Monday, October 17, 2011

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

Margaret 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.


[**If you think the review is useful, please re-share via Facebook, Google+, Twitter etc.**]



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 Discovery Programme’s Medieval Rural settlement Project’ … and major it is in every sense. The first thing that struck myself and others when we saw it at the Discovery Programme book stall at the recent INSTAR conference was its sheer physical presence. There were several jokes about not putting your back out trying to lift it and not letting it fall on you etc. While such comments are to be expected, its physical mass and volume are the smallest things about it. In the Preface, MRSP Project Director, Niall Brady, sets out the research 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 on the ‘Feeding the City’ project, developed by the Centre for Metropolitan History at the Institute for Historical Research, University of London. Where the MRSP approach exceeds the ‘Feeding the City’ project is not just in its commitment to including archaeological data into the synthesis, but describing it as ‘the essential driving force of the present study’. Brady argues that the ‘objective and factual insights’ of the archaeological data inform aspects of the discussion unavailable to the written sources alone. These include questions of diet, trade and exchange, as well as industrial processes.

In Part I, Chapter 1 introduces the project and defines its overriding aim as ‘to construct a picture of the medieval landscape and settlement features of the area using a wide range of archaeological and documentary sources’. The chapter also describes the spatial limits of the study zone and introduces the background geological and soil systems of the area. It is only with Chapter 2 that one begins to appreciate the scale of the undertaking when the archaeological and historical sources consulted are laid out. I find it quite charming that the first sentences of the chapter are so understated as to be almost apologetic. They simply state that the present volume ‘did not involve any new excavations or large-scale fieldwork’. There is a beautiful simplicity, close to a tacit apology, in the description of the work as ‘essentially a desktop study’. It is only when one is presented with the breadth, depth and sheer variety of sources that the authors had to work with and that an appreciation can be gained of the scale of the data mountain the project had to climb. The available records are presented and briefly assessed, highlighting both its strengths and weaknesses.

Part II, dealing with the topic of Settlement and Society, begins with Chapter 3, an examination of the Dublin region before the Anglo Norman incursion in 1170. The chapter sets out the argument that, prior to 1170, the Norsemen were in control of a substantial Kingdom that encompassed all of modern County Dublin and parts of Counties Kildare and Wicklow. The authors chart the progress from the construction of the original longphort in 814, and assorted military forts, through the foundation of Dublin in 917 and its swift development into a vibrant trading and manufacturing centre. By this time the agricultural hinterland supporting the city was essentially coextensive with modern County Dublin. The development of Dublin town was effectively paralleled in the rise of ecclesiastical power from a dependency of Glendalough diocese in 1111 to full status as an independent archdiocese in 1152. By the arrival of the Anglo Normans the Cistercians and Augustinians had a sizable presence in the 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 of Scandinavians living in rural Dublin. While there is ample evidence that the Kings of Dublin effectively controlled large portions of the surrounding countryside, there is little documentary support to define whether the residents were native Irish or planted Norse. Finally, the chapter sets the political scene and how the various machinations and 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 merciless conclusion. Chapter 4 examines patterns of land ownership after 1170 and up to the beginning of the 17th century. Interestingly, there is much continuity in land holding patterns, especially in terms of ecclesiastical and monastic power. While virtually all the existing orders maintained or increased their holdings, new continental orders were also heavily endowed with grants of land. Throughout this period, the single largest landowner was the Archbishop of Dublin, who by the early 13th century had acquired the land of bishopric and abbey of Glendalough. Similarly, Baronial families established Strongbow and de Lacy were long-lived and retained large tracts of land over many generations. In Chapter 5, Defence and Fortification, the authors demonstrate that the region was among the most heavily defended in medieval Ireland. The chronological span of castle building is investigated, running form the late 12th to the 17th centuries, as are the fluctuating motivations (defence, aesthetics, ostentation etc.) behind the need and desire to build. In a comprehensive survey of the earthwork castles, it emerges that the earliest mottes were frequently sited at existing nodal points, such as settlements and ecclesiastical centres, many of which went on to develop as significant regional centres. While many mottes were built by individual lords, an analysis of their regional distribution shows that together they formed a protective cordon around the city. This suggests 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 the number and variety of castles built in the region as a function of the multiplicity power forms, including the Crown, the archbishop and various lordly families. The multi-faceted functionality of these establishments (from rural fortifications to administrative centres 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 on good documentary sources for manorial centres, as the archaeological evidence is relatively 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 wide assortment of tenants. Many tenants were imported from England and Wales, but there is evidence for the continued presence of both native Irish and Scandinavian smallholders. The authors conclude that while there is evidence that rural Dublin was relatively densely populated (especially in the 13th century), the location and nature of their residences remains elusive. Chapter 7, examining the Church, identified over 300 medieval churches and chapels within the study area. They see the evolution of the parish church as a centre for tithe-rendering being closely linked to the development of Anglo Norman manorial estates. While there was a profusion of parish churches, religious houses and hospitals appear to have been less well represented in the rural landscape and show a decrease over time. The economic might of the Dublin religious houses is well assessed and their links to the countryside are clearly delineated, showing the pathways for tithed produce from the fields to the tables and storehouses of the Abbots. To put this in context, during this period the Dublin diocese was the richest on the island and the majority of that wealth was derived from farming and the exploitation of the natural resources of the region. The English Pale is comprehensively examined in Chapter 8 and effectively combines both historical sources and the little available archaeological research. They place its construction within the broader canvas of other defensive 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 concept and a state of mind, rather than as a physical entity’. While recognising that the project was never completed, they argue that perhaps more had been constructed than previously realised, though much may have been lost through intensive agricultural exploitation of the area. The authors also stress the fact that the Pale earthwork was only one portion of the defensive mechanism, and cannot be considered in isolation from the numerous towerhouses and church towers along its length. Other points of note are the reuse of existing portions of double ditches and defensible natural features. The Pale earthwork, as a defensive bulwark against the Irish, was eventually a failure, though it does appear to have functioned successfully for some time. The authors argue that there are still many questions to be answered in terms of the mental and political origins of the Pale defenses – confident assertion of ‘Englishness’ or resignation at the contraction of a colony?

Part III deals with the Exploitation of Resources, and Chapter 9 provides a detailed examination of agriculture. During the period under investigation, the majority of land outside the city was in under some form of agricultural exploitation, be it arable, pasture or meadow. While arable farming was, generally, the most important form, there were large regional variations. Analysis of the surviving textual evidence indicates that arable was of most importance in the north of the study area, while pasture was the dominant form in the south and south-west. While some of this patterning was a direct consequence of environmental factors, it also appears to have been moulded by the requirements of the city. Arable land was generally sown with grain, predominantly wheat, oats, barley, and rye, along with various legumes. Of these, wheat and oats dominated 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. Both archaeobotanical and historical evidence indicate that growing rye was a minority interest in the region. The available evidence (both archaeological and historical) also indicates that weeding and manuring were frequently used to increase yields. Oxen are shown to have been the chief draught animal used for ploughing in the early 13th century, though mixed teams of oxen and horses were also used. By the late 15th century this situation had evolved to the point where horses were the dominant ploughing beasts. In terms of meat sources, cattle predominated, though both sheep and pigs were important commodities on farms of all sizes. Goats appear to have been raised only by the lower members of society and were particularly popular in the highlands of south Dublin. Rabbit warrens were introduced in the late 13th century, both to provide meat 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, by the 15th century, had spread to smaller farming enterprises. The authors identify one of the 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 and the lower end of society is sparse. The sources are also mostly concentrated in the period around the 13th and early 14th centuries, making it difficult to provide indications as to how the situation changed over time. In examining Horticulture (Chapter 10) the evidence 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 contributing factors to this lack of success may have been that all but exotic, imported fruit was not particularly highly valued, making it difficult to eke out a profit. The majority of gardens, both rural and urban, were intended to supply the individual family or religious institution. To both rich and poor, these horticultural resources provided valuable additional nutrients and variety in their diets. In Woods and Woodlands (Chapter 11) the authors identify timber as among the most important resources for Dublin, requiring a constant supply sourced from  the immediate hinterland. Timber was required for everything from the construction of houses and boats to waterfront revetments and the most commonly used fuel source. Even though construction techniques moved from post-and-wattle in the Viking city to, generally, stone built by the 13th century, vast quantities of wood were still required for roofs, floors and scaffolding. This evolution in building methods also brought a change in the types of wood 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 the 13th century, but by the following century more distant forests were being exploited. By this later date it appears that supplies were, at least occasionally, being imported from County Antrim. This wholesale deforestation means that most of the Dublin hinterland would have largely been open countryside during the medieval period. Most of the surviving forest land was vested in the Crown and was preserved for hunting. Other Natural 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 peat exploitation led to the exhaustion of some reserves by the 14th century, though some of this does appear to have been as a direct result of the pressure to free up more land for agricultural 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 or along the coast. An examination of the available Water Resources (Chapter 13) indicates the both historical and archaeological sources agree on the importance of fish in the diets of the city dwellers, though its availability in the countryside is not fully understood. The sourcing, marketing and retail of both marine fish and shellfish are revealed as an efficient, sophisticated system. Fewer types of freshwater fish were available, with salmon and eel predominating in the records. While the evidence supports extensive foreshore exploitation, actual examples of the methods, structures and equipment is exceedingly rare. It is also posited that a preoccupation with safety sprung up during the 16th and 17th centuries in response to the privations caused by increased costal piracy by the native Irish. Responses to these new threats included the construction 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 were ready for sale in the city. It is these means of Processing and Distribution that are the subject of Part IV. Chapter 14 examines the Processing of Cereal Products and reports that the majority of the grain produced in the region was dried in keyhole-shaped kilns and, usually, ground with water-powered mills. Milling in the region peaked in the period c.1285-1315, and while it remained an expensive venture to initialise and maintain, it was always a profitable occupation. During this brief high-point, the Dublin region was so noted for the quality of its milling that grain was exported from Scotland to be processed in the region. However, both the archaeological and documentary evidence suggests that milling entered a serious decline from the middle of the 14th century, from which it does not appear to have recovered. While grain was primarily used for baking bread, it was used extensively for brewing. The authors note that the scale of brewing declined through the 14th and 15th centuries. This is seen, partially, as a response to falling production, but also as a response to the increase in available clean drinking water. The Processing of Animal Products (Chapter 15) indicates that while dairy products must have been of significance in the lives of Dublin city folk, there is little evidence of their preparation and sale. Although Irish butter appears to have been highly regarded, the same cannot be said for locally produced wool, which was deemed to be of low quality. Nonetheless, it was in high demand among the cloth-manufacturers of Flanders. Similarly, Irish hides were exported to the continent. The authors draw a distinction between cereal processing, which was generally carried out at manorial centres, and the processing of animal products. The latter was generally on a smaller scale and combined with other occupations, carried out by small holding farmers. Chapter 16 examines The Importation and Processing of Natural Resources. The authors demonstrate that while some iron was mined locally, the majority was imported from England, Brittany and Spain. Analysis of slag recovered from excavations indicates that smelting 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 have been imported. At the time of the Anglo-Norman arrival, the majority of pottery appears to have been imported, though local production centres soon emerged. The most common type found on excavations outside the city is Leinster Cooking Ware, and although recovered from more than 75 sites in the region, a definitive kiln site has yet to be identified. Within the city the ‘Dublin-type wares’ predominated during the late 12th to 14th centuries. Imported pottery from England, France, and The Low Countries is etc. are frequent finds on excavations in the city. The majority of the English pottery from the 12th and 13th centuries originated from Bristol, paralleling the documentary evidence for strong links between the two cities at this time. Small quantities of Leinster Cooking 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 imported pottery. The authors state that, while wealth is a factor, proximity to a seaport was at least as important in acquiring exotic pottery types. Like the pottery, earthenware floor tiles were initially imported, but soon produced locally. Distribution and Provisioning (Chapter 17) explores the movement of these commodities around the region. The authors demonstrate that the provisioning relationship between countryside and city was a multi-faceted one. For example, the ecclesiastical estates appear to have been largely immune from market forces, and concentrated on their city-based houses. For the rest of the city dwellers, acquiring affordable and reliable sources of provisioning was of the utmost importance, though occasionally precarious. While the status of the city as a military mustering point ensured the development of efficient transport and marketing organisations, the populace frequently resented any actions by the governors that might disrupt their supplies. In general terms, Dublin city appears to have been well provisioned from its hinterland. Interestingly, the physical limits of this hinterland are explored in terms of the practical limits of how far produce could be transported in a single day, allowing the farmer to return home at night, or with a single overnight stay in the city. An effective limit of 30km is proposed and appears reasonable. The structure of the hinterland is also revealed in terms of the northern portion being chiefly involved in grain production, while meat, dairy produce and wood was sourced to the south of the city. 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 a brief (considering the depth of what has gone before) Conclusions (Chapter 18), eloquently drawing together the main findings and themes of the volume. The unique position 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, once sufficient regional studies have been completed. As a template for further research, it is comprehensive 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 and documentary evidence is far from exhausted, and that much research may yet be profitably carried out on this region.

I am loathe to describe the work as ‘perfect’ as I am sure that some deficiencies must exist within the text, but I have yet to find them. I would particularly like to praise the clarity and simplicity of the writing style, as the authors have been able to convey difficult concepts succinctly and eloquently for both an academic and general audience. The illustrations are well chosen and the combination of excellent photography, historic imagery and archaeological field drawings add much to the impressive text. The single most ubiquitous image is (understandably) that of the regional distribution map. It is a minor point, but one worth expressing, that the use of a single style of map style repeatedly overlaid with different information is a great aid to the overall clarity. My only criticism would be that the inclusion of the major watercourses would have been an additional aid to that clarity. Many reviews of this type conclude with the assertion that the volume under discussion will be the standard for a generation, and unlikely to be superseded anytime soon. While I wish I could avoid using such epithets, tarnished from overuse, I simply cannot believe that this work on the Dublin region will be surpassed in the next number of decades. However, I do hope that it serves as an inspiration for other researchers (and, perhaps, The Discovery Programme) to apply these techniques to other cities and their hinterlands. Murphy and Potterton have, with the support of The Discovery Programme, produced a volume that is both beautiful and informative. The breadth and depth of their research is astonishing and while it represents ‘only’ a desktop survey, it adds materially to our knowledge. I would commend it, wholeheartedly, to both the academic communities and the interested reader alike.

Note: Robert M Chapple wishes to acknowledge the financial assistance provided under the Built Heritage element of the Environment fund by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, towards the Irish Radiocarbon & Dendrochronological Dates project [IR&DD Facebook Page].

[** If you like this post, please consider making a small donation. Each donation helps keep the Irish Radiocarbon & Dendrochronological Dates project going! **]