Dianne Hall, Women and the Church in Medieval Ireland, c1140-1540, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2008.

Dianne Hall, Women and the Church in Medieval Ireland, c1140-1540, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2008. €24.95, ISBN: 978-1-84682-145-5 (paperback) pp. 252

Reviewed by: Lisa Padden, National University of Ireland, Galway, August 2009.

Hall begins the introduction of her excellent study with a stark reference to violence and destruction suffered by the pious in medieval Ireland. She notes the 1233 burning of laywomen, nuns, children and three priests in a church in Emlagh using this striking record to illuminate the almost invisible presence of women – nuns or lay – in medieval Irish documents. Hall explains that lack of documentary evidence has been matched by sparse research attempts and she tells the reader that while there has been some work done recently to correct this there has not yet been an ‘extended study of how women participated in the structures and culture of the church one of the most important institutions in medieval Ireland’ (p. 16).

This is no small task and Hall explains that her search for sources proved difficult leading her at times to unusual places; perhaps the most useful element of this study is Hall’s collection of disparate and surprising sources which will, as the scholar notes herself, lead to further fruitful research in the future. Hall offers a number of possible reasons for the lack of evidence – some expected but some extremely interesting. After the usual excuse of post-medieval destruction her other rationale offers a greater insight: fragility of materials leading to destruction through ordinary use, the possibility that nuns used charters in a different way to monks, the attitudes of the later medieval period to poorly understood Latin texts leading to a lack of effort to preserve them.

The sources that Hall did find somewhat useful were also problematic in themselves; for example the abundant surviving vernacular annals were rarely concerned with women, only mentioning those from powerful families that interested the compilers. Hall laments the 1922 destruction of the Dublin Public Records Office noting that of the hundreds of original rolls only twenty now remain. Most interestingly this study uses the physical spaces occupied by medieval religious women to illuminate the lives of these women, however, these discussions are preliminary, as Hall reminds us, that there have been ‘no definitive scholarly archaeological surveys or excavations of nunneries in Ireland to date’ (p. 19). The practices of women are examined in a physical sense by looking at gravestones, parish churches, convent buildings and through records of dedications or patronage.

The study in general is divided into two parts. The first part examines in great detail the way in which lay female piety operated as well as outlining the relevant sources; the second part analyses the concepts of late medieval Ireland and the ideologies of enclosure which they represented. The study is divided into eight chapters – the first two examining lay piety and those following taking women religious and their practice as their subject. Overall the structure of the study is clear and helpful allowing the reader to steadily gain an in-depth understanding of the previously unilluminated world of the relationship of women and the medieval Irish Church.

The first chapter examines the piety of lay women in medieval Ireland. Looking first at how these women operated their piety within their lives and later at how their devotion to the Church was expressed after their deaths. Hall’s description in this chapter of the numerous sources she explored brings to light again the level of work gone into this monograph. The second chapter goes on to discuss women’s patronage of religious institutions. Examining first the patterns of these contributions the reader is introduced to the obvious importance of the practice of female patronage. Hall then describes the various categories of participation: sole alienor, joint alienor, consenters, witnesses and spiritual beneficiaries. Finally the second chapter discusses those women who founded monastic houses – most of which were Augustinian.

The third chapter discusses the foundation of nunneries marking the movement from lay piety to enclosed women religious. Looking at the survival of early Celtic foundations, the twelfth-century reform, nunneries within Anglo-Irish communities, the last wave of foundations and the location of convents this chapter gives readers a clear and detailed overview of medieval-Irish nunnery establishments. The fourth chapter gives us an enlightening discussion of convent buildings and estates before moving on in chapter five to examine income, management and conflict within the nunneries. The sixth chapter entitled ‘The Permeable Cloister’ explores the enclosure of nuns as well as the figurative gaps in the convent wall. The interaction between women religious and the lay community is explored by examining their role in prayers, burials, education and welfare.

The penultimate chapter of Hall’s book looks at a specific figure: Elicia Butler, the Abbess of Kilculliheen. This remarkable woman was deposed in 1531 following accusations of rebellion inciting behaviour. Hall chooses to tell us about Butler not only because her story is fascinating but because she feels it best illuminates the themes she has explored in the rest of the study; she also notes that evidence about this woman is far more abundant than for almost any other figure. The final chapter briefly discusses the end of the medieval period and the movement of nuns from their enclosed, devotional lives into the lay world. The study also provides us with two extremely useful appendices: convents in medieval Ireland and all the names of the individual women found in Hall’s research connected with nunneries in medieval Ireland.

Hall’s study was compiled in Australia, highlighting again the extent of her work and research; access to sources in Ireland is difficult enough so we must recognise the effort that has been but into this text. This really is a phenomenally important and intricate work executed to the highest degree by a scholar dedicated to research and the medieval religious women of whom she writes. This new paperback edition of the study originally published in 2003 now makes Hall’s work affordable and accessible to all.