Hospitality In Medieval Ireland

Title: Hospitality in Medieval Ireland 900 – 1500

Author: Catherine Marie O’Sullivan

Publisher: Four Courts Press

Published: 2004

ISBN: 1-85182-745-5

Pages: 272 including Appendix, Bibliography, and Index.

Synopsis: Hospitality was one of the most important social institutions and cultural customs in medieval Ireland. The fundamental principles governing the provision of hospitality were rooted in both the secular and religious traditions of Irish culture, and were represented in both the public and private spheres of Irish life. Legal texts, court records, ecclesiastical decrees concerning the privileges of high-ranking clerics and secular statements regarding the rights of kings reveal that the practice of hospitality was largely contractual and generally involved the mutually self-interested transactions of mundane affairs. Yet an ethos of generosity, strongly linked to a cultural code of honor, suffused the Irish practice of hospitality with an air of moral uprightness and decorousness. Gnomic literature provided a series of adages, maxims and proverbs reminding individuals that the path to virtuous living began with charity, liberality and good housekeeping, while sagas and bardic praise poetry underscored the influence hospitality had in determining one’s standing in society. Still, hospitality was not wholly secular, nor exclusively Irish for that matter. It was a basic Christian duty sanctioned by the Church and observed throughout the medieval world. Christian precept and example had a major impact on native Irish concepts of hospitality, and how the practice was played out in everyday life.


Hospitality in Medieval Ireland discusses hospitality in Ireland between the period of 900 – 1500 CE. The text has six chapters and an appendix of observations on the customs of hospitality in Medieval Ireland.

The first chapter discusses the sources used to glean these customs. The sources include the Annals, legal and administrative sources, Gnomic literature like instructions or proverbs, narrative literature both secular and religious, praise poetry, political memoirs, letters, field notes and finally descriptions of Ireland.

Chapter Two talks about the recipients of medieval Ireland’s hospitality. Some of the recipients were ordinary travellers, men of art who included poets, musicians and various other talents, churchmen, and noblemen and their retinue.

Hospitality and the ordinary household is the subject of the third chapter and I found this chapter interesting because it talks about ordinary people. The sources on this is very sparse and so this chapter was really short.

The fourth chapter is about hospitality and the nobility. Of course this chapter is a lot longer than the previous one as there is more evidence in the texts when it came to the nobility.

Chapter five is about guest houses and their keepers. There are three types of keepers traditionally and they are Hospitallers, churchmen, and professional learned men. The one that surprised me the most was professional learned men, they are better known for getting hospitality rather than supplying it.

The Irish church also practiced hospitality, and chapter six discusses the impact of the arrival of Christianity on native Irish concepts of guesting, feasting, and gift giving. There were sections on guesting, feasting, and the giving of Alms.

The book ends in an appendix that gives us observations on the customs of hospitality in Medieval Ireland. It talks about receptions for guests, customary lengths of stay, sleeping arrangements, guest houses and entertainment.

I found this book very interesting because I kept comparing the customs to the customs followed by Arabs and found them extremely similar. Parts of this book surprised me because of preconceived ideas that I had and some just confirmed what I already know. A must read book.

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