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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 104-106

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Women and the Church in Medieval Ireland, c.1140-1540. By Dianne Hall. (Dublin: Four Courts Press. Distributed in the United States by ISBS, Portland, Oregon. 2003. Pp. 252. $50.00.) [End Page 104]

This excellent first book attempts the near-impossible task of reconstructing the religious experience of women in medieval Ireland. As the author reminds her readers throughout, the sources are scanty and further complicated by Irish history itself. Conflicting Irish and Anglo-Irish cultures of the Middle Ages conspired to forget the women of Ireland; Gaelic writers did not produce the kinds of documents that included women, and Irishwomen themselves wrote nothing. Twentieth-century soldiers destroyed many of the remaining records of the Anglo-Irish colony. From very few legal documents and calendar summaries, along with archaeological evidence from the sites of medieval nunneries, Hall assembles a creditable sketch of laywomen's pious practices, convent life, and a prosopography of religious women over four centuries.

Hall's method can be summed up in her own phrase: "In Ireland, as elsewhere in medieval Europe" (p. 42). She skillfully expands the bits of Irish evidence by comparison of what we know about women's devotion elsewhere in medieval Europe, especially England. For instance, her chapters on laywomen's piety focus on wills that mention women's charitable donations and charters of foundation that list women among consenters and witnesses. Because she understands English marriage laws and has read the historical literature on religious patronage, Hall can use elliptical references to Irishwomen to explicate a variety of women's patronage. She finds that powerful Hiberno-Norman families founded religious houses, including women's communities, as soon as they had expropriated enough property from the indigenes to give some away; but that heiresses of these same families began to make donations of lands only in the next generation. Gaelic families, by contrast, continuously patronized older, local communities of nuns. Because Irish laws treated women's property differently, Gaelic noblewomen gave more movables than land. But in both situations, the network of donors and recipients was defined by kinship and marriage networks.

Most of the book treats convents. Hall sees four stages in the foundation of Irish nunneries: the pre-Norman revival of women's communities lost to Scandinavian invasions; the twelfth-century native reform movement; the first generation of Anglo-Norman convents; and the fifteenth-century Irish reform, which brought mendicant houses to Ireland. Shifts in the location, available resources, patronage, and leadership of women's communities were directly related to the larger political and economic transformation of the Irish landscape. Hall uses a handful of convents, wealthy and Anglo-Irish enough to have left documentation as case studies, to chart the effects of gender ideologies and spiritual ideals on religious life. Her conclusion is that everyone in Ireland, as elsewhere in Europe, found value in religious women's activities and the establishment of convents, but that other investments sometimes seemed more profitable or pressing to Gaelic and Anglo-Irish elites. Whereas the first cohort of Norman heiresses and their kin could afford to set up convents, the daughters of minor gentry and Irish chieftains did not have the same luxury.

Hall uses archaeological evidence about the location, size, and arrangement of convent spaces to judge the economic reality of pious impulses. She examines [End Page 105] the "points of contact" between cloistered nuns and the men who guarded them, ruled them, and traded with them. Economic transactions and legal disputes, in both secular and ecclesiastical courts, involved abbesses and bishops, landlords, tenants, and heads of rival religious communities. In Hall's hands, the dry details of court appearances and legal fines become a lively chronicle of women's continuing struggle to maintain autonomous religious life as communities and pious individuals. The specific cases of Alicia de Howth (who aggressively brought suit to reclaim convent lands), the nameless Ó Briain abbess of Killone (who bore children while in office to her father, the king of Thomond, and another...


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