Early Childhood
return to Childhood and Fosterage

Legal Codes
Examples in Literature
Summary





Early Childhood in the Legal Codes :

Fosterage was an extremely important aspect of childhood and child rearing in early medieval Ireland. The bonds that were made during fosterage and the skills that were taught gave foster children a great advantage as they would move on to take their place in society. Forming a fosterage contract was one of the most important duties of a parent and, as a result, most of the law codes regarding early childhood and, in particular, childbirth, deal with the responsibility for fosterage and the rearing of the child.[1] One example of these that survives can be found in the section of the Cáin Lánamna (c. 700) that considers laws of “Children and Child Rearing.” Under normal circumstances both parents would be responsible for paying the fosterage fee of the child.[2] However, these laws give instances in which one of the parents, either the mother or the father shares no responsibility for the fosterage of their children.






Instances in which a woman does not share responsibility for the fosterage of her child:


There are seven women in Irish law who do not engage in joint fosterage with men, the men are responsible for fostering the children the women bear. These children were:

  1. A child born from illegal sexual intercourse with a slave girl without the consent of her lord
  2. The child of a madwoman
  3. The child of a rape victim
  4. A child resulting from intercourse with a girl despite her father's prohibition
  5. A child who's mother died in childbirth
  6. A child born to a wife despite her husband's prohibition
  7. The child of a woman who is ill
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There were eleven known kinds of children whose mothers shared no responsibility in their fosterage (Although the Cáin Lánamna states that there are twelve, it only lists eleven, suggesting that one was perhaps lost over time):

  1. The child of a slave girl
  2. The child of rape
  3. The child of violation by stealth
  4. The child of a woman repudiated by her family
  5. The child of a deaf woman
  6. The child of a blind woman
  7. The child of a consumptive
  8. The child of a woman-satirist
  9. The child of a foreigner
  10. The child of a madwoman
  11. The child of a woman-hireling




Instances in which a man does not share responsibility for the fosterage of his child:


There were seven kinds of women in Irish law whose men shared no responsibility for the fosterage of the children. It must be noted that in these cases the women were responsible for raising the child:

  1. The child a free woman bears to a slave through illegal sexual intercourse without his lord's consent
  2. The child of a man whom his family has repudiated
  3. The child that a woman bears to the son of a living man despite his father's prohibition
  4. The child of a whore
  5. The child of a satirist who does not allow right or entitlement to anybody
  6. The child of a woman who is an outcast from her family
  7. The child of a man who sins in holy orders but repents

There were nine kinds of children whose father’s shared no responsibility for their fosterage or raising:


  1. The child of a madman
  2. The child of a foreigner
  3. The child of an imbecile
  4. The child of a man repudiated by his father because of his habitual viciousness
  5. The child of a wise man (judge)
  6. The child of a satirist
  7. The child of an alien
  8. The child of a cleric in holy orders
  9. The child of a cleric in holy orders


The fact that many of the laws of child rearing in early medieval Ireland are centred around the responsibility of fosterage payment reveal what an integral role it played in the development of a child during this period. When reading these laws we have to take into consideration the fact that “children whose fathers played no part in arranging their fosterage were severely disadvantaged in society.” This becomes a key issue when you consider that unlike the father responsible for fosterage, a mother who is responsible for the fosterage of her son must also raise him, unsupported until that point. When you consider the price of fosterage and the position of a woman in society during this period, it would have been extremely difficult for any woman in this position to arrange, or fund, her child’s fosterage. Consequentially these children would have found themselves in the lower echelons of society and in a very disadvantaged position for their future. The fact that this could be decided upon childbirth indicates that the fosterage system in early medieval Ireland was extremely well structured and much of early childhood and child rearing was geared towards this system.

For more information on the position of women in early medieval Irish society, visit the wiki page on Women by clicking here.




Examples in Literature




The Birth of Conare

In the Story of The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, Conare’s lineage played a role in establishing his social standing and the acquirement of desirable inherited traits. Conare’s mother was the daughter of the King of the Uliad, a great man who passed along three special gifts.[3] His father was a bird, who came and rescued his mother just before her imminent death.[4] Conare grew up and possessed three special gifts—seeing, hearing, and judgment.[5]

This story is demonstrates how important lineage was and the role that it could play on one’s immediate childhood. Conare inherited three special gifts that set him apart as one of Uliad decent. Conare was predisposed to a life of Kingship and power, attributes that most everyone else was not lucky enough to be born with.


The Birth Of Cú Chulainn

Cú Chulainn’s story of conception is similar to that of Conare’s in that he too is of mythical decent and Uliad influence. Cú Chulainn’s mother was Deichtine, the sister of the King of the Ulster at the time, Conchubur.[6] Before going to bed with Súaltaim, Deichtine had become pregnant in a dream. In this dream she was told to name the child Sétantae, Cú Chulainn’s birth name.[7] The story says that Deichtine was able to kill this child within her before going to bed with the mortal Súltaim and bearing him a son named Sétantae.[8]

While it is unclear who exactly impregnated Deichtine with Cú Chulainn, the basic elements point to two things. One thing is that even the Uliad felt uncomfortable with her mysteriously becoming pregnant and that they felt more comfortable with her becoming impregnated by a mortal, hence the engagement they scheduled between her and Súltaim. The other is that mythical powers surely influenced the birth. Essentially, it is made to be a point by the writers that the child had been a product of Kingly and mythical influence, and that these influences resulted in the epic character that Cú Chulainn presents in the sagas. Again, this story puts emphasis on the importance of lineage in reproduction and child rearing.




Summary

The combination of the law regarding child rearing in early medieval Ireland, and the literature of the period can tell us a lot about societal views of the early stages of childhood. It is evident that the manner of conception and the family a child was born into was an integral part of setting a standard for the child’s life to come. The situation of your birth could decide whether or not you would receive the support for fosterage and thus ultimately decide your place in society. Those who were born in unfortunate circumstances would find it very difficult to avoid the lower echelons of society. Whereas those born in fortunate circumstances, as alluded to in Conare’s being the descendant of a deity, would find themselves in pole position to succeed in their respective social class.
  1. ^ Anonymous (c.700)” Children and Child Rearing.” The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. Cork: Cork University Press. 2002
  2. ^ Anonymous (c.700)” Children and Child Rearing.” The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. Cork: Cork University Press. 2002
  3. ^ Gantz, Jeffrey. "Early Irish Myths and Sagas" The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel. pg. 63
  4. ^ Gantz, Jeffrey. "Early Irish Myths and Sagas" The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel. pg. 64
  5. ^ Gantz, Jeffrey. "Early Irish Myths and Sagas" The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel. pg. 65
  6. ^ Gantz, Jeffrey. "Early Irish Myths and Sagas" The Birth of Cú Chulaind. pg. 131
  7. ^ Gantz, Jeffrey. "Early Irish Myths and Sagas" The Birth of Cú Chulaind. pg. 133
  8. ^ Gantz, Jeffrey. "Early Irish Myths and Sagas" The Birth of Cú Chulaind. pg. 133