Women and the Law in Early Ireland

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Women and the Law in Early Ireland

Exaggerated claims have sometimes been made about the degree power and freedom enjoyed by women in early Irish society. It certainly true that women feature prominently in Old and Middle Irish literature. In the saga Táin Bó Cuailnge, Queen Medb is the leader of Connacht, and occasionally takes part in the fighting itself. Her husband King Ailill generally defers to her dominant personality, and turns a blind eye to her sexual adventures. But in real life, the power of women was undoubtedly much more restricted. The annals provide no instances of a female political or military leader. Indeed, the male imagery which surrounds the office of kingship would seem to preclude even the possibility of a female ruler. Probably the most accurate picture of the actual position of women in early Irish society is provided by the wisdom-texts, specially the Triads of Ireland. Reticence, virtue and industry seem to be the qualities most admired in a woman. One source gives the three steadiness of good womanhood as 'a steady tongue, a steady virtue, a steady housewifery’. The types of female behaviour most consistently censured are sexual promiscuity, making spells or illegal satires and thieving. Feminine beauty - so often enthused over in the sagas - does not count for much in the wisdom-texts, though one text gives the three glories of a gathering ‘a beautiful woman, a good horse and a swift hound'.

Legal capacity of women

The laws reveal a society in which a woman is generally without dependent legal capaciity. She is debarred from acting as a witness and she normally cannot make a valid contract without the permission of her superior (usually her husband or father). As expressed in the Old Irish Dire-text: 'her father has charge over her when she is a girl, her husband when she a wife, her sons when she is a [widowed] woman with children, her kin when she is a 'woman of the kin' (i.e. with no other guardian), 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 authorisation of one of her superiors'. However, in spite of such uncompromising general statements, it is clear that a woman's legal incapacity is not total. In certain circumstances her evidence may be valid. A woman also has the right to give items of her own personal property (such as her embroidery needle, work-bag or dress) as a pledge on behalf of another, and is entitled to a fine and interest if her pledge is allowed o become forfeit. But she cannot give pledges of cattle, horses, silver, gold, copper or iron without her husband's permission. A woman can inherit a life-interest in land when her father has no sons. She is called the banchomarbae 'female heir' and - like any male land-owner - has the right to distrain goods and to make formal legal entry into her rightful inheritance. If she marries a landless man or a stranger from another tuath, the normal roles of husband and wife are reversed: she makes the decisions and pays his fines and debts. After her death, the property of a banchomarbae normally reverts to her own kin and does not pass to her husband or sons. On marriage a woman does not totally sever her connections with her own kin. As Binchy points out 'the more formal the marriage, the greater the severance'. In the case of a cétmuinter (chief wife) with sons, one third of her inheritable assets goes on her death to her own kin, and the remaining two thirds go to her sons. Likewise her own kin gets one third of any éraic paid for her, and must pay one third of any fine which she incurs. In the case of a cétmuinter without sons, her assets and liabilities are divided equally between her own kin and her husband. In a marriage where she has not been betrothed by her kin, but the union has not been forbidden, two thirds of her assets and liabilities go to her own kin, and only one third to her sons. Where a woman is...
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