Livestock in the Brehon Laws

Livestock in the Brehon Laws

By J. O’Loan

Agricultural History Review, Volume 7 part 2 (1959)

Introduction: In his conquest of Gaul (58-50 B.c.) Caesar liquidated most of the Celtic civilizations of western Europe, apart from those in Britain and Ireland. If the Celtic kingdoms of the continental mainland had any literature at the time of their downfall it perished then, and so the literary history of Celtic western Europe is almost exclusively dependent on surviving Irish documents. Considering the vicissitudes through which the majority of these passed, it is amazing that so many have survived. As a source of historical information, the most important, and in fact in its original source the earliest, body of this literature to survive is the Brehon Law tracts. A concise explanation of what these tracts are in nature and origin is given as follows by our best known authority, Dr D. A. Binchy.–

“For centuries this ancient lore (Old Irish Law Tracts) was preserved orally in the native professional schools. Then in the seventh century–or perhaps even in the sixth–doubtless under the influence of the Christian monastic schools, it was committed to writing, and finally about the beginning of the eighth century it was embodied in a series of canonical texts which were henceforward regarded as sacrosanct and immutable, capable of being interpreted by later jurists but not of being altered. The pattern of society outlined in these ancient tracts goes back far beyond the eighth century- indeed to pre-Christian times, for though the Irish Laws… have a Christian facade their basic structure is pagan.”

The content of Brehon Law is as varied as the life of the people, and ranges from law of the person to the regulation of almost trivial details of farming. In this latter context Brehon Law constitutes an agricultural literature which is almost, if not quite, unique so far as western Europe is concerned, and nothing comparable with it in descriptive detail was produced in this country until the mid-eighteenth century. While some parts of the Laws may be regarded as theorizing or fanciful, the material which follows here indicates that far from being abstract, much of it is practical, down-to-earth farming detail, the accuracy of which is becoming more apparent with the development of scientific farming knowledge. That the period which produced the Laws was also one of enlightened farming is therefore an obvious inference.

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