Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

Four Courts Press
ISBN 9781846826672

Reviewed by: Conor Kostick

Discussions about medieval Ireland have often been highly politicised and contested. In the early twentieth century, activists for independence, from Arthur Griffith to James Connolly, became passionate in their engagement with Ireland’s medieval past in order to support Eoin Mac Neill in his polemical exchanges with Henry Orpen (the former being seen as the national champion in opposition to the imperial bias of the latter). Donnchadh Ó Corráin’s new book very much belongs to this tradition of vigorous and purposeful writing about medieval Ireland. In a relatively compressed framework (122 pages) with coruscating sentences, it attempts to carry an argument, the core of which is this: the impact of the Gregorian reform was a disaster for Ireland and the Irish church.

Personally, I would rather read a short history in which the passions of the author are clear and in which something is being said than a work that is saying very little at great length. This is true even when I don’t agree with the author, as is the case here.

The structure of Ó Corráin’s argument is as follows. In Ireland, before the coming of the ‘English’, the church had its flaws, but it was relatively free from the practice of lay appointments to senior positions (not least because of the dynastic nature of many foundations). The early Irish church, too, had an infrastructure that provided the material basis for impressive levels of learning and sophisticated scholarship.

In the Continental church, however, a revolution took place in the second half of the eleventh century, which saw ardent reformers such as Hildebrand (Gregory VII) take control of the papacy and attempt to impose changes on the church, regardless of the cost. As Ó Corráin observes when writing about St Malachy, ‘reformers are none other than those who want one’s position, power and property because of an absolute conviction that they can and will devote them to proper ends. The uncompassionate sacrifice of individuals and institutions is part of the business.’

In Ó Corráin’s view, the reform papacy was ill informed about Ireland and more than willing to achieve its goals here through the intervention of the English crown. Laudabiliter satis was a papal privilege given to Henry II of England by Pope Adrian IV in 1155 and it became the justification for the king’s arrival in Ireland in 1171 to claim the subjugation of the Irish rulers. The pope at this point, Alexander III, urged the Irish bishops to ally themselves with Henry, which they duly did, at enormous cost. The once independent and culturally vibrant Irish church became a tool of English royal policy and, by diverting revenues towards the episcopacy, undermined the basis of indigenous scholarship.

In making this argument Ó Corráin sidesteps two very important issues by relegating them to footnotes. One is whether Laudabiliter satis is a forgery. The strongest case for believing that the document did not exist in the form in which we have it was made by Professor Anne Duggan (see History Ireland 13.3, May/June 2005), and I don’t believe that writing ‘Duggan’s reconstruction of Laudabiliter satis is a step too far’ in a footnote is in any way an adequate means of addressing the issue—especially since, having given a nod to the debate, Ó Corráin then uses the document throughout his book as though there was no question of its authenticity.

‘No surviving documents indicate the effect of Laudabiliter satis on the Irish church’, writes Ó Corráin, but, ‘evidently, it had a serious negative effect on its leaders, men keenly and naively loyal to a papacy that seems, in a short time, to have lost confidence in them.’ I think the reason why no effect is visible in the sources is that the privilege did not exist, at least in the doctored form that we have from Gerald of Wales, a known forger.

The other issue is that of using the term ‘English’ to describe an invasion that did, indeed, transform the Irish church, at least in the east and south of the country. The footnote reads: ‘The term “English” is here used as an umbrella term for Norman, Anglo-Norman, Cambro-Norman, Fleming, Welsh, Saxon, Breton, English, etc.’. Again, I think that this is too important a discussion to leave to a footnote, because there is a lot at stake in your choice of term for the invaders. Quite apart from the fact that ‘English’ resonates anachronistically with a much more imperialist phase of British history, there is an underlying issue to do with social structure that has implications for whether the invaders should be considered English or Anglo-Norman.

In Ó Corráin’s view, there is no substantial difference in this period between the social structures of Ireland, England, France, Germany, Italy, etc. Frequently, he addresses the justifications given by reformers and invaders for involvement in Ireland by demonstrating that the ills and grievances that were levelled against the Irish could just as reasonably be aimed at other countries. To some extent this is useful, a healthy corrective to negative notions about Irish society derived from the propaganda of the invaders. But to argue, as this book does, that Ireland therefore was essentially similar to the rest of Europe is to use Ó Corráin’s deep knowledge of the sources to cherry-pick examples that are in fact misleading.

When we look at the situation in broad terms, in the generality, it has to be recognised that there were significant differences between Ireland and the Norman world. Ireland, for instance, was predominantly a cattle economy, with considerable reliance on slave labour. The Normans devoted much more land to grain production, and in their realms serfs provided the bulk of the workforce.

The difference between slavery and serfdom is significant (not least to members of these orders). In addition, arising from these economic differences are notable cultural consequences. One important example is the castle. It made sense for the Normans to construct castles, not just as forts on river crossings but also as residences for lords and knights and as administrative centres for the control of land and labour. In their conquered territories, e.g. in England after 1066 and southern Italy from c. 1000, castles covered the landscape densely in a way that was not the case in Ireland until after 1169. This is not to say that one system was superior to the other, but it is important to recognise that in the twelfth century Ireland’s social structure was not the same as that in England and northern France.

Because he does not address—or believe in—any deep-rooted differences between Ireland and the Norman world, Ó Corráin struggles to account for the transformation of the Irish church when these two systems collided. For me, the reorganisation of the Irish church mirrors the extent to which land use, inheritance and marriage had evolved in the Anglo-Norman world.

What reason can Ó Corráin find for the transformation? Only one, which arises from Ó Corráin’s antipathy to the Gregorian reformers. ‘Is it possible they [Irish bishops] saw conquest as the only means of bringing about that change and deliberately chose it, at the urgings of the reformed papacy? … they were prepared to envisage a social revolution that entailed the overthrow of their own ruling cadre and the rise of a foreign land-holding class loyal (at least in theory) to an absent king—all in the interest of an international mother church and an unrealistic programme of perceived moral betterment.’

Although advanced with the reservation ‘is it possible?’, this is the book’s core belief and one that appears throughout the text, especially in Ó Corráin’s entertaining judgements of figures like Pope Alexander III or Bernard of Clairvaux. A small layer of clergy (strategically located at the top of the Irish church) had such a desire to end lay control of church offices and estates that they were led to heed the urgings of Europe’s leading reformers and back Henry II.

Such a scenario is not impossible. After all, something like it occurred when Henry III journeyed to Rome in 1046. Unable to find a credible pope to make him emperor (there were three at the time), Henry emancipated the Roman church from the grip of the local aristocracy and inadvertently created a dynamic that allowed reformers the freedom to pursue goals that would bring civil war to Germany within a generation.

Even in this story, however, there is an interaction between the ideologically driven reform movement and contemporary social developments, not least in the widespread proliferation of Cluniacal monasteries that provided the reformers with nearly their entire cadre. In the Irish case, the relationship of church reform to the Anglo-Norman invasion is far less significant than Ó Corráin would have it. Note how important a proper assessment of Laudabiliter is to the issue. If we discount Laudabiliter, we see no further promotion by the papacy of Adrian IV’s idea that the English crown should have authority in Ireland. A succession of seven reform synods within Ireland between 1157 and 1167 (one with a papal legate present) suggests instead approval for a process of reform internal to Ireland.

The impetus behind the invasion of Ireland was cruder and simpler than the runaway reform thesis. The invaders belonged to a long line of warlords who had nothing other than a pragmatic interest in religion. Finding themselves at the head of a social and economic structure that allowed for a distinct military advantage over their neighbours, these adventurers had no scruple about muscling in on any region that failed to keep up; 1169 should be seen as part of a continuum with 1059–64 (Apulia and Calabria), 1066 (England), 1098 (Antioch) and 1130 (Sicily).

For me, therefore, the central argument of this book is back to front. If we start with an understanding of the social and economic differences between Ireland and the Norman world, then we have a better understanding of why there would be conflict over divergent practices in the church. I think this provides a clearer basis for interpreting the policy of the Irish bishops than does seeing them as the religious equivalents of Diarmait Mac Murchada.

Conor Kostick is the author of Strongbow: the Norman invasion of Ireland (O’Brien Press, 2013).


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