Researchers use papal tax assessments to map medieval economy of Ireland

Posted on: 25 July 2018

Researchers from Trinity have produced a series of ground-breaking maps that illustrate the distribution of wealth in Ireland circa 1300. These maps, which are based on early 14th Century papal taxation sources, help to define the extent and impact of the medieval English colony by using parish incomes as proxies for local wealth.

The work, led by PhD Researcher in Geography at Trinity, Christopher Chevallier, and supervised by Dr Mark Hennessy, also quantifies the damage inflicted by the Great European Famine (1315-1317) and the impact of the Bruce Invasion (1315-1318, when Edward Bruce of Scotland claimed the High Kingship of Ireland). This research is timely as the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Faughart, the final clash of the Invasion, is approaching in October this year.

To better understand the sources used, and the nature of medieval papal taxation, Christopher Chevallier visited archives in Armagh (the Robinson Library), Paris (Archives Nationales), and Kew (The National Archives). Additionally, he went on fieldwork to the Vatican Secret Archives to handle and analyse a variety of medieval documents.

Christopher Chevallier said: “These sources offer a unique opportunity to map and quantify the economy of medieval Ireland; superseding the cultural, political, and economic divides of the island. There is potential to create an economic benchmark comparable to the Domesday Book. Additionally, the sources are extremely well situated as they capture the English colony at its peak and before its 14th Century decline. The thesis itself is ideal for combining historical and natural sciences with geostatistics, helping to refine and create new historical geography methods.”

Map A reflects the economic state of Connaught before the Invasion, whereas Map B focuses on County Clare after the Invasion. Map C reflects parish density before the Invasion. Click on the map images in the gallery below to expand.

The main results of the research include:

  • The colony can be viewed as a network of urban cores surrounded by hinterlands. It was largely situated upon soils with the greatest utility for intensive agriculture, namely luvisols and cambisols. This contributed to the high density and level of wealth found in colonial domains
  • Gaelic areas, on the contrary, were generally defined by isolated parishes, low tiers of wealth, and environmental constraints (e.g. high elevation, mountainous terrain, and soils suited for pastoralism)
  • Dublin’s economic hinterland was the most expansive and extended as far west as Mullingar, whereas Kilkenny’s hinterland was the densest. There were also clusters of top-tier density found in the Earldom of Ulster, the likely result of nucleation for defence and the development of areas with high soil fertility and trading potential
  • The colony largely failed to make an economic impact in Connacht, with the notable exception of the area surrounding Galway, Athenry, and Loughrea. There was also a pocket of wealth in Northern Mayo controlled between the MacWilliam Burkes and the O’Dowda
  • Preliminary analysis between pre- and post-invasion figures indicates that accurate revaluations were made. The Diocese of Ossory was depreciated by 47%, the Diocese of Emly by 24%, the Diocese of Cork by 30%, and the Diocese of Ross by 10%. The Diocese of Dublin was especially devastated, with an average depreciation of 68%, and nearly half of the parishes rendered too damaged to be revalued
  • The post-invasion data shows that Gaelic Irish parishes weren’t uniformly impoverished. Rather, areas such as Thomond (which was ruled by the powerful Ó Briain dynasty) showed very high levels of wealth, suggesting a more complex Gaelic economy than often believed. Nevertheless, even after the devastation of the Bruce Invasion and Great European Famine, the colonial areas were still generally outperforming independent Gaelic areas

Pan-European possibilities

Christopher Chevallier has also identified great potential for pan-European studies using papal tenth taxations. He has already mapped some parts of Great Britain, Switzerland, and France to illustrate this.

Christopher Chevallier said: “In the future I hope to create an open digital atlas with my data along the lines of Trinity’s Down Survey website to allow researchers and the public to use and build upon the work. From a local to national scale, the data is very versatile and can be used outside of geography; for example, Irish language studies and local history. My archival fieldwork has also highlighted that there are additional rolls that have likely survived. I wish to work with the British Archives and the Robinson Library more closely in the future to locate and analyse them in the same manner as this thesis.”

“Another ambition of mine, and perhaps my next step, is to fully map Great Britain and France alongside Ireland to produce studies and an economic atlas. I think there are amazing opportunities for inter-intuitional, interdisciplinary, and international cooperation. I also hope to apply the GIS methods employed in this thesis to other cultures and taxations. For example, I have been cultivating ties in Japan to map rice taxation records and analyse them through a political ecology lens.”

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