De Courcy: Anglo-Normans in Ireland, England and France in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.
In 1177, John de Courcy raised a small force and marched north from Dublin. Four days later, he defeated the king of Ulaid, Ruaidri Mac Duinn Sleibe, at Downpatrick and began replacing the Irish kingdom of Ulaid with his own lordship of Ulster (Ulids-tir). Historians have long celebrated John's near-legendary military exploits, but more fundamental questions of settlement and society in the Courcy lordship of Ulster were first adequately addressed in the 1990s. In 1995, Sean Duffy demonstrated that John's was not a reckless roll of the dice by a landless Somerset knight (as had previously been thought), but rather an organised strike by a northern English aristocrat well at home in the socio-political milieu of the north Irish Sea littoral. In 1999, Marie Therese Flanagan showed how the fragmented ecclesiastical landscape of northern Ireland enabled John to promote simultaneously church reform and the cults of local saints, pleasing both sides and stitching his lordship into the social fabric of Ulster.
A decade later, Steve Flanders has taken the next step by authoring a full-length study of the Courcy family in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. A Courcy family history is itself a useful contribution to the historiography of Anglo-Norman aristocracy, but Flanders declares his intention to use it in order to place the conquest of Ulster in its context. Thus, Flanders's treatment of two hundred years of Courcy history enables him to conclude that John de Courcy was an 'economic migrant' who, thinking that his ancestral lands 'held nothing for him by way of a future' (p. 148), conquered Ulster because that is what his upbringing, including 'the aspirations of his social class for wealth, land and power' (p. 18) demanded of him. In the end, '[John] was successful because he was a Courcy' (p. 12).
In assessing the merit of Flanders's work, it is important to take note of its provenance. This book is based upon Flanders's 2005 Queen's University Belfast Ph.D., 'Family, lordship and service: the Courcys in the eleventh and twelfth centuries'. However, this is not a standard thesis to book conversion. Flanders has decided to dispense with almost all critical apparatus, and apparently cater to a general readership (though this is nowhere stated explicitly). This is a bold step, which renders an academic review of the book problematical. For instance, the dearth of citations means that one is left to wonder at the location of the Courcy records Flanders utilises to determine the progress of their estate formation and exploitation in Normandy and England (the subject of the first three chapters). Consequently, there is no straightforward way to accurately assess his use of this evidence. This is made all the more frustrating by the related tendencies to elide evidential uncertainties, presenting many of his conclusions as statements of fact, and to indulge in romantic descriptions of his subjects.
However, when his approach works, it cuts through the more technical aspects of medieval history and produces a clear, informative, and, above all, accessible account of his subject. Flanders explains the basics of aristocratic history: the essence and uses of a charter, religious patronage, social mores, seigniorial administration, and the manorial economy. What is more, his knowledge and effective use of regional topography goes well beyond that usually found in similar studies. For instance, Flanders uses the Domesday Book entry for Nuneham Courtenay, Oxfordshire, as a sort of introduction to medieval manors. He explains the medieval hide, villagers' v. demesne ploughlands, the roles of a meadow, pasture and copse, and the rough logistics of the manor's operation. This includes Nuneham's mill, listed as worth [pounds sterling]1 and supporting three fishermen, which Flanders uses to assess the economic and social import of Nuneham's riverside location for its lord, and the peasant families of the three fishermen (pp. 48-9).
Unfortunately, the thesis conversion does not always go so smoothly. Dense sections of genealogy and prosopography still dot the textual landscape, interrupting what might otherwise have been lively and informative prose. A successful case study in the socio-economic realities facing medieval aristocrats (pp. 35-40) is abruptly halted by a complex prosopographical passage, which adds nothing to the argument (p. 40). Later, a genealogical tangle is picked through over the course of seven long pages (pp. 55-61). More troubling, evidence is sometimes stretched too far. The 1172 inquest into Norman fees records that the Courcys were owed just over fifty knights from their tenants, and owed the duke just eight (Red Book of the Exchequer, ii, 627). Flanders states that this shows that the Courcys were taxed for only a tenth of their property. They 'effectively held the remaining ninety percent tax free' (p. 38). While it is true that the disparity would allow the Courcys to enjoy the tax revenue of fifty fees while only paying the duke for eight, Flanders's statement has the potential to mislead the reader into thinking that the family actually held (rather than subinfeudated) the land for which they were owed fifty knights. The knight's fee was a unit of obligation (by this point primarily taxation) for land granted away.
A more nuanced appreciation of the total, particularly its bearing on the Courcys' social position, is found later in the book (pp. 75-9), though Flanders still clings to its significance as a determinant of landed wealth. He declares that the fifty fees made the Courcys 'at least the sixth greatest landowning family' in the duchy (p. 75). However, the Courcys' numbers roughly correspond to those that the earl of Chester owed for the Avranchin and the honours of St-Hilaire and Pontorson, and there can be no comparison in the extent of land between the two families. Chester aside, what of the counts of Aumale, Eu, Evreux, Seez and Meulan, the earls of Gloucester and Leicester, barons such as Mortemer, Laigle and Tancarville, the archbishop of Rouen and the bishops of Bayeux, Evreux and Lisieux? The Courcys undoubtedly held a territorially extensive barony, but more convincing evidence is required to argue that it was greater than those held by these lords.
Despite occasional mistakes, the first six chapters of this book nevertheless comprise a short introduction to the Anglo-Norman aristocracy. Given Flanders's ostensible aim, to use the foregoing to better understand John de Courcy, the final chapter should have been the culmination of his research and analysis. As it stands, the chapter seems an afterthought, and betrays Flanders's unfamiliarity with Irish history. The names of Irish kings are stumbled over, e.g. Mac Duinn Sleibe is variously rendered 'Mac Duinn Shleibe' (p. 19); 'Mac Duinn Schleibe' (pp. 137, 140, 147); 'Mac Duinn Schlibe' (pp. 137, 139-42, 145-7, 149) and 'MacDunleavy' (pp. 162-3). Events are misdated, including both 1177 battles of Downpatrick (pp. 19, 147), and little in the way of a meaningful contribution to our knowledge of Irish history is made. Flanders fails to build on the work of earlier historians, for example Duffy (pp. 130-4, 157-9), and his approach to citation gives scant indication that there is work upon which to build. From an academic point of view, the decision to target a general audience and place such emphasis on John de Courcy is a shame, because there is clearly a lot of meticulous research behind Flanders's analysis of the Courcys' Anglo-Norman interests, which could have proved a richer vein.
Colin Veach University of Hull
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|Publication:||Irish Economic and Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2012|
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