The Dublin region in the Middle Ages: settlement, land-use and economy

Published in Book Reviews, General, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2011), Medieval History (pre-1500), Medieval Social Perspectives, Reviews, Volume 19

The Dublin region in the Middle Ages: settlement, land-use and economyMargaret Murphy and Michael Potterton (eds) (Four Courts Press, €50) ISBN 9781846822667

The Dublin region in the Middle Ages: settlement, land-use and economy
Margaret Murphy and Michael Potterton (eds)
(Four Courts Press, €50)
ISBN 9781846822667

In Ireland we pride ourselves on our historical awareness. The Irish are interested in history, and in their own history in particular. This is obvious at a personal level in, for example, our collective excited engagement with the 1901 and 1911 censuses when they were made available to us on-line in recent years. At a broader level, it manifests itself in an appreciation of the importance of national history and in celebrating Ireland’s heritage: in general, in Ireland, it is demonstrable that more people study history in the education system, more people read history books, watch historical documentaries on TV, visit historical attractions and just plain know more about their country’s history than is the norm elsewhere.This awareness of the role of history in shaping the Ireland of today prompts a tendency to make recourse to the past as a benchmark against which to measure the present. It is a normal part of public discourse, for instance, to question whether we Irish are living up to the ideals of the men and women of 1916, or to compare profligacy and corruption in public life in recent decades with the frugality and selflessness of the state’s founding fathers. It is said that we empathise more than most with the victims of famine and genocide because of a group memory of our own Great Hunger, and we no doubt devote more attention to the past partly just to remind ourselves that we are different from our (once-dominant) nearest neighbour. The people who run Ireland, however, rarely show the same healthy regard for history. I am not the first to remark on this. Eleven centuries ago a great scholar, perhaps the king-bishop of Cashel, Cormac mac Cuilennáin (d. 908), complained of this same mentality:

‘The foolish Irish nation, forgetful of its history, asserts the historicity of unheard-of or completely fabulous deeds, because it is careless about committing to writing any of its achievements (Imprudens Scottorum gens, rerum suarum obliuiscens, acta quasi inaudita sive nullo modo facta vindicat, quoniam minus tribuere litteris aliquid operum quorum praecurat)’.

It is the mentality that prefers myth to reality, and half-truth to proper understanding, and pays only lip-service to the study of the past. And it is the mentality that means, for instance, that Ireland uniquely lacks a national institute for the study of history. What a boon such a body would be for the coordination and promotion of research in such a vital aspect of Irish life! To look no further than, for example, the UK, we don’t have the likes of the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) (, which has been a meeting place for historians from all over the world and a powerhouse for the promotion of history in the UK and internationally since its foundation by the great Tudor historian A.F. Pollard in 1921. Among the IHR’s many notable initiatives was the establishment of the Centre for Metropolitan History (CMH), which has now become one of the world’s leading engines for the study of the history of London and other metropolises. (Why don’t we in Ireland have a centre for the study of the history of Dublin?) I would urge readers to have a look through this list of their completed projects ( research/completed) to see the kind of contribution to learning such a small group of scholars can make. One of the CMH’s landmark projects was called ‘Feeding the City’, which set out to measure the impact on its hinterland of London’s demand for food and other supplies in the decades before and after the Black Death. The main researchers on the project—completed between 1988 and 1994 on a budget of less than £300,000 under the leadership of Professors Bruce Campbell and Derek Keene—were Jim Galloway and the Irish historian Margaret Murphy. When it was decided to undertake a similar project for medieval Dublin, the latter was successfully, and fortuitously, recruited to conduct the historical research, and the fruit of that labour is the superb volume under review here. The Dublin research is one component—and the only major outcome to date—of a larger exercise called the Medieval Rural Research Project that has been under way for nearly a decade at the Discovery Programme ( The latter was set up on the personal initiative of Charles Haughey when he was taoiseach in 1991 and is an independent body, funded by the Heritage Council, whose sole remit is to engage in advanced research on Irish archaeology. Because of this brief, the largely historical and documentary focus of London’s ‘Feeding the City’ project was rightly adapted to incorporate evidence from archaeology, and Michael Potterton was recruited to complement Murphy’s historical specialism. And if The Dublin region in the Middle Ages is anything to go by, it has proven to be a happy collaboration, Murphy and Potterton having combined to give us a work of scholarship of which historians and archaeologists alike can be proud. It will be the exacting yardstick by which we will measure future such collaborations, and will be the standard point of reference in the field for years to come. Both are to be heartily congratulated for making what is, by any comparison, a substantial contribution to scholarship. The strengths of the volume are numerous. To those who happen upon it in a bookshop or library, the book’s sheer beauty is the first attraction. It has the proverbial profusion of illustration, all glorious to flick through, most amplifying and enhancing the text, some purely decorative (which might have been foregone had boring old value-for-taxpayers’-money been an imperative). Everyone involved in taking the photographs, sourcing the illustrations, compiling the maps, and designing and laying out the book (including its public-spirited publisher, Four Courts Press) are deserving of our gratitude.Those attracted to the book by its colourful appearance should not be put off by its bulk (although, weighing in at more than two kilos, holding it for long periods can be literally painful): in fact, the word-count is in the region of 150,000, about a third of the average size of books in the multi-volume New history of Ireland, and a fraction of your typical Harry Potter. And it reads just as well. This is not a humdrum history book. In fact, although it is informed throughout by an exceptional historical insight, it is in many respects not a history book.The full title (The Dublin region in the Middle Ages: settlement, land-use and economy) goes part of the way towards explaining what to expect. In the first instance, this is not a book about Dublin. The book examines aspects of Dublin’s interaction with a carefully selected hinterland, a 30km orbital zone around the city (made flexible by including the full extent of all baronies touched by the 30km buffer), comprising all of the modern County Dublin and large parts of Meath, Kildare and Wicklow. Neither does the book deal with all of Dublin’s medieval existence. The authors have focused on the period in which the region was producing endogenous documentation, essentially from its conquest by the English in 1170 to the end of the Middle Ages (again, with flexible top-and-tailing to acknowledge, at one end, the region’s debt to its Early Christian, Viking and Hiberno-Scandinavian inheritance and, at the other, the light that can be shone by sources as late as the Civil and Down Surveys of the seventeenth century).And the book—seamlessly interweaving two entirely different types of evidence: that which is derived from the written word of historical documentation, and that which is (or was) visible to the eye in the form of above-the-ground monuments or subterranean archaeology—sets out to examine three aspects of the story of this region in the time-period. The first examines that phenomenon that suffers under the very unsatisfactory moniker of ‘settlement’. Here, Murphy and Potterton catalogue everything from the political lordship of the region in the pre-Anglo-Norman period to secular and ecclesiastical landownership after 1170, the types of fortifications and residences constructed by the invaders, the organisation of manors and the physical imprint of the church on the landscape. If there is nothing terribly ‘new’ here for those of us who plough these fields for a living, nevertheless as a work of synthesis it is not far short of perfect, and is rounded off by a full chapter on the English Pale which is a most helpful addition to the literature, informed by the results of recent archaeological investigations in the vicinity of the ditch. The scene set, with the second and third aspects of the study the volume really begins to break new ground (pun!) in piecing together a composite picture of how those who inhabited the region exploited its natural resources (land use, crop cultivation, yields, fertilisers, livestock, horticulture and gardens, forests and woodland exploitation for fuel and construction, bogs, quarries, the fishing industry, etc.) and how they processed cereal products (milling, brewing, baking), animal products (dairying, wool- and cloth-making, tanning and leather-working) and natural products (limekilns, iron and other metals, pottery manufacture and importation), and how these in turn were distributed by various means of transport to be traded at markets and fairs in Dublin and throughout the region.It is one thing to produce a handy work of synthesis; it is another thing altogether to imbue such a work with an air of authority. This has been achieved here by playing to the strengths of the two authors. At the historical end, Margaret Murphy has a unique familiarity with Anglo-Norman record material of the period (including unpublished documents in the National Archives of the UK—as listed in her very convenient appendix of manorial extents from the region covering the period 1253–1358). As for the archaeological record, Michael Potterton has been assiduous in reaching beyond the shamefully patchy published corpus of excavation reports to examine the reports which site directors are obliged to file with the Department of Heritage and the National Museum. As access to these files is understandably restricted, it is to be hoped that those archaeologists who have been delinquent hitherto in presenting their findings to the public will read this fine book, see the information that has been gleaned to date from stratigraphic and finds reports, and be inspired to ensure that The Dublin region in the Middle Ages is not the last word on the subject but the foundation-stone for a new edifice of historical and archaeological scholarship on medieval Dublin and its hinterland.  HI

Seán Duffy is associate professor of medieval history at Trinity College Dublin and editor of the Medieval Dublin series, published annually by Four Courts Press (eleven volumes to date).



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