The Role of Women in the 7th and 8th Centuries in Ireland

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‘Legally incompetent and useless' was the term that defined women in the 7th and 8th century in Ireland. It would be wrong to exaggerate the status of women in early Irish society- a society which was patriarchal and in which every aspect of social, legal, political and cultural life was dominated by men.# At this time in Ireland, people genuinely believed that every individual was born without gender and it was women who failed to develop both socially and physiologically, thus making them weaker than men. Although it cannot be denied that women did have a certain freedom within the law regarding marriage and divorce, the role of women, primarily in this era was to follow the example of the men in her life. I am going to examine the role of women in regards to their role in society, marriage, divorce, fosterage and inheritance. There was a certain basic inequality imposed on women in early Irish society but this was also common throughout Europe at the time also. According to the Cáin Lánamna (Laws of coupling), the three steadiness' a women should possess are: a steady tongue, a steady virtue and steady housewifery.# Women were considered different to men- almost inhuman in a way. It was up to men to understand the nature of women at this time- so that he could make decisions on who to pray with, who to wed or who to avoid. Women at this time were placed in the same social category as criminals, political hostages, slaves and all sorts of idiots, fools and madmen. Although the Church considered both male and female to be spiritually equal, it also considered males to be superior to females socially. The Triads of Ireland state that reticence, virtue and industry seem to be the qualities most admired in a woman in medieval Ireland. The women of this time could not engage in the sale or purchase of items without the permission of those superior: men. Throughout her entire life, a woman was under the rule of a man, from her father until she wed, then transferred to her husband and then onto her sons if her husband died. In this time, women were traded, loved or sexually abused but were never allowed in control.# It was thought that a woman's place was at home, not on the battlefield. Where marriage was concerned, it seems that men and women were coupled only through physical and emotional compatibility; love is not mentioned in many sources as a reason for coupling. The major role of a woman once married was to be an exemplary housewife and to provide children for her husband. After this, arrangements would be made to make the wedding possible. According to Patterson, wives undertook ploughing, reaping, enclosure of livestock, feeding and fattening of swine. Women were generally expected to be able to carry out farm labour for times when the husband was absent. Women in this time worked in, beside or near their homes while the men took off outside the town to do other forms of labour. A usual occurrence would be that the man's family would meet together to discuss potential brides. When choosing a wife, a man was expected to choose a woman of the same social status as himself. On some occasions, passion defied families wishes and a man and woman got together against the wishes or knowledge of their families. Jurists feared for this sort of coupling as passion led to sex which in turn created babies-heirs to property. Therefore coupling had to be bound by the law. Most of the legal texts relating to women refer to marriage. There are nine types of sexual union between men and women. The first is the union of a joint property, in which both the man and woman contributed equal goods to the marriage. Then there was ‘union of a woman on man's property', where a woman contributed little or nothing to the marriage. Likewise, the third was the ‘union of a man on a woman's property'; referring to a man contributing little or nothing to the marriage. The fourth type was the ‘union of a man visiting', which refers to a man...
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