The Economy of Early Medieval Ireland

The Economy of Early Medieval Ireland

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The Economy of Early Medieval Ireland

Thomas R Kerr, Finbar McCormick & Aidan O’Sullivan

Early Medieval Archaeology Project: (EMAP 2) Report 7:1 December (2013)


The excavation boom in the early twenty-first century has created a substantial archaeological database for early medieval Ireland. The Early Medieval Archaeology Project (EMAP) was established to synthesise and publicise the results of these excavation. Funded under the Irish National Strategic Archaeological Research programme (INSTAR) of the Heritage Council, RoI, EMAP has produced a broad overview of the subject area (O’Sullivan et al. 2013), as well as specific monographs on the agricultural and industrial economies (EMAP 2011; EMAP 2012). This current work represents an attempt to pull together the various strands of the early medieval Irish economy and to create a synthesis of current understanding of economic activity during this period.

As such this work is divided into five chapters. Chapter 1 examines the documentary evidence for economic activity in Ireland. This is largely found in the, mainly eighth-century law tracts, which are predominantly preoccupied with the farming economy, especially pastoral farming and its relationships with the wider social structure. These works have had a major impact on the later interpretations of archaeological sites. Chapter 2 looks at the archaeological record for productive activity in Ireland. Unlike most other studies, this chapter combines both farming activity and industrial, or craft- working, activity, since it is clear that there was a substantial amount of inter- relations between these sectors during the early medieval period. Chapter 3 provides a summary of the competing economic theories for primitive commerce, and also examines the applications of these theories to the specific examples of ‘Dark Age’ Europe. Chapter 4 then considers the archaeological and documentary evidence for trade in early medieval Ireland. This is divided into imports and exports, but also considers the probable internal trade in utilitarian objects such as grindstones and iron ore. The final chapter, Chapter 5, attempts to pull together the various strands of evidence presented in the preceding chapters and to present a coherent and viable model for the early medieval Irish economy.

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