New Book Explores Links between Death and Social Memory in Medieval Ireland

Historian Joanna MacGugan delves into the stories behind coroners and capital punishment.
By: Joanna MacGugan, Author
DUBLIN - Oct. 18, 2023 - PRLog -- Four Courts Press, Ireland's leading academic book publisher, today announced the release of Social Memory, Reputation and the Politics of Death in the Medieval Irish Lordship, the first book by medieval historian Joanna MacGugan, PhD. Death and dying are popular subjects among historians, but medieval Ireland is often overlooked. MacGugan's book takes medieval death studies in new directions using records from the English government, which ruled much of Ireland's eastern seaboard from the late twelfth century.

MacGugan focuses on the social practices at the heart of the lordship's legal culture, uncovering the shared experiences and social memories behind collective decisions about truth. The study is grounded in the popular notion that "all politics are local politics" and the idea that control over administrative aspects of death—the coroner's jurisdiction and sentences of capital punishment, specifically—offered certain political advantages.

"These cases show us that everyday people had more influence over the course of criminal justice than a traditional 'top-down' approach to history might convey because it's all about who controls the story," MacGugan explains. "It was the people who lived and worked alongside both killers and victims, the neighbors who knew about every feud, who were the most trusted sources for the justices' decisions—and this was their superpower."

In Social Memory, MacGugan uncovers some of the dramatic, unnatural deaths that shattered communities. The author also explores the social networks and motivations behind jurors' decisions to send members of their own communities to the gallows. Sentencing for homicides, specifically, involved debates over the ethnicity of victims because the consequences for murdering an Irish person were far less than for murdering an English person.

Threaded throughout is an emphasis on how the English of Ireland adapted longstanding oral culture to achieve their goals and assert greater authority over legal aspects of death. The sources highlight how they capitalized on social memory in a period when surging violence threatened the English colony. Modern readers will see parallels with the persistence of oral culture in our own lives. We have never stopped adapting and remaking oral culture as witnessed by the popularity of radio plays in the 20th century and audio books and podcasts today.

Social Memory blends many overlapping themes: death and dying, medieval city life, colonialism, criminal justice, and evolving relationships between orality and literacy. MacGugan provides the relevant historical background for general audiences who may not be familiar with medieval Ireland.

The author is available for podcast interviews and lectures.

Purchase Social Memory from Four Courts Press:

Joanna MacGugan, Author
Source:Joanna MacGugan, Author
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