Session 3: Hostages & Captive Taking in the High Middle Ages Heroes, Fosterage and Hagiography: The Function of Fosterage in Medieval Irish Literature

Heroes, Fosterage and Hagiography: The Function of Fosterage in Medieval Irish Literature

Lahney Preston-Matto (Adelphi University)


This paper examined the fosterage from the perspective of Irish Saint’s lives. Fosterage formed an alternative community. During the middle ages in Ireland, abduction was a perfectly accepted form of marriage. There was an alliterary motif of obligation – the obligation to rescue associated with the treatment of fosterage in Irish Saints lives.  This is not what is seen in secular writing; fosterage was ubiquitous in secular literature. There were two kinds of fostergae, fosterage for affection and fosterage for a fee (the latter being most common). There was a clear expectation of the parents towards their foster children – such as entitlement to a vocational education.

Which children were fostered and with whom were they fostered? Children of higher status nobles placed their children with lower status nobles. Noble children were usually fostered in lower status households, usually a vassal of the higher status father – strengthening and reinforcing the ties between vassal and lord. Preston-Matto gave the example of Cuchulainn, the Irish mythological figure who appears in the Ulster Cycles. Cuchulainn is assigned to one foster mother but many foster fathers. He is the most famous example of Irish fosterage.

Secular fosterage is primarily cliental. Ecclesiastical fosterage is patronal. There was more room for advancement in ecclesiastical fosterage than in secular, cliental fosterage. Fosterage was often done for political reasons. Captivity – short term duration was the most successful, but in Ireland,  hostages were exchanged for fealty and they often ended up staying with their captors for years.

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