as we saw in the previous post, the mating practices in ireland right through the medieval period were close — cousin marriage was preferred, definitely in the early part of the period and probably also in the later part — and even uncle-niece and aunt-nephew marriages happened regularly enough that the (foreign) church authorities objected. the preferred form of marriage was within the paternal clan (fbd marriage?) — and in the early part of the period polygamy was not uncommon. the close marriages (cousin marriage) seem to have continued right up until the late-1500s.

and what sort of society was medieval ireland? clannish. literally.

from from A History of Everyday Life in Medieval Scotland: 1000 to 1600 (2011) (scotland, ireland — practically the same thing!) [pg. 92]:

“The word ‘clan,’ borrowed into English from Gaelic *clann*, has several levels of meaning. The primary meaning of *clann* is ‘children’ although it can also be used of descendants of a common ancestor, for example, a great-grandfather. But the term came to be used to describe an agnatic lineage which might be many generations deep. At a further level, *clann* could describe a powerful and well-established kin group which wielded considerable political power: a polity as much as, or more than, a social group. By way of definition, it has been suggested that, ‘in medieval Highland society the term *clann* was used to describe a patrilineal kindred the members of which descended in known steps from a named ancestor’. This definition underlines two points believed to be true of the clan in Scotland and in Ireland: namely, that the members of the true clan were related to one another through the male line, and that the eponym or name father of the clan was a historical, and not a mythical, character. The term ‘clan’ has, of course, passed into wider anthropological usage and has been used by anthropologists to describe kin groups that may not conform to the above definition as regards either patrilineal descent or the historicity of the eponym.”

and now some extensive quotes from Chapter 9 – The Forms of Irish Kinship from nerys patterson’s Cattle-Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland (1994). i’ll try to keep it brief [pgs. 239-258]:

“The most inclusive kinship group was the clan, but though ‘clan’ is actually a Gaelic word, the most common term in the Irish law tracts for this group was *cenél*. More precisely defined as a group was the *fine*; it was a branch of a *cenél*, but its relationship to the latter is not clarified by the sources. Within both clan and *fine*, there existed a gradation of power and autonomy, extending ‘up’, in terms of level of group aggregation and the status of the person with authority over the group, from the domestic patriarch of the farming community to the *cenn fine*, or the chief of the *cenél*.”

i supposed a *fine* could be viewed as a sub-clan within the larger clan (*cenél*).

maybe i should throw in some definitions here from patterson’s glossary:

- cenél: a descending kindred, in-marrying, and so ‘bilateral’ in many aspects of kinship, though patrilineal in descent; usually had a chiefly agnatic group at the core. Parallel to Welsh *cenedl*, a bilateral descending group.
- fine: a classification of kin, usually of agnatic kin.
- gelfine: in an agnatic personal kindred, ego’s first cousins and their fathers.
- derbfhine: in an agnatic personal kindred, ego’s second-cousins and their ascendents.
- íarfine: in an agnatic personal kindred, ego’s third cousins and their ascendents.
- indfhine: in an agnatic personal kindred, ego’s fourth cousins and their ascendents.
- tuath: the basic polity; a people; a petty kingdom or lordship.

got all that? no, me, neither. suffice it to say, extended family mattered a LOT to the medieval irish.

back to patterson:

“The Irish law-tracts recognized the following types of kinship organization:

“(i) Cognatic or bilateral kinship in which individual ties through both both mother’s and father’s kin were important; this concerned payment/receipt of *díre* (honor-price), inheritance…of chattels and lands not tied up in agnatic corporate groups….

“(ii) Agnatic ties between individuals, in which only connections through male ancestors were counted. This was important for payment/receipt of *cró* (wergeld), and inheritance of *fine* lands. Both (i) and (ii) were ‘personal kindreds’ [patterson's emphasis], in that no one person’s circle exactly overlapped with another’s (other than with a sibling’s before parenthood)….

“(iii) The corporate agnatic kin-group, ‘the’ *fine*: the important *fine* of the area, that of the local chief of the landowning clan. Such a structure is often referred to as a descending kindred [patterson's emphasis], to distinguish it from the personal circles of kin.”

so the first two sets of relationships there — (i) and (ii) — the “personal kindreds” — sound very like the kindreds of the pre-christian/early christian germanics that we’ve seen before (see here and here), but the “corporate agnatic kin-group” (iii) is very different from what the germanics (apparently) had. this was a patrilineal clan, perhaps not unlike what you’d find in the arab world today. perhaps. it’s certainly in that direction anyway. in other words, the medieval irish were more clannish than the early medieval germanics.

interestingly, patterson compares the agnatic kindred (ii) of the early medieval irish to the personal kindred of the kalmuk/kalmyk people of central asia [see fox, pg. 170], another pastoral group.

more from patterson:

(ii) “Agnatic personal kindreds.

“There is no doubt, however, that by the sixth or seventh century, *fine* groups existed that were structured around agnatic unilineal descent….”

hmmmm. when did they first appear?

“…That is, no one could claim membership in a *fine* by right of descent traced only through a woman of the group. This is made clear both by the rules of descent and inheritance, and by the genealogies….

“The general rule, then, was that women did not transmit membership of their own father’s *fine* to their sons, even though they conveyed dowry property to them….”

patterson then outlines the groups that i gave definitions for above: *gelfine*, *derbfhine*, *íarfine*, and *indfhine*. those are all the different types of agnatic personal kindreds depending upon degree of relationship of the members. the point of all those different groups is just that, amongst other sets of duties/obligations, the amount of wergeld owed, or how quickly one ought to come to the fighting aid of one’s cousin, depended upon the closeness of the relationship, i.e. whether you were first-cousins (in the same gelfine) or second-cousins (same derbfhine) and so on.

(iii) “The corporate *fine*; ’17 men’

“This organization preserved *fine* lands, *fintiu*, answered to society on behalf of its members, and controlled weaker members with suffocating thoroughness. A corporate *fine* could conceivably have developed after initial colonization of land by a group of people, but in the inhabited landscape of the Ireland of the law-tracts it was far more likely that such a group arose from lineage fission, initiated by individuals of quite high social standing….

“The sole point of fission in the Irish context was to establish a new corporate identity; what is more, there is no sign that after fission new lineages ever ‘merged’ on the basis of kinship closeness with those kin from whom they had severed. Far from being each other’s nearest allies they were inclined to be each other’s most lethal competitors.

within the territory of a *fine*, however, “kin were generally neighbors, and most neighbors were often kin.”

this sort of fissioning of what are known as segmentary lineages sounds all arab-y again. hmmmm.

finally, back to the maternal kindred (i) again for a sec:

“The *maithre*, the mother’s kin, had legal rights in their sister/daughter’s children….

“The bond between individuals and their *maithre* was strengthened by polygyny; plural sexual relationships were tolerated, and were probably typical amongst the secular elite. Residences, however were separate — it was such an insult to the wife to bring a concubine into the marital home that the wife was legally entitled to assault the concubine, and to divorce the husband with full economic penalties. Permanent cohabitation between husbands and wives was not, then, an overriding norm. Women often retained close ties to their kin which strengthened the children’s ties to them; this was especially true of concubines, whose kin retained a two-thirds share of their honor-price, but it was also true of chief-wives (whose kin retained only a third of their honor-price), since divorce or intermittent separation of the spouses was so likely to occur. Moreover, as many agnatic siblings were half-siblings, their basic allies in competition for dominance in the agnatic corporation were their non-agnatic connections, principally the mother’s kin. Often this bond was reinforced by fosterage, for the mother’s brother seems commonly to have been the foster-father; the foster-father was the person the child called ‘dad’.

heh. this really makes my head spin, though, because if husband and wife were often cousins, then the wife’s family was also the husband’s family. they’re all from the same sub-clan (*fine*) after all! still, i can see, the mother’s side of the family would’ve been slightly more distant agnatic relatives than the father’s side.
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medieval irish society, then, was clannish. and it was very often *fine* vs. *fine*, *cenél* vs. *cenél*, *tuatha* vs. *tuatha*. they had a wergeld system like most populations in pre-christian northern europe (and many societies around the world!), and there was the same sort of obligation to engage in vendetta/blood feud in an instance of insult to a member of the *fine*.

in fact, they were so busy being clannish that they didn’t even notice when one of them — in typical clannish fashion, i might add — invited in a bunch of foreigners to help him win back his throne. heh!
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(note that none of the above applies to you scots-irish out there! not strictly speaking anyway. your ancestors hadn’t yet arrived in ireland. i’ll get to the scots-irish later. all of this does, however, apply to the vikings who settled in ireland [who were probably clannish at that point in time anyway], as well as to the normans or old english who “went native” [and who probably weren't as clannish as the native irish at the time they arrived, but there weren't that many of them, and a lot of them interbred with the locals]. it definitely doesn’t apply to any of the more recently arrived anglo-irish.)

previously: what’s this all about? and early and late medieval irish mating practices and inbreeding in europe’s periphery

(note: comments do not require an email. dermot mac murrough.)

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