Gillian Kenny. Anglo-Irish and Gaelic Women in Ireland, c. 1170-1540. Portland: Four Courts Press, 2007. 218 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-85182-984-2.
Reviewed by Lisa Bitel
Published on H-Albion (November, 2008)
Commissioned by Margaret McGlynn
"No Alliance by Marriage ... or Amour": Women in the Two Medieval Irelands
Gillian Kenny’s book offers a concise summary of women’s lives in both Anglo-Irish and Gaelic (her labels) regions of medieval Ireland--or, rather, a summary of the legal categories of women created by Anglo-Irish legal discourses (in formal laws as well as a small number of charters, wills, and cases primarily from the fifteenth-century Pale)--between 1170 (Norman invasion) and 1540 (Protestant Reformation). Although Kenny exploits this scanty evidence to bring a few individuals to life, she tries mainly to compare the lives of women governed by this legal system to those living under traditional Irish laws. Her thesis is not obvious in the book’s brief preface, but her table of contents and her last chapter lay out the book’s principal point that “each society accorded its women respective laws and traditions with regards to their rights as single women, wives, widows and nuns. Confusion and resentment often arose when these two systems clashed, as in the case of intermarriage” (p. 185).
Kenny’s book provides a useful starting point for readers who know nothing about the gender systems of colonial Ireland. She summarizes the basic legal concepts informing her diverse sources, and provides a handy glossary at the book’s end for those few who may not know about seisin, socage, or stang. Despite a list of manuscript materials in the bibliography, her most important evidence appears to have come from printed English calendars, registers, and rolls, supplemented by Anglo-Irish wills, charters, and deeds (only a few still in manuscript), as well as published Irish sources, such as annals, and antiquarian works, such as Mervyn Archdall’s Monasticon Hibernicum (1876). Most of these medieval texts are familiar to Irish medievalists but not to outsiders, and few scholars have exploited these documents for information about women. Indeed, the massive thousand pages of Oxford’s multivolume A New History of Ireland (1976), edited by Art Cosgrove, dedicated to this period contains index subheadings for such crucial topics as “salt” and an entire chapter about “Coinage to 1534,” but nothing notable on women, wives, or nuns.
Kenny’s chapters are all premised on the first sentence of her first chapter: “Late medieval Ireland was a land divided between two different systems of law, society, economy, and politics,” as well as churches (p. 13). Anglo-Irish and Gaelic are as firmly binary in Kenny’s interpretation as the sexes. Chapters describe first an Anglo-Irish legal category and then its Irish counterpart. Kenny’s comparisons show that Irish women had fewer formally defined legal rights, thus less influence, agency, and control over property, than English women, whether they were single women, laborers, heiresses, wives, ex-wives, widows, mothers, foster-mothers, concubines, or vowed nuns. Only highly aristocratic Irish women who brought major property into their marriages had a chance at social independence and political power. Any cultural mixing occurred, in Kenny’s interpretation, on the marches of the Pale and in towns where anglicizing Irish women might take advantage of Anglo-Irish laws, or in the marriage beds of ethnically intermarried couples. Although Kenny reminds her readers that status and location could thus influence women’s legal status, her argument assumes the essential similarity of women’s experiences within each ethnic group and legal category over the four centuries covered by the book.
The book’s best sections treat marriage between the Irish and Anglo-Irish, which was also the subject of Kenny’s previously published article, “Anglo-Irish and Gaelic Marriage Laws and Traditions in Late Medieval Ireland,” in The Journal of Medieval History (2006). She has found about seventy case studies from a variety of published and manuscript records, all tidily reported in an appendix with references. Chapter 9 on “Intermarriage” and other pages on betrothal, marriage crises, divorce, and widowhood fruitfully exploit this evidence, demonstrating ways that wives manipulated their kin, courts, and cultural identities to their benefit.
Most of Kenny’s points are straightforward and well made, but the book has some flaws typical of first books. Kenny tends to weight all evidence equally across genres. Her expertise in some areas (English documents, secular women) is better developed than in others (Irish legal evidence, religious women). This is especially clear in the book’s last chapter on nuns where the author rehearses a few chestnuts (most women became nuns against their wills, convents were cauldrons of sexual debauchery, and bishops harassed women’s communities to discipline nuns).
However, we need more books on women in medieval Ireland. I applaud Kenny’s industrious research among the Anglo-Irish records and her effort to contribute to this still underdeveloped field.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Lisa Bitel. Review of Kenny, Gillian, Anglo-Irish and Gaelic Women in Ireland, c. 1170-1540.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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