Friday, June 20, 2014

Why medieval history?

Why medieval history?

Niall C.E.J. O’Brien

In 2010 the website – – asked its readers why they are interested in medieval history with the title of “Why medieval? Go medieval”. This is what I wrote.


Why medieval? I think it was medieval that picked me.

At an early age I viewed and read books and comics on ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt and Babylon along with ancient Irish history. My father and teachers made such material available. I quickly took to enjoying it.

On many sunny days (it seemed to be always sunny back when we were young) Dad would take my sister and me to visit old castles and ruined abbeys. It was great fun. When I was 10 years old he took me to the National Library of Ireland. I walked around the large round reading room and wanted to stay there forever. I was already in love with books by then.

One of the first history books that I purchased was when I was about 6 or 7 years old. It was Ireland before the Vikings by Gearóid MacNiocaill. The book said that early medieval Ireland had few writers since the death of Eoin MacNeill in 1945. This is an important statement that we’ll return to later. Shortly after this I brought Ireland before the Normans by Donnchadh O Corráin. People need to learn about the history of their own country first.

Front cover of Ireland before the Vikings

In my teens all kinds of history was of interest as I collected history books on any and every subject. By my late twenties there were so many books in the house that cutbacks were needed. I sold and gave away unwanted books – established a yearly budget for buying books and concentrated my purchases on Irish local history. The new buying policy still covered all time zones until 2004/2005.

Two years previously I looked on all my books and said they should be used rather than just for reading. Thus I began to write articles on local history after 1700 and a local history book on the navigation of a local river. This was published in 2008 as Blackwater and Bride navigation and trade 7000 BC to 2007.

In 2003 I was thinking about writing a history of the Diocese of Lismore from 653 to 1653. This was to count-balance a series of articles that were written on the Diocese of Waterford. In 1353 the two dioceses were joined into one. Having completed two chapters I went off in search of more material and came across a book by Philomena Connolly called Irish Exchequer Payments 1270-1446 (Dublin, 1998). It was a edited version of a series of medieval manuscripts. Up to then I had only purchased history books written by others. This book was an original source book upon which all other history articles and books should be based. [The Lismore book is still unfinished but we a gathering material.]

Front cover of Irish Exchequer Payments

The book only gave a page of information relating to Lismore and so I left it in the shop for a year – viewing it from time to time whenever I was passing that shop. I finally purchased in July 2004 and my eyes were opened to the real medieval world. I started to fall in love with the first hand accounts of medieval people.

On 10th April 2005 I attended an antique fair in Cork and purchased a number of medieval books from a dealer. Purchased Irish Monastic and Episcopal Deeds by Newport White and a two volume set of the Royal Letters of Henry III. All three books were in Latin. I had no Latin but did have a Latin/English dictionary purchased years before and so began to translate the books.

Within the month I started buying every and any edited manuscript book that one could find. Especially works by the Irish Manuscripts Commission. The first chairman of that body was the same Eoin MacNeill mentioned earlier.

The two volume Royal Letters of Henry III were a presentation copy. There were given in 1886 to Sir Henry Maxwell-Lyte. At the time I had no idea who he was but learnt from Google that he was for 40 years Deputy Keeper of the English Public Record Office. Off I went to find more books by Lyte and came across a whole world of edited manuscript books published by such organisations as the Somerset Record Society and the Bristol Record Society.

In 2006 I purchased Medieval Record Sources by the same Philomena Connolly mentioned earlier. In that same year I began to use all the record books to write articles on medieval Irish history and continue to do so to this day and hopefully for many days to come.

Front cover of Medieval Record Sources

In 2009 I moved into writing early medieval Irish history. When compared to other periods in history, medieval history is very accessible, especially for those who live far from the great libraries and archive institutions. A great volume of manuscript material is now in book form or available on the web. For history after 1600 you have to travel to the libraries and archive offices to examine original manuscripts. For history before 550 AD you have to go out and dig up the countryside and learn from archaeology. Medieval history can for the most part by written from home.

One could say I spent half a life time trying to avoid medieval history and then finally came home. Philomena Connolly and Sir Henry Maxwell-Lyte guided me there where I again met Eoin MacNeill. MacNeill was professor of early and medieval history at University College Dublin. He was also first chair of the Irish Manuscripts Commission and they have published many record books from medieval Ireland. Eoin’s brother, Charles, edited a few of these books.

And then we come to the strangest part of story. I began life in an orphanage with no family. A farming couple came along and made a home for me in their house. My new grandfather turned out to be a first cousin of Eoin MacNeill. Any family in the world could have adopted me or I could have stayed in the orphanage. Yet it was a family of medieval historians who took me in and that have made all the difference.

Thus I find myself in the medieval world, on a voyage of exploration and discovery. I hope to a have a long and fruitful voyage and to meet all the great and the good, and the ordinary people of the medieval age and become their friend.


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