Leading Medieval Scholars Challenge Traditional Views about the Origins of the British Empire in the Middle Ages

Posted on: 18 September 2007

Leading medieval scholars  gathered at a conference in Trinity College Dublin on September 14-16 last  to debate and offer a new perspective on the origins of the British Empire. Evidence presented by a new generation of scholars at the conference claimed that the beginnings of the Empire lie a full five centuries before the days of Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh, and can instead be traced back to the days of Strongbow and Dermot MacMurrough. Seventeen of the world’s top authorities, drawn from seven different countries, discussed the impact of English imperialism on Ireland, Scotland and Wales in the Middle Ages and challenged established notions of nations and nationalism.

This important interdisciplinary conference, entitled ‘The First English Empire?: Cultural Transmission and Political Conflict in the British Isles c.1100-c.1500’,  forms part of a new wave of scholarship which  is readdressing English imperialism by extending the period of investigation back from the Tudor  Age to medieval times, and studying the ways in which English culture was transmitted outwards to the Irish, Scottish and Welsh from as early as the Norman Conquest of 1066. Inherited notions about the Normans in Ireland becoming “more Irish than the Irish themselves” are being re-examined, and it is argued that in many cases the precise opposite was in fact the outcome.

Speakers at the conference  included Dr Seán Duffy from the Department of History at TCD, and chief organizer of this conference, who is in the forefront of moves to shift patterns of historical research away from traditional national lines of enquiry: ‘transnational’ history, in particular by examining the largely common culture of medieval Ireland, Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales, helps to elucidate the insidious ways in which all the Celtic countries came to be influenced by English and wider European cultural norms and conventions. Professor John Scattergood from the School of English at Trinity  discussed the status of the English language in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of Britain, and examined its remarkable resilience in the face of the forced imposition of French language and culture brought by the Normans.  Another keynote speaker, Professor John Gillingham (London School of Economics) looked at the way in which the kings of medieval England, and their subjects, displayed outright imperialist disregard for their ‘Celtic’ neighbours, and how they perceived their own capacity to transform Celtic societies in their own image.

Other speakers included Dr Susan Foran of the Centre for Irish-Scottish and Comparative Studies and organizer of the conference, who  looked at how international concepts like chivalry affected national concerns in Scotland and how they were used by kings to establish identities independent from England.  Dr Steve Boardman from the University of Edinburgh looked at how English descent could be used to honour Scottish noble families whose identity was a mix of both their Gaelic and English ancestry. Mr Patrick Wadden of Exeter College, Oxford  discussed Irish perceptions of the Normans, while leading Dutch historian, Dr Freya Verstraten  considered how far the Irish took on the very characteristics of their English would-be conquerors.

The conference  which was  opened with an address by  the Minister of State with special responsibility for European Affairs,  Dick Roche TD, was jointly organised by TCD’s School of Histories and Humanities and the Centre for Irish-Scottish and Comparative Studies.