Women in the Brehon Law

I’ve heard women were equals to men in the Brehon Laws, is this true?

Despite what the myths show us, no, it’s not true. Women were just as powerless in Brehon Law as indeed they were in most countries across the world at the time. Regular women didn’t carry an honour price.
They shared their rank in law with a few others. They were, um…

– Children,
– The dependent son
– The insane
– Slaves
– Unransomed captives

Okay, that’s pretty bad. But look, they had some important exceptions within this law class and some women were able to become exceptions to the whole system. We’ll get into that.

Here’s how their lives broke down:

“Her father has charge over her when she is a girl, her husband when she is a wife, her sons when she is widowed, her kin when she is without these and the church when she is a woman of the church. She is not capable of sale or purchase or contract or transaction without the authorization of one of her superiors.”

– The Old Irish Díre-text


So, crimes committed by unmarried women were paid for by their father or their kin. Married women were paid for by a combination of her sons, her husband and her kin. Likewise, if a crime was committed against a woman, it was a crime against her guardian. So honour prices had to be paid to them.

Queen Medb obviously never read the Brehon Laws.

Sounds bleak.

Yeah, it kind of was, and from a young age, too. Girls trained in different things to boys up until roughly age 14. Girls of the higher classes studied sewing, cloth-cutting and embroidery. A girl of lower status was taught how to work the Quern, kneading trough and the sieve. These set them up for what they would be doing later in life.

A girl at 14 was ready to either be married or enter into the church.

14! That’s horrible –

– Now hang on, this wasn’t because everyone was pedophilic at the time. It was more to do with the fact that the average life expectancy was way low down. Women needed to have babies as soon as possible because they needed to make LOTS if they wanted some to survive into adulthood. And so, as soon as they were ready, they started a family. This was common across the world, if you didn’t do it, you didn’t get to have a family. At least they didn’t have to deal with the trials of witch burning on top of that.

So she’s 14. What happens now?

So, upon marrying, she passed from the “protection” of her father/kin and into the “protection” of her husband.

Social status was very important in choosing a suitor. Mixing social status wasn’t illegal but wasn’t encouraged, as shown in the law. If I wanted to marry a woman from a family far above my status, I would have to enter into a marriage agreement. As I am of the lower status, my family has to contribute 2/3rds of the cattle to the marriage while my potential wife’s father only has to contribute 1/3rd. Very hard to afford and so not done often. (It doesn’t matter if it’s the man or woman in the lower status bracket. Lower status pays extra.)

Polygyny was permitted and likely widespread. A man would have a chief wife & possibly a wife whom he “visits”. This would be the equivalent to a concubine. The sons of both wives would have rights of inheritance but their mothers would not have equal status. A concubine could choose whether to be under the law of her son, her kin or her husband. She would choose based on whichever would give her the most status. As a second wife, she is only worth half her husbands honour price, unlike the chief wife who would be worth the full price.
Interestingly, a chief wife may injure a second wife for a period of 3 days after the marriage to the second wife. But only as long as it’s non-fatal. The 2nd wife may scratch, pull hair, speak abusively and cause other minor injuries.

The church opposed polygyny but with limited success. The Old Testament has cases of polygyny and was used as a justification for the practice.

So I imagine a lot of women got stuck with terrible husbands because the church didn’t allow divorce.

Wrong. Well, I’m sure plenty of women got stuck with bad husbands, and vice versa. But not due to the law. The Cáin Lánamna gives detailed descriptions on the procedure for divorce without any word of condemnation. Divorce was common because Irish Common Law allowed it, and while people could elect to have a divorce-less church marriage, it was far more common to have a secular marriage. A woman, in the event of the husband repudiating, was free to leave him. She can stay on in the house if she wishes. The same is true if he fails to support her, spreads a false story about her, satirises her or has tricked her into marriage by sorcery. Here’s a quick list of reasons for divorce:

-Too fat for Intercourse
-Holy Orders

On the flip-side, women were treated very severely for leaving her husband without just cause. Such a woman had NO rights and could not be harboured or protected by anybody of any rank, even a king.

Husbands could leave their wives for the following reasons:

-Persistent Thieving
-Inducing Abortion on herself
-Shame on his honour
-Smothering her Child
-Being without Milk due to sickness

If a man is infertile and the wife doesn’t want to divorce him, they can agree to seek a man to impregnate her. The child will be seen as the husbands’ in the eyes of the law.

So they had very little rights… Could they take part in the law at all?

Women cannot act as a witness.
They cannot make a contract without permission from their father/sons/husband.
But! They had rights to impugn contracts that were disadvantageous to them (her and her husband).

In fact, the only time a woman’s word would be taken into account during a legal proceeding was if her oath came during a childbirth that endangered her life. And this, usually, was only in relation to the paternity of the child. One of the three oaths in the law that couldn’t be countered by anything else.

Before she passed away in childbirth she did make an oath, King Conchubhair. That… that we’re all a pack of wankers. I… I cannot counter this. It is law.

Wow. Okay, sounding pretty shit, to be honest. Were they able to get up the ladder in any way?

Yes, indeed they were. Not every woman was bound to these rules. A woman who inherited her father’s lands becomes independent. This only happened if her father had no sons to pass on to. Cha-ching for the daughter! If she marries a landless man now, the usual roles of marriage become reversed. She has her own honour price, she can make contracts and act as surety. However, there is always a shitty side of the deal for women. When she dies, her property reverts back to her kin, not her husband or children.

(I’d like to add that while the above is true, it doesn’t mention anything about any additional lands and properties that she accumulates during her life.  So these could belong to her own family and not to her kin upon her death. We simply don’t know.)

The main way for women to attain their own legal independence was to be trained in an art or craft. These would be wrights, physicians and hermits (Nuns or Holy Solos, as I like to call them). As such, they would hold the same position in society as their male counter-parts, or so the law texts say. What happened in practice, we simply don’t know.

Believe it or not, the church sought to make it a more serious offence to kill a woman than a man. The heavy penalty was a hand & foot cut off before execution. And then the kin had to pay a fine of 21 Milch Cows. Alternatively, you could serve 14 years penance and pay 42 Milch Cows. We can’t actually tell if they succeeded in doing this because we don’t have any case files to tell us how things were handled in practice.


There were two kinds of rape:

Forcor (forceful) & Sleth (all other occasions of rape. Often related to drunkenness.)

Having intercourse with a drunk woman was considered rape. However, a married woman who goes to an ale-house without her husband and is a victim of Sleth? She is not protected by law as “it was wrong for her to be in the ale house without her husband to protect her.”

Prostitutes, adulterous women, married women who agree to meet other men are all unprotected as well. If a woman conceals her rape, there is no redress. There is an onus on her to call for help in a settlement or a town if she is under attack. She isn’t required to do this in the wilderness, however.

The punishment was the full honour price of her guardian if proven to be guilty of rape. The same is true for kissing a woman without her consent or lifting up her dress. If the woman becomes pregnant with child due to a rape, the rapist is solely responsible for the rearing of the child. As is still the case in some places around the world today, I believe.

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