

The volume begins with documents, though, assembled by Edel Bhreathnach for a study of native perceptions of kingship. Bhreathnach's conclusions will not surprise Irish historians, but her essay may help non-specialists repelled by the impenetrable chronology of alliances, betrayals, and feuds that make up Irish political histories. Bhreathnach argues that native scholars and poets began to develop the parameters of Irish lordship rule in the seventh century, if not earlier, using poems, treatises, and proverbs to express their ideals rather than the charters or law codes that advertised kingly power elsewhere in Europe. These local keepers of dynastic heritage emphasized the authority of rulers but also their duty to collaborate with churchmen to maintain customary laws and social order, promote justice and prosperity, and protect their people from outsiders. Freya Verstraten's essay also treats elite symbols of Irish lordship, but in visible images rather than written words. The Irish did not indulge in heraldry or build much in stone, but rare images of lordship left on tombs and seals suggest a shift in the political reality of lordship between 1200 and 1400. According to Verstraten, Irish lords used such imported media and iconographies to advertise themselves as "kings" (rex or ), but also to assert their places in a larger Anglo-Norman hierarchy. Whether or not Irish subjects and foreign kings received those messages, expressed in a mere handful of artifacts, is unclear.

Four essays in the volume focus on lordships in the province of Leinster, Diarmaid Mac Murchadha's old kingdom. Margaret Murphy exploits an unusually complete set of documents from the estates of Roger Bigod, inherited ultimately from a daughter of William Marshall, to study the economic success of one Irish lordship. From 1270 to 1306, Roger relied on a cadre of officials and administrators to extract profits from his fields, mills, ferries, and courts, which he then used to pay family debts and provision himself in Edward I's wars upon the Welsh. Meanwhile, as Linda Doran shows in her study of the "Carlow corridor," the landscape itself still offers clues to the ways that Irish and Anglo-Norman lords supported their authority. The growth of towns along river valleys signaled the success of new kinds of lordship in Ireland based on large-scale agricultural exploitation and centered at castles. Castles did not advance invasion and conquest, but followed upon them. They served as market centers, halls of government, and symbols of lordship. Doran's fine maps show clearly how castle-builders located their innovations at the juncture of trade routes, natural resources, and long-settled landscapes. The success of Gaelic and non-Gaelic lords alike depended on their ability to adapt to both ancient geographies and new economies.

Emmet O'Byrne's essay follows one kin-group, the Mac Murroughs (descendants of Diarmait Mac Murchadha), as they cleverly melded old and new styles of lordship. These early allies of Anglo-Norman lords strengthened their position as traditional rulers of the province through local networks of marriage and fosterage. At the same time, though, they maintained a place in the feudal hierarchy as noble subjects of the English king. Almost two centuries after Diarmait's invitation to Strongbow and his fellows, a Mac Murrough was still in control of the Leinster thanks to the dynasty's dual identity as both Irish lords and English vassals. The most successful Mac Murroughs settled down, married into the Anglo-Irish Butler clan, and learned how to manage feudal estates. Although O'Byrne clutters his rhetoric with archaisms and clichés (unto! latimer! like birds caught in a net! slipped the feudal noose around their necks and pulled it tight!), he reminds us that the Mac Murroughs--traditionally denounced as weaklings and traitors--were extremely successful at lordship.

Other essays in the collection examine lordship in the west, relying on material evidence to complement scanty documentary records from Gaelic areas. Connie Kelleher, in the volume's most exciting essay, excavates O'Driscoll lordship in southern Cork. From a few randomly preserved texts and preliminary archaeological reports, she reconstructs the seat of O'Driscoll power at Baltimore over four centuries. These Gaelic lords maintained themselves with a small fleet of ships good for both fishing and piracy--not unlike classic Vikings--and by controlling the port that guarded access to inland markets. When profitable, they also rented their navy to the highest bidder. And when times were tough, they came ashore to reoccupy inland castles and lands normally lent to tenants. Despite much guesswork about quays and jetties, types of ships, and the clues that still lie buried at unexcavated O'Driscoll forts, Kelleher crafts a dramatic story of crafty back-country lords strategizing to survive changing times.

The spread of lordly architecture is a major theme in several of the essays. John Malcolm's survey of castles and towers in the Uí Fhiacrach Muaidhe territory of Connacht, on the fringe of English expansion, maps these structures onto earlier sites of western lordship. Malcolm shows how the first generations of invading lords often expropriated sites of earlier Gaelic lordships near plentiful natural resources and existing villages. However, after the establishment of these outposts, thirteenth-century English castle-builders chose locations for reasons other than defense. Like castle-builders back home in England, they considered aesthetics. Some even built landscapes to enhance their homes, creating completely new towns, constructing formal gardens, and preserving deer parks in a show of lordly confidence about their power.

The visibility of lordly symbols was crucial to all lords of Ireland. During the fourteenth century, the tall, narrow stone towers of lordly families littered the island's landscape, especially in the west. Paul Naessens argues that the wild Uí Fhlaithbheartaigh lords of sixteenth-century Connemara built their towers for administrative and economic motives. Like the O'Driscolls, the Uí Fhlaithbheartaigh flourished along the water. From their coastal, river, and lakeside towers, celebrated by traditional bards as symbolic seats of power, they controlled the profitable fisheries and anchorages of the Connacht seaboard. Individual lords located their towers not for defensive purposes (they preferred inland woods and bogs for that), but as part of an Uí Flaithbheartaigh group strategy for visible domination of the entire coastal region. Similarly, back in Offally, the MacCoghlans also built towers for symbolic purposes, using existing political maps to locate themselves at previously significant places but also, as James Lyttleton argues, to announce their modern, civilized style of lordship to allies and enemies alike.

Across Ireland, successful regional lords of all kinds exhibited extraordinary sensitivity to the symbolic uses of landscape and architecture. An English tower house looked much like an Irish lord's tower in late medieval Connacht or Offally. Towers were but one term in a hybrid vocabulary of power shared by all the medieval lords of Ireland. Even inside a tower, it was sometimes hard to tell an English from an Irish lord. Aristocracies intermarried, exchanged names and languages, and often joined to resist the impositions of English royal power.

The essays collected here do not focus on the constant small acculturations that constituted the lived reality of lordship in Ireland. Instead, the authors emphasize the diverse display of lordship. The collection offers a welcome corrective to the old politicized histories of Ireland that staunchly insisted on the essential difference of native Irish and English invaders. But by emphasizing a broad, cross-cultural, trans-regional definition of lordship the volume neglects the endemic violence among lords and armies that devastated Ireland during the medieval and early modern centuries. Also, although several of the essays reach into the early modern period, none suggests how this common concept of lordship changed between the coming of Normans and the plantations of the Tudors--for, when royal armies sailed from England to assert the direct rule of a newly centralized state, some lords of Ireland fared better than others. Still, the volume should be handy for college classes, so long as professors throw in a little Céitinn as a colorful reminder that, even when lords shared political paradigms, they hated and killed each other.


[1] "Medieval Lordship," Speculum 70: 4 (1995): 743-759.

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Author Biography

Lisa Bitel

University of Southern California