By Donnchadh Ó Corráin
Chattel, servant or citizen: women’s status in church, state and society, edited by Mary O’Dowd and Sabine Wichert (Belfast 1995)
Introduction: In the case of early Ireland we have no marriage charters, no records of law-suits concerning property, and thus virtually no prosopographical data about marital property in the broadest sense or its assignment. What we do have is very detailed treatment of christian marriage in the Latin law tracts and, in the vernacular law, detailed treatment of divorce and the division of marital property in the case of divorce. We also have a good deal of information on a woman’s legal position, the relationship with uxorilateral kindred, women’s relationships and responsibilities in regard to children, women and personal injuries (including rape and marital violence). This material occurs in extensive vernacular legal tracts written for the most part between 650 and 850, and these are equipped with an elaborate apparatus of gloss and commentary that refers sometimes to this period, and often to much later times. (Some of the commentaries are best regarded as law tracts in their own right that refer to a period later than that of the classical tracts.) These materials can be supplemented by reference to the contemporary genealogies (of which there is an abundance, though material on women is relatively thin), the Banshenchas ‘History of women’ a twelfth-century tract, in prose and verse recensions, listing famous women and their marriages), and to a very extensive vernacular literature, prose as well as poetry, including a fairly extensive wisdom literature. I will refer briefly to one literary text: the introduction to the recension of Táin Bó Cúalnge in the Book of Leinster, namely, the famous pillow-talk between king Ailill and queen Medb in Cruachain.