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Visualizing the Irish Submissions to Richard II

Published onMar 19, 2024
Visualizing the Irish Submissions to Richard II

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In 1395, during a momentary quieting of a protracted series of conflicts between the English government in Ireland and several largely autonomous Irish lordships, Richard II received the submissions of dozens of Irish lords (Curtis, Richard II; Ronan 231–234). The submissions followed a well-established formula: the submitting parties prostrated themselves and paid homage to the king before named witnesses. They swore an oath, usually in Irish and relayed through a trusted interpreter. Finally, they bound themselves to financial penalties should they break their oaths. While the particulars of the ritual sometimes varied, the overall consistency of the formula produced an invaluable resource in the accounts of the submissions. First transcribed and translated by Edmund Curtis in 1924 and 1927, the notarial instruments and letters from this event offer a glimpse of the formal and informal networks that exercised an often invisible influence on the ruling classes of England and Ireland in the fourteenth century (Curtis, “Unpublished Letters” 283–298; Curtis, Richard II 57–225). Submission Strategies: The Irish Submissions to Richard II, 1395 is a prosopographical project that uses the corpus of notarial instruments, supplemented with annals entries, chancery records, property deeds, and other contemporary references, to explore the strategies of negotiation employed by an Irish aristocracy striving for authority and legitimacy within an increasingly hostile state (Smith). In its complete state, the project will offer a rich and nuanced depiction of the alliances, hostilities, and spheres of influence that shaped the interconnected social networks of England and Ireland and the methods and assumptions that governed how participants navigated them. As the project exits its pilot phase, its technical infrastructure and scholarly decisions offer useful takeaways for identifying patterns and extracting meaning from challenging historical data sets.

Historical Background

The submissions to Richard II, and the wars and rebellions that surrounded them, are closely intertwined with the decline of royal authority and growth of local autonomy in Ireland that together constitute a period often referred to as the “Gaelic Resurgence” (Lydon, “A Land of War” 268–274; Watt, “Approaches to the History” 304–305; Nicholls 18–21). From the initial English invasion of Ireland in 1172, the English colony had grown in fits and starts, eventually stretching out over much of Ireland’s eastern province of Leinster (Downham 214–220). Over the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a number of economic, social, and political factors including plague, prolonged warfare, and fiscal crisis led to the contraction of English settlement (Downham 220–222). In the same period, Irish lordships flourished, taking part in extensive cultural and religious patronage and expanding their geographic and political reach at the expense of the colony and of Anglo-Irish magnates (Simms 17–18; Duffy 134–155). Richard II’s arrival in Ireland in 1395 with some eight to ten thousand troops constituted an ultimately unsuccessful effort to restore and strengthen royal authority in the midst of this resurgence (McGettigan 95). The failure of Richard’s expedition resulted from a number of factors, including the military difficulties in Ireland as well as political crisis in his own court in England. However, despite the inefficacy of the 1395 submissions in subduing Ireland, the submission corpus offers crucial insights into the strategies by which Irish lords negotiated English rule.

One of the most immediate threats to the English colony in fourteenth-century Leinster was the growing power and coalescence of the Gaelic lordships in the region (O’Byrne 103–118). By the late fourteenth century, Art MacMurrough, the Irish king of Leinster, had amassed a significant social network that included much of the Gaelic nobility of Leinster as well as allies scattered across Ireland (O’Byrne 107–109). That network was in large part built upon marital alliances. As O’Byrne has argued, MacMurrough arranged marriages with a keen diplomatic eye, forging alliances through the unions of his children with members of elite families, some of whom were longstanding allies and some of whom constituted new connections (108–109). His own marriage in this period was similarly strategic. Around 1390, MacMurrough married his second wife, Elizabeth Calf (or le Veel), daughter of Robert Calf and widow of Sir John Staunton (O’Byrne 109–110; Mac Shamhráin). As her father’s sole heir, Elizabeth Calf brought the significant estates of the barony of Norragh to the marriage. However, their marriage was illegal under English law. In an effort to stave off the resurgence of Gaelic lordships and the increasing cultural hybridity of Anglo-Irish lords, the English government had passed a series of restrictive laws known as the Statutes of Kilkenny, and among the proscriptions was Gaelic-English intermarriage (Watt, “Anglo-Irish Colony” 386–390). As a result, the crown confiscated the inheritance in 1391 (Great Britain 362).

Although the confiscation of his wife’s inheritance was by no means the sole catalyst for MacMurrough’s wars against the colony, it did build upon existing tensions with the English government and with neighboring Anglo-Irish magnates like the Butler earls of Ormond and the Fitzgerald earls of Kildare, the latter of whom was the territorial lord of the Barons of Norragh (O’Byrne 109; McGettigan 103–105). Writing in 1399, after the lands had been regranted and re-confiscated again, Thomas Holland offered the romantic, possibly apocryphal anecdote that “McMurghe assured his wife that he will not ever be at peace unless he have restitution of her lands” (Graves 262). The next several years witnessed an escalation of the military incursions that MacMurrough had waged periodically over the preceding two decades. Wielding his extensive marital alliances and their associated military resources, MacMurrough devastated the English-controlled countryside (O’Byrne 110).

MacMurrough’s activities hit particularly close to home for the English government in Ireland, and scholars have often fixed on him as the chief instigator of Richard II’s 1394 voyage to Ireland (Frame, “Two Kings” 168–172; Johnston 4–5; Lydon, “Richard II’s Expeditions” 136–7). However, as Simon Egan has convincingly argued, Richard in fact sought to tap into multiple networks of alliances as he negotiated with the Irish nobility (Egan 224). Egan has identified two further, competing networks: one centred around the “big four” of O’Neill of Tyrone, O’Brien of Thomond, Burke of Clanrickard, and O’Conor Don of Roscommon; and a rival network consisting of O’Donnell of Tyrconnell, Burke of Mayo, and O’Conor Ruadh of Roscommon, along with their followers (Egan 222–224). The rivalries between these two groups impacted multiple dimensions of their network. For instance, the O’Donnell network had strong transnational ties, with links to Scotland and to the Avignon antipapacy of Clement VII (Egan 224). And the adherence to Clement VII mapped this regional rivalry onto the religious rift caused by the Western Schism, with the “big four” supporting the Roman papacy (Egan 240–241). The rivalry also shaped the immediate political contexts of Ireland in 1394: while the “big four” and their adherents submitted to Richard II, the O’Donnell alliance did not (Egan 224).

As Egan’s work demonstrates, understanding the rich and nuanced political milieu of Gaelic Ireland is a crucial prerequisite for evaluating the nature and impact of the Irish submissions to Richard II. However, the reverse is also true. The submissions are an important corpus for constructing a holistic picture of Ireland’s and Irish lords’ political position within the North Atlantic archipelago. As Dorothy Johnston has noted, the submissions are often dismissed as a momentary and ultimately meaningless gesture, “judged by what they effected rather than what they sought to establish” (Johnston 1). Johnston sought to redress this oversight by situating the submissions within Richard’s evolving policy toward Ireland. Digital methods offer another means of recapturing some of the submissions’ substance and for identifying patterns in associations and enmities that might indicate a deliberate political strategy. Through social and spatial network visualizations, Submission Strategies surfaces clusters of local, regional, and transnational alliances that offer new points of inquiry into the political and social milieu of late medieval Ireland. Submission Strategies moves away from considering the submissions as a single event in a failed endeavour and instead takes them as a corpus documenting the individual acts, priorities, and networks of each submitting party, using social and spatial networks to uncover the political, social, and legal ties between the parties to the submissions.

Project Sources

Like most sources for premodern Irish history, the submission data set is fragmentary and obscured by orthographic issues and naming ambiguity. Ireland’s fragmented archival record is a perennial challenge for historians. In 1919, Herbert Wood remarked upon the fragile and fragmentary state of Ireland’s archival collections, observing that “when the history of Ireland in the past is taken into account, it is more to be wondered at that so much has survived from the chaotic conditions which prevailed in this country” (Wood, Guide vii). His concerns centred on the record theft, neglect, and deliberate destruction that had chipped away at collections for nearly a millennium. But his words foreshadowed a much greater loss. Just three years later, the Irish Public Records Office (housed in the Four Courts in Dublin) went up in literal flames in the early days of the Irish Civil War (Wood, “Public Records” 33–36). With it were destroyed countless sources for the history of Ireland from the Middle Ages to the modern. The shelling of the Four Courts thus represented a dramatic culmination in a centuries-long process of archival erosion.

As scholars of Richard II in Ireland have frequently noted, there are in fact rich seams of sources for Richard’s motives and for royal policy to be found in English administrative documents (Johnston 1; Egan 222). Recovering the perspectives, priorities, and motives of Irish and Anglo-Irish participants, however, requires reconciling multiple corpora. Each corpus brings its own challenges. Some are fragmentary, much more so than the submission corpus. Others, like many of the annals, are significantly limited in geographic scope. Products of cultural patronage, like bardic poems, can speak deeply to the motives of individuals but were produced and survive sporadically.

The damage to the archival record is doubly problematic for digital scholarship relying on analysis of data sets, particularly when there is no way of determining the areas and extent of loss (Posner 33). However, the growing availability of digital sources and surrogates (dramatically accelerated by the launch of the Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland, which seeks to reconstitute the Public Records Office through surrogates, as well as ongoing projects like Irish Script on Screen) offers promising developments (Crooks et al; Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies). Submission Strategies takes advantage of the digital medium to place multiple corpora in conversation, filling in some of the archival silences through sources available in digital and print form. While digital methods and surrogates cannot entirely resolve the issues presented by incomplete data sets, a digital publication allows for greater transparency about the scholarly decisions that shape the project, and interactive visualizations allow readers to drill down into the project to see the primary and secondary sources from which data has been encoded. That transparency is a critical response to the fragmentary nature of the medieval Irish archival record, which incentivizes composite data sets but creates an extra onus to be transparent about how disparate data sets speak to one another.

History of the Project

The first phase of the project has focused on creating an infrastructure to scaffold and contextualize the sources, the encoded data, and the resulting visualizations. The project began as a conference paper on the role of the interpreter in the submissions to Richard II. The initial goal was to build out a relatively simple data set and visualization representing the small social network among the various parties to the submissions: the authority (Richard II or his delegate), the witnesses, the submitting lords, the interpreter, and the notary. However, the project grew rapidly (as such projects often do) as it became apparent that any such visualization would elide an enormous amount of research—and sometimes guesswork—involved in cleaning the data. The research materials supporting the clear identifications of people and places are valuable resources in and of themselves. But just as important are the identifications that rest upon partial evidence and interpretations. The corpus is full of ambiguities—the result not only of its fragmentary condition, but also of medieval Irish naming conventions and the multilingual nature of the submission events. In addition, it became clear the geographic scope of the network would require a breadth of local and regional expertise to untangle similarly named people, regional politics, and internecine rivalries.

The rhetorical dangers of data visualizations are well established, from Darrell Huff’s “gee-whiz graph” of 1954 to more recent cautions about the challenges of humanistic data in particular (Huff 62–67; Marx 613–615; Drucker 239; Posner 33–35). Humanistic data is vulnerable to deliberate or inadvertent misrepresentation and misinterpretation, both by scholar and by audience. Beyond the challenges specific to the submissions and to medieval Ireland, constructing a historical data set often forces us to ask questions the sources never intended to answer. This can be generative and productive, but it can also result in contorting the sources to produce data of questionable quality.

The current shape of the project responds directly to these challenges. Since the initial conference presentation at the Irish Conference of Medievalists in 2021, I have endeavored to develop a robust infrastructure that adheres to principles of data transparency, facilitates ethical collaboration, supports multimodal research, draws upon and reconciles multiple data sets, and prioritizes technical sustainability. In its current phase of development, the project speaks to scholarly audiences across the fields of Irish and British history and medieval political history through its content and the field of digital humanities through its critical approach to data.

Data Transparency

Dealing with Ambiguous Data

Issues of data transparency are the most fundamental challenge facing this project and any project that attempts to visualize challenging data sets. For Submission Strategies, data transparency means making clear and accessible (1) the sources by which ambiguous data points are identified; (2) the methods for imposing categories for analysis and visualization; and (3) the inferences and assumptions underpinning data encoding.

One of the most frequent types of ambiguity in identifying submission participants is the prolific number of similarly named lordships. For instance, when Curtis edited the submissions, he identified five distinct families named O’Conor: O’Conor of Connacht, O’Conor of Sligo, O’Conor Faly, O’Conor of Hyrth, and O’Conor of Thomond (Curtis, Richard II 234–236). In addition to these, there was a separate family of O’Conors in Kerry (MacLysaght 55–56). Despite the common name, some of these families bore no relation to each other whatsoever, and others were related only distantly. Further, the O’Conors of Connacht had suffered a recent rupture only a generation earlier, causing the lordship to break into the two distinct political entities of O’Conor Don and O’Conor Ruadh (Egan 234–235). Thus, the related tasks of first confirming Curtis’s identifications in the submissions and then identifying and disambiguating references to each O’Conor in contemporary sources present a wickedly tangled problem requiring extensive cross-referencing across primary and secondary sources. In a cleaner data set, a dedicated column in the CSV might suffice. But for these O’Conors and other ambiguously named individuals, a single identification often hinges upon several sources of varying quality, and the process of identification requires detailed explication.

Places present a related challenge. The spatial network links the site of submission, given in the notarial instrument, to the participants’ seat of authority—that is, the place from which they officially exercised their office. For some participants, this is simple. Bishops, for instance, are always geolocated to their diocesan seat. (That is not to say that their authority was simple! Bishops wielded a complex combination of ecclesiastical and secular authority, as evidenced by their roles as witnesses to the submissions.) But both the Gaelic lords who submitted and the Anglo-Irish and English nobles who witnessed their submissions are often more complicated. Partly, this is due to the same issue of the fragmentary archival record. But it is also a product of political turmoil across the North Atlantic archipelago. In Ireland, the territory of resurgent Gaelic lordships was constantly in flux, with borders shifting and castles changing hands, and Scotland and the Isles experienced similar conflicts (Frame, The Political Development 212-220). In England, the reign of Richard II produced its own turmoil. Richard’s favour could be capricious, and offices came and went (Tuck). Richard’s own authority was also under threat for much of his reign. Although he had regained the royal powers that were stripped away at the Merciless Parliament in 1388, his reign ended ignominiously, first being deposed by his cousin in 1399 and then dying the following year (Tuck). The turmoil of Richard’s reign contributes to the difficulty of pinning those in his coterie to specific offices or seats of authority. Many of the English knights who travelled to Ireland and served as witnesses also held relatively minor estates, making them difficult to trace in the surviving record. As a result, many of the geolocations in Submission Strategies are approximated in one way or another. Some are clearly linked with the family in an earlier or later generation but cannot be confidently linked to the individual in the submissions. Others represent a location within the individual’s sphere of influence but may or may not be the actual seat of authority. And some place identifications are ambiguous because they are linked to ambiguous person identifications.

Authority files offer a partial solution to these challenges of ambiguity. Each family and place has its own page containing documented name variants, the submissions where the entity is referenced, a map of associated locations, primary and secondary sources from the period 1350 to 1450, a biographical or descriptive note, and in the case of places, a note on how the place was located. Authority files are a common feature of large, prosopographical projects—the MACMORRIS project, for instance, has begun releasing descriptive notes on Munster sites that will eventually be incorporated into a vast data set of “cultural actors” over a 150-year period. (Palmer et al). There are other technical solutions too. IrishGen, a database of medieval Irish genealogies (highly politicized texts fraught with their own ambiguities), employs blank nodes for unnamed individuals (Yocum, Digitizing Medieval Irish Genealogies). In Submission Strategies, the authority files scaffold the visualizations by offering the user access to the research and sources that contributed to the identifications, and by situating the submissions among a century’s worth of sources, they also help the user better grasp the complex dynastic histories that shaped Irish responses to Richard in 1395 and the relationship of 1395 to the ongoing social and political changes of the fifteenth century.

With projects like Beyond 2022 vastly expanding access to sources and surrogates for medieval Irish history, the ability to iterate is imperative for working transparently with ambiguous data. The availability of new sources offers the potential to resolve ambiguities and further nuance the existing Submission Strategies content. Version control ensures that the project can iterate responsibly. Stored in a public GitHub repository, the website’s change history is viewable and is linked prominently on the site’s front page. This facilitates good citation practices, ensuring that captures of the site can be accessed from any of its previous states. GitHub also permits multiple branches of a repository, allowing new content to be drafted and reviewed before being merged into the live site.

Authority files and version control both offer infrastructural solutions to ambiguous data, but neither can successfully address the problem without significant human labour. The project was therefore designed from the outset to support collaboration. Technically, much of this will take place on GitHub, using the same branch feature to draft, review, and merge content. The collaborative ethos also appears in the design of the site: Each page contains a “Contributors” section, and contributors will be listed prominently on the front page. The collaborative element is largely aspirational in the project’s current phase, but calls for contributors will go out as the project enters its next phase.

Imposing Categories and Eliding Identities

The submission data is not just ambiguous—it is diverse. It represents the actions and interests of a wide cross-section of the societies of the North Atlantic archipelago, including Ireland and England, but also Scotland, Wales, Man, and Guernsey. Visualizing the data and identifying patterns requires imposing categories on it, like nationality, legal status, and primary language. But those categories were malleable and imposing a category is, necessarily, to elide portions of an individual’s identity (Posner 33–34). Even when individuals self-identified with a nationality or ethnicity, their self-imposed category in that moment was influenced by timeframe, circumstance, and desired ends. MacMurrough, for instance, vacillated between loyal subject and independent king in his relations with various English authorities, depending on the particulars of his circumstance and his short-term and long-term goals (O’Byrne 107–118). Christopher Guy Yocum notes a similar challenge in assigning genre to medieval Irish texts, with modern conceptions of “cycles” having little to do with medieval Irish genre categories determined by the story’s central action. As Yocum observes, the number and nature of categories is directly relevant to the utility and accuracy of specific modes of computational analysis (“Text Clustering” 101–102). This imposition and elision of course happen in print scholarship too, sometimes in very reductive ways. However, print offers established mechanisms for nuanced labels and categories that are more difficult to implement in many digital formats. One cannot easily footnote the nodes in a network graph, for instance.

In Submission Strategies, the authority files do serve as footnotes of a sort. In addition to being accessible via a tab in the navigation, the authority files are also linked in the visualizations themselves. Each node in the network visualizations, which are built with D3.js in Observable, has a pop-up containing the name of the person or source and a link to the appropriate authority file. The map, built with LeafletJS, likewise has embedded pop-ups for each type of marker. For individuals (represented with pins), the pop-up provides the name and role they play in the submissions. For places (represented with castles for secular sites and churches for spiritual sites), the pop-up provides the site name. And for the lines that link individuals to the site of submission, the pop-up includes a list of all participants in the relevant submission event. Each pop-up also links to the authority file for the relevant family, place, or source. The goal of these pop-ups is to make clear the role of scholarly decisions in constructing the categories that determine the shape of the visualization. The visualizations also then serve as an additional discovery layer for the authority files.

Sharing Inferences and Assumptions

Many of the decisions that shape the data set have to do with filling in lacunae and making sense of conflicting sources. A further layer of transparency about this process is necessary beyond making the sources available: making visible the assumptions and inferences behind the interpretations. For instance, determining the primary seat of authority for Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of March and 6th Earl of Ulster, requires not only identifying the locations of his many possessions, but of assigning one primacy over the others. (While multiple locations appear in his authority file, one of the constraints of the full map is that each individual is pinned to a single location.) That decision might take into account Mortimer’s birthplace (Usk in Wales), his possessions in Ireland to which he laid claim but faced challenges in taking hold of (in Meath, Ulster, and Connacht), or the location of Mortimer’s family seat in the early fifteenth century (Trim Castle) (Davies). Each option carries with it both the evidence of multiple primary sources and the priorities of the scholar.

Similarly, untangling and making sense of the family relationships among submission participants can lead to prioritizing either the dynasty or the individual as the primary unit of analysis in network graphs. Both offer important insights but often come into conflict. Approaching the networks from a dynastic perspective reveals long-term patterns of association and regional networks. Using individuals as nodes masks the longer-term trends but speaks to their strategies of negotiation and reveals internecine conflicts and emerging rifts within the kin group.

Here too the authority files offer a partial answer. The sections for biographical and descriptive notes and for how sites were located are designed to shed light on the decision-making process of the contributors and to offer the user the building blocks—in the form of primary sources—to evaluate the contributor’s conclusion and to form their own.

Uncertain Representations and Other Ongoing Challenges

The trouble with encoding and visualizing ambiguous and fragmentary data is that it tends to create further layers of uncertainty. In its current form, the map only includes markers for the people and places that have been located. While there are other discovery mechanisms for those who have not yet been located (via the network graphs or the lists of authority files), the map presents my own partial data set, a fraction of a corpus that has already suffered numerous losses. The map will eventually contain markers for each person and place, some more certain than others but all accompanied by scaffolds that document the sources and decisions. In the meantime, however, the partial map is the middle ground between providing data that is insufficiently grounded in evidence and providing none at all.

The issue of partial data sets also impacts the network graphs and intersects with the challenges that arise from reconciling multiple data sets. Of the two graphs, one links individuals to notarial instruments (and therefore to submission events), and the other links individuals to each other by submission role. Each represents a single data set, the submission corpus, and therefore is complete. But the next graph draws together submissions, annals entries, chancery documents, and more to reconstruct the network of marital alliances that intersected with the submission network. This is necessarily incomplete by virtue of the fragmentary archival record. It is also riddled with similarly or identically named people who may or may not be the same individual. Representing that possibly duplicate data offers a choice between potentially skewing the map in either of two ways: eliding individuals on the basis of a shared name or proliferating the data points and weakening link strength. These uncertain representations constitute an ongoing challenge that will undoubtedly persist throughout future phases.

Future Directions

The key focus for the project as it enters its next phase is on building connections. Content development will prioritize brief “Explorations” pieces that identify and explore new connections within Ireland’s transnational network. These essays will dive into specific subsets of the data, moving from visualization as discovery mechanism to visualization as explicit, scholarly argument scaffolded by narrative and interpretation. “Explorations” in development include “Hidden Marital Networks in the Submissions to Richard II,” “The Submissions of 1395 and the Submissions of 1449: Continuities and Disruptions,” and a revised version of the paper that launched the project, “The Interpreter as Political Intermediary.” Connections are also the chief infrastructure goal of this second phase. Over the coming months, I will issue calls for collaborators, improve the workflow for editing the site, and develop criteria for reviewing site contributions. In drawing out these new connections, I hope to leverage the possibilities of digital scholarship to expand the project’s breadth, depth, and reach.

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