Anglo-Irish and Gaelic Women in Ireland.
The study of medieval women has advanced considerably in recent years, and Gillian Kenny's book is another welcome addition to a growing corpus of work. Across twelve thematic chapters, the book profiles the experience of first 'Anglo-Irish' and then Gaelic women living in Ireland between the English invasion and Protestant Reformation. Kenny is clearly in her element when disentangling complex issues of English inheritance litigation, and her study provides a foundation of knowledge for the practice in colonial Ireland. However, for all of the attention paid to land ownership - and a lot is - Kenny's women were not merely 'animated title deeds', but, for instance, occupied places of standing in urban guilds, within which they were allowed to rise to the level of master (pp. 19, 64).
One interesting point that arises from her study is the discrepancy between the economic and social opportunities open to women in the urban and rural districts of Ireland. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sheer variety of possible professions within cities and towns afforded women a greater degree of socio-economic autonomy than was open them in the comparatively rigid countryside world of farming and estate management. For instance, ale brewing was a popular career choice among women in medieval England and Anglo-Ireland (pp. 15, 65-6). The diversity of professions in an urban setting also required, and facilitated, greater educational opportunities for women of lower social standing (p. 39). Within Gaelic society, unmarried women could also find employment, though contemporary literary sources do not encourage the practice. Kenny finds references to female fortune-tellers and balladeers being met with derision in bardic poetry (though, it must be said, Gaelic poets could also deride lower grades of poets generally - so the issue might have also been skill and education). An early sixteenth-century Gaelic poem of 'hates' goes so far as to include 'a poet-band that includes a woman' amongst its list of grumbles (p. 36). As Kenny points out, the predominantly rural character of Gaelic society meant that this attitude might also be a manifestation of the town/countryside dichotomy.
These vivid examples of female employment (and its reception within society) lead to the larger point of the approachability of this text. Kenny has an eye for memorable cases in point. The book's structure also aids its digestibility. Chapters are short and subdivided. A point is made, and examples follow. Because of this, even potentially confusing issues such as dower, tails male, jointure, gavelkind and socage are made accessible. In addition, a glossary is provided at the back of the book. Moreover, undergraduates will be able to make full use of Kenny's footnotes for their own research, which open fields for further enquiry. The book's structure may frustrate those in search of advanced historical discourse across chapters of ponderous length, but the present arrangement is well suited to quick absorption by a wide readership.
In just under 200 pages of text, Kenny provides an accessible overview of just over 350 years of Irish history. As with all such studies, there are always going to be compromises. For instance, although Kenny's decision to view her topic over the long term has provided access to a large evidential base, a shorter period might have allowed for a more nuanced appreciation by her readers of small changes in women's experiences over time. As it stands, Kenny's book runs the risk of being misinterpreted to suggest that women's positions within their respective societies remained relatively static for over 350 years. Just as importantly, a narrowing of the study's chronological bookends might have allowed for a slightly expanded geographical scope. From the English invasion until at least the mid-thirteenth century (if not later), it is best not to think in terms of an exclusively 'Anglo-Irish' aristocracy. This is not an argument about terminology (which point Kenny addresses in her preface), but rather a more fundamental one about how we deal with subjects who inhabited a transnational arena. An inclusive sampling from this early period might have allowed more literary texts to be analysed for 'Anglo-Irish' women. As it stands Kenny draws from two very different bodies of evidence for 'Anglo-Irish' and Gaelic women. The former are viewed, in the main, through English record sources, and the latter through Irish vernacular literature and Brehon law. It is worth asking whether what Kenny views as a greater independence for women in Gaelic, rather than 'Anglo-Irish', society has more to do with the nature of documentation than the social and economic realities of late medieval Ireland. Fergus Kelly (1988) has warned of exaggerated claims of female power in early Irish society, and has shown that a woman was always legally under the control of a man - her father, husband, son, kin, or the Church. One wonders whether later Gaelic women would have appeared so independent had contemporary judicial records survived for them.
The possible benefits of a looser definition of 'Anglo-Irish' women are clear from the case of Matilda de St Valery (d. 1210), wife of William de Briouze (and mother of the Margery de Lacy and Annora de Briouze mentioned on pp. 27, 151). Matilda's husband, William de Briouze, was a great magnate in England, Wales, Normandy and Ireland (where he held the honour of Limerick). Matilda was lauded for providing her husband counsel and overseeing his interests (including warfare) when he was away and she is said to have boasted about the size of her herd of cattle. King John himself afforded Matilda her own unique toponym 'of Hay' (from the Briouze manor on the Welsh border), and described how Matilda negotiated on her husband's behalf when John sought William's destruction in 1208. Negotiations were (ostensibly) over William's failure to pay an Irish debt, and their breakdown led to the Briouze family's flight as fugitives to Ireland. William was allowed to escape to France, yet Matilda was tracked down, imprisoned, and starved to death. Such vivid evidence might have been a useful addition to Kenny's section on 'powerful wives' (pp. 62-4). The foregoing speculation should not be taken as a slight on Kenny's work, but as an indication of the difficult decisions that have to be taken when framing such a study. Perhaps it can be used to build upon the solid foundation that Kenny has laid for the study of women in medieval Ireland.
Colin Veach University of Hull
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|Publication:||Irish Economic and Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2013|
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