Representations of Women in Early Irish and Welsh Literature

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  • Topic: Marriage, Early Irish law, Welsh law
  • Pages : 10 (3940 words )
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  • Published : March 25, 2012
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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 Gráinne in their respective tales (Longes mac nUislenn and Toruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne) 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 Cáin Lánamna or the law of couples (Ó Cróinín, 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 Ó Corráin, 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...
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