Tag Archives: Medieval Ireland

Tall, Blonde and Bloodthirsty

First Blood

Sometime in the late eighth century the people of Scandinavia got bored with the fjords, forests, snow, and depressingly long winters of their homelands, got in their boats and went on holiday for about three hundred years. While they did seek out warmer climates and hoped for a good time, like most tourists, unlike everyone else who brings towels, suncream and sunburn, the Vikings brought swords, terror and death. Like tourists descending on Ibiza, the Vikings struck fear into the hearts of the native inhabitants of wherever it was they landed. Appearing from the sea in their dragon-ships Viking raiders could strike on the shore or deep inland through navigable rivers. Viking_BoatThey came, they saw, they took everything that wasn’t nailed down, killed or burned everything else and left. They were very, very good at what they did. Viking raids occurred all over Europe, from Ireland to Moscow, from Shetland to Sicily. And they took all their spoils back with them to Scandinavia. Back to the place of cold and snow and cold and ice and did I mention it was cold there? After a while they realised this was not the best of plans, so instead of raiding places they started settling in them, since they were now conveniently empty.

Vikings: First Blood II

The Vikings began to inhabit the lands they once pillaged. At first they were bases from which to pillage further inland, and more frequently, but soon they grew into towns and kingdoms. That’s not to say the pillaging stopped, the Vikings never tired of that, they just added farming and trading to their to-do lists. They built new cities in Ireland, like Dublin, and captured many in Britain, like York, mostly because the Irish never built any cities for anyone to capture. They even founded what would become Russia. These were a slightly different breed of Scandawegians. The Irish had two names for these peoples, the dubghaill and the fionnghaill, the dark- and light-foreigners, the dark ones being of course the ones who came with axes and the light ones those who came with money. One place where they made a big impact was in England where they conquered the whole place from the poor Anglo-Saxons, who were their cousins, of a sort. It should be pointed out that these were Danish Vikings under the rule of Cnut and not Swedish Vikings who were much nicer and liked bright clothes. The whole Viking kingdom in England fell apart after Cnut died, letting the English rule again, for a short while. The Vikings of Ireland made their homes around Limerick, Cork and Dublin. A one point Dublin was one of the most important cities in these Isles due to the influence of the Vikings. Brian BoruBrian Boru (Brain to who we owe cattle-tribute) put an end to any Viking hopes for dominance by first making himself High-King of Ireland, and then making all the other kings do what he said (in theory). After that, fighting the Vikings should’ve been easy. But it wasn’t; the Battle of Clontarf was a brutal affair, though it ended Viking aspirations in Ireland. Brain was killed but his foster-son found his murderer, pulled out his intestines, tied them to a tree and then made the man march around it, slowly tearing his own insides out. Which must have been very pleasant indeed.

Vikings II: The Normans

The English got away with being happy and carefree, and rebuilding their kingdom for about thirty years once Cnut died. Sadly a bunch of Vikings who had settled in France, who had cleverly re-branded themselves the Normans just to confuse everyone, Normansdecided that the English had no right to rule England. Billy the Bastard, more commonly known as William the Conqueror today, felt that being a Duke wasn’t cool enough, so he went and declared himself the King of England, which was a bit of a surprise to the English, as they already had one. He then had to go convince the English that he was their king. Billy’s argument was very convincing, especially when you consider that the Normans were Frenchified Vikings; they fused French heavily armored cavalry with their own style of being complete lunatics. Vikings were fearsome warriors who leapt from boats, clad in armour, waving great big axes and fought on foot. The Normans were fearsome armour-clad warriors who fought on armoured horses, with great big swords and shields, and were even better at fighting then the Vikings were. They conquered England and Wales before moving on into Ireland, ignoring Scotland for a bit because they were afraid of kilts and haggis. These Franco-Vikings were so fond of fighting that they went and picked fights in Italy, Sicily, Tunisia, Libya, the Holy Land and even became mercenaries for the Byzantine Empire. The Normans were the last successful invaders of England, and then became English (or some kind of Anglo-Franco-Viking), just as they became Irish in Ireland, and, continuing with their long tradition of going to new places and killing everyone that they found, they then went on to conquer most of the world as the ‘British Empire’. There was also a rather long tiff with the King of France who reckoned England was his since the Billy the Bastard worked for him as Duke of Normandy and therefore the hired thug had conquered England for France, not for himself. And that worked out really well for the French. If you ignore the occupation of their territory, massive wars on their land, a civil war (of sorts), plague, pillage, and other such fun things one does of a long weekend…

Salus populi suprema est lex

Burglar Bees

Did you ever think about bees and beekeepers and the fact that they might be stealing? Probably not, but just for a minute, do. The beekeeper has his bees and they fly merrily off looking for pollen, zooming into medieval beekeeperneighbouring fields and the flowers growing within. They take the pollen back to their hives and turn it into honey, and thus commit the perfect crime. The owner of the fields and flowers would never demand part of the profits of the honey, that’s just mad. Even though it was his pollen that was made into the honey. And you can’t blame the bees, they are just being bees. But it would make a certain amount of sense. If you employed a smattering of disorderly kleptomaniac children to go and steal millions tons of coffee beans from farmers and process them into coffee you can be sure the authorities would have words with you. But not for bees and pollen. How would you even police them? How do you tell the offending bees apart from the innocent ones? That’s just crazy, right? Probably, unless you are living in Ireland in the early middle-ages. They had laws about bees. The even had laws about distraining (a fancy word for seizing or impounding) the little thieves in the event you caught one trespassing on your land. Since that would be near impossible, and pointless, they came up with rules to share the honey, or its profits, out fairly. The beekeeper got the most, of course, but a certain amount was shared out to neighbouring farmers, as was fair. A thoroughly weird law that makes a certain amount of sense.

My Wife Made Me Do It

Pregnant women’s cravings were covered by Brehon Law. Hard to believe, but it’s true. If a pregnant woman craved carrots and her husband had none but went and stole some for her he was exempt from the law. He could satisfy her cravings, within reason, and not be prosecuted for theft. Which is an absolutely brilliant law. The Brehon lawyers were very wise men who listened to their wives and saved the lives of many husbands.

Welcome Back! Now Die…

The medieval Irish had some really interesting ways of dealing with serious crimes like murder. One punishment involved putting the offender in a boat without oars, swim-trunks or flippie-floppies. The idea was that the gods, and later God, would decide the fate of the condemned. If the boat went out to sea the person died, or ended up in England, solving the problem, which allowed for a certain level of moral ambiguity. If the individual was washed back ashore they were free to live out their lives. Delightfully civilised. Except for the fact that they were no longer protected by the law, they were literally outlaws. Since they were no longer protected by the law anyone could kill them with impunity. If you had killed someone, their entire family would wait at the shore hoping you would be returned to them by the winds and the will of God, not to forgive you or give you a cake, but to do some rather nasty things to you. If you were on a boat you wouldn’t be singing songs about how cool you were but instead be praying to come ashore somewhere very far away and then find your way with great haste to the nearest lord and seeking his protection.

First you get the Cows, Then you get the Women…

The early Irish had interesting forms of currency. We have the cent and the euro, the Vikings had shillings, but the early Irish used séts, cumals, cattle and silver. The last two are rather self-explanatory. Medieval CowA sét is simply ‘a valuable thing’, such as jewellery. 1 milk cow was worth an ounce of silver, 2 valuable things, or a third of a sét. The value of the sét could vary wildly from time to time, especially in times of scarcity, not unlike the dollar or the price of oil. It sometimes rose in value to equal 10 cows. Which doesn’t sound very exciting to modern ears, but in those days cows were like walking lump of silver. Silver that reproduced, made milk, could be eaten and turned into leather, making it even more valuable. You could imagine that they were worth thousands of pounds, leather bound pounds. What was a cumal? The lowest king was worth seven of them, the highest twice as much. What could be worth so much? A cumal was a female slave. Male slave were not used as currency and were called mugs, which is somewhat apt.

Of Saints and Scholars

Saint Patrick

Almost everything commonly known about this man is a lie. Saint PatrickHis legend is possibly one of the most successful fabrications of all time, up there with Santa Claus and the paper-clip. The only real evidence for his existence are two documents which he wrote; a letter to a man who had captured some of Patrick’s flock, and his Confession. He did not drive the snakes out of Ireland, do battle with druids or decree that we celebrate his holy day by staggering around trying to find a parade at 3am. He wasn’t even Irish. He was in fact two men; Patrick and Palladius. The latter was subsumed into the myth of the former and forgotten over time, even though he was the first bishop of the Irish. The Church of Armagh decided that they needed a superhero and chose Patrick as the man for them and used his legends to enhance their own position in Ireland above that of all the other rival churches, such as Iona and Kildare. All in the name of fortune and glory. Patrick went from being a monk with no real authority to a clerical Dirty Harry, beating non-believers senseless. At a time when Ireland had several contenders for patron saint Patrick won because he kicked druid arse, had a pointy hat, and the best propaganda machine in the country, and so was way cooler than Brigit, Brendan, or Columba.

Saint Brigit

Performed some strange miracles, and at least one immaculate abortion. And probably never made a cross out of reeds as she probably wasn’t real. Probably.

Saint Columba, a.k.a. Colum Cille

Descending as he did from Niall of the Nine Hostages, Columbathe man who nicked Patrick from his homeland, Columba seems to have been destined to be a holy troublemaker. And he was. He copied a book. … … Which caused a huge battle in which many men died, and so he went to exile (by choice or by order is not entirely clear). The Irish clearly took their books really seriously. Anyway, Columba ended up on Iona, and then found himself embroiled in the politics, and the conversion, of the lands which were to become Scotland (at this point the ‘Scots’ were still Irish). His federation of monasteries was hugely successful, and produced such amazing works like the Book Of Kells. What is possibly cooler is that his foundation gave rise to a man known as Adomnán, who wrote a law banning violence against women, children, and clerics during times of conflict. This was essentially a medieval Geneva Convention signed by Irish, Pictish, and Dál Riada kings, and other such important folk. Whether or not it worked, Adomnán was the Man; saints often run around preaching peace, he actually went and did something about it.

Saint Columbanus

This man is possibly the pinnacle of medieval Irish religiosity. Not content with preaching in Ireland, having become adept at such things as Latin and computus (don’t ask, trust me, it’s really hard), he set off to preach and educate the people of the most backward and ignorant place he could think of; France. When he got there his piety and scholarly-ness impressed everyone, and his monasteries were so popular they were opening faster than Starbucks franchises. Pretty soon however he was annoying the local bishops, since he didn’t recognise their authority, and thought that they were pretty bad at their jobs. So he sent a letter to the Pope saying so. And told the Pope that he was wrong about the date of Easter. Nobody tells the Pope that he’s wrong about anything. Ever. Especially not some braggart from the edge of the known world. And in better Latin too! By this time Columbanus had moved on, indeed he moved around a lot, setting up monasteries like there was no tomorrow, because there may not have been for him since he had a unique talent for annoying powerful people who had a fondness for running pointy bits of steel through troublesome clerics. The monasteries he founded became some of the most influential and celebrated centres of learning in medieval Europe, playing a key role in the Carolingian renevatio, themselves spawning an endless tide of missionaries and scholars inspired by their founding father. An Irishman abroad, headstrong, confident and never asking for directions, nothing but death could stop him. Which it did.

Medieval Ireland in 5 words

The medieval Irish were brilliant.

Medieval Ireland in 500 words

I imagine you’d want to know why they were brilliant. Well, for a start theyRound tower had a unique legal system. Where Europeans were ruled by the whims of their lords and kings who could proclaim laws whenever they so wished, the Irish were governed by a fixed legal code which kings themselves had to abide by. It took Europe ages to catch up with this great idea. They had lawyers but no prisons. The guilty had to pay fines to or work for the plaintiff, or were exiled if the crime was really harsh. No hanging from a jib or quartering. It was thoroughly civilised. Mostly. The medieval Irish were very fond of fighting, but no more so than their continental counterparts. Cattle raids, land disputes, and dynastic rivalries led to frequent battles where alliances could shift rapidly. But every king abided by the same laws, and spoke the same language, and worshipped the Catholic Church. Of course, since they were Irish, they couldn’t worship the same exact church as the Europeans did, that would be too easy. They came up with their own version of Catholicism which differed not on faith, but on strange things like how to cut your hair, and the date of Easter. Easter had to be calculated with a bunch of strange sums, and the medieval Irish thought their sums were way better than anyone else’s. And so was their Latin. While European bishops fought, often physically, over the claims of their diocese, Irish abbots and monastic foundations, who also fought a lot, managed to encourage a level of learning unknown to Europe. The medieval Irish had better Latin and Greek, and were more deeply versed in the Bible than their European equivalents and so were revered as missionaries and scholars. Their version of Catholicism was largely dominant in Ireland, Scotland and England until the synod of Whitby, when the king decided to change to the Roman Church because his son was going to rebel against him. And he wanted to have sex with his wife. No really, that may have been an issue. She followed the Roman Easter and he adhered to the Irish one. That’s two Lents! And they didn’t give up sweets for Lent, they gave up everything. And they probably didn’t get a break in the middle for St Patrick’s Day! So he switched, and eventually so did everyone else because it was much easier in the long run. Except for a bunch of English monks who settled in Mayo. Irish culture was admired greatly in Scotland and Northern England, so much so that they learned how to write from the Irish, copied their style and wore their clothes. Their kings had Irish advisors, as did the kings of the Franks, because they were the smartest guys around. And then the Vikings came and made life rather difficult for a while, and just when things got better the Normans came. And later again, the English. And we all know how that turned out.