Life of a 14th Century Irish Historian
September 24, 2016 6:51 AM   Subscribe

I'm hoping some History fans can help with resources on what life would have been like for a person who was an Irish historian during the 1300s.

I am creating a design story and I need to be able to describe with as much detail what kind of person would have been deemed a historian at that time. Would they have likely lived in a monastery? If they were able to read and write in Latin and Gaelic was that rare for the time? Any resources on what I can read to get an idea of their material life- what kinds of food and drink would they have? What would they be surrounded by? What would have looked like visually? What kind of person would they have been within their community (high status?) Does anyone know of good resources for what the artworks (metal, book illustration, etc.) have looked like at the time? Obviously I'm doing as much research as I can on my own but I figured there might be some one here who is an expert in this subject! Thanks
posted by catrae to Society & Culture (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you don't get a satisfactory answer here, this sounds like an excellent question for the amazing professionals at /r/AskHistorians (yes, it's reddit, but it's a fascinating, very heavily moderated section of reddit, full of actual experts).
posted by erst at 8:36 AM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

What exactly do you mean by "historian"?

If you mean someone who would have considered themselves an academic, reading historical texts and possibly writing their own, you are almost certainly thinking about someone who would have been a monk. Or possibly attached to the royal court? But more likely a monk. I'm also not sure that the job of Historian existed as such, as opposed to just general literate person who maintains annals and such among many other tasks requiring a similar skill set. There may have been one or two individuals maintaining "Cabinets of Curiosities" on behalf of a ruler, but even that is probably too far in the future for your period.

Literacy of any kind was rare at that time, yes. Latin would have been de rigeur for any cleric and probably almost all scribes or clerks attached to a court (since Latin was the lingua franca between different courts at this time). I'm actually not sure how prevalent written Irish Gaelic was in your time period. If either of these languages are rare for the time, it's definitely the Gaelic, not the Latin. It might even have been seen as a lowly thing to do, or a strange quirk. Keep in mind your period is contemporary with Chaucer, in terms of vernacular writing.

For food, drink, material culture, and status, this is going to depend whether your "historian" is a junior monk in a remote monastery, an esteemed scholar, or a scribe or clerk attached to an important royal court.

It's also entirely possible that for "historian", one could read "bard", or even just a peasant well versed in oral histories and tales passed down from previous generations. Keep in mind that your period isn't too far from the times when people we now consider mythic were taken to have been real historical rulers of Ireland. In the case of this person, they'd probably be of middling to low status as compared to nobility, would not have done this as their primary job, and would probably not have been literate. (And if literate, literate in Latin almost certainly, since the idea of writing in the vernacular was very exotic in this period.)
posted by Sara C. at 9:18 AM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ireland didn't have a total court or anything like that. In 1300 it was ruled partly by Norman lords and partly by traditional Gaelic families. They allied and went to war with each other all the time. I think the first census, property lists and parliament all happened around 1300 so your fictional character, if Norman, would have been involved in that I suppose. If Irish, would likely have been a priest or a bard/poet for oral history.
posted by fshgrl at 10:00 AM on September 24, 2016

Thanks for the answers so far! Sara C.- by historian I am wondering about the people who would have written and compiled entries for the early annals of Ireland. For instance in the Annals of Ulster there is an entry that looks like it is from AD1379 that mentions specific people like "Firbisigh Mac Firbisigh, that is, a good historian, died this year."

As far as I can see these writings were in Irish from early on. It seems that on reading through some of them that although many of the entries are very short facts, they were definitely written by literate people intent on recording historical events. They span a huge amount of time as well (from around AD400 on?). Also, they were not oral histories- the annals were written down right? I guess it is questionable whether they always called themselves historians- I wish I knew more about this!
posted by catrae at 10:54 AM on September 24, 2016

Most of the Annals were written by monks. Although quite a few have unknown authors and some are extremely partisan so the scribes there were presumably associated with various kings and lords. Although very possibly they were still monks, just ones more closely associated with a single political leader.
posted by fshgrl at 1:25 PM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just to follow up, I am going to ask r/askhistorians

The question wasn't whether historians existed really- there are lots references almost all of the digital annals that can be found online in both the original Gaelic and English translations to actual historians. For example this entry from 1376, which is similar the other example I posted above (and there are many others). "Conor O'Beaghan, a learned Historian; Kellach Mac Curtin, chief Historian of Thomond; John O'Rooney, chief Poet to Magennis; Melaghlin O'Mulvany, Ollav to O'Kane; Donough Mac Firbis, a good Historian; and Ruarcan O'Hamill, chief Poet to O'Hanlon, died. This Ruarcan had kept a house of general hospitality, and had never refused to receive any one."
example here at CELT.
posted by catrae at 7:00 AM on September 28, 2016

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