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Iain G. MacDonald, Clerics and Clansmen: The Diocese of Argyll Between the Twelfth and Sixteenth Centuries.

Iain G. MacDonald, Clerics and Clansmen: The Diocese of Argyll between the Twelfth and Sixteenth Centuries (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013, 417 pp., 131[euro] hardback)

This is an important book, being the first dedicated study of a medieval Scottish diocese. The fact that that diocese is Argyll, a heartland territory of Gaelic Scotland, whose very name signifies 'the coastline of the Gael', means that it is of considerable interest and value to historians concerned with the Church and wider society in Gaelic Ireland. Like the Church in Ireland, the late medieval Church in the Scottish Gaidhealtachd has been the subject of cliche rather than close study. The author cites Michael Fry's recent declaration that religion in the Highlands was only 'fitfully organised' and that people there were 'no better than pagans' (cited on p. 12). In an exemplary manner MacDonald presents hard evidence drawn from contemporary sources to transform our understanding of the Church and how it operated in a rural diocese 'on the physical extreme of western civilisation' (p. 5). His central conclusion is worth quoting in extenso: 'What emerges most clearly from this study is the conventionality of the Church in medieval Argyll, and the extent to which the diocesan clergy conformed with and exhibited the same traits and aspirations as their colleagues elsewhere in Scotland and in wider Latin Christendom... It may have lain on the edge of Christendom but the Church here was no less "mainstream" than anywhere else in Western Europe' (p. 269).

Argyll was a poor diocese; its benefices reflected the limited agricultural potential of its challenging and often mountainous terrain. Nonetheless, there was a surplus of clergy (p. 113), largely because the priesthood was 'one of the leading professions, alongside law and medicine', in its overwhelmingly rural society (p. 114). MacDonald shows that up until 1425 90 per cent of the documented clergy were men local to the diocese, though thereafter there was a large minority of beneficed clergy drawn from the adjacent lowland diocese of Glasgow (pp. 116-17). Despite isolated early complaints about the Lowlanders' inability to speak Gaelic, they formed a significant element in the parishes of Argyll before the Reformation. They were promoted in the diocese by successive bishops and also by local lords, most notably by the chiefs of the Clann Chaimbeul. On the other hand, Irish priests are conspicuous by their absence: MacDonald identifies only one such individual between 1342 and 1560 (Map 4, p. xxxviii). He is understandably sceptical about the notion of a 'pan-Gaelic world'. The vast majority of the priests of late medieval Argyll were drawn from the local lesser landowning families, the daoin'-uaisle, or from Lowland burgess classes (pp. 142, 161). The sons of noblemen were a small minority but their access to patronage, and presumably the educational advantage they enjoyed through their parents' wealth, ensured that they tended to occupy the greatest offices in the Church (p. 142).

MacDonald presents a very interesting discussion of clerical celibacy in Chapter 4. He shows that clerical 'concubinage', whereby priests shared their lives with women in long-term relationships, was common among the priests of Argyll, but he sees the practice in its wider European context as quite normal and he is clear that it was seen as such by contemporaries. Not for him the high-pitched moralistic tone of some Irish historians who regard 'priestly marriage' as the ultimate sin! He cites the case of the late medieval diocese of Cortona in Italy where people preferred their priests to enjoy stable long-term relationships with women because they found them more dependable and less likely to pester female parishioners (p. 192). MacDonald found that about 28 per cent of the Argyll churchmen who supplicated to the Papal Chancery or Penitentiary between 1342 and 1560 were illegitimate (p. 170). 54 per cent of the illegitimate clergy were the sons of diocesan priests, 6 per cent were the sons of monks, one was the son of a bishop and another the son of an abbot while 28 per cent of the fathers were laymen (Table 7, p. xxvi). He found 'no great difference' in the number of illegitimate priest-sons between Argyll and wider Christendom, though the relative dearth of complaints about either illegitimacy or concubinage in Argyll and neighbouring Sodor dioceses may imply a greater acceptance of these acts in Highland society than elsewhere (p. 193). In a pre-industrial society it was inevitable that some proportion of priests' sons would adopt their father's profession because there was no real estate to inherit, but there was access to education and training for the priesthood. MacDonald makes the very good point that Argyll's illegitimate clergy 'scrupulously followed the correct protocol of canon law to ensure security of tenure in their benefices' (pp. 178, 184). The evidence for Argyll, in keeping with recent work on Ireland and across Europe, shows that the mothers of priests' sons were invariably unmarried women: the priests did not indulge in adulterous affairs but reserved their affections for women who were, in effect, their wives in all but name (p. 186).

In terms of the quality of their ministries, MacDonald observes that the bishops of Argyll were 'men of a decent calibre by contemporary standards... all of whom were university-educated and at least four of whom had studied abroad' (p. 76). Over a third of the known beneficed clergy in Argyll between 1342 and 1560 were educated at university, the vast majority at Glasgow and St Andrews (p. 232). The numbers surged after the foundation of Glasgow University in 1451, with just over half of the university-educated clergy drawn from Argyll itself and most of the rest from the adjacent lowland diocese of Glasgow. There are signs of increasing expectations of higher education in the mid-sixteenth century, particularly among the Clann Chaimbeul who came to be passionate patrons of the Reformation. MacDonald, having made reference to physical evidence showing that many of its parish churches and chapels were subject to substantial or complete reconstruction during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, concluded that 'the elite classes of late medieval Argyll were generally appreciative of the resident clergy in their parishes and supportive of the Church as a whole' (p. 264).

Iain MacDonald has published a book of substantial and enduring value. His text is buttressed by an impressive series of tables, maps, appendices and a parochial fasti. He demonstrates in no uncertain terms what can be achieved for a region whose local archives are relatively scant. I would highlight the following parallels with recent work on the Irish Church: the physical renewal of the late medieval Church, the conventionality of the Church in terms of how it operated within the framework of the canon law, and the unexceptional nature of 'priestly marriage' before the Reformation. On the other hand, the strikingly high proportion of Argyll's clergy who were university-educated is in very marked contrast with the scarcity of such priests in Ireland. It may well be that the high numbers of Argyll priests who enjoyed a university education, and the greater openness to new ideas that one associates with a university education, may help to explain why the Scottish Gaels embraced the Reformation while the Irish Gaels did not.

Henry A. Jefferies

Thornhill College, Derry
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Author:Jefferies, Henry A.
Publication:Irish Economic and Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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