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Medicine and early Irish law

Medicine and early Irish law

Kelly, F.

Irish Journal of Medical Science, Volume 170, Number 1 (2001)

Abstract

The Old Irish law texts, which date from between the 7th and 9th centuries AD, are a rich source for the legal and social his- torian. The authors of these texts were in the habit of treating the various legal topics in considerable detail, thereby providing a great deal of incidental information. The law texts are often accompanied in the manuscripts by glosses and commentary, mainly from the 11th and 12th centuries, which provide further assistance to the modern investigator.

There are many references to early Irish medicine in legal documents. It is clear that the physician (Old Irish liaig) enjoyed fairly high prestige in early Irish society, as one law text states that he is entitled to an honour-price equivalent to three milch cows and a three-year-old heifer. This was the sum payable in the event of any affront to his honour, ranging from insult to murder. He was thus on the same social level as skilled manufacturers such as the blacksmith, coppersmith or silversmith, or the lowest of the three grades of lawyer. Physicians were gener- ally male, but there is also mention of a female physician (ban- liaig) whose main work is stated in a legal gloss to have been midwifery. Some physicians achieved the status of ollam ‘master’ or sui ‘expert’.

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