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Norsemen, Normans, Wicklowmen

David Dickson

Medieval Dublin XIII: Proceedings of the Friends of Medieval Dublin Symposium 2011, Seán Duffy (ed), Four Courts Press, 332 pp, €24.95. ISBN: 978-1846823909

The modern study of medieval London and its emergence as one of the great cities of northern Europe has been expanding for a century and more, as is evident by the wealth of material on display in the excellent Museum of London. Other English towns with a strong medieval past have also long been the object of lively study. But for Dublin it has been different: before the 1970s there was remarkably little research and even less publication on either the Viking or the Anglo-Norman town. The king of England’s headquarters may have been a small place in the wider scheme of things, but towards the end of the thirteenth century the city probably reached a medieval population peak of around 12,000, not far short of that for Bristol.

The archival losses of 1922 were perhaps partly to blame for this silence. Certainly in the thirty years after independence there was very little interest, either within the academy or among local historians, in the medieval history of the capital city. Things only began to change once the spectacular finds in High Street and Winetavern Street being made by archaeologists of the National Museum (notably Breandán Ó Riordáin, Patrick Wallace and Mairead Dunlevy) were reported circa 1970. In the wake of that, medieval historians and geographers, notably Howard Clark, James Lydon and Anngret Simms, energetically assisted by FX Martin, championed the case for a much closer study of the city, both in the pre- and post-conquest eras. But it was of course the saga of Wood Quay in 1978-81 that really transformed public interest in medieval Dublin, an interest that has been sustained down to the present. The opening of the Dublinia exhibition in 1993 helped broaden its appeal, not least to countless schoolchildren.

This transformation of interest and knowledge has been achieved thanks to the cumulative efforts of two generations of archaeologists, geographers and historians, struggling in the early years against a blinkered officialdom, both municipal and national. Operating as “Friends of Medieval Dublin”, they have been highly successful since the 1970s in shaping public opinion and eventually (in the 1990s) winning over City Hall as well. Probably the full scale of the achievement of all those who campaigned against the odds will only be evident when excavation reports are comprehensively published and when (or if) a museum of Dublin becomes a reality.

In the meantime, a number of extensive essay collections on the medieval city have been published, most notably a remarkable series of volumes entitled Medieval Dublin, which have appeared annually since 2000, all of them edited by Seán Duffy as chairman of the Friends of Medieval Dublin, and “actively funded” by the City Council (perhaps in atonement for past sins). These are based on papers delivered to the annual public conferences of the Friends held in Trinity College, occasions that since the first gathering in 1999 have regularly attracted some of the largest audiences attending any kind of academic history event in the country. The series has now reached its thirtheenth volume, and with over one hundred and thirty papers now published the pattern is well set.

As in previous volumes, the papers here are a mix of detailed archaeological reports (usually relating to sites in the city and its near hinterland, concentrating on finds in the historic era up to the seventeenth century), synoptic surveys of archaeological evidence from a variety of digs, and historical papers relating principally to the Anglo-Norman and later medieval periods. The frenetic level of archaeological activity during the Celtic Tiger years has now subsided (that is something of an understatement), and it is striking that in the present volume only two of the thirteen papers (Andrew Woods on the coinage of Scandinavian Dublin, and Linzi Simpson’s fascinating report on excavations in the Front Square of Trinity College) are primarily archaeological, whereas in the early volumes usually about three-fifths of the papers were directly archaeological. This makes the papers in Medieval Dublin XIII rather more accessible to the non-specialist and the non-medievalist than those in some of the earlier volumes, although throughout the series some of the most startlingly original findings have been buried in technical papers, whether on human bone analysis or the reconstruction of diets from household middens.

Editorial policy has not favoured themed volumes, but in the present case it is noticeable that several themes recur: the complex but increasingly intimate relationship between Scandinavian Dublin and its Irish hinterland (best demonstrated in Woods’s brilliant survey on the geographical distribution of Dublin and Saxon coins, both within the town and across north Leinster); and the fashioning of civic memory in the medieval city (with Declan Johnston exploring the traditions of Black Monday, when the Wicklow men supposedly massacred Dubliners in present-day Ranelagh on the Easter Monday holiday in 1209, and Caoimhe Whelan reflecting on the fifteenth century writer James Yonge, arguably Dublin’s first historian). And there are several unexpected highlights, notably Grace O’Keeffe’s revelation of the importance of particular Bristol merchants after the Norman takeover; Niall Ó Súilleabháin’s pellucid discussion as to the murky origins of the municipal constitution; Bernadette Williams’s superb discussion of the dating – and politics – surrounding the arrival of the Dominicans in Dublin in 1224; and John Montague’s close interrogation of evidence within Rocque’s maps of 1756 to help recreate elements of the medieval cityscape, not least his highly plausible suggestion as to the layout of St Mary’s abbey (west of Capel St.).

Thus we have another rich potpourri, a collection where the preponderance of contributors are young scholars, born long after the battle of Wood Quay and more adept at moving across disciplinary boundaries and methodologies than were some of the first generation. In many instances problematic evidence, once upon a time ignored or skirted around, is handled fastidiously, with forensic standards adopted that students of more recent history might do well to apply as consistently. One might wish that the series be made available in electronic form at some future point, which among other benefits would mean that it becomes fully searchable. Currently it is completely unindexed, although given prompt publication and the excellent production standards maintained by Four Courts Press throughout the series it would be churlish to complain about such an absence. The series remains a rare and welcome cultural phenomenon at a time of dwindling public resources, a worthy advertisement for a great collective endeavour.

3/11/2014

David Dickson is associate professor of history at Trinity College Dublin. His Dublin: The Making of a Capital City, published by Profile Books, is reviewed here:http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-big-smoke

 

 

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