“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” so said the novelist L.P. Hartley. While this is true of all history the medieval past is a very strange country indeed. I am currently writing my second book on the medieval period “1348 – A medieval Apocalypse – The Black Death in Ireland”. Over recent weeks, as I delve deeper and deeper into the medieval world the more I wonder is it possible to ever truly understand it. The very fact that I find the mundane day-to-day routines of daily medieval life fascinating underscores the problem; what they saw as normal I see as bizarre.
This fundamental difference in world views creates lots of problems. Even very basic things like trying to envisage a person from late medieval Ireland results in focusing the more unusual and bizarre aspects of life.
Even after years of study, when I think of medieval people I still conjure up the stereotypical chain mail clad warrior. This is far from accurate, such figures were only a tiny minority. Most people in medieval Ireland did not wear chainmail and those who did only wore on rare occasions. Indeed when you look at the evidence of what people who inhabited medieval Ireland actually looked like it’s clear these stereotypes obscure the reality.
An Anglo-Norman parliament held in 1297 recorded a detailed written portrait of the contemporary Gaelic Irish in an account that seems more fitting in 18th century North America than 14th century Ireland. The Gaelic Irish were accustomed to having “their heads half shaved, [and] grow their hair long at the back of the head”. The Gaelic Irish it should be noted accounted for well over half the population.
Late last week these ideas were distilling away in my head; the ideal ingredients for writers block. So while grappled with this, I decided I needed to take a breather from writing and headed off to track down some people from this foreign land that was medieval Ireland. Unsurprisingly the best place to find them is in graveyards and churches where some have lasted surprisingly well through the ages. After a few days searching in Kilkenny I found four, Thomas Cantwell, Richard Ledrede, Margaret Goer and William Goer.
The first person I met was Thomas Cantwell best known as Cantwell Fada (Tall Cantwell) or The Longman man of Kilfane. He is so called because he stands today carved in limestone in the medieval church in Kilfane Co. Kilkenny. In looking at Cantwell its obvious there is some truth to the chain-mail stereotype.
Cantwell who died around 1320 is donned in a suit of armour holding a shield in his left hand bearing is family coat of arms. His head is clearly garbed in chain mail.
The most striking thing about Cantwell’s effigy is the height – it’s the largest in Ireland or Britain standing at around eight feet tall. Its not impossible but is hard to believe that this is an life size depiction of Cantwell but presumably indicates he was a tall man, contrary to the sick and stunted stereotyped. Despite being worn by the centuries his deep sunken eyes are an evocative reminder of a real person that lived and brings the world of the 14th century slightly closer. However I encountered others help understand the medieval world better.
The next person I met was the most famous Kilkenny man of the 14th century – the bishop of Ossory Richard Ledrede. He ruled over the diocese of Ossory, which incorporated Kilkenny from 1317 to 1360. He gained notoriety in the 1320s when he was oversaw the first recorded execution for witchcraft in Ireland. This saw Petronilla de Midia tortured and burned at the stake in November 1324. Its individuals like Ledrede who at times make me wonder will I ever understand this world, yet when I came face to face with the man seemed strangely familiar.
Having spent much of the 1330s and 1340s in exile in Avignon he returned to Kilkenny in 1347 and was in the town plague broke out in 1348. He died in 1360 and was buried in the St Canice’s Cathedral, where his tomb stands beside the alter.
In itself it is by no means spectacular – it’s a pretty standard if somewhat worn bishops sarcophagus. Indeed the rough outline of Ledrede’s tomb could date to any point in the last 800 years. Wearing his bishop’s mitre and holding a crozier he takes the form of a Christian bishop, which has not changed much in the last millennium.
Its his face however that was most interesting as we can get a sense of the man. It clearly depicts Ledrede in later life. He is carrying a bit of weight around the face, his mouth enveloped by large puffy cheeks. This is fascinating for me given the man will feature heavily in my upcoming book.
William and Margaret Goer
Unquestionably the most interesting 14th centuries characters I came across were William and Margaret Goer. They are very different from both Cantwell and Ledrede. Buried in the grounds of St Mary’s church in Kilkenny they lie side-by-side with generations of merchant families who dominated life in the town through the later middle ages. Looking at the Goers, who have lain next to each other for over 650 years the complexities of medieval life come to the fore.
While Thomas Cantwell wore the styles of the military caste he belonged to the Goers dress indicates they represented a different type of wealth. Margaret’s husband William does not wear military armour or any sign of nobility.
Instead the two lie with their inside arms side by side while holding their other arm over their hearts. William clearly has a beard with short hair possibly balding. Margaret is wearing what seems to be a veil and clothing that covers her chin. Both are wearing long flowing garments reaching their feet. While Margarets feet are not visible, William is wearing pointed slippers a far cry from the spurs worn by Cantwell. These are very different people who make their money from trading not fighting.
Meeting these four medieval people was useful – it has provided some clarity or at least pointed my confused thoughts in the right direction. While they represent a small minority in medieval society who could afford such effigies is a clear reminder that there is no such thing as “the medieval person”. The late medieval world was complex and changing. In the 14th century Ireland stood at a crossroads. Thomas Cantwell harked back to a past, one that was in its twilight years. While it would take centuries to finally end the power of the military caste of landed aristocrats was waning. The future lay with people such as William and Margaret Goer – merchants who were the fore runners of those who dominate modern 21st century society.
When we add the Gaelic Irish described above and the tomb of Ledrede a picture becomes clear there are so many different types of medieval people. Some aspects of their lives will remain obscure to us as we simply will never truly understand their world however at the same time there are many aspects that bridge this chasm.
Perhaps it’s still a complicated and messy picture of medieval life but at least its helped to move beyond the block…
While in Kilkenny I took lots of photos of some amazing medieval sites across the county and city. I will be sending out an exclusive full set of pictures next week through my mailing list. If you want to receive this and my exclusive series of podcasts on the Black Death sign up here