Tracy Collins (PhD Candidate)
An archaeology of female monasticism in Medieval Ireland
Supervisor: Dr. Tomás Ó Carragáin
Early Medieval and Viking Research Group
The archaeological study of female monasticism in medieval Ireland to date has been somewhat overlooked. This research addresses that lacuna and fills the gaps in the archaeological knowledge of religious women in Ireland in what is termed the Middle Ages (c.AD450-1540). In particular it focuses on orders of nuns but discusses other forms of female religious, such as early saints and anchorites. The aims of this research are: first, to catalogue the archaeological remains associated with female monasticism in Ireland within the chosen period; secondly, to discuss them in comparison to female nunneries abroad and male houses in Ireland; and finally show the Irish evidence found in this research into its wider European monastic context.
The methods employed in reaching these aims are interdisciplinary and vary in focus from the early medieval to the later medieval periods. For the earlier period, history, hagiography and saints lives provide a lot of valuable information on individuals and also highlights the long-standing traditions of veneration at sites associated with them. For the later period, site histories and information on the nunneries’ dissolutions are also available. Various cartographic sources have been consulted, along with the archives of the National Museum of Ireland and the National Monuments Service, which have also been consulted for all nunnery sites.
All extant nunnery sites have been visited and recorded (along with a selection of sites without an above ground register). Archaeological investigations have been undertaken at the case study site of St Catherine’s Old Abbey Co. Limerick, which investigated several research questions posed at that site. These investigations uncovered human remains, which helped to explore how the nunnery may have been used overtime. All this information forms the archaeological catalogue on which this thesis is based. The data has been analysed under a number of themes and these form the outline for the thesis structure.
An overarching method employed in this research is that of an engendered approach. This is the approach taken by Roberta Gilchrist in her study of medieval nunneries in England and Wales. She successfully proved that by applying a lens of gender to an archaeological dataset, such as nunneries, new research questions can be posed, which inevitably lead to exciting new conclusions being reached. The basic tenet of this approach is that female monasticism is not deviant to the male standard of monasticism.
Female monasticism in the medieval period was different in essence and purpose to that of male monasticism. As such, it is misleading to compare them directly. Instead, an engendered archaeological approach permits a more nuanced study, highlighting how the forms of male and female monasticism had different and complementarily roles in wider medieval society.