As chapter 2 continues, Edwards does actually get to ring-forts.
She discussed the difficulties of dating early medieval settlements. After all, it’s not as though early medieval builders left nice dated cornerstones on their structures. Even if they had, the dates might well be a local king ‘s regnal year rather than an A.D. date–not necessarily helpful.
Objects found in the area can help with dating, but of course that’s it’s own site of difficulties. It turns out that a good place to live in Neolithic times is still a good place to live in early medieval times and still a good place to live by early modern times. There are sites in Ireland that have been continuously occupied for 6000 years (Lough Gur, for instance). Being able to date an object found at a particular location does not necessarily allow you to date the construction there.
So, with all those academic caveats behind us, you might be asking, what the heck is a ring-fort anyway?
The simplest definition is an enclosed homestead. The enclosure might be an earthen bank or a stone wall, and there might be ditch in front of the wall. They’re circular-ish usually, hence the name. They are defensive in nature, but probably more to ward off animals and perhaps the stray robber rather than to repel a concerted attack. These appear in The Last Abbot of Linn Duachaill both at Evgren’s home, a mostly abandoned ring-fort, and the monastery itself, which has a ditch, an earthen bank, and thorny bushes atop the bank.
Chapter 2 of Archaeology in Early Medieval Ireland is about Ring-Forts.
Actually, that’s not quite true. It works up to being about ring-forts. First it lays out the social conditions and organization of early medieval Ireland, since describing people’s living conditions doesn’t make a ton of sense unless you know why and how they came to live that way.
Hence, in the first part of the chapter, you’ll find a discussion of landscape, with the explanation that geologic features provide building materials and thus influence the type of building that takes place in an area. There’s also a brief discussion of how Irish society was organized at this time: broken in small tribal units of land, each a tuath, occupied by relatives sharing a great-grandfather (the derbfine) or later, smaller groups which share a common grandfather (the gelfine). There’s also a hierarchy of kings–the king of the local tuath, a king to whom several of such kings owe allegiance, and the king above that.
We reflected this extended family and kingship structure in The Last Abbot of Linn Duachaill both by showing it indirectly–Evgren and her father are unusual to live alone, and do so because of the last raid, which destroyed the wider homestead in which they resided, which would have been relatives, other members of their tuath–and having the local king Fintan have an overlord to whom he answers and to whom the Abbot was sending the book Evgren worked on the illuminations of, aiming to ingratiate himself with that overlord and do something of an end-run around his brother.
I’m teaching the Tolkien class this semester. We’re down to only 2 classes, which means tomorrow we discuss the Cracks of Doom and the destruction of the Ring.
By this point, my students have been with me long enough to know that my favorite part of LOTR is the one I’m currently teaching. They’ve heard, “I love this chapter! It’s one of my favorite parts of the book. Now let’s talk about what’s working so well here…” pretty much every class since January.
But my bottom line rule for teaching Tolkien is if I can get through prepping “Mount Doom” without ugly tears, it’s time to stop teaching LOTR. Frodo’s last efforts. Sam’s Gollum-like debate with himself about hope and despair. Sam and Frodo crawling up Mount Doom. Sam’s pity for Gollum, at long last. Gollum’s attack on Frodo. “My Precious! Oh my Precious!”–and his fall.
I’ll be teaching it again.
The ugly tears this time were not exactly forestalled by re-reading Tom Shippey’s The Road to Middle-earth. Chapter 9 ends:
Tolkien’s words have not gone, but the rest is as true of him as of Caedmon. He would, I am sure, have liked to have applied to him–though the ‘applicability’ of course ‘resides in the freedom of the reader’, to use his words–the words of the Worcester Bede-translator: ‘Whatever he learned from scholars, he brought forth adorned with the greatest sweetness and inspiration, in poetry and well-made in the English language. And by his songs the minds of many men were kindled to contempt for the world and to fellowship with the heavenly life. And many others following him began also to make songs of virtue among the English people’. So far much of the Worcester translator’s rendering could be applied to Tolkien: learning from scholars, well-made in English, minds kindled, contempt for the powers of the world, many emulators in the English language if not within the British state. But the conclusion of his comments is apt without qualification. At the end of it all, the translator wrote, ac naenig hwaethre him thaet gelice don meahte [me: archaic OE letters transcribed here]: ‘But just the same, none of them could do it like him.’ [emphasis mine]
The point is well-taken. And the paragraph is beautifully written. Tolkien’s achievement is unmatched. But few have made the case for his merit as beautifully as Shippey.
One of my favorite research books for The Last Abbot of Linn Duachaill was Nancy Edwards’ The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland (Routledge, 1996).
Chapter One is “The Roman Impact,” a topic which can seem perplexing at first. After all, Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire. How can there even be a Roman impact on early medieval Ireland?
As it happens, there was, but given the location of Roman finds, contact was probably limited to coastal trading areas, largely the greater Dublin area. Most Roman-era finds have been between the Boyne river and the Wicklow mountains. In all likelihood, the contact was not directly with Rome, but with Roman outposts in Britain and Gaul.
It’s worth remembering that even before the appearance of the Vikings, the Irish Sea was crossed regularly by Irish and Welsh sailors. Saint Patrick was actually a Welsh boy captured by Irish raiders and taken back to Ireland as a slave. The coastal areas of what we think of as separate nations might well have had more contact with one another than either did with the inland areas of their own country.
Edwards makes the point that despite the comparative rarity of Roman-era artefacts in Ireland, they are important because they demonstrate that even before the ‘official’ beginning of early medieval Ireland, change is in the wind. By the 5th c, Ogham inscriptions show that literacy is coming to Ireland; changes in pollen survival suggest that the heavier Roman plough has arrived. We see Roman influence as well in the design of Irish swords and glass-making techniques.
Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire, but from the late Roman / early medieval period, Rome was a thought influence on the Irish, a reality which we reflected in Last Abbot.
My (Michelle’s) day job is as medieval lit and contemporary fantasy part-time faculty at the University of Maryland.
This fall, I taught a seminar on the Harry Potter series and its adaptations. It was a great semester!
An exciting thing happened at the end of the semester: myself and one of my students were interviewed by Mugglenet Academia about the course.
The interview can be listened to or downloaded here.
Did you know there are two prequel stories to The Last Abbot of Linn Duachaill in Spies and Heroes, an anthology from S & H Publishing?
In “Debts,” we see how Mariel and Hamar came to be in danger of losing their estate.
In “All Doors Open to a Bard,” we learn how Evgren’s father, Fial, went from being a promising young bard to the broken man we meet in Last Abbot.
Spies and Heroes is available at Amazon and S & H Publishing.
The Last Abbot of Linn Duachaill is now available!
S & H Publishing