Marriage Medieval Irish Style: Not Your Gran's Marriage!

In November of 1995, while the Divorce Referendum was front page news all over Ireland, I was starting research on my Master's Degree looking at marriage practices in the late medieval period.  It was not lost on me that in 1995 marriage practices were much more restrictive than 1,000 years previously.  I found it amusing that The Church, now irrevocably entwined with Irish identity, was considered an Anglo Norman import and not wholly welcomed by the Irish Gaelic but forced upon them in the years following the Norman Invasion.  Our definition of 'culture' and 'identity' is in a much greater state of flux and fluidity than we humans may be comfortable with.

A formally contracted medieval marriage. Niccoló da Bologna, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Did you know...

  • Medieval Irish marriage, divorce and concubinage practices were divergent from both continental Europe as well as Roman Church practices. 
  • "Throughout the Medieval period, and down to the end of the old order in 1603, what could be called Celtic secular marriage remained the norm in Ireland, and Christian matrimony was no more than the rare exception grafted onto this system." (Kenneth Nichols, 'Gaelic and Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages' Dublin, 1972; p.73) 
  • Brehon law tracts define nine different types of marriage or sexual union and we know from primary sources that temporary (!) marriages in Ireland occurred well into the 16th century. 
  • Unlike today, marriage in Medieval Ireland was considered a private, as opposed to a public affair. 
  • Not only was divorce permitted under the old Irish customary laws, but both women and men could sue for divorce and both were free to remarry afterwards. 

For those interested in reading more about marriage, sexual union and divorce practices in Medieval Ireland, I have included an excerpt from my thesis, below. Any and all errors are my own. Enjoy!

Medieval Marriage, Giart de Roussillon. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Although there is some discussion as to whether one of the reasons Pope Alexander III condoned the Norman Invasion of Ireland was as a means to reform the marriage, divorce, and concubinage practices therein, there is no doubt that Ireland’s customs concerning these issues differed from the rest of Europe as well as from church doctrine.  It is necessary to examine canon law concerning marriage during the Middle Ages to understand how Irish customs either harmonised with or contradicted church policy.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the church’s policies on marriage were standardised, resulting in the establishment of consent as the legal requirement on which marriage was based.  Since both parties’ consent made a marriage legal, this could be done with or without witnesses, although the church strongly recommended contracting matrimony publicly as opposed to clandestinely.  Clandestine marriages were tolerated by church law up until the Council of Trent in 1563, and quite common among the Irish as marriage was viewed as private rather than public affair.  

Not only did clandestine marriages have the obvious problem of leaving no witnesses to testify to the legitimacy of a marriage, but even in public marriages it was occasionally hard to prove that the marriage had taken place, as is found in a marital case in Meath in the Calendar of Justiciary Rolls, where a man disputes the validity of a marriage in an attempt to gain property.  In addition to forbidding coercion into the marriage contract, the church also forbade marriage between those who were under the age of consent (twelve for girls and 14 for boys) between those within the proscribed degrees of consanguinity (to the fourth degree as proclaimed by the Lateran Council of 1215), marriage within four  degrees of affinity, which includes kinship ties obtained through marriage or illicit sexual relations, and spiritual affinity, which occurs through godparents.  If a couple within the proscribed degrees of consanguinity or affinity wanted to have their marriage declared legal, they had to seek and receive a papal dispensation, as the church was seen as the only body capable of discerning the legal nature of a marital contract, although secular authorities did occasionally act in such matters a practice which increased steadily form the fourteenth century on.
Comparing Irish practice with canon law, Kenneth Nicholls has argued that: 
“Throughout the Medieval period, and down to the end of the old order in 1603, what could be called Celtic secular marriage remained the norm in Ireland, and Christian matrimony was no more than the rare exception grafted onto this system.” (KN, 'Gaelic & Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages' Dublin, 1972; p.73) 
While it is impossible to know exactly how the Norman Invasion influenced the Irish peasantry in social matters such as marriage due to a disturbing lack of sources, the fact that older Irish marriage customs were carried on after the Norman Invasion among the Irish aristocracy suggests that these practices would be maintained among the lower social orders as well, especially in those areas left relatively untouched by Norman influence.  Further description of the marriage practices among the Gaelic-Irish may be found in Holinshed’s Irish Chronicle, which lists temporary marriages among the other practices found to be contrary to church doctrine, and since this occurs in the late sixteenth century, it is obvious that old Irish customs continued, unaffected by the Norman Invasion.
Through analysis of the old Irish law tracts such as the Cain Adomnan and the Brehon Laws, it is possible to ascertain the position of women and marriage in early Christian Irish society.  As David Herlihy has pointed out, in his work Medieval Households, the saint’s lives compiled at this time also provide a wealth of information concerning women and related social issues.  From these earlier sources on marriage practices in Irish society it is possible to trace those themes that run throughout the Norman Invasion and up through the sixteenth century.
The early law tracts designate nine different categories of marriage, or rather, sexual union, three of which are based on what one or both of the spouses bring to the union and are referred to as 1)lanamnas comthinchuir, which implies that both parties contributed evenly to the marriage estate, 2)lanamnas for ferthinchur, marriage where the man donates the largest portion, and 3) lanamnas for bantinchur, implying the woman contributes the greater amount of property. The necessity to classify marriage along economic means shows the intrinsically economic nature that marriage had in the Middle Ages.  Donnchadh O Corrain writes that the marriage contract itself was a formal contract entered into by two families, and ratified by some exchange of property, just as contracts for goods and services might be agreed upon.   Marriage as a family affair is also important insofar as a family could potentially force a child to enter into a marriage contract against their will, therefore making the marriage null and void in the eyes of the church, which as previously stated upheld consent as the most important ingredient in a marriage. 
The above three forms of marriage are the ones most similar to the Anglo-Norman perception of marriage.  Of the other six forms of recognised unions between a man and a woman, two receive the consent of the woman’s family, two do not receive their consent, and the last two differ completely from the other eight as they address rape, and the joining together of two people who are insane.  The fourth and fifth unions involve a man going to visit a woman at her family’s residence, and a woman going outside the home to meet a man, respectively.  The sixth and seventh unions consist of a woman letting a man abduct her and letting a man visit her secretly.  These different forms of union not only show how it was important to regulate the various relationships a couple may have, but are also useful when examining how different Irish custom was from the Norman law in the area of social relationships. 
Although both husband and wife could bring goods into the marital union, these goods did not necessarily become the joint-property of the other spouse.  A woman could add to her wealth through marriage if her husband and his family gave her a bridewealth (goods or property, the opposite of the dowry), which the bride would theoretically have full control over.  Although this practice predates the Norman Invasion, it was common afterwards as well, as is illustrated through the annals.  The Annals of Loch Ce, The Annals of the Four Masters, and The Annals of Connaught all contain and entry in 1239 that states how Lasairfhiona Ni Conchobair granted part of her bridewealth given by her husband, Domhnaill Mor O Domhnaill to the canons at Loch Ce.  Interestingly John O'Donovan, editor of the Annals of the Four Masters states that:
“This barony [in which the land she granted lay] belonged, at this period, to O’Donnell, who must have given this, and other lands in its vicinity, as a tinscra, or dowry, to his wife, according to the old Irish custom.” (Annals of the Four Masters, vol. 3; p.299)
Up until the Norman Invasion, there is a wealth of information in the saints lives to substantiate the theory that among the wealthy aristocrats in early Christian Ireland, polygyny was an accepted practice.  It would appear that the church reform of the eleventh century succeeded in dismantling the ecclesiastical framework that supported polygyny, but did not succeed in swaying cultural attitudes over to the ecclesiastical doctrine that supported one monogamous, Christian marriage for one lifetime.  Gaelic-Irish marital customs did receive a good amount of criticism during the eleventh and twelfth centuries for basing said customs not on church doctrine, but an older, Irish customary law.  This attitude is adequately expressed in Art Cosgrove’s contribution to Marriage in Ireland when he states: 
“Thus the Irish law on marriage-a law of fornication rather than a law of marriage according to Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury-permitted a man to keep a number of concubines, allowed divorce at will followed by the remarriage of either partner, and took no account of canonical prohibitions regarding consanguinity or affinity.” (Art Cosgrove, 'Marriage in Medieval Ireland' in Art Cosgrove (ed), Marriage in Ireland, Dublin, 1985; p. 28)

Women as well as men were permitted to have more than one marriage in a lifetime.  It would appear that the restrictions on the number of times a person married was not related to any moral code, but the financial/political means of the person in question which resulted in “resource polygyny”,  an anthropological term which describes the ability to practice polygyny based on an abundance of resources or wealth.  The ability to marry more than once in a lifetime may have been a freedom that helped to empower the aristocratic lady.  Muireann Ni Bhrolchain has suggested that a woman might have been able to exert more influence in her successive marriages as divorce settlements could leave her with a substantial amount of acquired wealth, and therefore, theoretically, more power.  Marriages not found in the annals are reported in the Banshenchas, from which we know that in the eleventh century Derborgaill, granddaughter of the high king of Ossory, married six different men, the most marriages for a woman recorded in the Banshenchas, as other women had typically two or three, and occasionally four or five husbands.  Ni Bhrolchain has noted that the annals interestingly omit Derborgaill’s six marriages in their treatment of her.  Could this be the case for other women listed in the annals? Lasairfhiona Ni Conchobair is listed solely as the wife of Domhnaill Mor O Domhnaill in the annals, but as he dies in 1241 and she outlives him by forty-one years, it is possible that she could have contracted for marriage after O Domhnaill’s death as she was an aristocratic lady of property and wealth, and would have been attractive both as a means of political alliance and as a means to consolidate property.  It has also been suggested that Lasairfhiona could have never remarried due to the fact that none of the male kin she had left living were in a position to marry her off.

Primary Sources

Ancient Laws of Ireland: Introduction to Senchus Mor. vol. 1. 
        Stationery Office. Dublin, 1865.
Ancient Laws of Ireland: Senchus Mor Part II. vol. 2.   
        Stationery Office. Dublin, 1869.
Ancient Laws of Ireland: Senchus Mor and the Book of Aicill. vol. 3.
        Stationery Office. Dublin, 1873.
Annala Connacht: the Annals of Connaught, A.D. 1224-1544. Ed. A.
        M. Freeman. Dublin, 1944.
Annala rioghachta Eireann: Annals of the kingdom of Ireland by the 
       Four  Masters, from the earliest period to the year 1616. Ed. 
        John O’Donovan.  vol. 3. Dublin, 1856.
Annala Uladh: Annals of Ulster. Ed. B. MacCarthy. vol 2. Dublin,
Annala Uladh: Annals of Ulster. Ed. B. MacCarthy. vol 4. Dublin,
Annals of Ireland by Friar John Clyn and Thady Dowling Together 
        with the Annals of Ross. Ed. Richard Butler. Dublin, 1849.
The Annals of Clonmacnoise. Ed. Denis Murphy, trans. Conell 
        Mageoghagan (1627). Dublin, 1896.
The Annals of Loch Ce. Ed. William M. Hennessey. vol. 1. London, 
Documents on the Affairs of Ireland Before the King's Council.  Ed. 
        G. O. Sayles.  Dublin, 1979.
Dowdall Deeds.  Eds. Charles McNeill & A. J. Othway-Ruthven.
        Dublin, 1960.
Holinshed’s Irish Chronicle, 1577. Eds. Liam Miller & Eileen Power. 
        Dublin, 1979.
Miscellaneous Irish Annals. Ed. Seamus O hInnse. Dublin, 1947.
The Register of John Swayne: Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of 
       Ireland, 1418-1439. Ed. D. A. Chart. Belfast, 1935.
Registrum Iohannes Mey: The Register of John Mey, 1443-1456.
        Eds. W. G. H. Quigley,  & E. F. D. Roberts. Belfast, 

Secondary Sources

Altschul, Michael.  A Baronial Family in Medieval England: The 
        Clares, 1217-1314. Baltimore, 1965.
Amt, Emilie (ed.). Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook.
        London, 1993.
Anderson, Bonnie S. & Zinsser, Judith P. A History of Their Own. 
       vol.1.  London, 1988.
Binchy, D. A.  The Linguistic and Historical Value of the Irish Law
        Tracts.  London, 1944. 
Cosgrove, Art (ed.). Marriage in Ireland. Dublin, 1985.
de Paor, Aoife. The Status of Women in Medieval Ireland. In: U. C. G. 
       Women’s Studies Centre Review, vol. 3. Eds. Pat Byrne, Jane
        Conroy & Alan Hayes. Galway, 1995.
Erler, Mary & Kowaleski, Maryanne (eds.). Women and Power in the 
       Middle Ages. London, 1988.
Frame, Robin. English Lordship in Ireland 1318-1361. Oxford, 1982.
Hanawalt, Barbara A. At the Margins of Women’s Space in Medieval 
        Europe. In: Matrons and Marginal Women in Medieval Society. 
        Eds. Vickie Ziegler & Robert R. Edwards. Suffolk, 1995. 
Herlihy, David. Medieval Households. London, 1985.
Kelly, Fergus. A Guide to Early Irish Law.  Dublin, 1988.
Leyser, Henrietta. Medieval Women.  London, 1995.
Lydon, James (ed.). The English in Medieval Ireland. Dublin, 1984.
MacCurtain, Margaret & O’Dowd, Mary (eds.). Women in Early 
       Modern Ireland.  Edinburgh, 1991.
McNeil, T. E.  Anglo-Norman Ulster. Edinburgh, 1980.
Nicholls, Kenneth. Gaelic and Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages. 
        Dublin, 1972.
O’Dowd, Mary & Wichert, Sabine (eds.) Chattel, Servant or Citizen: 
      Women’s Status in Church, State and Society. Belfast, 1995.
Orpen, G. H. Ireland Under the Normans, vol. 4.  Oxford, 1920.
Otway-Ruthven, A. J.  The Partition of the de Verdun Lands in 
        Ireland in 1332.  In: Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy.
        vol. 66, Section C, No. 5.  (Dublin, 1968).  pp.401-455.
Sayles, G. O. Scripta Diversa.  London, 1982.
Simms, Katharine. The Legal Position of Irishwomen in  the Later 
        Middle Ages. In: The Irish Jurist. vol. X, part 1. (Summer, 
        1975). pp.96-111.
Shulamith, Shahar. The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the 
       Middle Ages. Trans. Chaya Galai. London, 1983.
Ward, Jennifer C. English Noblewomen in the Later Middle Ages. 

        London, 1992.


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