In the preface of the book the author tells us the time period she will be covering, which is early medieval Ireland, and the goal of the book, which is to sketch the gender system of the early medieval Irish Society. For her sources the author uses hard data about the land, then looks at poems, mythology, law tracts, and folklore.
The author looks at the size and distribution of Ireland’s population in the early medieval period and the general situation of women described in material terms and in the traditional historical terms of their legal situation. Then she describes the men who wrote the women’s stories and the nature of their texts. Only then does she start to look at the documents in which the women of Ireland are buried.
In the first chapter of the book Bitel builds a picture from archeology and legal tracts that is not favorable to women. Then she tells us that she is going to show us more to prove that this picture is not as accurate as it seems, just as the picture of Irish women as goddesses and queens is not entirely accurate either. She also describes how the literati of the Irish wrote about the women of the time and how conflicted these writings are. She describes some of the problems she faced while looking at her sources.
In the second chapter of the book the author discusses three genres of early Irish texts that discuss women. The first is laws of status, the second is wisdom texts and the third is secular narratives about otherworldly women. These genres were written by a group of educated men of Ireland and in it the nature and behavior of women are discussed. These texts were organized around topics or questions that these writers had and they were written around the same time from 700 -900 CE. These writings show that the women were considered to be other and otherworldly. They were different than men physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. They were both like and unlike men. It became obvious to me while reading the chapter that the literati did not put women in high status, but that these women were also able to fight these ideas with the help of men. They saw themselves as worthy but also separate.
The third chapter of the book tells us about coupling. It’s looked at from the legal point of view as well as the effects of it on the women and how that changes her status. The author looks at poems, myths, and legal tracts. It was interesting to look at the rules of coupling, the limitations of coupling and the effects of coupling. I think I would have liked to see a discussion on the different types of marriages available at the time.
The next chapter complements the previous one because it is about procreation. Bitel tells us how the literati viewed sex, how they thought of it and how they classified it. Good sex brought with it babies that enhanced the family unit and was welcomed by both sides of the family any other kind brings with it evil. Again she uses legal tracts and mythology to drive her points through.
Reading through chapter five it was hard not to feel the horror that the women of Ireland must have felt while they give birth. Everything about the child is controlled by law, and the women seem to give birth only to give the child away. It seems that a law tract by Saint Adomnán created motherhood for the women, which means that he gave them the legal right to raise their own children.
Chapter six talks about the other purpose of a union between a man and a woman and that is economy. The two would bring in land or wealth or even just labor to each other. They would pool their resources to make a household, and each one went about their gender specific work. The women might take care of the children, house, and farmyard, while the man went about his field work or if they were wealthy, he would take care of the land and laborers while she took care of the female work force. They were an economy onto themselves and that includes their children as well.
Chapter seven entitled Land of Women talks about the women as a group and how their reacted to each other as well as to the men around them. It describes the network of the men, and how the women relate to them, and then it describes what the women do when they are together. It’s an interesting look at the inside workings of women without their men around.
A lot was written about female saints, nuns, and priests’ wives, which is a surprise. Chapter eight discusses the religious women and how they were every bit as successful as their male counterparts. They did everything their male counterparts did and ran their abbeys very well. One of them, Brigit, was even made a bishop even though we are told that that was by mistake.
The final chapter is an attempt to put into perspective, the use of women in the mythological texts as queens and goddesses. It also explained the violence done against women in these texts. The chapter also talks about the Sheelanagigs and how they were turned into guardians of churches and why.
This book is, in my opinion, to be taken as the first step in a subject that so far has not been explored fully. It talks about a specific period, Early Medieval Ireland, and it does so in a very general but flowing manor. I would like to see further study on the matter, and hopefully a more expanded one. Lisa Bitel is an Associate Professor of History and Women’s Studies in the University of Kansas; so she knows the period she is talking about. It’s good to read that not all clerics in Ireland hated women and that not all men were complicit in putting the women down. I think the author has provided enough information to challenge the concepts put forward by modern medieval historians and also challenge the medieval Irish male ideas of female behavior. A must read book if you are interested in the lives of Early Irish Medieval women.