Representations of Women in Early Irish and Welsh Literature
Representations of Women in Early Irish and Welsh Literature
Although there are parallels between Irish and Welsh sagas of elopement, the powerful self confident women depicted in these narratives do not represent the real women of Medieval Ireland and Wales. Proinsias Mac Cana has suggested that the dominant roles of Deirdre and Grainne in their respective tales (Longes mac nUislenn and Toruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghrainne) are ‘literary variations on the exemplar of the sovereignty goddess’ (Doan, 1985: 90).
Bitel (1996: 2) asserts that Celticists have been seduced by these dominant female characters viewing them as representative of real women with considerable power over men, a depiction which if true should be reflected in the law tracts or ‘custom in action’(Stacey, 2002: 1107). This paper will argue that the ecclesiastical and legal tracts of both Ireland and Wales offer many images of women, judgements about women, and regulations for women.
They do not however present the stereotypical medieval woman as the sovereignty goddess depicted in the secular sagas. Because women left no written records, we are dependent on male literature (probably all of the texts written in early Ireland and Wales) for a definition of woman and her cultural role. These male authors wrote of women in: ‘saint’s lives; poems; sagas and myths; gnomic texts; histories; chronicles; genealogies; folktales; theological tracts; and extensive ecclesiastical tracts; and secular laws’ (Bitel, 1996: 12).
Although these texts offer insights on women they must be viewed through the hermeneutical lens of the socio-historical context of the era in which they were written. Early medieval Ireland was a patriarchal society and a woman’s role and identity was determined by patriarchal norms and conventions. The literati of this era did not define woman as an independent individual. Women existed only in relation to men and therefore their representation in literature was not entirely objective or according to Bitel consistent.
Tensions exist between various texts. The portrayal of women as ‘capricious beasts’ (Bitel, 1995:137) presented in the eighth century wisdom text Tecosca Cormaic contrasts sharply with the recognition of a woman as home-maker and wife with limited recourse to the law depicted in Cain Lanamna or the law of couples (O Croinin, 1995: 127) . The majority of the extant Irish law books were composed between the seventh and ninth centuries.
At this stage the Irish literati were members of the nobility educated in monastic communities. Many were monks but this elite group also included jurists, historians, poets and story tellers. Mc Cone has suggested that these learned elite produced literature for the monastery which was heavily influenced by Biblical texts (Bitel, 1996: 14). Donnchadh O Corrain, Liam Breatnach and Aidan Breen have argued that there exists a close connection between ecclesiastical law and Irish vernacular law (Stacey, 2002: 1108).
Stacey asserts that although the legal sources from Wales (compiled in the twelfth and thirteen centuries) are later than the Irish sources there is also a significant link between ‘legal, poetic and ecclesiastical learning’ (2002: 1108). The Irish penitential books written between the sixth and the ninth centuries reveal conflict between the ideals of Christian leaders and the customs of early Irish communities. These penitentials were designed as moral guides for confessors in attributing penance in the rite of confession (Gula, 1989: 25).
According to Bitel, Christian clergy were intent on transferring social control of sex from the kin group to the individual Christian (1987: 67). Fox concurs with Bitel, asserting that by liberating the individual from the bonds of clan and family, the church was attempting to reduce kinship to ‘its lowest common denominator [the nuclear family: the lowest kinship group that is compatible with reproduction] while appearing to support basic kinship values’ (1993: 109-110). The Clergy in promoting Christian morality for the individual attempted to reorganize Early Irish society.
According to Bitel, the kin group were influential in controlling sexual activity. This was necessary to ensure the survival of the community as an interdependent group. Archaeological evidence suggests that houses consisted of one room. This allowed for little individual privacy and sex was a natural and visible part of family life. Illicit encounters had to take place outside of the home, and even then they were monitored by the community. Any kind of sexual relationship that had to be conducted in secrecy was considered dangerous.
The survival and welfare of the clan depended on social stability and this principle determined the attitude of the pre-Christian Irish toward sexuality. Sex in itself however was not considered immoral. Celibacy was not portrayed as a virtue in the secular literature. Cu Chulainn’s sexual exploits are recorded in the sagas; however his casual encounters did not threaten the community (Bitel, 1987: 70-71). Bitel asserts that ‘the tension between individual desire and community need had always to be resolved in favour of the community’ (1987: 72), and herefore marriage was a contractual arrangement determined not by romance or love but by the necessity of producing children and the survival of the kin group.
Woman’s reproductive capacities themselves are integrated into the economic life of the society. The image of woman depicted in Cain Lanamna is a woman whose social emotional and economic orientation is directed towards the family and home. Early Irish Law, commonly known as Brehon Law was a series of civil laws which governed every aspect of daily life including marriage and divorce.
Marriage and divorce were interlinked by virtue of a contract agreed and a contract dissolved. Under the Brehon system, women were free to marry in one of nine ways, although the primary type of marriage, lanamnas comthinchuir was the most common. Both partners enter this marriage with equal financial resources. In the second type of marriage, lanamnas for ferthinchur, the woman contributes little or no financial assets to the marriage. In the third category, lanamnas for bantinchur, the woman contributes the greater share of the marriage assets.
These three categories required formal pre-nuptial agreements. With the remaining six types of marital union (including cohabitation with a woman with family consent, voluntary eloping without family consent, voluntary abduction without family consent, illicit rendezvous, marriage by rape and marriage of two insane people) marriage entailed the assumption of financial responsibility for child rearing (O Croinin, 1995: 128). Corresponding to the wide variety of marriages recognized by law, there were many grounds for divorce.
A woman might divorce a man who failed to satisfy her sexual needs because he was sterile, impotent, bisexual or homosexual. In this instance she was entitled to be paid her coibche in addition to a fine in compensation. A woman could divorce her husband on the grounds of indiscretion should he discuss intimate details of their marriage outside of the home. A woman could also divorce her husband should he abandon her either for the church or for a life on the road as he would no longer be in a position to maintain her. Physical abuse was also considered legitimate grounds for divorce.
Even if the original blemish disappeared, a woman was entitled to the equivalent of her bride price as compensation. The laws are quite clear about the validity of female testimony in matters concerning consummation of marriage. This testimony is verified by a physical examination of the woman by female dignitaries. In a case where a woman refuses her husband his conjugal rights either because of a problem pregnancy or her menstrual cycle, the law regarded her objections as valid. A woman could also choose to divorce on grounds of infidelity although extra marital relations were recognized by law (O Croinin, 1995: 129).
O Croinin suggests that in general terms many women were recognized by the law in ‘their capacity as wives and in their own right as individuals’ (1995: 133) Law texts are clear that a woman’s rights in divorce are specific to each type of marriage and related marriage contract. Lanamnas Comthinchuir was regarded as the most common type of marriage at this time. It was a dignified state for the wife, she was known as a be cuitchernsa, literally ‘a woman of joint dominion, a woman of equal lordship’ (O Croinin. 1995: 128).
If this category of marriage ended in divorce, the woman received what she had initially contributed to the marriage in addition to a share of the profit accrued from the couple’s joint activities during the marriage period. O Croinin records that the division of property was in accordance with fixed proportions: ‘one third went to the partner who provided the land; one third to the partner who provided the stock; and one third to the partner who provided the labour’ (1995: 128). This last provision recognized the woman’s work in the home and on the farm.
The second type of marriage lanamnas for ferthinchur represented a different kind of divorce settlement. Since the woman provided neither land nor stock, she was entitled to half of her own handiwork and one sixth of the dairy produce in store. If she had worked diligently on the farm and in the home she took one ninth of the corn and cured meat in store. She also received a sack of corn for a specified time. Divorce in the third category of marriage, lanamnas for bantinchur, ensured that the woman retained a life interest in the farm.
She could not however transfer any rights to the estate to her children. She could however marry one of the heirs to the property and preserve her children’s right to inherit. Although the Irish lawyers appealed to Scripture, particularly to Leviticus to justify parallel cousin marriages, church law declared parallel cousin marriages incestuous (O Corrain, 1985). The Welsh tractate ‘the laws of women’ contains rules governing marriage and division of property in medieval Wales.
There are four redactions of Welsh law manuscripts: the Cyfnerth and the Blegywryd redactions both derive from south Wales; Iorwerth is classed as a north Wales redaction; and finally the Latin manuscripts (there are similarities between the Latin laws and the Welsh redactions). Although the sources from Wales are dated to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, women in the Welsh tractate like women in Cain Lanamna are portrayed as wives and home-makers (Roberts, 2008: 58-59).
Stacey asserts that the most ‘striking’ passage of the ‘Laws of Women’ outlines the domestic and agricultural goods granted to each partner in cases where the marriage had lasted longer than seven years (2002: 1109). This passage is common to each of the Welsh redactions of the law books and can also be found in four of the five Latin compilations. The couple must divide their possessions equally, the pigs become the property of the man and the woman takes ownership of the sheep. If there are only sheep and goats, the sheep go to the man and the goats to the woman.
The children are also divided between the couple ‘two parts go to the father, the eldest and the youngest, and the middle to the mother’ (Stacey, 2002: 1111). The division of household goods is itemised: all milk vessels, except for one pail and one dish becomes the property of the woman. The man is entitled to all of the drinking vessels and the riddle while the woman is entitled to the sieve. The man is entitled to the upper stone of the quern and the woman to the lower stone. The bed clothes which cover the couple becomes the property of the woman while the clothes which they lay on belong to the man.
The man receives the cauldron and the blanket and the pillows from the bed together with the wood axe, coulter and all the sickles except for one which the woman obtains. The woman is granted the pan, the broad axe, the bill hook and all of the flax, linseed and wool. She also receives the plowshare. Any gold or silver is divided equally between the couple. The man is entitled to the corn above and below the ground, all of the hens and one cat. The remaining cats become the property of the woman. The woman receives the salted meat but if it is hung it becomes the property of the man.
The woman is also granted as much flour as she can carry along with the cut meat and the partly used cheese. They each retain their own clothes except for their cloaks which must be divided equally. Any balls of wool in stock become the property of the sons (Stacey, 2002: 1111). Like Irish Marriage Law, the Welsh Laws of Women attempted to secure a measure of financial independence for each partner in the event of divorce
. Unlike Irish marriage law however which divided property according to specific marriage contracts, some rovisions in the Welsh divorce law appear illogical. Jenkins suggests that the Welsh division of property on divorce, attempts to ensure that each partner has the necessary provisions to survive but he asserts that the division of the quern stones is ‘curious’ since they cannot be used independently (Stacey, 2002: 1111). Similarly the coulter is granted to the man while the plowshare is received by the woman. Since both blades would have been required for planting this division appears to make little logical or practical sense.
Stacey also points out that the man receives all of the corn and hens but only one cat to protect them from vermin while the woman receives the remaining cats although she has no grain or hens to protect (Stacey, 2002: 1113-1116). Welsh divorce law does not seem to be based on the wealth brought to the marriage by each party or indeed on the status of the marriage. In Irish Law the apportionment of property is determined by both of these factors (Stacey, 2002: 1113). Stacey suggests that the division of property in a Welsh divorce is symbolic of the destructiveness of divorce and failed marriage.
He asserts that this was a secular ‘homily’ on the improvident nature of divorce (2002: 1124). Although the marriage property is divided the woman ultimately is disadvantaged because under Welsh Law, she has no claim to land and must be satisfied with portable goods. Although women under Welsh law were afforded the opportunity to divorce their husbands due to his impotency, leprosy or bad breath (Roberts, 2008: 63), Nerys Patterson suggests that the woman was further disadvantaged in the wake of marital separation: female virginity was highly valued and her loss of virginity would affect her chances of remarriage (2002: 1121).
These medieval divorce laws clearly situate the woman in the home, rearing children, cooking, spinning wool and working on the farm. It is tempting to view these laws as depictions of a progressive egalitarian society, however the political and social realities of a woman’s life suggest otherwise. A woman’s legal definition derived from that of her father, brother or her legal husband. A legal tract on honour price (dire) defined women’s legal and social position ‘her father had charge over her when she is a girl, her husband when she is a wife, her sons when she is a [widowed] woman with children . . the Church when she is a woman of the Church [i. e. , a nun].
She is not capable of sale or purchase or contract or transaction without the authorization of one of her superiors’ (Bitel, 1996: 8). According to Bitel, these legally and socially incapacitated women were the real Medbs of medieval Ireland. When measuring a woman’s status, the laws measured women against the legal norm of the free adult male and as such a woman’s worth remained only half that of her male guardians honour price.
The Irish literati along with many medieval authors considered female bodies as ‘less valuable copies of mens’ (Bitel, 1996: 19). This principle is reflected in the only extant Irish medico-legal tracts namely Bretha Crolige and Bretha Dein Checht which accorded women less medical attention and food rations than men (Bitel, 1996: 21). Women therefore were considered physically and psychologically less than man, less than human (Bitel, 1996: 23). The ninth century Triads text, Trecheng Breth Fene unveiled some basic assumptions about the nature of woman.
The Triads suggested that ‘the three drops of a wedded woman’ were drops of blood (a good wife was a virgin at marriage); sweat; and tears (a good wife should be willing to suffer hardship to support her husband and children). One of the three misfortunes of a man was proposing marriage to a bad woman. According to the Triads, women were their husband’s property and were akin to animals. ‘When a man loaned either a woman or a horse, he had to expect it to be used by the borrower’ (Bitel, 1996: 23).
The wisdom text also suggested that ‘like a cow’s udder, women through her womb, was one of the three renovators of the world’ (Bitel, 1996: 24). Another wisdom text Tecosca Cormaic suggested that women ‘should be feared like beasts’ because they were ‘capricious beasts’ (Bitel, 1996: 24). A woman’s physical characteristics and fertility therefore were animal like and unreliable. The eighth or ninth-century wisdom text Senbriathra Fithail considered the characteristics of ‘a good wife’ (Bitel, 1996: 27).
Advising his pupil Cormac mac Airt, Fithal (a druid) asserted that a good woman had ‘common sense, prudence, modesty, excellent Irish, delicacy, mildness, honesty, wisdom, purity and intelligence’ (Bitel, 1996: 28). All of these attributes according to Fithal were necessary for a woman to become a desirable wife. A bad wife on the other hand was characterised by ‘wretchedness, stinginess, vanity, talkativeness, laziness, indolence, noisiness, hatefulness avarice, visiting, thieving, keeping trysts, lustfulness, folly and treachery’ (Bitel, 1996: 28).
Fithal asserted that it was possible to detect a woman’s character based on her physical appearance. He suggested that Cormac should avoid: ‘the fat short one’; ‘the slender short one with curling hair’; the fair tall one’; ‘the dark-limbed, unmanageable one’; ‘the dun coloured yellow one’; and ‘the slender prolific one who was lewd and jealous’ (Bitel, 1996: 28). Fithal determined that the worst wife was a be cairn or a whore. A successful marriage however could be assured by a union with the ‘tall, fair, very slender ones’ (Bitel, 1996: 28).
Fithal admitted to Cormac however that the ideal woman may not exist and that most women had character flaws. The author of Tecosca Cormaic was adamant that all women were ‘chronically dissatisfied, bad tempered, untrustworthy, wanton, manipulative, ambitious, greedy, arrogant whiners’ (Bitel, 1996: 29). Bitel suggests that the real problem with women is that they were not men and the writers of the gnomic tracts could only define them by their many indefinable natures: they had similar physical bodies to men but were not men; they had reproductive characteristics and temperaments similar to animals but were not animals.
The only certainty appeared to be was that women must be controlled and her inferior position in society maintained (Bitel, 1996: 30). The writers of ecclesiastical canons suggested that women could only be redeemed by denying their female characteristics and their female sexuality. Bitel argues that canonists established a ‘gender hierarchy’ (Bitel, 1996: 32). Unlike the typologies found in secular and wisdom texts, the cannon scribes attributed a moral value to virginity and abstinence.
Nuns were accorded a high moral value as were ‘widows who took the veil’ (Bitel, 1996: 32). Thomas O’ Loughlin suggests that the Collectio canonum hibernesis, a systematic collection of law, codified certain patristic theories producing an understanding of marriage ‘as a state secondary to virginity’ (1997: 188). The canonists justify their position by quoting Jerome who asserts that ‘virginity follows the lamb wherever he goes’ (O’Loughlin, 1997: 192).
Jerome expands on this theme suggesting that ‘earth is populated by marriage, so heaven is by virginity’ (O’Loughlin, 1997: 192). The underlying concept is clear, virginity is exemplified and sexuality creates problems. According to O’Loughlin this principle was the basis of ecclesiastical thinking on marriage throughout the middle ages and Jerome’s opinion that sexual activity was ‘inferior and earthy’ in comparison to virginity which was ‘noble and superior’ has been held responsible for the cult of virginity and celibacy in the Latin church (O’Loughlin, 1997: 193).
Augustine also considered sexuality dangerous but (quoting Paul in 1 Corinthians 7) asserted that while celibacy was the desired state, ‘lawful marriage is to be preferred to burning with desire and fornication’ (O’Loughlin, 1997: 193). The dangers of sexuality therefore were to be contained within the institution of marriage. Although canonists admitted that clerics could fall to sexual temptation, the general consensus was that women as the weaker sex were more likely to succumb to sexual temptation.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 25 December 2016
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