Wednesday, September 30

Polygamy, Divorce & More: The Unusual Marriage Customs of Medieval Ireland


If one is asked to think of a country that historically had liberal marriage laws one doesn’t immediately think of Ireland. Yes, Irish voters decisively voted in favour of marriage equality in May 2015, making Ireland the first country to do so through the ballot box. But Ireland is also the country that did not make divorce legal until 1997, a country in which one of the members of its Dáil (Parliament) bemoaned famously in the 1960s that “There was no sex in Ireland before television.”

Yet if we rewind back well over a thousand years, we find things were very different. Ireland’s legal system consisted of two types of law: canon (church) law, and the secular brehon law. Secular law tracts on marriage were written around 700 A.D. Cáin Lánamna, ‘The Law of Couples’, describes the many types of union in marriage permitted. There is permanent, semi-permanent and transitory.


Another text categorizes married women into five classes. Three classes are those women who legitimately form formal unions. The other two are more open and include the marriage of wandering mercenaries. And it was permissible not to stop at just one wife. Though it’s debatable whether one should describe such unions as polygamy or a type of constantly shifting monogamy, the practice of concubinage, or subsidiary marriage, was also tolerated. The law also gave inheritance rights to the children of these unions.

But The Law of Couples doesn’t just address the joining of man and wife: it also addresses how they can be put asunder. Yes, the early Irish had a detailed law for divorce. While it allowed men a long list of reasons, it also gave women fourteen grounds for divorce. These could include wife-beating, failure of maintenance and homosexuality. Early Irish women could not be said to be emancipated, but they certainly fared better in marital law than their European counterparts.


In many respects, marriage practices in Ireland in 700 AD may not have been so different for the rest of Europe. But as canon law developed over the centuries, shaping marriage into its more rigid arrangements, Ireland held on to its own practices under secular law. These were increasingly frowned upon. In 1074, Archbihsop Lanfranc of Canterbury wrote to the Irish kings, describing the marital unions in Ireland a as “abominable exchanges.” Even Bernard of Clairvaux chimed in. In his Life of Saint Malachy, he describes Malachy being sent “not to men but to beasts.”

By the 12th century, the Irish church embarked upon a huge programme of reform, reform which had the behaviour of the Irish people firmly in its sights. One: it wanted to address the high levels of killing and violence in Ireland. Two: Irish marriage practices had to be addressed.


There were three aspects that the Synod of Cashel tried to tackle in 1101. Consanguinity, or prohibited marriages due to kinship, was one. Some of the pronouncements seem a little excessive: “No man in Ireland shall have to wife his grandfather’s wife.” It’s difficult to imagine when this particular situation would arise. But the complexities around consanguinity meant that many Irish marriages were now deemed to be incestuous.  The church was equally unhappy with divorce and remarriage, and of course subsidiary marriages. Yet the practices continued.

As the twelfth century progressed, Irish marriage practices came under renewed fire from external sources. Gerald of Wales, chronicler of England’s Henry II, wrote that “[The Irish] are a filthy people, wallowing in vice….they do not contract marriages. They do not avoid incest.”


Pope Alexander wrote to Henry II in 1172, advising that the Irish married their stepmothers, were not ashamed to have children with them and that a man might live in concubinage with two sisters. The different practices in Ireland had ceased to be merely different and now were viewed as barbarous.

Henry II’s invasion of Ireland was in part sanctioned by the Pope so that the moral and sexual laxity of the Irish could be dealt with. The Irish church in turn welcomed his support. It was a move that was to have the most far-reaching and tragic implications in the history of Ireland, a history that could be said to have been shaped by its customs. 
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All photos in post © E.M. Powell 2015

This post was written for the English Historical Fiction Authors Customs blog hop: you can find links to lots more great posts below. 


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