WOMEN (Medieval Ireland)

Women in Sagas

Irish sagas set in the pre-Christian period feature some very masterful heroines, notably Medb, queen of Connacht, who has equal property and power with her husband, King Ailell, and leads a great army to invade the province of Ulster in the famous saga Tain Bo Cuailnge (the Cattle-raid of Cooley), from the Ulster cycle. This can give people the impression that women had greater freedom and control in pagan Ireland before the norms of Christianity redefined their role in society. However, there are two problems with this interpretation. First, most sagas were actually written between the ninth and the twelfth centuries or later, by Christian scribes adapting their rich inheritance of old traditions to suit the taste of their own times. Second, a number of their female protagonists, Queen Medb in particular, were based on goddesses or female symbols of sovereignty, whose extensive powers reflect their own supernatural attributes rather than the role of ordinary women at any date.

Women in Saints’ Lives

Female saints also had supernatural attributes, in the sense that the Latin or Irish accounts of their lives credit them with many miracles. Otherwise they are shown as respected abbesses running communities of nuns, and the Lives may give us clues about the life of female religious communities in the early period. They show the nuns employing men to plow the lands attached to their communities, entertaining visiting bishops and abbots to hospitable meals that might include home-brewed beer, fostering young boys ultimately destined for the priesthood, and giving them their early education. Certain saints, like Lasair of Kilronan, are reputed to have pursued academic studies under the instruction of male saints and to have become qualified to instruct male clerics themselves, but the Life of St. Lasair is a late text written in a secular school of hereditary male historians, and it is uncertain if this feature of the Life is based on very early tradition. The fact is, we have no Latin works from early Ireland attributed to female authors, though we may have some Irish poems, such as "St. Ite’s Lullaby to the Baby Jesus" or "The Lament of the Hag (or Nun) of Beare." Another feature of the Lives of Irish saints, male and female, is the saint’s tendency to wander through the countryside from church to church, founding new communities, prescribing the tribute to be paid to the mother church, and blessing future generations of local families as long as they continue to be obedient to the saint’s "heir," or successor, the head of the prinicipal church dedicated to that saint. This is clearly a literary device by the writer of a saint’s Life to cast an aura of sanctity over territorial and financial rights claimed by the principal church in later generations, so again it is uncertain whether this reflects a real tendency of early nuns to leave their convents to wander on extensive tours of affiliated churches. However, as "heir" to the lands and authority endowing her nunnery, any abbess qualified as a female landowner, and this was the one class of female who did enjoy a degree of independence and power in early Irish law.

Landownership in the Laws

Old Irish law tracts discuss property rights, forms of marriage, and legal capacity. Full status as a free citizen in early Ireland depended on landownership, and family lands could only be transmitted through male heirs. If a man had no sons, his daughter might inherit his share of the family estate for her lifetime. Such an heiress would have the legal rights of a property owner, and the same public liability for tax and services as a male landowner. According to commentaries added to the law tracts around the eleventh or twelfth centuries, a female heiress, if she wished to hold all instead of only half of her father’s land, must undertake to provide military service at the local king’s summons, by paying and arming a kinsman to fight on her behalf. However, she could not pass on her estate to her children. After her death it would revert to her father’s kindred, unless she married her first cousin on her father’s side or another close relative, allowing her children to inherit the land through their father.

Legal Capacity

Apart from these exceptional heiresses, women received only movable property—cows, household goods, or silver—from their fathers, normally as marriage goods. They were thus "second-class citizens," legally dependent on their fathers or brothers if they were single, or on their husbands or grown-up sons if they were married. These male guardians were responsible for seeing that compensation was received for injuries inflicted on their womenfolk, or that fines were paid for crimes or damage committed by the women.

However, women were not completely without rights. Honor price (log n-enech) was a graded value applied to different classes in society, and used by lawyers to calculate the amount of compensation a freeman or noble could claim for insults or injuries. A wife’s honor price was set at half the value of her husband’s. This gave an officially married wife the same status as an adult son still living under his father’s roof. If the male head of the household struck a bad bargain involving an overpayment that might result in financial loss to his family, the wife or son could object and dissolve the husband’s contract within a period of ten days after the initial agreement. The husband had an even greater right to object to his wife’s contracts, for a period of fifteen or twenty days after she agreed to a bargain. Secondary wives or concubines with children had lesser rights, and concubines with no children had even less control. However, the looser the tie between a woman and her partner, the stronger the connection she retained to her own kindred, and this could provide protection against wife-beating, for example.


Although Old Irish treatises on customary law bear all the signs of having been written by or for clerics, surprisingly they recognize many more types of union between man and woman than a monogamous Christian marriage. They were compiled between the seventh and the ninth century c.e., before Carolingian church reforms gave Continental clergy a greater role in regulating marriage laws, and at a time when Christian Merovingian and Anglo-Saxon kings publicly kept concubines and sometimes passed on their thrones to the sons of those concubines. Old Irish law tracts give pride of place to a man’s one official wife, the "first in the household" (cetmuinter), who normally contributed movable property of her own to the joint housekeeping and was entitled to receive it back, with any accumulated profits, if the couple divorced later. Divorce could be initiated by either the husband or the wife, on a number of grounds. A wife, for example could cite her husband’s impotence or sterility, beating her severely enough to leave a scar, homosexuality causing him to neglect her marriage bed, failure to provide for her support, discussing her sexual performance in public, spreading rumors about her, his having tricked her into marriage by using magic arts, or his having abandoned her for another woman. In this last case, however, the first wife had the right to remain in the marriage if she wished, and was then entitled to continued maintenance from her husband.

A man could only marry another cetmuinter if his first wife was a permanent invalid unable to fulfill her marital duty, but it was not uncommon for husbands to acquire one or more secondary wives or concubines, known in the Old Irish tracts as airech, but significantly described in the later commentaries as adaltrach (adulteress). Irish marital customs attracted severe criticism from church reformers in the late eleventh century. Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury referred to Irishmen arbitrarily divorcing one wife in exchange for another "by the law of marriage or rather the law of fornication," and Pope Gregory VII heard it rumoured that many Irish "not only desert their lawful wives, but even sell them."

The Later Middle Ages

Officially all this was changed after the twelfth century church reform. Roman canon law was enforced through the decisions of church courts in each diocese. Following the Anglo-Norman invasion, feudalism was introduced into Ireland, along with English common law, which was particularly rigid in its insistence that a landowner’s son could only inherit his father’s estate if he was born after the canonically legitimate marriage of his parents.

However, it soon became obvious that English common law would apply in Ireland only to the settlers of English descent. An attempt by Irish church leaders to bribe King Edward I to extend common law to all native Irishmen living south of Ulster was blocked by the Anglo-Irish barons, and the Irish continued to be ruled by their own customary law, or "brehon law." Since this allowed illegitimate sons to inherit land along with those born of a church marriage, there was no economic incentive for Irish nobles to reform their marital habits. Arbitrary divorce followed by a remarriage that was invalid in the eyes of the church continued to be common, together with legally recognized contracts of concubinage, sealed by a bride-price paid by the man to the girl’s family. It was open to a divorced wife to appeal to a church court to have her marriage declared still valid, but aristocratic erring husbands were normally able to demonstrate, through the arguments of their advocates, that the marriage in question had never been valid because they were too closely related to their wife, or they had already been married to a former repudiated wife who was still living when the second marriage took place.

The medieval Irish women who were most likely to sue their husbands to have their marriage reinstated were the wives of chieftains, because as the local queen, the chief’s wife received certain lands and taxes, and occupied a seat on the council of nobles who represented her husband’s territory. Queens’ dowries formed an important source of movable wealth that could be drawn on for the ransoming of hostages, and this gave them a role in negotiating peace treaties and the release of captives. The most influential of all the queens were those who brought not wealth, but a regiment of soldiers to their husband as their dowry. Some of these retained considerable control over these military forces after their marriage, the best-known being the Scottish princess Infon Dubh, warlike mother of the famous Red Hugh O’Donnell, and Grainne O’Malley, the "pirate queen," both in the late sixteenth century.

Ordinary Irishwomen are first described by foreigners, medieval pilgrims to St. Patrick’s Purgatory, or the bureaucrats of the Tudor reconquest. All report a generally relaxed attitude toward nudity and sex, which may relate to the failure of the Gregorian drive for clerical celibacy to make much headway in rural Ireland. Christina Harrington has noted that Irish churchmen, often themselves married, did not normally demonize woman in their writings or project her as a temptress responsible for man’s sins. Young girls in Cork were seen by Fynes Moryson grinding corn stark naked, presumably to preserve their clothes from flour. The rural prostitutes of sixteenth century Gaelic Ireland, described by Edmund Spenser as monashul (mna siul: wandering women), in default of urban centers wandered from place to place and fair to fair, and were seen as just one of the lower-class entertainers like gamesters or jugglers, suitable recipients of a great lord’s fringe hospitality. Moryson noted as unusual that gentlewomen and Irish chieftains’ wives stayed drinking "health after health" with the men at banquets, though unmarried maidens might be sent away after the first few rounds. Modern Irish Puritanism originated in the seventeenth century, promoted by the Counter-Reformation missionaries and the extension of English common law to Gaelic Ireland under James I.

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