Medieval life has fascinated those interested in history for generations. Our curiosity is stimulated by a macabre interest in the harshness of daily life – the casual murder rate was twenty times higher than it is today, people died from curable diseases on a daily basis and you were old at forty. While this may seem tough, daily life reached unprecedented harshness in medieval Ireland after 1270. Amid war and famine vast tracts of territory became known to the Normans as Terra Guerre – The land of war. The following article contains the stories of people who lived in what was a land of war when you were lucky to live to forty or survive to die of disease…
After 1270 Ireland entered a crisis caused by a changing climate coupled with internal political problems. This provoked a series of famines and wars between the Gaelic Irish and the Normans. Unsurprisingly this made daily life extremely difficult, for example a peasant who lived at Castlekevin in east Wicklow reaching the grand old age of forty-five in 1315 had seen Castlekevin decimated at least six times in their lifetime – twice during the 1270s, 1295, twice in 1308 and then again in 1315.
Aside from this repeated destruction of their homes, the people of Castlekevin had to endure numerous raids on the lands surrounding the castle and settlement which destroyed crops.
While people could rebuild their homes and replant their fields, the greatest cost of these famines and wars was unquestionably their human toll. Although no personal accounts survive from east Wicklow, we have a rich record of sources from Kildare which suffered during an outbreak of famine and violence in the 1290s. In what was a mirror experience of the 1270s in Wicklow: the impact of violence was accentuated by a famine that gripped Ireland between 1295 and 1297. Below are the stories of people lived and died in this crisis.
The violence began at Kildare in 1294 when a feud between the Norman lords John Fitzthomas and Thomas de Vesci escalated into full-blown war. The citizens of Kildare misery began when John Fitzthomas and his Gaelic allies sacked the townJohn son of Hugh, Henry son of Hugh, Donewyth Oconewor, Eth Oconewor….[etc] were of the company of John son of Thomas, at the robbery of the town and castle of Kildare, of money, cloth, wheat, oats, malt, oxen, cows, sheep, and pigs, to the value of £1000. Fled. Outlawed. Will, sou of Ralph, Huelin, Gregory OKerwil, Dunlyng, and Walter le Cou- herde, appear in the roll of gaol deliver1
This raid was typical of what people had to endure as the literally everything including clothes were taken. This impact of such a raid was devastating – £1000 was a vast amount of money. A male peasant could hope to earn 2 pence per day. There were 240 pence in a £1, making £1000 equivalent to one hundred and twenty thousand days work. However this raid was only the beginning, things would get much worse.
Similarly to Castlekevin in the 1270s, the situation deteriorated as war spread and any semblance of order collapsed. In this chaos the brutal death of a Thomas Shorthond illustrated how precarious life could be
“Thomas Shorthond, who of custom, in the time of disturbance, when the Odimpsies were outside the town of Kildare, searching the country to do mischief, lay in the fields to steal corn in harvest from the men of the country, and the Odimpsies [O Dempsey’s] found him and slew him. He lay there for three nights until the carters of Will. Alisaundre, when they came to carry corn, saw crows and dogs together in the fields, and came to the place and found the right foot and the head of Thomas ; and forthwith raised hue.”2
Thomas Shorthond’s family had to spend several days wondering where he was and whether he was safe. In the end all they found was the mutilated remains of his body.
To make matter worse between 1295-1297, Ireland was ravaged by a particularly acute famine. The Annalist of St Mary’s
Priory in Dublin recorded that the poor were reduced to eating criminals who had been hanged from gibbets. Food shortages resulted in widespread theft of food stocks which could easily result in violence as John Martyn of Kildare was to realiseWalter le Waleys came by night to the sheepfold of Reginald Cantehi to steal sheep. John Martyn, the shepherd, came to defend them. Walter- struck him with an axe… so that he died3
In the midst of famine and food shortages the theft of food meant the thief survived at their victims expense as David Bryan was to learn…‘Hugh Ymelton stole 3 cows of David Bryan, and David’s children died for lack of the cows’ 4
These famines were caused by an increasingly erratic climate which in itself could kill the already weak people as was the case with Robert son of Robert…Robert son of Robert, a feeble man, kept the sheep of Simon Brun, in the field of Bruneston, and very heavy rain came, and from cold and misery he died.
These are just a few of dozens of the cases of life in Kildare between 1295 -1297. While by no means constant these levels of violence were frequent enough after 1270.
As violence spread across Ireland the barbarity of casual violence was equally disturbing. In 1305 in Castledermot Walter le Poer took a murder case against Henry Madoc and several members of his family. The origins of the incident started when Eynon Madoc’s had allegedly robbed Le Poer when he was absent. When Le Poer’s sergeant Mathew O Ryan had tried to catch the thieves he had killed Eynon Madoc. In frightening response Madoc’s associates
‘took Mathew Oryan out a house in which he was sitting and beheaded him in the street’ before stripping the body naked5‘.
This case appears not to have caused outrage. Indeed this violence was directly linked to the increase in wars across the Island. In return for fighting for the king many were rewarded with pardons and its unsurprising that the accused in this case were excused when they did not turn up to court because….
Despite these harrowing tales life was not an endless tale of mans’ inhumanity to man. The unusual story of Henry Castide from Wicklow in the late 14th century illustrates that even in the land of war, empathy and humanity could prevail. Henry Castide joined the Earl of Ormond fighting in the Wicklow Mountains in the late 14th century, when he was captured by the Gaelic Irish. His relationship with his captor was far from what we might expect. Years later Castide retold his story to Jean Froissart the famed medieval chronicler.‘The gentleman who had taken me was called Brin Costeret, a very handsome man. I have frequently made inquiries after him, and hear that he is still alive, but very old. This Bryan Costeret kept me with him seven years, and gave me his daughter in marriage, by whom I have two girls. I will tell you how I obtained my liberty. It happened in the seventh year of my captivity…… he was offered his liberty, on condition that he gave me mine, and sent me to the English army, with my wife and children. He at first refused the terms, from his love to me, his daughter, and our children ; but, when he found no other terms would be accepted, he agreed to them, provided my eldest daughter remained with him. I returned to England with my wife and youngest daughter, and fixed my residence at Bristol. My two children are married ; the one established in Ireland has three boys and two girls, and her sister four sons and two daughters. ” Because the Irish language is as familiar to me as English, for I have always spoken it in my family, and introduce it among my grandchildren as much as I can.
Castide’s tale was a chink of humanity amid the barbarism of the 14th century or if your pessimistic perhaps that he had just developed Stockholm Syndrome.
1Cal. Jus. Rolls, Vol. I pge 190
2Cal Just Rolls Vol. I pge 176
3Cal Just Rolls Vol. I pge 176
4Cal Just Rolls Vol. I pge 176
5CJR Vol II pge 104.
7Cal. Jus. Rolls Vol II pge. 135
8Tuchman, Barbara (1979) pge xviii