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Review: The Dublin Region in the Middle Ages: Settlement, Land-use and Economy


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Review: The Dublin Region in the Middle Ages: Settlement, Land-use and Economy

  1. 1. Review: The Dublin Region in the Middle Ages: Settlement, Land-use and Economy Originally posted online on 17 October 2011 at ( Murphy & Michael Potterton. Four Courts Press & The Discovery Programme,Dublin, 2010. 598pp. Colour and black & white illustrations and plates throughout.ISBN 978-1-84682-266-7. €50 or €45 from FCP website.The publicity literature surrounding The Dublin Region in the Middle Ages: Settlement,Land-use and Economy describes it as ‘the first major publication of the DiscoveryProgramme’s Medieval Rural settlement Project’ … and major it is in every sense. Thefirst thing that struck myself and others when we saw it at the Discovery Programmebook stall at the recent INSTAR conference was its sheer physical presence. There wereseveral jokes about not putting your back out trying to lift it and not letting it fall onyou etc. While such comments are to be expected, its physical mass and volume are thesmallest things about it. In the Preface, MRSP Project Director, Niall Brady, sets out theresearch framework for the current volume. The landscape encompassed is impressive:the entirety of Dublin city and its hinterland, up to 30km. The model used was based onthe ‘Feeding the City’ project, developed by the Centre for Metropolitan History at theInstitute for Historical Research, University of London. Where the MRSP approachexceeds the ‘Feeding the City’ project is not just in its commitment to includingarchaeological data into the synthesis, but describing it as ‘the essential driving force ofthe present study’. Brady argues that the ‘objective and factual insights’ of thearchaeological data inform aspects of the discussion unavailable to the written sourcesalone. These include questions of diet, trade and exchange, as well as industrialprocesses.In Part I, Chapter 1 introduces the project and defines its overriding aim as ‘to constructa picture of the medieval landscape and settlement features of the area using a wide
  2. 2. range of archaeological and documentary sources’. The chapter also describes the spatiallimits of the study zone and introduces the background geological and soil systems ofthe area. It is only with Chapter 2 that one begins to appreciate the scale of theundertaking when the archaeological and historical sources consulted are laid out. I findit quite charming that the first sentences of the chapter are so understated as to bealmost apologetic. They simply state that the present volume ‘did not involve any newexcavations or large-scale fieldwork’. There is a beautiful simplicity, close to a tacitapology, in the description of the work as ‘essentially a desktop study’. It is only whenone is presented with the breadth, depth and sheer variety of sources that the authorshad to work with and that an appreciation can be gained of the scale of the datamountain the project had to climb. The available records are presented and brieflyassessed, highlighting both its strengths and weaknesses.Part II, dealing with the topic of Settlement and Society, begins with Chapter 3, anexamination of the Dublin region before the Anglo Norman incursion in 1170. Thechapter sets out the argument that, prior to 1170, the Norsemen were in control of asubstantial Kingdom that encompassed all of modern County Dublin and parts ofCounties Kildare and Wicklow. The authors chart the progress from the construction ofthe original longphort in 814, and assorted military forts, through the foundation ofDublin in 917 and its swift development into a vibrant trading and manufacturingcentre. By this time the agricultural hinterland supporting the city was essentiallycoextensive with modern County Dublin. The development of Dublin town waseffectively paralleled in the rise of ecclesiastical power from a dependency ofGlendalough diocese in 1111 to full status as an independent archdiocese in 1152. By thearrival of the Anglo Normans the Cistercians and Augustinians had a sizable presence inthe town and, along with the Archbishop, held extensive properties in the hinterland.The chapter raises, but is unable to answer, the question of the numbers ofScandinavians living in rural Dublin. While there is ample evidence that the Kings ofDublin effectively controlled large portions of the surrounding countryside, there is littledocumentary support to define whether the residents were native Irish or plantedNorse. Finally, the chapter sets the political scene and how the various machinationsand changes of allegiance led to the banishment of Diarmait Mac Murchada to Bristol.Once Mac Murchada returned to Dublin with the support of his Anglo Norman allies,the Scandinavian influence on the region was brought to a swift and mercilessconclusion. Chapter 4 examines patterns of land ownership after 1170 and up to thebeginning of the 17th century. Interestingly, there is much continuity in land holdingpatterns, especially in terms of ecclesiastical and monastic power. While virtually all theexisting orders maintained or increased their holdings, new continental orders were alsoheavily endowed with grants of land. Throughout this period, the single largestlandowner was the Archbishop of Dublin, who by the early 13 th century had acquired theland of bishopric and abbey of Glendalough. Similarly, Baronial families establishedStrongbow and de Lacy were long-lived and retained large tracts of land over manygenerations. In Chapter 5, Defence and Fortification, the authors demonstrate that theregion was among the most heavily defended in medieval Ireland. The chronologicalspan of castle building is investigated, running form the late 12 th to the 17th centuries, asare the fluctuating motivations (defence, aesthetics, ostentation etc.) behind the needand desire to build. In a comprehensive survey of the earthwork castles, it emerges that
  3. 3. the earliest mottes were frequently sited at existing nodal points, such as settlementsand ecclesiastical centres, many of which went on to develop as significant regionalcentres. While many mottes were built by individual lords, an analysis of their regionaldistribution shows that together they formed a protective cordon around the city. Thissuggests to the authors that, in the early portion of the Anglo Norman tenure at least,there was a centralised defence policy in operation. Finally the authors examine thenumber and variety of castles built in the region as a function of the multiplicity powerforms, including the Crown, the archbishop and various lordly families. The multi-faceted functionality of these establishments (from rural fortifications to administrativecentres and storehouses) and their evolution over time is also examined. Manor centres,tenants and rural settlement is the subject of Chapter 6. Here the authors rely mostly ongood documentary sources for manorial centres, as the archaeological evidence isrelatively scarce. Again, manors varied widely in terms of their size and the numbers,type and construction of their buildings, along with being populated by a wideassortment of tenants. Many tenants were imported from England and Wales, but thereis evidence for the continued presence of both native Irish and Scandinaviansmallholders. The authors conclude that while there is evidence that rural Dublin wasrelatively densely populated (especially in the 13th century), the location and nature oftheir residences remains elusive. Chapter 7, examining the Church, identified over 300medieval churches and chapels within the study area. They see the evolution of theparish church as a centre for tithe-rendering being closely linked to the development ofAnglo Norman manorial estates. While there was a profusion of parish churches,religious houses and hospitals appear to have been less well represented in the rurallandscape and show a decrease over time. The economic might of the Dublin religioushouses is well assessed and their links to the countryside are clearly delineated, showingthe pathways for tithed produce from the fields to the tables and storehouses of theAbbots. To put this in context, during this period the Dublin diocese was the richest onthe island and the majority of that wealth was derived from farming and the exploitationof the natural resources of the region. The English Pale is comprehensively examined inChapter 8 and effectively combines both historical sources and the little availablearchaeological research. They place its construction within the broader canvas of otherdefensive boundaries, including Offa’s Dyke, Hadrian’s Wall and the Black Pig’s Dyke.They stress the over-abundance of studies of the Pale boundary in terms of ‘a conceptand a state of mind, rather than as a physical entity’. While recognising that the projectwas never completed, they argue that perhaps more had been constructed thanpreviously realised, though much may have been lost through intensive agriculturalexploitation of the area. The authors also stress the fact that the Pale earthwork was onlyone portion of the defensive mechanism, and cannot be considered in isolation from thenumerous towerhouses and church towers along its length. Other points of note are thereuse of existing portions of double ditches and defensible natural features. The Paleearthwork, as a defensive bulwark against the Irish, was eventually a failure, though itdoes appear to have functioned successfully for some time. The authors argue that thereare still many questions to be answered in terms of the mental and political origins ofthe Pale defenses – confident assertion of ‘Englishness’ or resignation at the contractionof a colony?
  4. 4. Part III deals with the Exploitation of Resources, and Chapter 9 provides a detailedexamination of agriculture. During the period under investigation, the majority of landoutside the city was in under some form of agricultural exploitation, be it arable, pastureor meadow. While arable farming was, generally, the most important form, there werelarge regional variations. Analysis of the surviving textual evidence indicates that arablewas of most importance in the north of the study area, while pasture was the dominantform in the south and south-west. While some of this patterning was a directconsequence of environmental factors, it also appears to have been moulded by therequirements of the city. Arable land was generally sown with grain, predominantlywheat, oats, barley, and rye, along with various legumes. Of these, wheat and oatsdominated on the manorial demesnes, frequently to the exclusion of all other crops.Alternately, the smaller farmers are shown to have grown a wider mix of crops. Botharchaeobotanical and historical evidence indicate that growing rye was a minorityinterest in the region. The available evidence (both archaeological and historical) alsoindicates that weeding and manuring were frequently used to increase yields. Oxen areshown to have been the chief draught animal used for ploughing in the early13th century, though mixed teams of oxen and horses were also used. By the late15th century this situation had evolved to the point where horses were the dominantploughing beasts. In terms of meat sources, cattle predominated, though both sheep andpigs were important commodities on farms of all sizes. Goats appear to have been raisedonly by the lower members of society and were particularly popular in the highlands ofsouth Dublin. Rabbit warrens were introduced in the late 13 th century, both to providemeat for an individual lordly family and as commercial enterprises in their own right.Around the same time dovecots were introduced on the larger manorial farms and, bythe 15th century, had spread to smaller farming enterprises. The authors identify one ofthe problems with the surviving sources is the fact that it mostly relates to the large-scale ecclesiastical and secular holdings, while information on the lives of peasants andthe lower end of society is sparse. The sources are also mostly concentrated in the periodaround the 13th and early 14th centuries, making it difficult to provide indications as tohow the situation changed over time. In examining Horticulture (Chapter 10) theevidence suggests that many gardens existed, but it appears to have been on a small-scale footing, as opposed to any large commercial venture. One of the contributingfactors to this lack of success may have been that all but exotic, imported fruit was notparticularly highly valued, making it difficult to eke out a profit. The majority ofgardens, both rural and urban, were intended to supply the individual family orreligious institution. To both rich and poor, these horticultural resources providedvaluable additional nutrients and variety in their diets. In Woods and Woodlands(Chapter 11) the authors identify timber as among the most important resources forDublin, requiring a constant supply sourced from the immediate hinterland. Timberwas required for everything from the construction of houses and boats to waterfrontrevetments and the most commonly used fuel source. Even though constructiontechniques moved from post-and-wattle in the Viking city to, generally, stone built bythe 13th century, vast quantities of wood were still required for roofs, floors andscaffolding. This evolution in building methods also brought a change in the types ofwood used; moving from ash in the earlier period to a greater reliance on oak.Interestingly, research indicates that local supplies of timber remained viable until the13th century, but by the following century more distant forests were being exploited. By
  5. 5. this later date it appears that supplies were, at least occasionally, being imported fromCounty Antrim. This wholesale deforestation means that most of the Dublin hinterlandwould have largely been open countryside during the medieval period. Most of thesurviving forest land was vested in the Crown and was preserved for hunting. OtherNatural Resources are the concern of Chapter 12. Peat bogs are (along with gorse)assessed as an important, if minor, source of fuel. However, this level of peatexploitation led to the exhaustion of some reserves by the 14 th century, though some ofthis does appear to have been as a direct result of the pressure to free up more land foragricultural purposes. Building stone and roofing slate were usually quarried locally,though if sourced from greater distances it is likely to have been transported by river oralong the coast. An examination of the available Water Resources (Chapter 13) indicatesthe both historical and archaeological sources agree on the importance of fish in thediets of the city dwellers, though its availability in the countryside is not fullyunderstood. The sourcing, marketing and retail of both marine fish and shellfish arerevealed as an efficient, sophisticated system. Fewer types of freshwater fish wereavailable, with salmon and eel predominating in the records. While the evidencesupports extensive foreshore exploitation, actual examples of the methods, structuresand equipment is exceedingly rare. It is also posited that a preoccupation with safetysprung up during the 16th and 17th centuries in response to the privations caused byincreased costal piracy by the native Irish. Responses to these new threats included theconstruction of a fortified harbour at Skerries and a wave of new castles.Many of these natural resources had to be processed and marketed before they wereready for sale in the city. It is these means of Processing and Distribution that are thesubject of Part IV. Chapter 14 examines the Processing of Cereal Products and reportsthat the majority of the grain produced in the region was dried in keyhole-shaped kilnsand, usually, ground with water-powered mills. Milling in the region peaked in theperiod c.1285-1315, and while it remained an expensive venture to initialise andmaintain, it was always a profitable occupation. During this brief high-point, the Dublinregion was so noted for the quality of its milling that grain was exported from Scotlandto be processed in the region. However, both the archaeological and documentaryevidence suggests that milling entered a serious decline from the middle of the14th century, from which it does not appear to have recovered. While grain was primarilyused for baking bread, it was used extensively for brewing. The authors note that thescale of brewing declined through the 14th and 15th centuries. This is seen, partially, as aresponse to falling production, but also as a response to the increase in available cleandrinking water. The Processing of Animal Products (Chapter 15) indicates that whiledairy products must have been of significance in the lives of Dublin city folk, there islittle evidence of their preparation and sale. Although Irish butter appears to have beenhighly regarded, the same cannot be said for locally produced wool, which was deemedto be of low quality. Nonetheless, it was in high demand among the cloth-manufacturersof Flanders. Similarly, Irish hides were exported to the continent. The authors draw adistinction between cereal processing, which was generally carried out at manorialcentres, and the processing of animal products. The latter was generally on a smallerscale and combined with other occupations, carried out by small holding farmers.Chapter 16 examines The Importation and Processing of Natural Resources. The authorsdemonstrate that while some iron was mined locally, the majority was imported from
  6. 6. England, Brittany and Spain. Analysis of slag recovered from excavations indicates thatsmelting technology improved over the centuries. Other metals, such as lead, silver,copper, and tin were worked within the city, but the raw materials all appear to havebeen imported. At the time of the Anglo-Norman arrival, the majority of pottery appearsto have been imported, though local production centres soon emerged. The mostcommon type found on excavations outside the city is Leinster Cooking Ware, andalthough recovered from more than 75 sites in the region, a definitive kiln site has yet tobe identified. Within the city the ‘Dublin-type wares’ predominated during the late12th to 14th centuries. Imported pottery from England, France, and The Low Countriesis etc. are frequent finds on excavations in the city. The majority of the English potteryfrom the 12th and 13th centuries originated from Bristol, paralleling the documentaryevidence for strong links between the two cities at this time. Small quantities of LeinsterCooking Ware have been found in the city, while similarly small amounts of ‘Dublin-type wares’ and imported pottery are found on rural sites. There appears to be no well-defined relationship between the wealth of a rural site and the presence of importedpottery. The authors state that, while wealth is a factor, proximity to a seaport was atleast as important in acquiring exotic pottery types. Like the pottery, earthenware floortiles were initially imported, but soon produced locally. Distribution and Provisioning(Chapter 17) explores the movement of these commodities around the region. Theauthors demonstrate that the provisioning relationship between countryside and citywas a multi-faceted one. For example, the ecclesiastical estates appear to have beenlargely immune from market forces, and concentrated on their city-based houses. Forthe rest of the city dwellers, acquiring affordable and reliable sources of provisioningwas of the utmost importance, though occasionally precarious. While the status of thecity as a military mustering point ensured the development of efficient transport andmarketing organisations, the populace frequently resented any actions by the governorsthat might disrupt their supplies. In general terms, Dublin city appears to have beenwell provisioned from its hinterland. Interestingly, the physical limits of this hinterlandare explored in terms of the practical limits of how far produce could be transported in asingle day, allowing the farmer to return home at night, or with a single overnight stay inthe city. An effective limit of 30km is proposed and appears reasonable. The structure ofthe hinterland is also revealed in terms of the northern portion being chiefly involved ingrain production, while meat, dairy produce and wood was sourced to the south of thecity. While this may have been partially the result of determined spatial organisation,environmental factors were of equal, if not greater, importance. Part V is contains only abrief (considering the depth of what has gone before) Conclusions (Chapter 18),eloquently drawing together the main findings and themes of the volume. The uniqueposition of the region, as the only significant urban area on the island, is highlighted.The authors look forward to comparing this area with other parts of the island, oncesufficient regional studies have been completed. As a template for further research, it iscomprehensive and has much to recommend it as a research model for other areas.Finally, the authors state that the available data from both the archaeological anddocumentary evidence is far from exhausted, and that much research may yet beprofitably carried out on this region.I am loathe to describe the work as ‘perfect’ as I am sure that some deficiencies mustexist within the text, but I have yet to find them. I would particularly like to praise the
  7. 7. clarity and simplicity of the writing style, as the authors have been able to conveydifficult concepts succinctly and eloquently for both an academic and general audience.The illustrations are well chosen and the combination of excellent photography, historicimagery and archaeological field drawings add much to the impressive text. The singlemost ubiquitous image is (understandably) that of the regional distribution map. It is aminor point, but one worth expressing, that the use of a single style of map stylerepeatedly overlaid with different information is a great aid to the overall clarity. Myonly criticism would be that the inclusion of the major watercourses would have been anadditional aid to that clarity. Many reviews of this type conclude with the assertion thatthe volume under discussion will be the standard for a generation, and unlikely to besuperseded anytime soon. While I wish I could avoid using such epithets, tarnishedfrom overuse, I simply cannot believe that this work on the Dublin region will besurpassed in the next number of decades. However, I do hope that it serves as aninspiration for other researchers (and, perhaps, The Discovery Programme) to applythese techniques to other cities and their hinterlands. Murphy and Potterton have, withthe support of The Discovery Programme, produced a volume that is both beautiful andinformative. The breadth and depth of their research is astonishing and while itrepresents ‘only’ a desktop survey, it adds materially to our knowledge. I wouldcommend it, wholeheartedly, to both the academic communities and the interestedreader alike.Note: Robert M Chapple wishes to acknowledge the financial assistance provided underthe Built Heritage element of the Environment fund by the Department of Arts, Heritageand the Gaeltacht, towards the Irish Radiocarbon & Dendrochronological Datesproject [IR&DD Facebook Page].