15.10.30, Dwyer, Witches, Spies and Stockholm Syndrome

Main Article Content

Máire Johnson

The Medieval Review 15.10.30

Dwyer, Finbar. Witches, Spies and Stockholm Syndrome: Life in Medieval Ireland. Dublin: New Island, 2013. pp. ii, 226. ISBN: 978-1-84840-284-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Máire Johnson
Emporia State University

In the first of two short introductory chapters (5-8), Finbar Dwyer states that his intent is "to focus on ordinary people" from the Anglo-Norman colony in Ireland "by examining daily life" as represented in a series of short case studies or themes (5). In twenty-two fairly brief chapters linked only by this intent, he certainly does offer a different side of events and personalities from the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. He is, however, limited by the nature of the evidence; while a fair number of his case studies do reveal elements of the lives of "ordinary people"--see, e.g., Chapter 4's accounts of social upheaval during famine (51-8), Fyngole McTorkoill's attempt to break her compatriots out of gaol (68-9), or the report of rural peasants and laborers in revolt in Chapter 7 (75-80), to name only three instances--many of the stories he presents relate to the elites of the time, who naturally received much more attention in writing than did the middle and lower classes. From the start, then, he is hampered by the sources left to him and must approach the common Anglo-Normans of his narratives through accounts left to history by the literate few.

This caution having been observed, however, Witches, Spies and Stockholm Syndrome does succeed in offering a number of windows into aspects of medieval life that tend to be neglected. By highlighting the disparities between those of no means and those of moderate or high status, Dwyer sheds light on the nature of such everyday matters as marriage, food, living space, and daily endangerments like prejudice, violence, famine, and fire. Despite the inherent difficulties of studying middle- and lower-class people from voices other than their own, Dwyer's work nevertheless accomplishes at least part of his stated goal.

Dwyer's other goal is not provided until the end of the second introductory chapter when, on page 22, he observes that the evidence of the later medieval period tends to create a view that "it was an exclusively male-dominated, violent, brutish, never-ending nightmare waiting to be put out of its misery by the birth of the modern world." He rightly notes that the era was much more complex than such imagery would lead a reader to suspect, and emphasizes that Witches, Spies and Stockholm Syndrome is meant to offer that additional view in the stories of interpersonal relationships and ordinary experiences as visible in the texts from and about the Anglo-Norman colony (22). At this, Dwyer is perhaps a bit less successful. Though indeed he does recount everyday events like falling in love (49-50, and possibly 68-9, although the relationship between Fyngole McTorkoill and the McTorkoill in the gang she tries to liberate from prison is not made clear), the disenchantment with Christianity felt by the disenfranchised Gaelic Irish (Chapter 14, 135-43), or the leisure activities of the Anglo-Norman colony (Chapter 16, 155-60), a fair number of the narratives and case studies he highlights don't really deter a reader much from the view that later medieval Ireland was primarily a violent and discouraging place to be.

Indeed, as Dwyer summarizes in the second introductory chapter (9-24), the very foundations of the Anglo-Norman colony were in conflict and violence, as Anglo-Norman warriors and their foreign allies increasingly entered Ireland and seized land from the native Gaelic Irish, disenfranchising the latter and pushing them to the margins of land and resources. This distinction forms the foundation for several stories and chapters in Witches, Spies and Stockholm Syndrome; a prime example is visible in the distrust and disillusionment held by some Gaelic Irish for the Anglo-Norman ecclesiastical hierarchy, as made apparent in the story of Adam Dubh O'Toole, who was burned at the stake in 1328 for heresy (135-43).

Dwyer himself devotes a great deal of attention to the expressions of violence in the Anglo-Norman colony. Chapter One (25-32) is titled "The Lifeblood of Medieval Society: Violence", while Chapter Two (33-42) concerns "The Revolt of Maurice de Caunteton and the World of Political Blood Sports". Chapter Three's account of "Love and Marriage" (43-50) actually starts with a tale of abduction rather than of love, and numerous narratives mention revolt and riot for varying causes (59-63, 75-84). King Edward I of England's ongoing war against Scotland and the associated Irish Bruce Wars of 1315-1318, in which the Scottish king Edward the Bruce first sent his brother and then himself came to Ireland to wreak havoc in an attempt to find a lateral way to defeat Edward, figure prominently as well (53-4, 176-7, 194-200).

In nearly every instance, however, Dwyer's approach to these events--which admittedly do inform the environment of most accounts surviving from the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Anglo-Norman colony--is to come at the material with an eye toward what it can say about lesser-known figures. With respect to the Bruce Wars, for example, Dwyer certainly does provide a summary of their devastating impacts on the countryside and economy of Ireland (e.g., 194-200), but he also examines them in the context of the worst fire ever experienced in Dublin (176-7), including the resulting hardships for the commoners on whom he tries to maintain his focus. His discussions of riot, protest, and revolt, too, highlight the lives of folk often left out of historical analysis. For example, Chapter Two's discussion attends not to the era's major political disputants, the de Burghs and the Fitzgeralds, but upon the more local contention between the de Cauntetons and Talouns of Wexford, Cork, and Limerick (33-42). In another instance, Chapter Five's narrative about a 1305 riot against the Bishop of Ossory (59-66) evolves quickly into an analysis of the ways in which the Gaelic Irish had been disenfranchised not only from their lands but from their religion, the very hierarchy of the church overtaken by Anglo-Norman clerics with a decided animosity toward Ireland's prior inhabitants; in so doing, it reveals more about the complexities of belief in Anglo-Norman Ireland than another case study might accomplish.

Dwyer also delves into other lives which, while not necessarily either illustrative of the era as something other than violent or representative of folks of more modest means, are not as well-known as many other figures of the period. Individuals like Stephen Bray, who insulted and assaulted William Frend's wife (68), Fyngole McTorkoill and her attempts to liberate her compatriots (69), Roesia de Verdun's ability to attain considerable wealth and power in her own right (71-4), or the pair of William Douce, a wealthy merchant in Dublin, and Adam son of Philip, a pauper who burgled William's house (110-115) march across Dwyer's pages. As a result, his study offers lively glimpses of Anglo-Norman society from angles most historical analyses have not really considered.

In essence, then, despite being constrained by the available material from Anglo-Norman Ireland to view the events and people through the lens primarily of the literate few and the elites, Dwyer nevertheless illuminates the lives of more than just those individuals who were educated, wealthy, or part of the popular crowd of figures (like Earl Strongbow) who feature in so many tales of Ireland's past. He also profiles more about the "daily life" of all layers of Anglo-Norman society than the evidence might suggest is possible. His accounts move readily from those of elites like Alice Kyteler (and the religious ethos her heresy trial reveals, 125-34) to commoners like Adam son of Philip (110-115), from women who spied both for and against the Anglo-Normans (179-86) to another Anglo-Norman, Henry Crystede, who was held hostage by Gaelic Irish in the Wicklow Mountains for seven years and expressed a Stockholm-Syndrome-esque affection for his captors thereafter (201-7), from famine (51-8), to food (85-91), to travel (102-8. It is not entirely clear, however, whether he succeeds at reducing the stereotype of the later Middle Ages as riddled with violence, disease, and despair.

Witches, Spies and Stockholm Syndrome is written in a narrative format that is extremely easy to read and provides an enjoyable romp through a diversity of stories from the Anglo-Norman colony in Ireland during the era of roughly 1169-c1370. It includes eight color photograph plates in the middle of the book, which show key sites mentioned in the book such as Glendalough and Kilkenny Castle. The endnotes are a bit spare, but certainly are sufficient to guide a reader back to some of Dwyer's sources (208-19), as does the select bibliography at the end (220-226). Dwyer also provides enough background information to make the book eminently useful for both the specialist and the generalist, including a helpful chronology of main events in Anglo-Norman Ireland, 1169-c1370 (22-24).

There are blessedly few minor editorial and stylistic observations. On p. 73, line 25, "They agreed a deal" should be "They agreed to a deal". On p. 84, line 20, "It was immensely important part" should be "It was an immensely important part". On p. 144, line 7 (of text), "from the King Edward I" should be "from King Edward I", and on p. 150 (line 10) and p. 152 (line 2), two different spellings for Oderico di Perdione/Perdenone are given. On a contextual note, Dwyer makes reference numerous times (see, e.g., 55, 85, 89, 169, 196) to "corn", which is a bit misleading, as without explanation it suggests New World maize or sweet ears on the cob. It would have been useful, particularly for the non-specialist audience, to have a brief footnote explaining that the term "corn" probably refers to a non-maize cereal grain with hard kernels that require drying and grinding before they can be consumed. These are very minor issues, however, and they do not detract from Dwyer's entertaining and interesting study of the less-familiar personalities and events of Anglo-Norman Ireland.

Article Details