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22.12.10 Hewer, Beyond Exclusion in Medieval Ireland

22.12.10 Hewer, Beyond Exclusion in Medieval Ireland


Stephen Hewer’s Beyond Exclusion in Medieval Ireland: Intersections of Ethnicity, Sex, and Society under English Law fills key gaps in analyses of later medieval Ireland, particularly in its attention to ethnicities other than the Irish (or, as he insists, Gaels) and English. In this revision of his dissertation, he draws mainly on plea rolls to argue against what he claims are near universal assumptions that the Irish and English were uniformly hostile to each other and that royal courts offered the Irish no protection. His attention to these records’ details prompts him to mention women more frequently than most of the historians he cites, although he generally offers little information about them. His book is essential for scholars who focus on the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century English colony in Ireland, primarily as a summary of the cases referenced in the plea rolls between 1252 and 1318.

Hewer strenuously argues many points that may eventually become more broadly accepted. Among the most significant is his rejection of translating nativa/-us as “native”; in court records it refers to a naif, someone born legally unfree. He maintains that this confusion has caused scholars to assume that all Irish people in Ireland’s English-controlled areas were naifs, when some, and at points he suggests most, clearly were not. He also dismisses the term “native” as applying too arbitrarily to one ethnicity, the Irish, when people of diverse ethnicities were born in Ireland and so should be understood as “native Irish”; the English, Welsh, Scots, and Ostpeople born in Ireland had no less claim to “native” status than the Irish born there. In addition, he rejects the ethnonym “Irish” in favor of “Gaels,” arguing that to apply the former (referencing the Latin, Hibernice/-i) is to “use the English terminology for the Gaels” (30), and implying that “Gaels” was the only ethnonym the Irish used for themselves--a curious argument to make, especially amid multiple Latin texts by Irish people in which they call themselves Hibernice and its variants, some dating from half a millennium before the English colony existed, which Hewer does not acknowledge. Moreover, up through at least the twelfth century, “Scot” (Latin, Scoti) was used by Irish and non-Irish people to refer to the Irish, a fact Hewer again ignores, despite its relevance for his ethnic analysis on multiple levels. None of the ethnonyms used in the medieval British Isles were static, in keeping with the fluid nature of ethnicity generally, yet Hewer surprisingly glosses over this complexity, which ought to have been foundational in a study that centers ethnicity in medieval “English Ireland.”

Personal names frequently provide our only clues for ethnically classifying individuals, which Hewer recognizes can be misleading; nevertheless, they understandably serve as his primary classification characteristic. Sometimes court records ascribe ethnicity, identifying named individuals as “pure Irish” especially if an accused murderer sought to have the case against him dismissed, given the not uncommon (but not universal) defense that Irish lives were not protected under English law, yet courts repeatedly proved such ascriptions false. Hewer often prioritizes location in assigning ethnicity; for example, he calls John de la Spyne “one of the very few actual Normans in medieval Ireland” because he was from Normandy (274). As John’s example indicates, however, people did not always stay in one country. Many of Ireland’s leading colonists had lands in England or elsewhere and repeatedly traveled between them, and colonists were sometimes described as Irish when in England, to their chagrin. Ethnicity is too complex to be reduced to location, legal claims, personal names, or the two paragraphs in Hewer’s introduction that explain his approach to it. He does not cite nor demonstrate familiarity with the essential work of Geraldine Heng and others who have greatly expanded our understanding of ethnicity and race in the Middle Ages, instead relying mainly (albeit briefly) on two generalized overviews of ethnicity written by white emeriti sociology professors in England.

Beyond Exclusion would have benefitted considerably from greater grounding in gender as well as ethnic studies, although Hewer’s approach has its strengths. He consistently uses both feminine and masculine endings of Latin terms “because assuming the male plural (e.g., nativi) includes women is sexist” (28). While it is similarly sexist to assume that the male plural does not include women, thereby perpetuating female erasure, the grammatical rules that insist that even a single male amid multitudes of women necessitates the use of the masculine plural are sexist and obscure our understanding of the past. More scholars ought to challenge such entrenched patriarchal basics. Similarly, Hewer uses Ostpeople rather than Ostmen and repeatedly notes that certain roles, such as “lord,” were gender inclusive, although far more men than women occupied them. His study references women who were attorneys, bailiffs, and even an Irish “woman-at arms” (15), Órlaith inghen Mheic Briain, who was pardoned for her felonies through military service in the English justiciar’s army against the Leinster Irish.

Hewer’s third chapter, “The Legal Status of Women: Intersections of Sex and Ethnicity,” particularly enriches our understanding of the diverse ways that women in “English Ireland” intersected with the royal courts, which Hewer conflates with intersectionality itself. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in 1989 to describe the ways in which forms of inequality, especially racism and sexism, exacerbate each other and to advocate for a “bottom-up” analysis of injustice to combat discrimination. Hewer says he bases his methodology on Crenshaw’s work, but his dissertation does not mention her and his book’s brief references to her (93 n. 1, 290) read as an afterthought and suggest significant confusion. In addition, contrary to intersectionality’s core claims, Hewer attempts to separate aspects of identity from each other, arguing, for example, that class trumped all, declaring, “A magnate/royal Gaelic woman, married to a magnate Englishman, probably encountered little discrimination in English Ireland” (292). Yet we lack sufficient sense of the daily realities of people who lived over 700 years ago to support that assertion, and Meghan Markle’s experience in our own time should caution against such assumptions. The footnote immediately following his first reference to Crenshaw (93 n. 2) dismisses the historiography of women in medieval Ireland as solely focusing on marriage, recognizing only two exceptions, despite a wealth of solid scholarship spanning several decades. Hewer cites little of this research, however, and his analysis does not indicate sufficient familiarity with this history or with gender studies more broadly; moreover, his consideration of gender is almost entirely confined to women. His study demonstrates that they had greater property and legal rights than is often acknowledged, although he notes that sex proved more of a liability than ethnicity (e.g., 132, 159).

In Hewer’s estimation, “The most important conclusion from this study is that the English settlers in Ireland did not depress all Gaelic people into bondage” (289). He repeatedly contrasts his call for nuance with what he sees as the dominant narrative of universal ethnic and gender discrimination in Ireland’s English colony, yet scholars rarely write with the absolutism Hewer imputes to them (e.g., 27, 203, 258). Even medieval propaganda reflects more ambiguity than Hewer recognizes; for example, he lumps modern scholarship with the “Irish Remonstrance” in their portraits of unrelenting ethnic enmity and oppression of the Irish (91, 286), yet this hyperbolic 1317 text also acknowledges multiple points of collaboration and connection between the ethnicities, as do the scholars Hewer repeatedly faults as absolutist. Moreover, Hewer himself makes several sweeping statements similar to those he condemns in others; for example, he references “the phenomenon of Englishmen killing their Gaelic wives with impunity” (292), yet cites only one case, discussed nearly ninety pages earlier: in the early fourteenth century, all criminal charges were dropped against Richard Kenn for killing his wife, Padok, because she was Hibernica. As Hewer notes, this was “a great divergence from the common law in England” (205), but he does not engage with its potential implications. He flatly states that “Gaelic bishops had no ethnic solidarity with their Gaelic tenants” (294), yet, as he also repeatedly acknowledges, our records are too incomplete to generalize about aspects of medieval life that are far easier to quantify than “ethnic solidarity” might be.

Hewer takes pains to emphasize cooperation between ethnicities as well as the authority and agency that some women enjoyed in medieval English Ireland. He notes that anti-Gaelic attitudes increased among the English towards the end of the thirteenth century, but offers little analysis of the causes and consequences, other than an increased likelihood that a murderer might try to be excused for the reason Kenn was. Greater context, more sustained analysis, and more thorough revision would have enriched the book significantly. It reads like a dissertation, sometimes comparing unfavorably with his; for example, the book lacks section headings, even in its sixty-four-page chapter on “The Effects of Ethnicity in Criminal Cases,” which explores five kinds of crimes (homicide, rape/raptus, wounding, theft, and false imprisonment); in his dissertation, the chapter had nearly twenty section headings. The most important findings I take from this study are the diversity of people appearing in these plea rolls and the considerable evidence that courts valued property over people, or at least Irish people: “Unlike the quagmire of punishments for killing Gaels, stealing from Gaels was treated much more uniformly and harshly. Medieval English law dictated that stealing 12d. (of money or goods) was a hangable offence. Dozens of English people were hanged for robbing Gaels. This fact has been surprisingly ignored by previous historians” (231).

In his introduction, Hewer declares, “It is the aim of this study to begin a reclamation of ethnic and gender/sex complexity in the history of medieval English Ireland” (22), later concluding, “The evidence of this study suggests that it may now be time to ask more difficult questions about epistemology and the writing of medieval history” (289). Yet medieval historians regularly wrestle with such questions with far greater nuance and complexity than this study demonstrates, including with respect to medieval Ireland. If he had grounded himself in ethnic and gender studies and integrated that knowledge and the medieval evidence into a compelling analysis, Beyond Exclusion in Medieval Ireland might have been the groundbreaking study that its back cover proclaims it to be. Nevertheless, due to the richness of the plea rolls Hewer examines, his study expands our understanding of how the ethnically-mixed inhabitants of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century English colony in Ireland interacted with royal courts.