Finbar Dwyer’s new book ‘Witches, Spies And Stockholm Syndrome’ is the Christmas Bestseller that brings medieval Ireland to life. We sat down with Finbar to find out more about murder, drink and his research
One of the first stories tells of a drunken row between Cachfren and Freysel which quickly escalates to murder. It seems drunkenness & violence existed before Love/Hate?
Humans have been getting pissed and lairy for millennia – there’s little difference there. I think where we begin to see a major difference is in terms of violence. To understand violence in the medieval world I don’t think looking at it in a moralistic way is useful. Violence was very common and not necessarily a reflection on the person perpetrating it. Instead it was often the easiest means by which people could achieve what they wanted…today its just not an effective way to achieve what you want as you will be severely punished.
Between the Black Death and the famines, how precarious was life in medieval Ireland?
Life was undoubtedly precarious. Between 1290 and 1350 there are at least two events that were arguably more devastating than the 19th century Famine – The Black Death and the Great Famine of 1315 – 18. There are a series of other catastrophic events; famine and war between 1295-7, famine again in 1308-10, a Scots invasion between 1315 – 18 to mention just a few. Ireland in this period is not dissimilar to a region like the Middle East today where deep seated unresolved tensions and external forces fuelled wars which resolving little, only fuelling the next round of conflict.
There’s quite a lot of social history, the lifestyle of ordinary people as it were, how difficult was it to research? For example the contrasting diets of Gilbert de Bolyniop and Robert le Dryvere…
The research can be time consuming alright but it is not as difficult as people think. In the late 19th century and early 20th century thousands of medieval documents were translated and published. Some of these are even available freely online which make research far easier.
In contemporary Ireland we see the great disparities between rich and poor. What were the most striking disparities you came across in medieval research?
In 1305 Edward I wiped a debt of £10,000 Richard de Burgh, the Earl of Ulster owed to the Irish exchequer in return for the Earls participation in a war in Scotland. Meanwhile the troops the Earl brought within him were not even fed properly. While people often baulk at the disparity in wealth in the medieval world as you have pointed out there is similar inequalities in the modern world. The key and very important difference is that those at the bottom of modern Irish society are nowhere near as impoverished as their medieval counterparts.
While the Wicklow Mountains maintained a constant threat on the horizon of medieval Anglo-Norman society, and one story of early Stockholm Syndrome lends itself to the title of the book, surely the most extraordinary travel story is that of Jacobus de Hybernia?
It is and it isn’t in some regards. Travelling to China was unquestionably major feat, only a few dozen other medieval Europeans appear to have made the journey before James. However that said medieval people were not as locally minded as we think – they were just limited by technology. They had long been aware of the existence of China and most in Ireland would have had some sense of the wider world. For example the fact that they were members of a church centred physically in Rome and spiritually in Jerusalem means they had a wider perspective on the world. Indeed many would have met people from overseas. Foreign merchants frequently visited and indeed lived in Ireland. In the early 14th century for example a man called Betto from Lombardy was murdered in Clonmel while in 1353 a Hungarian George Grissaphan visited Lough Derg in Ireland. Clerics also travelled extensively bringing back news of a wider world. Indeed an Archbishop of Armagh Richard Fitzralph even translated the Koran while living at the papal court.
Why is medieval Irish history absent, not just from education but from our bookshops’ shelves?
Firstly I think it’s often hard to identify with themes and people from medieval history. It is not like 19th or 20th century history where we can see the roots of modern society. While there are clearly links the connections are not obvious. Secondly and more interestingly medieval history particularly in Ireland does not fit into the myth of the Irish “nation”. In England medieval history is more prominent because the concept of the English ‘nation’ traces its roots back to the 100 years war (which began in 1337) and before. In Ireland the ‘nation’ is grounded in historical events since 1798. Therefore the powers that be, particularly in the earlier part of the 20th century, saw little use or need for medieval Irish history save mentioning the Norman invasion and moving swiftly on to Cromwell. The exception to this is academic history – however these books and articles are often completely inaccessible to those without both a university education and a good prior understanding of Medieval Ireland.
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