By Donnchadh Ó Corráin
Marriage in Ireland, ed. A. Cosgrove, (Dublin, 1985)
Introduction: There was a controversy amongst early Irish lawyers (about AD 700) as to whether monogamy or polygamy was the more proper and one clerical lawyer solved the problem by reference to the Old Testament: if the chosen of God (here he may be referring to the chosen people as a whole or merely to the Patriarchs, and the glossators of the text refer explicitly to Solomon, David and Jacob) lived in polygamy ‘it is not more difficult to condemn it than to praise it’.
In the longest established of the western churches outside the Roman Empire and in a society in which christian Latin culture flourished in a remarkable way, the norms of christian marriage were not, paradoxically, accepted in society generally (we shall see later that there were exceptions) throughout the middle ages. It is not unusual, of course, that the norms should not be observed they were, after all, a counsel of perfection and elsewhere in christian Europe the laity were far from obeying the church’s rules — but it is surely interesting that the christian Irish lawyers, most of whom were clerics, should appear to consider marriage within a theoretical framework different from that of the contemporary church and should frame their practical rulings accordingly. However, one should not lay too much stress on the differences between marriage in early Irish and in early continental societies: the similarities are, in practice, much more significant than the differences, and if Ireland was remarkable it was in the persistence of early medieval patterns of marital behaviour into the later middle ages and beyond.
The principal sources for the history of marriage in early Ireland are the law tracts in Irish and Latin, all the most important of which were probably written up within half a century of AD 700. In some respects, the materials are rich — in many instances they provide us with an account of what was done rather than what ought to be done — but they are difficult to interpret. In other respects, they are very limited, for we have no marriage charters and no records of marital cases before the Anglo-Norman period. Records of church legislation about marriage dry up in the eighth century and do not begin again until the twelfth (when the great reform, or rather revolution, in church and society was undertaken). Much of what is said here must, therefore, be tentative.