Burial in Medieval Ireland 900-1500, Susan Leigh Fry. (Four Courts Press, £35) ISBN 1851823093

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2001), Medieval History (pre-1500), Medieval Social Perspectives, Reviews, Volume 9

While the history of death and burial has over recent years become well established in Europe, it has, for many reasons, made little impact on Irish historiography. This is unfortunate for, as Susan Fry points out in the preface, many aspects of social, cultural and religious life in the past may be illuminated through study of the treatment of the dying and of the disposal of the corpses of the dead. The work begins with a useful discussion of the background of its subject and of some of the sources used. The 600-year time span is explained by reference to the conservatism of burial practice, though it might be argued that the author never fully engages with the changes which also occurred during the period in question.
The medieval Irish cemetery did not resemble today’s graveyards. Many cemeteries may not have been officially consecrated, and they might be used for a variety of everyday activities such as games, livestock grazing, and even as places of habitation. The management of cemeteries and incidents of desecration are discussed, resulting in a lively picture of the comings and goings on this section of communal ground.
Focus then moves to the rituals surrounding burial. The period between death and burial might range in length, with wakes lasting for up to twelve days in the case of important individuals. The deceased was often attended to the grave by a procession of friends and dependants, and feasting and keening were important elements of the proceedings. The distinction between honourable and dishonourable burial might be stark, with the bodies of wrongdoers being burned, mutilated or otherwise mistreated. By contrast, some bodies were considered so valuable that they might be disinterred and moved, or even stolen. Other aspects of the pre-interment period are considered, such as the embalming and transport of bodies, with the author at times exercising a certain amount of imaginative license in filling in the gaps in the records. In chapter four, one of the weakest in the book due to the author’s concentration on written rather than archaeological sources, the paraphernalia of burial—shrouds, coffins, and funerary monuments—are considered.
The location of burials within and outside the church and churchyard provides a glimpse of the stratification of medieval Irish society. Kin groups might be buried together, and certain families had strong connections with particular cemeteries. Members of religious orders might also be buried together. Certain graves were more prestigious than others, though often the evidence provided by written sources is inadequate. Some insight into the place in society of its less visible members, such as women and children, and into the fate of criminals of various types, is also provided. The final chapter of the book merely restates the material presented in the earlier chapters.
The question of sources is an important topic which any Irish cultural or social historian must address, both in order to explain to non-specialists the loss sustained through the destruction of the Public Record Office in the Four Courts in 1922, and the issues which arise from the use of less familiar documents and of archaeological evidence. The author subtitles the book ‘a review of the written sources’ but, while her discussion and use of the annalistic evidence which is her primary and preferred source material is good, she never really engages in discussion of other sources used, and she overlooks much valuable material, a fact which greatly weakens her thesis and conclusions. This is despite a statement regarding the value of consulting all (author’s emphasis) possible sources. To give one particular example, her neglect of the important published collection of late fifteenth-century Dublin wills is astonishing, given the wealth of burial information which they provide. Archaeological evidence is similarly haphazardly used, with fifteenth-century evidence again especially under-exploited. That the history of death and burial at times requires an interdisciplinary approach is a point that is only half-heartedly conceded more in words than by deeds, in this book. The excuse frequently repeated by the author that time constraints limited her work is unacceptable in a published monograph.
Throughout the author makes frequent references to the findings particularly of French and English medieval historians in a laudable attempt to situate Ireland in a wider European context. It is clear that Fry has done considerable background research on her topic, and such comparisons of evidence are often illuminating. However, they are occasionally overused in order to bolster arguments for the existence of procedures for which little Irish evidence exists. For example, on pp.102-3 there is a discussion of multiple burials, for which only one concrete Irish example of a heart burial is given, that of Laurence O’Toole, who actually died in Normandy. Sometimes untenable conclusions are reached through over-reliance on continental examples. Many of these comparisons would have been better off relegated to the footnotes.
Burial in Medieval Ireland is an uneven and incomplete treatment of its topic. However, the criticisms voiced here should not detract from what is an important step into a neglected area of Irish historiography. More historians (and archaeologists) should follow its example, a move which would enhance considerably our understanding of the life-experiences of past generations of the inhabitants of Ireland.

Clodagh Tait


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