Unearthing buried secrets
As well as being the rumoured burial place of St Nicholas, the deserted medieval village of Newtown Jerpoint has many secrets about rural life in medieval Ireland waiting to be discovered.
In the lead up to Christmas, the social media attention generated by the deserted medieval village of Newtown Jerpoint – located on the southern bank of the River Nore near Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny – hones in on a tale in local folklore connecting an elaborate tomb near the village’s ruined church with the bones of St. Nicholas, the man who inspired Santa Claus.
This connection is not necessarily as improbable as it first appears: at the time when settlers from Norman England and Wales were establishing the village at Jerpoint in the early 13th century, several churches around Europe claimed to possess relics of St Nicholas’ body, some as small as a single finger bone.
While there remains no strong evidence to support this tale, the village is still of intrigue. Places like Newtown Jerpoint have over the last fifteen years become subject to more research in an effort to better understand society, settlement and economy in medieval rural Ireland.
One person conducting such research is Teagasc Walsh Scholar Daniel O’Mahony, whose project has sought to re-examine existing data and incorporate new information from a geophysical survey and previously undiscovered documents to flesh out a narrative about rural life in Ireland from the 1200s to the late 1600s.
Using technology to retrace old structures
By the end of the 13th century, Newtown was known to possess a tannery, a brewhouse, a mill, a court and a parish church. The single biggest industry in the village, however (as was the case everywhere in medieval Europe), was farming.
In 2007, a laser-based remote sensing technique known as LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) was carried out by the Discovery Programme – Ireland’s national archaeological research body supported by the Heritage Council. Through the resulting survey, scholars were able to identify a rare Irish example of ridge and furrow (an archaeological pattern of ridges and troughs), synonymous with high-yield arable output across the continent at the time.
“This type of agriculture was typically carried out in an unenclosed three-field crop rotation system,” explains Daniel, “where tenants of different grades would hold strips scattered across the fields, ensuring them a fair distribution of planted and fallow ground.
“These strips were ploughed into ridges using a heavy plough drawn by a team of oxen. In order to turn across the headland, the team had to be directed to the left to be brought back around for the next pass, resulting in a reverse ‘s’ shaped mound. These ‘selions’, as they are known, are visible in the boundaries of the property plots within the village (Figure 1), indicating that the land was under cultivation before the foundation of the village.”
This method of landscape organisation and cultivation for increased crop yields was connected with a growing population and a warm climactic period that lasted until the start of the 14th century. In this period, a numerically small but socially impactful population movement from the central continent and Britain to peripheral countries like Ireland, as well as Slavic countries in the East, resulted in many new settlements such as Newtown.
After the end of the warm period, reliance on arable farming – particularly in marginal areas – proved impractical and possibly resulted in the shrinkage of a number of settlements. The Bruce Invasion of Ireland (1315-1318) and the Black Death during the mid-century also contributed to the declining fortunes of Ireland’s agricultural settlements.
Newtown continued to exist mainly thanks to the existence of its market, a nearby bridge and the fertile lands of the Nore valley.
“Farming became more mixed, incorporating sheep and other livestock,” says Daniel. “The nearby Cistercian monastic community at Jerpoint Abbey were known to have been expert sheep farmers, and the market at Newtown would have benefited from the trade they brought in wool and meat.”
A record from 1375 lists a great number of goods likely to appear for sale at the market in Newtown, including a variety of oats, animal meat and hides, cloth, fish and raw materials. The importance of husbandry can be seen reflected in the domestic architecture in the village. Peasant longhouses have been identified for the first time by this research both on LIDAR imagery and on a recent geophysical survey of the settlement (Figure 2). These buildings had two chambers, with the eastern end usually functioning as a shed for the housing of animals.
Desertion and destruction
Newly discovered documents detailing late 17th century landholding in the area points to the consolidation of farm land by wealthy individuals – a process which appears to have begun as early as the 15th century, and which went hand in hand with depopulation and, ultimately, land enclosure.
By the beginning of the 17th century, the village of Newtown was largely deserted, with perhaps only a handful of cottagers inhabiting the ‘long street’ through the village. These were likely labourers on one or more large farms held in tenure by wealthy locals.
Based on field surveys and cartographic analysis carried out during research, it can been shown that the land around the village was not enclosed in the manor we are familiar with today, until after it had been deserted in the late 17th or early 18th century.
“Around the time of the Great Famine in the mid-19th century, locals cleared the ruins of the village to make room for potato drills,” says Daniel. “Further geophysical survey is planned for later in the year to determine the full extent of settlement at Newtown, and possibly the location of an earlier settlement called Oldtown.
“Today, the owners of the land provide tours of the site, while sheep browse the grass over its remaining hidden secrets.”
This project is funded by the Teagasc Walsh Scholarship Programme and the Heritage Council of Ireland.
[figure title] Figure 1. LIDAR image showing curving boundaries likely formed from earlier ‘selions’
[figure title] Figure 2. LIDAR image showing longhouses (combined with a magnetic map)
[pic cap 1] Purported tomb of St. Nicholas
[pic cap 2] Ruin of St Nicholas’ church, Jerpoint