Converting Childhood: Shifting Perceptions of Childhood in Early Irish Ecclesiastical and Secular Law

Medieval children 2Converting Childhood: Shifting Perceptions of Childhood in Early Irish Ecclesiastical and Secular Law

By Jessica Storoschuk

Paper given at the 2013 International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds

Introduction: In early medieval Ireland, children could be reared in foster families or by the church. My objective today is to examine how similar and different these two phenomena were, and how they corresponded with each other. In order to facilitate the investigation, I propose a working hypothesis that there are in fact two separate categories to be compared, oblates and fosterlings, though I will also be challenging this hypothesis. I will compare the two using function, age, gender, and education. The sources examined for this paper include the Hibernensis, an Irish canon law collection dated between 690 and 747, the early 8th century Penitential of Theodore which was influenced by earlier Irish penitentials, early Irish law tracts of the 8th century, specifically Cáin Íarraith and Bretha Crólige, the Annals of the Four Masters, the Vita Prima Sanctae Brigitae, and Adomnán’s Vita S. Columbae

Before I compare the categories of children reared in foster families and by the church, let me outline what exactly is being compared. As will be known to you, elsewhere in Europe, the terms that historians would use are fosterling and oblate, translating as alumnus and oblatus respectively. Dalta, translated as fosterling, is used in Irish sources. But there appears to be no specific term for oblate. This invites the question, did child oblation still occur in Ireland? It can be shown that despite a lack of use of the word, the practice nevertheless existed. For example, the Hibernensis provides a brief description of a child being handed over to a church which corresponds with the practice of oblation, although the term oblation is not used. For the sake of convenience, I will use the terms oblate and oblation in this paper, despite its absence from the Irish sources.


There has been little systematic examination in scholarship of the practices of secular fosterage and oblation. Bronagh Ní Chonaill has examined the representation and treatment of children in vernacular Irish law, although her work does not focus specifically on fosterage. The practice of fosterage is briefly addressed by several different scholars such as Thomas Charles-Edwards and Fergus Kelly, but a comprehensive study is still wanting. The same is true of oblation. Child oblates have been discussed in general terms in surveys of life in monastic communities. However, there has been no study specifically devoted to monastic oblates in Ireland in this period and certainly no comparison of oblates with fosterlings.

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