The transformation of the Irish church in the twelfth century

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2014), Reviews, Volume 22

60Marie-Thérèse Flanagan
Boydell Press

ISBN 9781843838289

Historians of medieval Ireland tend to specialise, for example in ecclesiastical, legal, Anglo-Norman, Gaelic Irish or settlement history. Professor Marie-Thérèse Flanagan, however, displays an unparalleled breadth of expertise across almost all these divides. She sets the Irish experience in the context of developments both in England and in the German-speaking areas of Europe, where church reform in the eleventh and twelfth centuries received its distinctive legalistic framework, generating an enormous store of modern German scholarship too often merely skimmed by Irish historians. By contrast, Flanagan’s work is accompanied by a tremendous battery of footnotes and an immense up-to-date bibliography, the only omission I noted being Susan Wood’s The proprietary church in the medieval west (2006), which has an interesting chapter on Ireland. At the same time Flanagan displays communication skills gleaned in a long and successful career as a university teacher. The layout and style are extremely clear, and every possible obscurity is explained as soon as it arises—the difference between a homily and a sermon, for example, or between a liturgical and para-liturgical text, and basic terminology, such as the archbishops’ pallia. As the author herself remarks, the only narrative hitherto available to students surveying ‘the twelfth-century reform’ in Ireland as a whole was the slim booklet of that name by Aubrey Gwynn. Now that Boydell and Brewer have brought out the present volume as an affordable paperback, a major gap in Irish university reading-lists has been filled.

After an introduction on problems posed by the scarcity of internal Irish sources, Flanagan’s book deals with the subject under three main headings: episcopal reform, monastic reform and the impact of church reform on Irish lay society, the first topic being treated at greatest length. Drawing on 30 years of re-visionist books and articles, she lays to rest the model of Irish church organisation propounded by Kathleen Hughes, whereby students were told that St Patrick founded a diocesan church led by bishops but that the growth of monasticism had subsequently downgraded bishops to a purely sacramental role, leaving power in the hands of major abbots, in many cases hereditary lay abbots, ruling networks of daughter monasteries rather than territorial dioceses, a situation crying out for the attention of the reformers. Instead, she follows Sharpe and Etchingham in seeing early church centres as having a mixed episcopal and monastic character, with authority divided into three distinct roles: episcopal, abbatial and administrative, all three roles sometimes held by a single individual but sometimes allotted between two or three persons. She argues that the Schottenklöster or Irish Benedictine monasteries in Germany in the eleventh century had at least as important a role in introducing contemporary ideas of reform into Ireland as the English monasteries awarded most of the credit hitherto. Her extremely detailed commentary on liturgical points raised by Gilbert of Limerick’s tract De Statu Ecclesiae authoritatively supplements the notes in Fleming’s edition in Gille of Limerick (2001), but may not appeal to undergraduates. Her conclusions, however, drawn from both this tract and Ua Cuanáin’s contemporary poem on the Eucharist, are wide-ranging. She suggests that Gilbert includes a criticism of churches ruled by airchinnig who were not in orders, and dismisses Martin Holland’s plea that these would at least have had a clerical tonsure, prima tonsura, as irrelevant. She argues for a greater degree of continuity between minor early churches and post-Norman parishes than some historians allow. She points out, too, that the Irish church had long preached the payment of tithes, so that the twelfth-century innovation consisted in regulating the system within dioceses and the single-tier parishes into which they were now being divided, as opposed to central mother churches which serviced a series of dependent chapels. She then investigates the Irish bishops’ own understanding of their role, using the lesser-known Life of St Flannán as well as St Bernard’s Life of Malachy, where her sound grasp of Continental teaching helps to separate St Bernard of Clairvaux’s own sermonising from distinctively Irish practices about which he learned by report.

On monastic reform, Flanagan notes evidence largely bearing out Constance Hoffman Berman’s view that the Cistercian order did not develop its institutional hierarchy before 1190. This would help to explain the ‘Conspiracy of Mellifont’, Irish Cistercians’ rebellion against central supervision in the early thirteenth century. She discusses Malachy’s motives in introducing the Arrouaisian rule into Ireland, both as a model for reforming existing monastic houses and as a way of ensuring the independent elections of bishops by cathedral chapters composed of regular canons, and she teases out the relations between early Savigniac and Cistercian foundations.

Most innovatory is her use of charters, hagiography, literary texts, annals and genealogies to reconstruct the real impact of the twelfth-century reform on the lives of Irish clergy and laity. She highlights the church’s efforts to limit violence in society in the context of the eleventh-century Truce and Peace of God movements, and to reform Irish marriage customs, mainly a problem among the wealthier, politically active classes, but also discusses almsgiving, church-building, pastoral care and the ‘birth of purgatory’. She includes popular protective charms and the 1096 ‘Broom out of Fanad’ panic, a belief that John the Baptist was beheaded by an Irish druid and that the nation would suffer God’s vengeance for the crime.

Overall, this volume is a most impressive achievement, combining a critical overview of a generation of past scholarship with real advances based on the author’s own research. It will long remain essential for anyone working in this field.

Reviewed By
Katharine Simms

Katharine Simms is a Fellow Emerita of Trinity College, Dublin.


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