Medieval settlement enclosures and resource management of living trees in Gaelic Ireland
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The aim of this thesis is to problematise and investigate relationships between living trees and earthen settlement enclosures, mainly termed ráth and commonly used by Gaelic society in medieval Ireland (c. 8th – 17th century). For many centuries, the enduring ráth has been an inevitable host to a wide variety of flora, especially trees, and fauna, which must be brought to bear on how we view these monuments in their past and present landscapes. Trees are presented and interpreted in this thesis as material culture, with agency, in the dialogue of Gaelic society with nature. Drawing mainly on the results of field-based investigation of a corpus of treed settlement enclosures in the four provinces of Ireland, combined with a review of the emic portrayal of trees in Gaelic historical and literary sources, relationships between people, trees, the ráth, and to a lesser extent the moated site, are investigated. Actor-Network theory is used to examine those relationships as a meaningful network of objects, ideas and texts. The value of trees as a practical resource is well attested in Gaelic literature, but trees also had an important cultural role in the Gaelic world-view as living entities imbued with symbolic and ideological attributes. Hazel, for example, was valued for its rods and nuts and ideologically associated with wisdom, kingship and hospitality. The remarkable survival of thousands of medieval earthen settlement enclosures in the Irish landscape is testimony to a long-lived culture of their curation and management. It is argued that the roles of trees, as important actors in the life-histories of enclosures, were fundamental to the sustained use of this common settlement form. Furthermore, it is proposed that the symbolic significance of the association between trees and the ráth, best exemplified by the bile ráth (the venerable tree of enclosures), was important to expressions of authority and identity among Gaelic elites. The principal finding of this thesis is that considerations of the roles of the ráth should be broadened to include the potential of this settlement form as a place where trees were intentionally planted and managed for utility and aesthetic purposes.
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