18.06.06, Moore, Medieval Anglo-Irish Troubles

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Linda E. Mitchell

The Medieval Review 18.06.06

Moore, Deborah L. Medieval Anglo-Irish Troubles: A Cultural Study of BL MS Harley 913 . Texts and Transitions, 8. Turnhout:Brepols, 2016. pp. xii, 337. ISBN: 978-2-503-55478-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Linda E. Mitchell
University of Missouri - Kansas City

In this complex codicological study of an important, if highly eccentric, compilation manuscript, Deborah Moore broaches historical, literary, and textual issues not previously conjectured, in what is essentially a revision of her doctoral thesis (Queen's University, Belfast). The manuscript currently includes some 53 separate works, written in four languages--Latin, Anglo-Norman French, Middle English, and Middle Hiberno-English--with another five works found in a seventeenth-century copy identified as London, British Library, Lansdowne MS 418. No complete edition of the manuscript has ever been published, but a number of unique or unusual texts, among them "The Land of Cockaygne" and "Pers of Bermingham," have heretofore been the subject of scholarly inquiry.

The original manuscript seems to date from the fourteenth century, with one primary scribe or compiler (Scribe A). It then passed into the hands of other owners, who added their own glosses and marginalia to the texts (Scribes B and C). Sometime in the sixteenth century, the manuscript was disbound and then reordered and rebound several times until it came into the hands of Sir James Ware, who in the seventeenth century transcribed a number of the pieces into a separate manuscript, which is now identified as Lansdowne 418. Between the 1330s and the 1600s it is impossible to know whether other portions of the original compilation have gone completely missing, although quite a few of the texts currently bound in Harley 913 are incomplete or fragmentary. The manuscript also suffers from significant levels of mildew and staining, especially in its final quires, which render it difficult to read. Moore's careful description of the contents and the caveats she includes about its organization and original form are welcome additions to this textual study, as other scholars have not been as explicit about the challenges of working through this manuscript and its sibling manuscript, Lansdowne 418.

Moore presents a number of interesting speculations that taken together sound convincing. She suggests that the original compilation was the work of a member of an "Anglo-Irish" Franciscan community (Scribe A) and she locates the creation of the manuscript at about 1330. The rationale for this date focuses on a number of political and cultural conditions at the end of the reign of Edward II and the beginning of that of Edward III, including the 1315 invasion of Ireland by Edward Bruce, brother of King Robert I Bruce of Scotland; the 1327 rebellion of Roger Mortimer (who held substantial estates in Ireland mostly through his wife, Joan de Geneville) and his subsequent dominance over the young Edward III; the overthrow of Mortimer by Edward III in 1330; and the ways in which these political events played into the conflicts between the "Anglo-Irish" and "Gaelic-Irish" (to adopt Moore's usage) communities.

Moore contends that many of the most carefully studied texts--"Cockaygne" and "Pers of Bermingham" especially--have been misinterpreted by literary scholars because of the peculiar admixture of didactic works, ideas and outlines for sermons, bits of historical trivia, political polemics, and anticlerical satires in the compilation. Instead of approaching each of these texts as exemplary of separate genres, she considers most of them to be deliberately compiled as an encomium to the mission and goals of the Franciscans, especially their devotion to charity (caritas), their critiques of the Cistercians as falling into the sins of gluttony, luxuria, and sloth, and their commitment to conversion and rehabilitation through preaching. In addition, she considers the more blatantly political texts to be part of this program, operating as criticisms of the level of violence and disorder fomented by certain powerful Anglo-Irish barons, among them men of the le Poer family, Maurice fitzThomas, and Peter (or Piers) de Bermingham, all of whom figure in texts found in the compilation.

Moore structures her study in the manner of an "exploded" catalogue of the manuscript. After a relatively brief introduction that outlines the codex's various contexts and its structure, she spends the bulk of the book describing each of the texts and discussing their significance to her themes of Franciscan missionary action and social and political criticism. Not all the texts get equal treatment, but as they are quite varied in length and literary or historical importance, this decision was not unreasonable. When a specific text has met with scholarly attention, Moore addresses those issues succinctly. Her brief conclusion pulls the study back to the theme of "Anglo-Irish Troubles" and the Franciscan response.

Moore disagrees with the scholarly consensus most significantly when discussing texts that have blatantly political or cultural overtones. These include the texts she claims reference the heresy trial of Alice Kyteler in 1324 under the leadership of Bishop Richard Ledrede of Ossory (who was a Franciscan), which she identifies as "Excerpt from the Testimony of Franciscus Bartholi" (128-133) and "Alice, I Love You" (218-222). They also include the well-studied "Song of Michael of Kildare" (79-80) and "Pers of Bermingham," (225-234), and the less-studied "On the City of Babylon" (186-189), Troia (173-175), and "The Entrenchment of New Ross" (272-276). Moore adds to these political and polemical writings one particular text from the Lansdowne manuscript, "The Letter of Sir Adam of Britain, a Knight" (279-288). Many other texts dotted throughout both the Harley and Lansdowne manuscripts make oblique references to political issues and events, which Moore traces in her discussions of them.

Moore's argument with standard literary interpretations of these texts has to do with what she considers to be essential misreadings of them. Scholars have interpreted "Pers of Bermingham," for example, as glorifying the horrific acts of violence that he perpetrates in order to present Sir Piers as wreaking vengeance on the uncultured and savage "Gaelic-Irish" and promoting the values of Anglo-Irish culture. Moore sees something quite different: instead of celebrating Piers de Bermingham as a heroic figure, she suggests that he is in fact being vilified by the compiler as an oppressor of the poor and disempowered, in part because of the juxtaposition of this text to those that also emphasize the violent tendencies of other contemporary Anglo-Irish figures, who together enacted a reign of terror throughout Kildare, Meath, and parts of Wexford—and who also figure as enemies of the Berminghams. Moore sees these texts as piling up evidence against key families whose behavior the compiler considered heinous, uncharitable, and antithetical to Christian virtue. Among them she identifies Maurice fitzThomas (son of Earl John fitzThomas of Kildare), and Arnold, Eustace, and Stephen le Poer. All of these men were implicated in various ways in the mayhem that stemmed from the reign of Edward II and Moore considers the compiler's connecting of them in his manuscript as instructive. This is also coupled with her interpretation of "On the City of Babylon" and "The Entrenchment of New Ross": that the compiler considered the bureaucratically-organized cities of Anglo-Irish settlement to be bastions of oppression and sin.

I think Moore is onto something, but she does not go far enough. The political situation in Ireland in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century pitted prominent Anglo-Irish families against each other while at the same time the relationship between them and the leaders of the Gaelic-Irish--never very peaceful--was becoming increasingly fraught. The one document that I found surprisingly absent from Moore's discussion outlines these issues perfectly: the 1317 "Remonstrance of the Irish Princes to Pope John XXII" (Corpus of Electronic Texts [CELT] at https://celt.ucc.ie//published/T310000-001/index.html). Indeed, this document figures so perfectly into Moore's analysis of several texts that I find it astonishing she did not incorporate it into her discussion.

The "Remonstrance" begins with a brief (and mythical) history of the Irish that fits in well with the "British" origin stories narrated by the Harley text Troia as well as by the Scottish 1320 "Declaration of Arbroath" (https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/files//research/declaration-of-arbroath/declaration-of-arbroath-transcription-and-translation.pdf)—another text which Moore fails to mention. The "Remonstrance" continues by identifying exactly the same figures who appear in Harley 913, such as Piers de Bermingham, Earl John fitzThomas, and the Clare family, as attacking and destroying the flower of Irish nobility. Although it is critical of certain members of the Friars Minor who support the Anglo-Irish against the Gaelic-Irish, this criticism is not significantly different from the apparent condemnation of the actions of the Franciscan Bishop Ledrede of Ossory found in the manuscript. Moreover, the description of "The Letter of Sir Adam of Britain" that Moore provides, including its prophetic elements, operates so well as a parallel text to both the "Remonstrance" and the "Declaration of Arbroath" that one could suggest that "The Letter of Sir Adam" served to disseminate the arguments of those documents to a wider audience.

The takeaway when one juxtaposes these two documents with the texts Moore features in the Harley and Lansdowne manuscripts points to a more radical program than just identifying and commiserating about "Anglo-Irish Troubles" and the ways in which the Franciscans in Ireland operated as conservative contrarians to Cistercian and Dominican programs of reform. The fact that Moore has read widely in a large variety of secondary literature but still did not pick up on this particular issue suggests a more limited historical perspective than might have been advisable when tackling this kind of project. There are several other historical issues that Moore mentions but is not conversant in, such as the issues surrounding the series of justiciars from Geoffrey de Geneville (lord of Trim by right of his wife), through William de Vescy and, eventually, Earl Roger Mortimer, all of which affected the conflicts between resident and absentee lords especially in Kildare and Wexford and pitted the fitzThomases against the allies of the absentee lords of both. These are more difficult to unpack in a study of this kind but the absence of public documents in the bibliography and Moore's reliance on secondary sources and chronicles for the historical contexts to her analysis suggests that she either chose not to pursue those lines of inquiry or was not made aware of them at all by the mentors who supervised her doctoral thesis. If she plans on pursuing more intensive levels of study into both the Harley and Lansdowne manuscripts, these are elements I would encourage her to investigate. It might be that the compiler of Harley 913 was more radical than Moore thinks: he might have been providing fodder for the promotion of the ideas found in the "Remonstrance" to a larger and more diverse audience than simply the Gaelic-Irish who originally supported it.

In conclusion, Moore's study of Harley 913 and Lansdowne 418 is solid and shows a great deal of potential for this scholar to develop the ideas she introduces here. It is, however, more the beginning of this process than the end.

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