LAW TEXTS (Medieval Ireland)

Most of our knowledge of early Irish or Brehon law comes from the Old Irish law texts, mainly composed in the seventh and eighth centuries a.d. Some of these texts have survived in a complete form in later manuscripts (generally of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries), but many are to be found only in fragments.

Senchas Mar

The best preserved collection of early Irish law texts is that of the Senchas Mar, "great tradition," which is likely to have been organized as a unit about a.d. 800. The texts in this collection are all anonymous, and it is not known where or by whom it was put together. However, most of the place-names and personal names cited in the texts relate to the northern Midlands and southern Ulster, so it is probable that the material derived from this area. It may have been assembled in a monastic law school, such as that at Slane, County Meath.

Originally, the Senchas Mar consisted of about fifty law texts, arranged in three groups. There seems to be no particular logic in the order in which the texts have been placed, though some texts dealing with similar topics are found together. For example, the text on the law relating to cats, Catshlechta, is followed by the text on dogs, Conshlechta. The First Third (trian toisech) of the collection commences with an introduction in which there is a general discussion of the legal topics that are covered, as well as a description of the role Saint Patrick was believed to have played in the codification of Irish law. The second text, Di Chetharshlicht Athgabalae, deals at length with distraint (athgabal), the formal seizure of another’s property to enforce a legal claim against him. It is followed by three fragmentary texts: Di Gnmaib Giall ("On the Acts of Hostages"), Cain Iarraith ("The Law of the Fosterage Fee"), and Cain Shoerraith ("The Law of the Free Fief"). The last of these deals with the institution of free clientship, and is followed by the nearly complete Cain Aicillne, "The Law of Base Clientship." The next text, Cain Lanamna, "The Law of Couples," has survived in its entirety, and is concerned mainly with marriage and divorce. The last text in the First Third is entitled Corus Besgnai, "The Arrangement of Customary Behavior," approximately half of which survives. It discusses the nature of Irish law, the maintenance of order in society, and the relationship between the Church and the laity. It repeats material from the Introduction on the dissolution of contracts, and on Saint Patrick’s involvement with Irish law.

The Middle Third (trian medonach) is the best preserved of the three sections of the Senchas Mar. It contains sixteen texts, of which thirteen have been preserved in their entirety; considerable portions of the remaining three texts have also survived. The first text of the Middle Third is entitled Na Sechtae, "The Heptads," and is of special value to the student of early Irish law, as it covers a wide range of subjects, arranging the material in groups of seven, for example, the seven churches that may be destroyed with impunity, seven kings who are not entitled to honor-price, and seven women who have sole responsibility for rearing their offspring. The next text, Bretha Comaithchesa, "The Judgements of Neighborhood," deals with trespass by domestic animals, fencing obligations, and so on. Two specialized treatments of the law of neighborhood also occur in the Middle Third. These are Bechbretha, "Bee-judgements," which includes a discussion of trespass by honey-bees, and Coibnes Uisci Thairidne, "Kinship of Conducted Water," which provides rules for bringing water for a mill across a neighbor’s land. The final text in the Middle Third is the partially preserved Bretha im Gata, "Judgements Concerning Thefts."

The Last Third (trian deidenach) is the least complete section of the Senchas Mar, and there is still a good deal of uncertainty as to its original complement. In his study "On the Original Extent of the Senchas Mar" Liam Breatnach lists twenty-three texts in the Last Third, and it is probable that the original number was higher. For example, there is evidence that the text on trapping deer, Osbretha—of which only a few fragments accompanied by later commentary survive— belonged here. Likewise, the Last Third may have contained Bretha Luchtaine and Bretha Goibnenn, texts on the law relating to carpenters and blacksmiths, respectively. No material that can be assigned to these texts has so far been identified, but Breatnach provides evidence that the associated Bretha Creidine, on the law relating to coppersmiths, belonged in this section. Only three texts belonging to the Last Third are complete. These are the short text on sick-maintenance (othras) and the longer medico-legal texts Bretha Crolige, "Judgements of Blood-lying," and Bretha Dein Checht, "Judgements of Dian Cecht (a Legendary Physician)."

Other Legal Traditions

Another less clearly defined group of law texts has Munster associations, and includes Bretha Nemed toisech, Bretha Nemed deidenach, and Cain Fhuithirbe. It seems that the wisdom text Audacht Morainn also belongs in this tradition, as it has verbal correspondences with both Bretha Nemed texts. Binchy suggested that the text on status Uraicecht Becc, "Small Primer," likewise comes from a Munster tradition, as it refers to the preeminence of the king of Munster, as well as to the monasteries of Cork and Emly. Other law texts—such as the invaluable excursus on status Crith Gablach, "Branched Purchase"— have no known connection with the Senchas Mar collection or with the Munster group of texts. Another important text that stands apart from the rest is Gubretha Caratniad, "The False Judgements of Caratnia," which gives fifty-one exceptions to the general principles of early Irish law.

Origin of the Texts

The linguistic evidence indicates that the essential features of the early Irish legal system go back at least as far as the Common Celtic period (c. 1000 b.c.). Thus, there are many correspondences between Irish, Welsh, and Breton legal vocabulary. For example, Old Irish macc, "surety," is cognate with Old Breton and Medieval Welsh mach of the same meaning. Similarly, Old Irish diles, "immune from legal process," is cognate with Old Breton diles and Medieval Welsh dilys of the same meaning. Correspondences of this type indicate that such basic legal concepts were recognized long before the coming of Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century a.d. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the impact of Christian learning on early Irish law was immense. The introduction of Latin letters revolutionized the transmission of legal material, and allowed for legal topics to be treated in detail, whereas previously only the salient points could be passed on by word of mouth.

There is strong evidence that the law texts were written in monastic scriptoria, as the legal manuscripts use the same spelling system, script, punctuation, abbreviations, and illuminated capitals as are found in manuscripts of monastic origin. In addition, many of the law texts show the influence of the Latin grammarians in their use of the question-and-answer technique, and of etymological explanations of legal terms and other words. There are also strong Christian influences to be observed in the content of the law texts. In the text on status Crith Gablach, it is stated the king should rise up before the bishop "on account of the Faith," and many other texts make special reference to the privileged position in society of the Church and its clergy. There are also frequent references to Biblical principles and personalities, and some direct quotations and adaptations from Canon law. On the basis of this evidence, some scholars have held that most or all of the authors of the law texts were clerics. On the other hand, doubt has been expressed that clerics were responsible for law texts such as Cain Lanamna and Bretha Crolige, in which concubinage and divorce have explicit legal status.

Style and Content of the Law Texts

The style employed in the law texts varies considerably. The majority of them are in prose, but some— particularly those associated with the Munster tradition— are largely in verse. The manner in which the information is presented is similarly variable. Texts such as the Heptads and Gubretha Caratniad cover a wide range of legal issues, but most deal with a single topic, often quite specialized. Thus, the long text Bretha im Fhuillema Gell deals solely with the interest payable for pledges given by a person on behalf of another. The technical information present in such detailed treatments renders them of great interest to the social and economic historian, as well as to the student of law. For example, the medico-legal texts Bretha Crolige and Bretha Dein Checht supply a great deal of information on early Irish medical practice. In general, it can be said that the authors of the law texts display an intelligent and humane attitude towards legal problems, and a deep concern that justice should be done. However, the hierarchical and inegalitarian nature of early Irish society is reflected throughout these documents. Disappointingly, there is hardly any case law, so it is difficult to know how the principles of Irish law were applied in practice. From the ninth century, it seems that very few further law texts were composed, and thereafter the energies of the law schools were mainly devoted to the work of copying and interpreting the existing texts through the provision of explanatory glosses and commentaries.

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