‘Traditional’ Irish Marriage(s) in Early Medieval Ireland

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Monasterboice High Cross & Round Tower (Image: Author)

Contrary to the impression often given by modern religious zealots who advocate a return to ‘traditional Irish values’ in matters of sexual and moral behavior, early Irish society was unequivocal in it’s recognition of, and support for, multiple marriage and divorce.
(Ó Cróinín, 1995, 127)
In the longest established of the western churches outside the Roman Empire and in a society in which Christian Latin culture flourished in a remarkable way, the norms of Christian marriage were not, paradoxically, accepted in society generally (we shall see later that there were exceptions) throughout the middle ages…
 …it is surely interesting that the Christian Irish lawyers, most of whom were clerics, should appear to consider marriage within a theoretical framework different from that of the contemporary church and should frame their practical rulings accordingly. 
(Ó Corráin, 1985, 5)

Following on from the last historical perspective on the unparallelled irony in modern religious opposition to the forthcoming Irish Marriage Equality Referendum, I have one final addendum, so to speak, stemming from an interesting claim on national radio by an honourable member of the above ( in conjunction with numerous others references within media to the ‘institution’ of marriage and ‘tradition’ ‘since time immemorial’):

Early Medieval Irish society was complex, fluid, dynamic and messy. We can see this in its archaeology and literature. We see it in the fragmentary extracts of early Irish law texts whose codification and survival is largely a result of early ecclesiastical interest and effort. In a highly stratified, unequal and patriarchal society, Early Irish Laws provide us not only with some of the socio-economic concerns that necessitated and demanded legal definition, but also the cognitive terms underpinning such subjects.

It’s use and choice of language provide us with glimpses in how they conceived and understood certain concepts, parameters, and classifications. Idealized legal notions of how things should work (Canon Law)  alongside more realistic expectations and provisions (Vernacular Law)  of how things actually did.

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Image: Author

Getting hitched in early medieval Ireland, c.700/800 AD, had very little to do with the church, despite Ireland having been largely Christianized a century or two earlier.  Indeed, it would be another four or five centuries before the church would come to legally and morally dominate insular marriage practices. Within these centuries there was a complex duality of systems concerning unions – a multistranded ‘marriage of convenience’ between two competing frameworks involving a cross fertilization of  Canon laws (like portions of the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis) with that of vernacular laws, (such as Cáin Lánamna).

The former, an idealized version of Christian marital behaviour based on biblical and patristic influences, and the latter, influenced by Roman Law and insular traditions, dealing with the more realistic day to day practicalities of inheritance, property, transference and equitable division. Polygamy, concubines (both secular and ecclesiastical), adultery, incest, divorce and multiple serial unions were commonplace, and both sets of laws clearly attempt to mitigate, both for and against, all and sundry.

Taken together with early Irish fosterage, both secular and ecclesiastical, there would have been quite a variety of ‘traditional’ familiar units, unions and customs. Some children would have grown up with a father and a mother. Some would have grown up with other people as fathers and mothers, ultimately having two of each. Some would have had a father and two mothers. Some would have had three or more mothers. Some would have been raised by different fathers. Some would have even had several fathers – and no mothers – if they were raised in the church itself, growing up within a ‘same sex’ environment. The same goes for those those raised in dedicated female foundations. No fathers – lots of mothers.

The notion of the ubiquitous validity of legal norms, such as exists in the modern state, scarcely existed.
Breen, (2005, 533)
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Image: Author

The funny thing is, Christian people living in this island over 1300 years ago (and probably even further back too, considering these laws were already ‘old’ when they were first written down) had no problem with multiple traditional marriages, multiple forms of unions, and/or multiple prescriptions and definitions of what marriage could and should be. Its not that surprising really, seeing as there were multiple levels within its stratified society. Yet, despite inherent inequality, there was an apparent (proto) civic and religious understanding that all possible forms of marriage should be legally addressed, included, and provided for – under one or another legal systems – quite often, in both.

Each influenced by, and continuing to influence, the other. A hybrid of socio-economic realities, traditions, moralities, theology – and most of all, the foibles of humanity itself – the messiness and fluidity of human nature.

Cáin Lánanma ‘the law of (married) couples’ (cf. lánamnas: ‘partnership, social and/or legal relationship between two parties) contains 9/10 different forms of sexual unions and is one of the more widely cited examples of just how early Irish society conceived of, and classified, different ways of being ‘married’ – including, unfortunately, sexual exploitation and assault. Again, despite inherent inequality, there is much detail concerning the equitable division of what was brought into various unions by both parties. What is especially interesting are the words used and the cognitive underlying inferences and usage within that, and other legal texts, concerning ‘traditional unions or marriage(s)’

airnaidm: the act of binding; bond, guarantee, act of betrothal, contracting marriage

aititiu: act of acknowledging, admitting; acknowledgement; of recognition of ownership of property, a type of marriage

ar-naisc: binds, guarantees, betroths, gives in marriage

comchengal: act of fastening, bond, union, connection

commaid: companionship, partnership, compact, in the company (of), in alliance (with)

cor: act of marriage contract guarantee(s), undertaking, term(s)

daingnigidir: makes fast, fixes, fortifies, marriage

dál: an agreement, a contract, covenant, espousals, betrothal

lánamanda: one of the two parties to a legal relationship (lánamain), in partnership (with)

lánamnas: partnership, social and/or legal relationship between two parties, marriage, (un)lawful wedlock

naidmid: binds (a contract, etc.), lays an obligation,  betrothing:;

núachar: a mate, a spouse; a companion, a wife, a husband; poetic term, used of both sexes.

núachrad: wedlock

pósad: the act of marrying or espousing, marriage, of a declaration of mutual love, not a marriage by rite

snaidmid: binds, joins, betrothes, espouses

téchtae: legal, due, as prescribed by law, tradition, etc. In more general sense ‘fitting, proper, suitable’ In Laws ‘legal rightness, that which is in conformity with law’

You don’t need to look very hard to notice the overriding cognitive association coming through. A partnership, a contract, a pledge, a guarantee, a binding and tying together of two parties, openly acknowledged and given legal status in the eyes of the public at large. Multiple versions of different types of unequal partnerships, ironically, given equal recognition within the law codes of the day.

This isn’t Ireland next week… its Ireland, 1300 years ago.

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Image: Author

Of course, I’m playing devils advocate with rhetoric. It goes without saying that the early Irish Christians never envisaged the possibility that one day, members of the same sex could even, would even, be able to marry. In the same way that Early Irish Christians never imagined that one day endemic slavery would be considered reprehensible; that stealing your neighbors cattle would be deemed criminally anti-social; or that women would have the freedom to do pretty much anything without needing the permission of male relatives.

In the same way, these same early Irish Christians certainly never imagined that, one day, a wedding in a church in front of a cleric would be considered the insular social norm.

And yet, religious incredulity aside, it would appear that these same early Irish Christians had more cognitive ability, theoretical frameworks, linguistic understanding & legal sophistication then we do today – perhaps even, just as capable, if not more, of including and implementing what is being proposed in the forthcoming Irish Marriage Equality Referendum.

The Catholic Church in Ireland has been consistently ‘redefining’ marriage(s) – theologically, morally, legally and traditionally – ever since. It redefined what it had itself inherited from the Old Testament. It helped to (re)define early vernacular and canon law concerning marital unions in the 7th and 8th centuries, introducing both financial and penitential punishments for transgressions, simultaneously trying to stamp out polygamy despite providing a biblical precedent for same. It redefined both secular and ecclesiastical marriage, legally and theologically, in the church reforms of the 11th and 12th centuries. It redefined marriage again when it implemented the directions of the Council of Trent in the 16th century. It improvised and went with the flow during penal times of the 17th and 18th century when, irony of ironies, Catholic churches and clergy were scarce on the ground by virtue of being deemed illegal and unequal in the eyes of the governing state/religion. It naturally re-adapted again following 19th century emancipation.

If anything, the only ‘traditional’ aspect of marriage in Ireland is its long history of legal change.

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The story of Christianity in general, let alone within Ireland, is one of constant adaptation, innovation and redefinition- something sadly lost on many modern day practitioners and a hierarchy who believe, naively, in a regurgitated fairytale version of a pseudo-universal, unchanging, ‘institution’ stretching back to the figure of an illiterate Judean fisherman called Shim’on/Petrus via the figure of a Romano-British teenager stained with the stigma of homosexuality. The actual story of ‘traditional marriage(s) in Ireland, like today, is far more complex, varied, splintered and downright messy.

The religious monopoly on Irish marriage traditions and customs is not as large, or as ancient as some might claim. Go back 800 years and you find something far more layered and complex then most would give medieval people credit for: a concept of marriage(s) based on the reality and cognition of multiple parameters and definitions stretching back another 800 years or so – within a legal system stretching even further back into late prehistory.

As such, the ancient ‘traditional’ Christian Irish marriage espoused by No campaigners never really existed. Not for that long, anyway, and most certainly, not in the conservative way they think it did. Compared with an older Insular Irish tradition of multiple marriages(s) and multiple legal definitions for same, it  represents a much later developmental practice. People on this island, from late prehistory through to the first five or six centuries of Christianization, were more than capable of thinking of ‘marriage’ in a curiously proto-modern way. Long before it was ever sanctified in religious ‘institutional’ dressage, it wore the plain outfit of a secular legal framework.

Traditional Irish marriage(s)? The clue is in the plural.

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Breen, A. (2005) ‘Marriage’, in Seán Duffy (ed) et. al., Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia, Routledge, New York, 532-534

Charles-Edwards, T.M. (2000) Early Christian Ireland, Cambridge University Press

Cosgrave, A. (1985) (Ed.) Marriage in Medieval Ireland’, Dublin (edited version) in History Ireland, Issue 3 (1994), Medieval History, Medieval Social Perspectives, Volume 2

eDIL: Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language

Kelly, F. (1988) A guide to early Irish law (Dublin, DIAS)

Kenny, G. (2013). ‘When Two Worlds Collide: Marriage and the Law in Medieval Ireland’, in Cordelia Beattie and Matthew Frank Stevens (eds.) Married Women and the Law in Premodern Northwest Europe. pp. 53-70. [Online]. Gender in the Middle Ages. (No. 8). Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer. Available from: University Publishing Online

Ó Corráin, D. (1985) Marriage in Ireland, (ed.) A. Cosgrove, Dublin, 5-24.

Ó Corráin, D. (1995) ‘Women and the law in Early Ireland‘, in Mary O’Dowd & Sabine Wichert (eds.) Chattel, servant or citizen: women’s status in church, state and society, Historical Studies, Belfast, 45–57

Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí (1995) Early Medieval Ireland, 400–1200, London and New York.

O’Loughlin, T. (1997) Marriage and Sexuality in the Hibernensis, Peritia 11, 88-206.

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17 thoughts on “‘Traditional’ Irish Marriage(s) in Early Medieval Ireland

  1. Right, where do I being. The idea that marriage is about procreation or providing a basis though offspring are protected whether it is through inheritance rights or otherwise is also true in early medieval law. If anything increasing church influence on marriage has been a progressive process.
    Early medieval law and social norms did permit some abhorrent practises that outside (partially church) influence did eliminate.

    BTW the no campaigners are not arguing for church monopoly on marriage.

    “Long before it was ever sanctified in religious ‘institutional’ dressage, it wore the plain outfit of a secular legal framework”
    Faulty fuzzy here. We don’t know much about pre-Christian Irish marriage. It could have easily been religious monopoly.

    Sad to see nasty political ideologies seeping into otherwise solid scholarship.

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    • Many thanks for taking the time to reply. To paraphrase a well know meme from ‘The Princess Bride’ (See what I did there?)… I do not think I actually said, what you think I said.

      I’m honestly not sure what you were trying to say in the first part of your reply. But I am genuinely grateful for the wonderful example of attempted obfuscation and distraction away from the substantive issues of the post – something which was a popular modus operandi of the ‘No campaign’ here in Ireland in recent months – and which would naturally be lost on those readers abroad. I couldn’t have illustrated it any better.

      Re: the second part, I apologize if the preceding sentence wasn’t clear enough to clarify what I was saying: ‘People on this island, from late prehistory through to the first five or six centuries of Christianization…’. I am grateful of the opportunity to clarify any fuzziness. The secular legal framework it enjoyed was precisely that of the first five or six centuries following Christianisation, before it ever started to become the religious ‘institution’ held up by some modern day commentators.

      We don’t know *anything* about pre-Christian Irish marriage and I know of no serious scholar who would ever claim to. So that’s probably not what I meant. When I said Late Prehistory – I was referring to the late fourth/early fifth century AD, a time when what would be later codified as early Irish law was well in existence, as evidenced by the fleeting reference to legal jurors, prices and compensation within the Historical Patrick’s writings.

      Seeing as a native Irish/vernacular legal system was already in existence in multiple territories during his time, and seeing that multiple marriage(s) appears to have been facilitated within the same system throughout the first five or six centuries following Christianization – without any apparent problem or need for its Christian authors to attempt to monopolize it, or fill any religious gaps – I think its fairly logical, not to say obvious, that whatever form it took, it did not seem to have had any tradition of ritual/pagan association.

      However, the term late prehistory is indeed fuzzy, so I take your point. I have taken the liberty of inserting a hyperlink to further clarification of the above, within the post. Many thanks for drawing my attention to it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. While wholeheartedly disagreeing with the apparent motivation behind this piece, I must share my great appreciation for your deep and time consuming research. Your presentation is interesting and fact-filled. This is one of many articles I’ve seen that display the hard-working diligence and organization of the homosexual lobby. Ireland passed “gay marriage”. It was a fascinating legal and social change. I’m curious when the homosexual lobby will pass natural human procreation between same-sex partners. That would be much more interesting an accomplishment. Thanks for the great writing.

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    • Thank you for your kind words and honesty, which coming from a person of faith, I can appreciate. If it has served to make people like your good self pause for thought, regardless of agreements/disagreements, then it has served a small purpose.

      I’m afraid I cannot claim to belong to, or represent, any kind of organized ‘homosexual lobby’. The piece was written primarily as an unsolicited historical perspective on current events. However, if one could consider a nerdy academic type, using what little abilities they have to highlight historical and religious ironies within contemporary unchristian attitudes, in order to support and speak up for c.10% of his fellow citizens previously denied civic equality as being a large part of the original motivation – then by all means, colour me a proud and well meaning homosexual lobbyist. Personally, I’d see it as just being part of a civic duty and responsibility.

      Best regards.

      Liked by 1 person

      • “c.10% of his fellow citizens previously denied civic equality as being a large part of the original motivation”

        The 10% figure is from debunked studies from several generations ago. It can’t be used in any serious academic discussion. In addition, the whole argument is baffling and full of holes. If you feel that civic equality was being denied prior to the 34th Amendment then surely you can explain how civic equality can exist currently when people in non-sexual relationships are denied the rights afforded to those in sexual relationships.

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      • Thank you for the reply, again. May I express my gratitude at the continuing obfuscation, nitpicking, and generic statements of opinion without any actual argument/references – which I genuinely take as a sincere compliment. It seems that, despite the time and distance since the referendum victory, the post still rankles with self-righteous types trying to diminish the result and the happiness of the thousands of people it will affect.

        The c.10% comment was designed to echo/reference the modern pop culture acceptance of the sizable but statistically invisible LGBT minority that does exist in the Irish population. I would imagine anyone even remotely familiar with sociological research and statistic gathering recognizes that it is probably a smaller percentage, alongside the numerous problems involved in coming up with an accurate estimate, not least of which, is the almost impossible nature of determining how many respondents in any survey, will not, can not, or are too afraid to declare openly.

        As always, on the rare occasion that you do actually make a specific point that can be responded to, and in the interest of the ‘serious academic discussion’ you seem to be very fond of, except when it doesn’t suit you – I am happy to correct myself. Nobody knows the true number, of course, but as the above link details, some major governmental bodies and LGBT organizations in various western societies would imagine something in the region of 4-6%. Going by the last official Irish CSO population data, that would equate to anywhere between 183,530 – 275,295 people in Ireland alone.

        Congratulations. I trust you feel suitable victorious and morally superior in dismissing my empathy and concern towards that number of my fellow citizens.

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  3. An interesting but contrived article which misses it’s mark.

    There is almost a yearning for what the author describes as an enlightened medieval Ireland, saying “it would appear that these same early Irish Christians had more cognitive ability, theoretical frameworks, linguistic understanding & legal sophistication then we do today – perhaps even, just as capable, if not more, of including and implementing what is being proposed in the forthcoming Irish Marriage Equality Referendum”. Of course, this is absolute nonsense. While there were “9/10 different forms of….being ‘married’”, the “marriages” (which the author correctly puts in quotes) were not considered the same thing nor given equal status in society, nor was there ever the slightest chance that medieval Ireland would ever attempt to re-categorize all the different types of unions as one single concept of marriage.

    Medieval Ireland called a spade a spade and, for that, perhaps it was more enlightened.

    Like

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment. The author is under no allusions as to the realities of Early Medieval Ireland or the contrived rhetorical nature of the original piece, set against contemporary issues, yet referencing original source material. That’s probably why the author originally stressed:

      Of course, I’m playing devils advocate with rhetoric. It goes without saying that the early Irish Christians never envisaged the possibility that one day, members of the same sex could even, would even, be able to marry. In the same way that Early Irish Christians never imagined that one day endemic slavery would be considered reprehensible; that stealing your neighbors cattle would be deemed criminally anti-social; or that women would have the freedom to do pretty much anything without needing the permission of male relatives.

      In much the same vein, its also probably why the author didn’t actually claim that multiple marriages ‘were considered the same thing nor given equal status in society’, but rather:

      Multiple versions of different types of unequal partnerships, ironically, given equal recognition within the law codes of the day.

      Which, the author naively presumed, would be understood as being the whole point of the piece. Abject apologies. Do let the author know if they can cut and paste any more of the original post which is apparently too confusing to understand within a wider body of text.

      As to your last sentence, the author thinks it should be let speak for itself.

      But on the off-chance that it wasn’t a putrid river of bile-filled attempt to knowingly utilize an old term widely considered as being too poisoned with racist undertones to use appropriately in a modern day context, just to appear to empathize with those ‘enlightened’ who would agree with dehumanizing and belittling fellow human beings as unworthy others in this day and age – then abject apologies again. You’re still going to need a bigger spoon.

      Like

  4. Pingback: 2015 or a quarter past eight | vox hiberionacum

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