A woman could easily divorce her husband for obvious reasons, like hitting her hard enough to cause a blemish, but she also had the legal protection which ensured he couldn’t go down to the village pub and blab about their sex life to his mates (instant divorce).
While divorce could – and did – happen at will, it wasn’t an easy or uncomplicated approach to Medieval marriage in Ireland.
The Irish Brehon Law system allowed for nine different types of union; from a marriage of equals, where both parties brought equal property to the match, down to a one night stand, it was all legalised and taken care of. Because there was no such thing as illegitimacy when it came to a woman’s offspring, it was just a question of who was legally responsible for their care.
In his article ‘Marriage in Early Ireland’, Donnchadh Ó Corráin looked at the different types of unions Irish lawyers divided first and principal marriages into. There were three categories based on property:
- ‘marriage of common contribution’, marriage in which, apparently, both parties contribute equally to the common pool of marital property;
- ‘marriage on man-contribution’, an arrangement by which the bulk of the marriage goods are contributed by the man; and
- ‘marriage on woman contribution’, marriage to which the woman brings the preponderance of the property.
The Brehon Laws in medieval Ireland held out until the mid-sixteenth century, and represent a very different, more civilized and emancipated world view than the sacramental system which followed. There was a big divide between the Anglo-Irish laws that had been put in place with the invasions from England, and the native Gaelic laws and traditions around marriage.
Gillian Kenny, in her paper ‘Anglo-Irish and Gaelic marriage laws and traditions in late medieval Ireland’, notes that:
“The rights of the wife at marriage, her behaviour and freedoms within marriage and the right of a wife to leave a marriage varied enormously between the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish worlds.”
An English woman, for example, once she was married, was severely limited in her right to acquire or even manage land under the common law, and only legitimate heirs born after the marriage could inherit under the common law. An English man could not marry again while his first wife still lived.
Compare and contrast then, how in Gaelic culture and custom, the cétmuinter (first or principal wife) had some control over the other wives her husband could bring into the household, because she could divorce him if she didn’t like the new girl.
Yeah, polygamy was pretty normal back then, and it allowed the original wife to make her own choices based on the new situation, although there was a little leeway given if her feelings were hurt by his new choice. A higher status wife had three days on the arrival of the new woman, in which she could beat, batter and generally vent her spleen, as long as she wasn’t marked in the process. And the other woman was allowed to scratch back and pull hair!
Between the polygamy, the remarriages, and the allowance of illegitimacy, it made for an interesting sprawl of seed options for your average Gaelic nobleman. Mulmora O’Reilly, who was the lord of East Breifne until 1566, had at least fifty-eight grandsons recorded and acknowledged.
Katherine Simms, in ‘Legal Position of Irishwomen’, shows that ordinary concubines in a Gaelic household were of lower status to any wife, but were afforded protection in the households of the men they were having a relationship with. All of that was covered under the nine different types of union.
There were also clerical concubines though, way outside the sanction of the church but very common in the Gaelic areas, who wielded a much higher status, even being treated as a proper wife. Some of their names were recorded in the Annals when they died, just like any other noblewoman.
The church was kept out of the marriage business, as much as possible, though marriage ‘irregularities’ became subject to occasional ecclesiastical penalties. Kenny wrote:
“Throughout the middle ages in Ireland, the Gaelic Irish persisted in keeping many of their civil laws and traditions regarding marriage separate from the church’s teaching on the subject. For instance, Irish couples were not commonly united by the sacrament of marriage as Gaelic law regulated their relationship. Gaelic law allowed divorce at will followed by remarriage.”
There were undoubtedly some very marked differences between the two cultures, though they ran side by side for a long time. Kenny outlines some of the main contrast in her conclusions, where she says:
“Anglo-Irish wives (and their property) were legally subject to their husbands. This does not seem to have been wholly the case in Gaelic Ireland where wives could enter into contracts of their own volition and kept control of their own lands and goods after marriage. With these riches they often acted independently as important and influential patrons of the arts and also, in some cases, actively participated in the military and political life of their community. However they could not themselves become chieftains or hold power in such a formal and official fashion. Gaelic wives were still subject in some ways to the influence of their kin which could be disadvantageous. Similarly after her marriage ended whether through death or separation the Gaelic Irishwoman was once again subject entirely to the will of her own family whereas an Anglo-Irish woman found her rights more fully protected as a single woman or as a widow.”
It would seem that where a woman had a choice, she would stay within the Gaelic traditions while it suited her best, but it became increasingly common to see applications to the church courts to secure their property (and the inheritance of their kids) on widowhood, or to right a marital wrong such as being abandoned for no good reason.
It was easier, and clearer perhaps in the higher side of Gaelic society, for a woman to take advantage of the native rules. Ó Corráin wrote:
“It was a dignified state for the wife in question: if it was a marriage ‘with land and stock and household equipment’ and if the wife was of the same class and status as her husband, she was known as a bé cuitchernsa, literally ‘a woman of joint dominion, a woman of equal lordship’, a term which seems to be rendered domina in the canon law tracts. Neither of the spouses could make a valid contract at law without the consent of the other.”
Although it became easier as time progressed to apply to church law for safety and security, and the inheritance of a Gaelic woman’s children, there were other ways feasible through Gaelic Law.
An heiress could marry a cousin, for example, and keep land in her family that way; which the church wasn’t at all happy about, but Gaelic lawyers found multiple biblical instances to prove it was alright in the eyes of God, really. It didn’t even have to be a principle marriage, a second or third would do. And an even more liberal minded example from Ó Corráin:
“A woman could acquire land by outright gift of her father… land which was his personal (as distinct from family) possession, and women could also possess land which is called ‘land of hand and thigh’. It is possible (though quite uncertain) that two kinds of land are in question here: land acquired by the woman’s own labour and land got as a marriage portion or for some other sexual service, but the precise meaning of the term is not clear from the contexts.”
I think he’s hit the nail on the head at the end there, personally.
As Kenny put it, in an interview for ‘The History Show’ on Irish national radio:
“I mean the whole idea of marriage as being a monolithic, unchanging institution is incorrect, if you look back into the past in Ireland, further than the last couple of hundred years, you can see just how complex it was on both sides, English and Gaelic, so you know it’s only been sacramentalised very recently in historical terms.”
All in all, the Gaelic attitude was more practically tolerant of the ins and outs of human relationships than the English system which followed, and we’re the poorer for it.