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Early Medieval Irish Tuath
Pages and Files
Glossary of Terms
Tips and Tricks
About the Authors
Childhood and Fosterage
Becoming a king
Raising a king
Types of kings
The Value of a king
Táin Bó Cúailnge
Losing a throne
Warriors and Nobles
Notable Literary Warriors
Marriage & Divorce
Other Laws Applying to Women
Women in Literature
Childhood and Fosterage
Examples of Fosterage in the Legal Codes
Payment Regulation in the Laws of Fosterage
Class Specific Laws of Fosterage
Examples in Literature
A key aspect of the Foster-agreement was the payment made and the legality behind both parties’ actions. Since fosterage was such a common practice, a detailed set of laws were established in order to answers any questions that may arise. Some stipulations involved include:
A foster daughter would have cost more than the son because she was more difficult to raise than the boy. This incuded: how the daughter learned a more difficult skill set, would be unable to protect the foster father afterwards, and was more difficult to nurse.
Note: a child could enter into a fosterage as a child of affection, where there was not an exchange of goods or money, but rather the foster parent takes responsibility for the actions of the foster child.
Fines would be assessed if the child was beaten, improper teachings were performed, or the son was returned early. Exceptions include if the child was of a lesser class, as it was then ok so long as there was not injury inflicted upon the child. Also, the foster parents were not held responsible if the birth parents did not sufficiently provide for the child, such as no horse or lake.
If a child was returned early without sufficient training, the fosterage side was liable to pay for all fees in addition to extra milk. If the child receives insufficient training because of the father, the foster father is not liable. The returning of a foster child early requires a full compensation by the foster father.
For examples of some of the lessons expected to be taught in fosterages, click
Although many of the laws regarding the payment and fines that were involved in fosterage were universal, many of the laws that dealt with the specifics of raising a foster child were class related. The class-specific elements of the fosterage system were not only to ensure that the sons were raised by a standard that suited their class but also raised to a standard that would fit their class as they developed. According to whether you were a male or a female, the son of a king or the son of a chieftain, you were taught different skills that would prove useful in the professions you would take up post-fosterage. The sons of the Feini grades (commoner ranks such as farmers) were instructed in the farming of animals and the uses of equipment they would come across in daily life. Whereas the sons of chieftains and kings were instructed in horsemanship, shooting, swimming and other skills that would be found useful in the lives they were to lead post-fosterage. Daughters were deemed to be more expensive than sons to foster as their needs were seen as more complex. Furthermore depending on class, girls were taught specific household duties from use of the kneading trough for daughters of the feini grades and embroidering for the daughters of chieftains
These laws are laid out in the
which presents the regulations for fosterage in early medieval Ireland. They are shown below, diveded by class
: The sons of the ogaire chiefs wore clothes of black, yellowish, grey or blay colouring. These were the colours of the “Feini grades” – the lower classes that included the ogaire and boaire. It was required that the clothes of ogaire sons be old. As with all classes the sons of ogaire chiefs were given “
” as a primary source of food. Their stirabout made of oatmeal on buttermilk was to be supplied in bare sufficiency with salt butter for flavouring. The price of fosterage for an ogaire son was three seds and four for a daughter. The sons were to be trained in the herding of lambs, calves, kids and young pigs. They were also to be taught kiln drying, combing and wood cutting. The daughters were to be taught the use of the quern, the kneading trough and the sieve.
: The sons of the boaire chiefs wore the colours of the Feini grades – black, yellowish, grey or blay. However, unlike the ogaire, it was required that their clothes be new. As with the ogaire sons, it was required that sons of boaire chiefs were given stirabout made of oatmeal on buttermilk in bare sufficiency with salt butter for flavouring. The price of fosterage for the son of a boaire chief was five seds with an additional sed for the fosterage of a daughter. As with the ogaire, boaire sons were required to be trained in the herding of lambs, calves, kids and young pigs. They were also to be taught kiln drying, combing and wood cutting. The daughters were also to be taught the use of the quern, the kneading trough and the sieve.
: Although one version of the law codes suggests that the chieftain grades were restricted to the colours of red, green and brown; another goes into much more detail as to what clothes were required for each grade during fosterage and does not mention colour restriction for the chieftain classes. We can assume that either the colours referred to were those mentioned in the earlier text or a much less restricted range. The sons of the aire-desa chief were to wear cloths of a different colour every day, with clothes of two different colours on Sunday. It was required that these be a mixture of both old and new clothes. The stirabout for the aire-desa sons was to be supplied in full sufficiency and made with new milk with barley wheat on it and fresh butter for flavouring. The price of fosterage for the aire-desa was ten seds with an additional sed for the fosterage of a daughter. They were to be instructed in horsemanship, brann-playing, shooting, chess playing and swimming. Daughters were to be taught sewing, cutting out and embroidering
: The son of an aire-tuisi chief was to have all his clothes coloured and wear both old and new clothes of two colours every day. For the aire-tuisi; stirabout was to be made in full sufficiency with new milk, fresh butter for flavouring and barley meal upon it. New clothes of two colours were required every Sunday of a higher standard than midweek clothing; and a separate set of clothes for “the festival” of an even higher standard than the Sunday clothing. The price of fosterage for the sons of the aire-tuisi was set at ten seds and of course, an additional sed was required for the fosterage of a daughter. Sons were required to be instructed in horsemanship, brann-playing, shooting, chess playing and swimming. Daughters, on the other hand were taught sewing, cutting out and embroidering.
: The sons of the aire-
rd were required to wear new clothes of two colours every day, along with new clothes of two colours on a Sunday and a festival day. However, each set of clothes was to be of a higher standard than the former. The price of fosterage for the son of an aire-
rd chief was set at nine cows, with an additional sed required for the fosterage of a daughter. As for the requirements for stirabout and general training, these remained the same as with the other chieftain grades.
: The clothing requirements for the aire-forgill chiefs were divided into those that were inferior and those that were superior. The sons of inferior chiefs were required to wear the same clothing as the sons of the aire-
rd. However, sons of the superior chiefs were to have new coloured clothes at all times . Clothes for Sunday were required to exceed the quality of those for midweek, and those for festival were to be of a higher standard than those for Sunday. Furthermore the clothes were to be embroidered with gold and silver. The price of fosterage for the son of an aire-forgill chief was to be twelve cows with an additional sed required for the fosterage of daughters. As for the requirements for stirabout and general training, these remained the same as the other chieftain grades.
Sons of Kings
: The requirements of the colour of clothing for the sons of kings are mentioned in one version of the laws as being purple and blue. Although the other version makes no mention of exact colour requirement, it can be assumed that the colours mentioned were either those of the previous version or a less restricted range. The sons of kings were to have the same clothing requirements as the sons of the aire-forgill. However, the stirabout for the sons of kings was to be made on new milk with wheaten meal upon it and honey for flavouring. The price of fosterage for the sons of kings was also a lot higher at thirty seds or eighteen cows. The instructional requirements for the sons of kings appear to be similar to those required of the sons of chieftains, however, it is stated in the laws that the son of a king be provided with a horse in the time of races.
Examples of Fosterage in Literature
Statue of Cú Chulainn Holding Fer Diad at Ardee
The relationships established through the foster system were some of the closest ties that one would have formed growing up. While a child might have shared a strong bond with their birth parents, it could not compare to the level of affection felt between a foster child, or
, and the foster parents, muimme (mommy) and
(father). These terms of affection were strictly reserved for usage between fosterlings and foster parents, with no such term of affection held between the birth parents and children. This high level of affection seen here is also expressed in literature, as characters in the sagas also demonstrate these ties.
The character of Cú Chulainn, the youthful warrior of Ulster, was often prone to dilemmas concerning his foster family. In
, Cú Chulainn constantly scuttles around Ireland running into conflicts with his foster father Fergus and his foster brother Fer Diad. A pivotal moment for Cú Chulainn in
arises out of the moment that he and Fer Diad are slated to fight each other. Medb, the queen of Connacht, woos Fer Diad to her tent where he is pampered and offered outlandish gifts for his services. Fer Diad denies all of this however, claiming that he “would rather leave them with you than go out to fight my own foster-brother."
Medb in turn tricks him to engage Cú Chulainn in battle, as she needs someone that can defeat him. Fergus hears of this and laments over Fer Diad’s decision, as he is “sickened by the deed.”
Cú Chulainn too hears of this request, and feels agony for the coming fight with his foster brother and best friend. Cú Chulainn tells Fergus that Fer Diad is the last person he would like to fight, saying “not because I fear him, but because of my great love for him.”
The battle scene involving the two foster brothers shows fundamental aspects of foster hood, as the two have the utmost respect for each other in combat, yet are able to put aside their weapons at nightfall and enjoy the company of each other they grew up with. During the battle they would take turns, without disagreement, in deciding the type of combat that would ensue. Then, each night, they would abandon their weapons, hug, kiss, and enjoy the warmth of the campfire together, much like they did as foster siblings.
The actions seen in this scene point heavily to evidence of a relationship that went far more than seven years. The bonds established in the foster system were everlasting.
For more information on stories like
By combining the legal codes regarding fosterage in Early Medieval Ireland and the literature of the period we can get a great impression of what societal impressions of fosterage at the time may have been. It is evident given the extent of the legal codes and the presence of fosterage in Irish literature that the system was an integral part of society and the development of childhood at them time. However, what the literature helps to make clear is the extremely strong bonds that were formed between foster parents and children, as well as foster siblings. We see the reluctance of Cú Chulainn to fight his beloved foster brother Ferdiad as well as the love that their foster father Fergus has for them both. This places great emphasis on the fact that not only does the development during fosterage form strong bonds; it also serves to shape someone’s character. This is reflected in the law codes that include class-specific elements that would allow for the development of foster children to fit their social rank. Ultimately it can be seen that the fosterage period of a child’s life is an extremely formative one, and one that would serve to shape the man or woman that the child would become. This is perhaps one of the principle reasons as to why this tradition was so important to Irish society in the early medieval period.
Anonymous. "Ancient Laws of Ireland"
Anonymous. "Ancient Laws of Ireland"
Anonymous. "Ancient Laws of Ireland"
Anonymous (c.700)” Children and Child Rearing.” The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. Cork: Cork University Press. 2002 pg. 29-30
Anonymous. "Ancient Laws of Ireland"
Carson, Ciaran. "The Tain". Penguin Classcis. p. 124
Carson, Ciaran. "The Tain". Penguin Classcis. p. 127
Carson, Ciaran. "The Tain". Penguin Classcis. p. 128
Carson, Ciaran. "The Tain". Penguin Classcis. p. 143-145
Image: JoeCashinPhotography. April 2006. Sharing: public.
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