Cattle Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland by Nerys Patterson


Nerys Patterson is trying to provide an analysis of the social structure of medieval Ireland. Her main focus is on the period between the arrival of Christianity and the pre-Norman era. For her sources she uses a combination, of more often than not, fragmented primary sources and sociological and anthropological methods. She uses explanations and analysis of the sources to present her ideas on the social structure of Early Ireland.

The author uses the first chapter to present her sources, the problems that were faced when looking at them and the theories that came up around them at the time they were first used as sources. Then she presents her own theories on the same subject. The evidence for early Irish society structure is found in complex and damaged writings of Old and Middle Irish, Latin and a combination of all the above languages. These manuscripts were put together by clerics and members of secular learned groups in scriptoria, more often then not the writers and the time these writings were put together are unknown. The manuscripts were also hard to place in a certain category as they included stories, law tracts, histories, and bible translations all in one manuscript. This however, accompanied by the fact that the manuscripts were consistent in what was in them, seems to prove that the information is basically accurate. It was very interesting to read about the features of the Irish law tracts, I think people talk about it but don’t really understand what is involved in it. There was different sections dealing with different things, and what survived of those tracts tell you a lot about who was important in medieval Ireland. Also it was surprising to me that their were different laws for different parts of Ireland, I suppose that should not really have surprised me as it would be normal to take into consideration what was important to each part of the country when writing laws. The conclusion of the chapter gives us an insight into who the author is going to proceed from here on, it is an interesting thought because she is going to look at the social structure and what was around it at the time period she will be discussing; an insight into why the social structure was the way it is.

The period between the late fourth and early sixth century was a time of social upheaval in Ireland. A lot of names that could be found on Ptolemy’s map had disappeared and new dynasties established. This change was disguised in the Irish texts as a continuation of tradition. Ireland has always recognized two halves; Conn’s half and Mug’s half, and these two halves had different laws and social structures. This could be explained in the pseudo history of the Lebor Gabála Érenn. According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn when the sons of Míl landed and Éremón and Éber asked Amairgen who should be king he said that it should be Éremón first and then Éber, but Éber wanted to be king now so Ireland was divided into North and South. Some versions said that Éremón took the kingship with him to the North and others say that he was king in the North. Éber was a king in the South. In many ways it can be seen that the Northern kingship was the more important one. Éremón took with him seven chieftains to the North to Éber’s six and there are two ridges in the North while the south only had one. This division gave certain attributes to the North and South. When Éremón went to the North he took the poet with him (learned man), so the North was a place of dignity and learning. The harpist went to the South, and it became the place for music and artistry. It should be noted that these two kingships had a special relationship. Though the Northern Kingship was the major one and the Southern one the minor one the Southern kingship was rich with food and produce and so in essence it is the stronger one. There is always a rivalry between the two seats, but they also complement and complete each other. The North is known as “Leth Cuinn” or The Half of Conn. Conn means head, chief, sense, and reason. The South is known as “Leth Moga” or the Half of Mug. Mug means servant. The author decided to compare two texts one from Munster (Uraicecht Becc UB) and the other is the Críth Gablach (CG), and by comparing these two texts she could get (and by default give us) a sense of the social changes that led to the unification of the legal and social systems. The first manuscript (CG) described social rank in terms of the distribution of status amongst the membership of land holding clans; excluded from this manuscript were the landless, craftsmen, druids, poets, and priests. Society was divided into the óes dána and the aire. The óes dána were the people of art, poetry, learning, and crafts while the aire were the lords and freemen, members of landowning and farming clans. The Munster tract (UB) described a more complex social order. The distribution in (UB) was based on nemed (privileged) and non-nemed and sóer (free) and doer (bond). The free-nemeds were poets, churchmen, lords and féni. The unfree-nemed were a wide variety of craftsmen and people learning. The dóer-nemed were those who were tied to the paid service of the king or other free-nemed. The background for each manuscript is very interesting as it complies with ideas expressed in the Book of Invasions the north was more given to warfare then the south. The laws that were written based on the cultural and historical changes that had happened at the time.

Early Irish society was based on agricultural production, tillage and livestock farming and it is these things that govern the relationship between a lord and his clients. The author, in chapter three, started by describing the topography of Ireland, and the climate associated with it. This helped give me the idea of why the farming was mostly on the fringes of the island, and why there was so much emphasis on livestock. She discusses the things that the Irish planted and what they did with them, as well as the vegetables that were popular at the time. It seems like something simple but once you understand the lay of the land you understand why livestock was important and gave prestige. It was fascinating to me to read about the differences between farmers based on what sort of livestock they had, it was also very fascinating to read about what was written on the different animals in the legal tracts; animals like cattle, swine, and horses.

Chapter four is about how the society was organized on land. In order to discuss this issue two things must be taken into consideration. The first is booleying, which is the communing of herds at the local level during summer and the second is the use of wilderness to maintain large herds. If I understood what I was reading correctly there seem to be a lot of mobility. This makes sense when you take into consideration the livestock. The author in this chapter discusses pastoral territories, their importance and how they were divided between the different groups. She also discusses the settlement forms and field systems with in the larger pastoral territories. At the end of the chapter the author gives us the textual evidence of how Irish farming took place, how land was assessed and taxation was paid according to rank.

The author gives one of the best explanations of the Celtic year I have ever read in chapter five. She shows that the year was tied first to the agricultural cycle and second to the pastoral cycle. The year is divided into summer and winter, with the summer being associated with light and work, while winter is associated with dark and rest. Even food is split between dark and light. The year is also split into four quarters; it starts with Samhain, goes through Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasadh. The author goes on to explain about each of these festivals. She also equates human behavior to the cycle of the year in her conclusion, which was very interesting.

In chapter six the author discusses the different types of clientship, found in Irish society. On a very different (or similar) note, clientship in the IE culture the elite had a belief in oaths and obligation to clients, so people whom were clients were protected. An Indo-European speaking patron could accept outsiders as clients without shaming them or assigning them permanently submissive roles, as long as they preformed the sacrifices properly. It was interesting to read how they are similar to the Irish and also so different.

Chapter seven is a presentation of the rank system, what the different ranks were and what tracts discussed them as well as the most common forms of ranks to be recognized. It was very interesting to read about the honor price and the different ways they were paid. Interestingly enough they are almost the same as the honor price system recognized by the Bedouins here in Kuwait, with camels being substituted for cattle or cows.

The next chapter is a continuation of the previous chapter with the discussion centering on kin and neighbors. It includes a discussion of what is expected of each and how much they can or can’t rent from the lord they are clients under. I’m finding a lot of similarities between this system and the system used by the Bedouins in the Arabian Desert.

Chapter nine discusses the forms of Irish kinship. The author admits that this subject interests the specialists more than the general reader but that it will be useful when discussing lineages and how they are organized. She starts by listing the types of kinship organization and explains them in depth. It is interesting to note that status and chieftaincy had nothing to do with genealogy and was more likely then not determined by competition and political supremacy. I have to say that this chapter was mind-boggling and had so much that needed more clarification. Perhaps more reading on the tracts she used as her reference.

The next chapter talks about the corporate FINE and all the obligations that are tied to it. Reading through this chapter I could not help but equate it to what goes on among the Bedouins in the Arab countries. It is not just similar but exactly the same!

No social structure would be complete with out looking at the place of women, sexual relation and the placement of children; this was the subject of chapter eleven. The author looked at the different types of marriages, termination of marriage, and how children were viewed. It also discussed the economic status of wives and mistresses and the laws governing these things. It was a fascinating chapter to read.

The final chapter of the book discusses the positions in the FINE that govern or police. Nerys also discusses why it was difficult for the English to really govern the Irish because of the fact that they do not punish the people under them; they prefer compensation to punishment.

I’m not really sure how to look at this book. It was interesting to read though at times very complicated. I think this is more of a book for people who already have a basis in the law tracts talked about in the book, as well as an over all idea of the Early Irish structure and Brehon Laws and need more specific things explained.

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