Women in early medieval Ireland were not limited to the traditional housewife role, though many women did in fact follow this path. Instead, a woman could choose to pursue a professional career, often by learning her father's trade, especially if he had no sons. In this way, a woman earned honor separate from her husband's status, and she could advance very highly in the ranks of society. The ancient legal codes explicitly lay out several of the roles women could maintain, including most notably: banfili, banliaig tuaithe, embroideress, or hostpitaller.

Banfili - woman poet; had legal status based on her skill, rather than husband's honor price
They earned money from commissions, and could get very rich in this way. It has been guessed that they were trained by poets with no sons. Fili were considered more noble than bards, and thus a banfili would also have been of slightly higher status, despite being a woman. Bretha Crólige mentions female poets, saying that they are not entitled to sick-maintenance, but rather they are compensated with money when injured, rather than being brought away.[1] It can be inferred that a woman poet was more highly respected than the average woman, and thus she was not removed from her home.

Poets were expected to have three essential skills:

  • Imbas forosna - "encompassing knowledge which illuminates", or prophecy
  • Teinm láeda - "breaking of marrow", thought to be similar to bone-reading
  • Díchetal di chennaib - "chanting from the heads"

For more information on the role of poets in Irish society, please view "Poets"

Banliaig tuaithe - woman physician of the túath. Like the banfili, a women physician earned her honor price from her deeds, rather than solely from her husbands' honor price. Additionally, female physicians received a different sick-maintenance than their unskilled peers; Bretha Crólige states that they would be compensated for injury by a fee, rather than being brought away from their homes.[2] This shows the respect that they received in their communities, implying that they were important to everyday life. Women were thought to be largely involved in activities such as midwifery and long-term care, or nursing, as opposed to men, who would have been more like today's doctors. Please view the Physicians page to learn more about the role of physicians in society, and the Glossary of Terms for a more succinct definition.

Embroideress - MacNeill's Ancient Irish Law shows that embroideresses were viewed with respect in the community, as they were entitled to a choice of sick maintenance in a place of their choosing, or in the standard form, in their attacker's home. The law code states that "some one is necessary to perform the function...in [her] absence, and that the earning...may not fall in [her] house." It recognizes that these women were important to their families, and places them on a even level with kings, wrights, smiths, etc.[3] Additionally, embroideresses are discussed in Bretha Crólige, and are given the right to have three judges estimate the sick-maintenance due to them. They are called "women of profitable handicraft", and are distinguished from the average woman, who is only entitled to half of her husband's sick-maintenance, if she is a chief wife (cetmuinter).[4]

Female Hospitaller - a woman with enough wealth that she could afford to maintain a guesthouse or hostel. Similar to poets, hospitallers had elevated ranking in society and had an honor price more similar to kings or bishops. Their high status may stem from the custom in which a king's successor was chosen in the home of a hospitaller.[5] Similar to physicians and poets, female hospitallers received their sick-maintence as a fee, rather than a removal to the injurer's residence, due to the necessity of their presence at the hostels. [6] Additionally, díre was paid according to their own possessions, as established by a judge of the territory, rather than as a fraction of her husband's. [7]

More on medieval Irish hospitality can be found in this article from the English Historical Review.
Additionally, view the hospitallers page for a general overview of the profession.

  1. ^ Osborn Bergin and Eleanor Knott. "Bretha Crólige." Eriu 12 p. 27.
  2. ^ "Bretha Crólige" p. 27.
  3. ^ Eion MacNeill, "Ancient Irish Law: The Law of Status of Franchise." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 36C, p. 315.
  4. ^ "Bretha Crólige" p. 27
  5. ^ H.B. Clarke, "Hospitality in Medieval Ireland, 900-1500." English Historical Review. http://ehr.oxfordjournals.org/content/120/489/1358.full
  6. ^ "Bretha Crólige", p. 27.
  7. ^ "Bretha Crólige", p. 27-28.