15.11.02, Booker and Peters, eds., Tales of Medieval Dublin

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Lahney Preston-Matto

The Medieval Review 15.11.02

Booker, Sparky, and Cherie N. Peters, eds. Tales of Medieval Dublin. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014. pp. xii, 203. ISBN: 978-1-84682-497-5 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Lahney Preston-Matto
Adelphi University
prestonmatto@adelphi.edu

I read this book in two days, mostly because I couldn't put it down. But that wasn't the only reason; I was also able to read it so quickly because the length of the articles is conducive to those fifteen-minute windows that many of us have available during the day. The articles in this book are based on the popular eponymous lecture series, and are therefore between ten and twenty pages long, aimed at a more general audience, and easily devoured while on the train or bus, taking a break from the incessant demands of email, or eating a quick breakfast. I don't mean to be flippant; this is a real advantage. These articles are not lacking in intellectual rigor by any means; they are easily accessible and very readable. I will be using two of them--Linzi Simpson's "The Skeleton's Tale" and Poul Holm's "The Slave's Tale"--in my freshman class on the Vikings this year.

There are fourteen "Tales" in this book, presented by historians or archaeologists, about "the experiences of the everyday men and women who were the backbone of the [medieval] Dublin community" (2). As a member of a literature department, I was of course delighted to see the nod to Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales; all the articles are titled for the profession that the author is investigating, such as "The Tax Collector's Tale," "The Crusader's Tale," and "The Farmer's Tale," as well as direct correspondences to Chaucer with "The Knight's Tale," "The Man of Law's Tale," and "The Wife's Tale." The book is arranged roughly chronologically, beginning with Seán Duffy's investigation into the historicity of purportedly seventh-century St. Bearaidh in "The Saint's Tale," and concluding with Katharine Simms' discussion of sixteenth-century poet Maoilín Óg Mac Bruaideadha in "The Poet's Tale," tales which are linked, incidentally, by their subjects' dependence upon the Annals of the Four Masters.

As is to be expected, some of the Tales are more successful than others. Generally, the more specific that a Tale-teller could get about their subject, the better. Most of the Tales are concerned with one person or object, but Cherie N. Peters' "The Farmer's Tale" and Poul Holm's "The Slave's Tale" are more general, discussing what the typical life of a farmer, or of a slave (although Holm begins with the specific case of St. Fintan) might be. Both these Tales are informative, but lack the specificity that the other Tales have, and might therefore be best suited to an even more general audience. Some of the Tale-tellers have also chosen subjects about whom there is very little evidence, as in Michael O'Neill's "The Mason's Tale," or subjects about whom there is too much (later, interpolated evidence), as in Howard B. Clarke's analysis of Gormlaith, the tenth/eleventh-century woman married to Óláfr of Dublin, Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill of Mide, and Brian Bóruma, and the mother of Sigtryggr (Sitric 'Silkenbeard') in "The Mother's Tale." Clarke does an admirable job in trying to untangle the life of a famous, noble woman based on many sources, but Gormlaith may need a larger exploration than could be expected in a volume of this sort.

Booker's and Peters' desire to present the lives of everyday medieval Dubliners, as far as possible, is an admirable goal, but difficult to achieve with most of the written sources that are available, as these mainly concern members of the nobility or at least the very wealthy. Booker and Peters make a concerted effort, though, and are certainly successful with Áine Foley's "The Tax Collector's Tale," Margaret Murphy's "The Archdeacon's Tale," Gillian Kenny's "The Wife's Tale," and Caoimhe Whelan's "The Notary's Tale." But even these Tales concern subjects who were wealthy in their own right and landholders: Foley shows that Thomas de Crumlin owned many parcels of land in Dublin, and Whelan makes clear that her notary, James Yonge, was patronized by the earl of Ormond, for instance. Booker and Peters are to be applauded for the effort to recognize what we today would call middle- or working-class subjects, though, particularly when the sources are so scanty.

This book would be an excellent addition to anyone's library, particularly if you are interested in medieval urban life. It's a wide cross-section of people and time, presented in a way to intrigue a general audience. It would work well in an urban studies course, a medieval studies course, and, of course, a medieval Irish course. It is well-researched by all the Tale-tellers, and the editors made sure to include many illustrations, both black and white and color. I generally found the black and white illustrations more applicable than the colored ones: many of the colored illustrations were only tangentially related to the subjects of the book, such as the ones from the Luttrell Psalter and the illustrations of Chaucer's Wife of Bath and Man of Law from the Ellesmere manuscript. There is also a helpful glossary. This is an admirable piece of work, and Booker and Peters are to be congratulated on it.

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