first, make sure to read what’s this all about? if you haven’t already.

ok. early medieval — and even later medieval (here and here) — irish society was clannish. very clannish. this state of affairs most likely stretched back into the irish iron age judging by some of the tales that came out of that era, like those about cú chulainn, which are basically all about the cattle raiding activities of various kings and queens and their clans. who knows how far back clannishness goes in native irish society, but it was definitely present throughout the medieval period right up until at least the early 1600s, possibly later. i’ll come back to the nature of medieval irish society in my next post.

to start with, medieval irish mating practices.

they were close. very close. marriages happened within the paternal clans, very often to cousins. it’s not clear whether or not these were father’s brother’s daughter’s (fbd) marriages, but given that the marriages were happening within the paternal clans, and that ireland at the time was a pastoral society (with some agriculture, too), it’s very possible that they were. earlier in the period polygamy (and concubinage) was also possible and not uncommon, although it was less common — but still present — toward the end of the period. like forms of close marriage such as cousin marriage, polygamy also, of course, narrows the relatedness within a group.

from A History of Everyday Life in Medieval Scotland: 1000 to 1600 (2011) (yes, scotland — don’t panic!) [pgs. 89-90]:

“[T]he French historian Georges Duby … emphasised the tension which existed for many centuries between the ideal of Christian marriage expounded by the Church and a much older secular model of marriage. Goody compared ‘western’ or ‘occidental’ family structures with those which he termed ‘eastern’ or ‘oriental’. He describes the system of descent in the oriental model as ‘strictly patrilineal’, and contrasts this with a western ‘bilineal’ model which places greater emphasis on paternal and maternal kin and on marriage alliances. He suggests that the oriental kin group typically derives from ‘a segmentary tribal system’ based on ‘the agnatic lineages [that is, a lineage related through males] clearly defined in time and space’, in contrast to the western model which emphasises bilateral descent and ‘does not exist in itself but only in relation to each individuals, having therefore no continuity in time, nor cohesion in space’. As to marriage, Goody suggests that the oriental kin group has ‘strongly endogamous tendencies’, that is, a tendency to marry within the patrilineal kin — while the western bilineal model exhibits a ‘tendency towards exogamy’….

“In Ireland, as elsewhere in Europe, much work has been done on the history of the institution of marriage. This, too, has emphasised the contrast between marriage according to the canon law and an older secular model. The early Irish law tracts disclose an approach to marriage completely at odds with the later canonical ideal. They allow for polygamy and concubinage, and for divorce available to both sexes on a number of grounds. At first, there appears to have been genuine polygamy, including provision for a ‘chief wife’ who was accorded special privileges. In later centuries, polygamy was serial, with spouses being divorced and replaced in rapid succession. As in Western Europe generally older customs of secular marriage were tenacious and long survived the coming of Christianity. Although Ireland was Christianised early, traces of older marriage customs survived until very late. The historian Donncha Ó Corráin has written that, Irish dynasties, as the laws and other sources conclusively prove, were polygamous from the earliest period until the collapse of the Gaelic System; while Kenneth Nicholls has commented with pardonable exaggeration that,

“‘In no field of life was Ireland’s apartness from the mainstream of Christian European society so marked as in that of marriage. 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 a graft onto this system.‘”

now, from Cattle-Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland (1994) (sorry, some of this is a repeat of what was in my previous post on early ireland) [pgs. 26, 57, 289, 291 — links added by me]:

“Irish and other early European descent structures were not egalitarian but *normatively* ranked, intensely competitive within the fraternal circle, and were structured not only on the principles of genealogical closeness but also on the basis of patron-client relations between kinsmen of unequal wealth and influence. Such structures are often described as ‘conical clans’ (Kirchoff 1959: 375; Goody 1983: 237). There were no rules of clan-exogamy, and thus no regular exchange of brides, but rather a tendency to in-marriage in order to curtail the outflow of property through bridal dowry. Thus … Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Dietmarschen clans recruited heirs patrilineally, like African segmentary lineages….

re. sixteenth-century Ireland: “Social practices that are referred to in the canonical texts of the law-tracts are attested in English descriptions as flourishing at the end of Gaelic society — a fact underscored by the continuation of work on Irish legal MSS, even as war raged around the scribes in the 1560s and 1570s. These long-lasting native institutions included: distraint, competitive succession, polygynous marriage and temporary marriage, affiliation of children of concubines, collective kin-liability, payment of wergeld instead of capital punishment, clientship contracts, including a type of free clientship, and payments of renders in kind and in services (Nicholls 1972: 3-87)….”

and, i would guess, close marriages.

“*Marriage Preferences.* Although in Ireland, as in the rest of early Europe (Goody 1983: 31-3), there were no hard and fast rules governing the choice of marriage partner (other than a taboo on primary incest), there was a preference for marriage between close kin (in-marriage), and for matches between children of fathers of equal rank (isogamy). Absent from the picture is evidence for child-bethrothal, even amongst the upper classes, or evidence that women were customarily married in early adolescence….

“Connected to the practice of dowering women was the preference for marriage with close kin; this tended to conserve property within the *fine* [agnatic kin] branches that repeatedly intermarried. Clerical complaints offer indirect testimony to the Irish preference for canonically ‘incestuous’ marriage. The seventh-century source, the ‘Second Synod of St. Patrick’, records that the *Romani* — a faction of the Irish clergy advocating greater conformity to Roman Catholic practices — attempted to insist upon ‘what is observed amongs us, that they be separated by four degrees’, i.e. that men should not marry their first cousins (the fourth degree kinswoman). The nativists protested that they had ‘never seen nor read’ such a rule (Bieler 1975: 197 xxix; Hughes 1966: 131).

Again, in the eleventh century, churchmen singled out tolerance of ‘incest’ (marriage of kin) as a major fault of the Irish church. Such laxity was still a scandal to Canterbury in the later middle ages, not only in cases involving famous families, but apparently amongst the general population. So weak were the sanctions against in-marriage, that incidents are recorded in which men were sexually involved with aunts and nieces — not in covert relationships, but marriage for which the parties tried to gain sanction and blessing (Nicholls 1972: 75). Even in the law tracts there survives a hint that Roman Catholic complaints were not without foundation, for ‘Corus Bescna’ asks:

“‘What is the *corus fheini*? (laws of the farmer) Joint-plowing, marriage, giving in charge, lending … (Commentary) marriage — the daughter of each to the other, i.e., to such a one as is not cursed by the patron saint of the land.’

“A curse from the local saint could be incurred on a large number of grounds, such as associating with the various categories of society tainted with paganism, not paying one’s tithes, or simply belonging to a hostile group. The point is that a neighbor, even a close kinsman, was preferred as a husband because his exact social position was well-known — a sentiment share by the Welsh and expressed in the proverb, ‘marry in the kin and fight the feud afar.'”

so, according to patterson, close marriages in ireland were pretty much definitely still happening in the 1000s, and according to both patterson and sellar likely happening as late as the 1500s.

this is a very different state of affairs than what was happening in neighboring england and northeastern france on the continent, both places in which cousin marriage was a complete non-issue by the 1300s at least, and society was based around the nuclear family, not the clan. (some of the earliest secular laws against cousin marriage in england came in the 800s in kent.)

previously: inbreeding in europe’s periphery

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