Jenna Coleman’s Majestic (Medieval) Transformation

The Daily Mail has published an atrocious article about the actress Jenna Coleman (Victoria, Doctor Who, Emmerdale) jenna-coleman-384807

in which her improved attractiveness and increased social status is approvingly discussed. It is a quite remarkable and horrible read, have a look at it here

to see  how a woman’s changing looks from teenage years onwards can be dissected, sneered at and finally grudgingly approved because now she has

  1. A ‘slender’ figure
  2. Smooth, shiny hair with muted lowlights (caramel, how classy purrs the writer)
  3. The attention of a PRINCE *shrieks, fans herself* Prince Harry was seen chatting to her and putting his hand on her knee. This, of course, means that because a Prince tried it on with her she is now seen as some sort of society prize and a woman that should be approved of. The actress is “even a friend of royalty” gushes the article.

Well, that’s it now isn’t it, she has arrived. Dear Daily Mail, the 19th century called, it wants its writing style and attitudes back.

After briefly checking to see that this article wasn’t actually a sly rehash from some 19th century society rag with modern celebs chucked in and after reading a Twitter conversation in which a bloke claimed we can’t fight against modern ideas of what constitutes an attractive woman -slender, classy, ability to attract a Prince- it strikes me that these aren’t modern notions at all but really old and (by recent standards) exclusionary ideas of what beauty is.

This article praises Jenna for transforming herself in two ways; in her physical presence and also her class affiliation (but, wait, apparently she didn’t. We’ll deal with that in a bit) so that she is now a “classy” beauty. The whole piece is a lesson in not only tired, age-old cultural constructs around what defines female beauty but also snobbery. Jenna was not born into the upper classes, she seems to have had a fairly conventional middle-class Blackpool upbringing. Now though, according to the Mail, her regional accent has disappeared and she speaks as the properly posh do, cut glass vowels and all. Jenna has also developed a certain “froideur” which is fitting in one’s betters, presumably.

The signal being that this, along with her slender frame and subdued taste in clothes means that she is now not only gorgeous (and unattainable except for a Prince…hello fairy tale archetypes) but, oh joy, posh and therefore more fragrant and, just, better than before. It actually says “But it takes more than a well-cut dress to make a lady. One’s demeanour must also undergo a subtle change”. Why yes it does sirrah but wait until after I lace my corset and have a small faint please…

The ideal of slim, quiet (framed as ‘classy’) demurely dressed beauty is, indeed, an old one.  It screams pure doesn’t it, this characterisation? Not one to dilute the gene pool, this girl. Fit for a Prince – proper marriage material. See what I mean about it being old fashioned? Never mind that people have been actively trying to reframe the terms of reference with regard to women’s beauty so that it becomes a wider and more welcoming space.

More modern and inclusive examples of beautiful women. I know most are blonde – we have a way to go yet in all areas.

amy-schumer-annie-leibovitz-2015-billboard-650    transgender plus-size

This Daily Mail writer is determined to ignore the changing conventions of beauty in favour of treading a well-worn path where the woman is a demure, passive puppet – glossy, wide eyed and young i.e . malleable, controllable and *deep breath* respectable. Let’s take a brief look at how the article reinforces past notions of non-threatening, ‘classy’ beauty shall we?

Let’s start with the descriptions of her hair. Jemma’s glossy hair would have been seen in the past as a sign of good health and therefore fertility. Past connoisseurs tended to like blonds though as this was portrayed as a visible symbol of youth.  Women tended to dye their hair to obtain the desired blonde ‘look’ They used stuff like saffron and urine or they just sat in the sun to try and lighten it.

Medieval blonde but “classy” women



Nowadays women toddle off to the hairdressers to highlight their hair but nothing too garish please. The author of the piece stresses Jenna’s subtly highlighted hair as a marker of taste and refers to her previous “brassy” brunette style. Come to think of it, the terminology is a bit 1950s too isn’t it? Like a denizen of Coronation Street writing about that new Elsie Tanner. Perhaps it is a subtle nod to Jenna’s northern roots?

Jenna’s petite figure (as approved of by the Daily Mail) was a hit in the past too. Medieval Christianity disapproved of ‘gluttony’ which would, of course, be reflected in an overweight body. The preferred medieval figure for women was slim and youthful.  A narrow waist is consistently seen as beautiful in the literature because, of course, it is an indicator of youth and fertility. Some may be surprised to learn that smaller breasts were formerly viewed as beautiful.

Petite (and sad-faced) medieval woman 


This seems a long way from where we are now when large, pneumatic breasts are favoured by many (including the Mail, usually) but Jenna’s more petite frame fits into a more ancient (pre-plastic surgery) narrative of women’s beauty. As does her smooth and blemish free skin. The key word here is, of course, youthful. In the past, as today (no thanks to articles like this) the key to beauty is youth. Non-threatening, gullible, fertile, vulnerable young women – the dream of countless generations of men both young and old. But youth is not, alas, perfect all the time and may need a bit of help. Jenna’s use of makeup to enhance her looks, therefore, also follows precedent. Thomas Aquinas, when not wondering about amounts of angels on pins and so on, once turned his attention to makeup and decided that, yes, women should wear it but only to keep their husband interested and, er, not too much ladies as a too-pretty face might attract other men. Like, I don’t know, a Prince *faints*.

Harry, doing his thing here and presumably planning a quick knee-feel later 


So Jenna probably needs to go a bit easier on the rouge in order to keep such wandering royal hands away from her and to nab the greatest prize of all – a husband.

Predictably (disappointingly) this re-invention of Jenna in the mould of standard beauty since the world began is credited to a man. Jenna’s agent is said to have overhauled her brassiness and hired someone to re-do her look. Obviously Jenna lacks the wherewithal to figure out her own clothes and makeup and needs to be prodded into poshness and, if this wasn’t explicit enough for the reader, the article ends by calling her a modern day “Eliza Doolittle”.  This godawful tripe manages to mash together decaying beauty tropes – slender, quiet and demure are not the only ways to be beautiful –  snobbery and misogyny (denying Jenna any agency in how she appears in public, ascribing unfriendly behaviours to her – a frosty encounter with Kate Garraway is invoked) into a frightful, old fashioned mess which sits oddly within a paper which appears to actively promote the very version of womanhood (fake-tanned, loud, big-haired, large-breasted) which Jenna is here set in opposition to.

Here is a woman named Billie Faiers who, according to the Daily mail was “struggling to contain her eye-popping cleavage” recently


Proof again that with tabloids like the Mail, women simply cannot win as the ladies face off versus the tramps (as ordained by the Mail) and with women (hello Natalie Clarke) writing articles like this, what chance have we got? Yes Jenna has been transformed – into a fairly ancient standard of beauty still being pushed today.



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What’s a ‘traditional marriage’ then? Thoughts on the Marriage Referendum.

Ireland is about to vote on whether or not gay citizens should have the same marriage rights as heterosexual ones. I am an historian of Irish marriage and it makes me both cringe and laugh when opponents of this change to marriage law defend their ‘no’ stance by referring to ‘traditional marriage’ because a phrase like that means something very different to me.


I have studied the history of Irish families and marriage for my adult life and, to be honest, if equal marriage rights opponents do want to go down the ‘traditional route’ then it may not work out too well for their argument. I mean, let’s take a very brief look at what I have gleaned from all my study over the past many years and what ‘traditional’ means to me.

  1. In the period I study (from about the eleventh century until about the seventeenth century) people very seldom married in church at all. Yes, that’s right. In Gaelic society traditionally a marriage was a private event and was basically a massive party. Imagine a modern wedding with all the drink, joy and music but without the churchy bit in the morning. We had that for most of our history. In the Gaelic world, marriage was overwhelmingly secular and people could divorce each other on many grounds. A wife could divorce her husband if he
  2. was too fat to have sex
  3. was impotent
  4. gossiped about their sex life
  5. neglected or beat his wife

fat man

A husband could divorce his wife if she

  1. was adulterous
  2. neglected her household chores
  3. killed her children.


In fact, you could argue that divorce was fairly traditional back then – it was certainly easy to obtain and many people did just that.

See what I mean about those ‘traditional marriage’ claims…

Let’s look at some other marital practices engaged in throughout Irish history.

  1. The Catholic Church also allowed what were called ‘clandestine marriages’ during the Middle Ages. Essentially it meant people could marry each other, using words of consent, without a priest being present. So marriage could be entered into without a sacrament being performed and this was, I stress once again, fully approved of by the religious authorities. This was an accepted and became quite a traditional form of marriage in Ireland. Of course, the Church changed its mind about all that a bit later though. Not that I’m saying they could ever be wrong of course but certainly their view of ‘traditional’ may be open to interpretation too.
  1. Traditionalists may also be somewhat surprised to learn that ‘traditionally’ Ireland had at least nine types of marriage or sexual union. Yes, Irish society recognised many different types of relationship that adults might wish to be involved in.   They ranged from marriage to an individual who was of equal status to you and included marital type sexual unions with concubines. These liaisons could occur all at the same time. Unsurprisingly, many men took full advantage of the fact that polygyny was allowed. Turlough an fhiona O’ Donnell lord of Tirconnel, who died in 1423, had eighteen sons by ten different women and fifty-nine grandsons in the male line. Mulmora O’ Reilly the lord of East Breifne who died in 1566 had at least fifty-eight grandsons. Philip Maguire the lord of Fermanagh (died 1395) had twenty sons by eight mothers and there were at least fifty grandsons. When you think of it, you can’t really get any more traditional type of Irishman than a Gaelic chieftain can you?
  1. Within Gaelic Ireland many people appear to have embarked on trial marriages (*ahem* those ‘living in sin’ situations) before obtaining dispensations to marry, which only started to become popular after 1400. Such trial marriages may have been used to establish compatibility as well as the woman’s ability to bear and raise children. In Irish history then multiple marriages, casual sexual encounters and divorce at will were common. So, according to the traditions of Irish society which existed for hundreds of years, we could engage in all sort of sexual escapades with whoever we wanted and we could marry and divorce at will. Those are our oldest traditions, not the monogamous, married in white, given-away by one’s Daddy stereotype that’s used to back up the anti-same sex marriage campaign.  The ‘no’ campaigners also stress the needs of children in their opposition to same-sex marriage. poster

Well, In Ireland’s past not only could kids have a Mammy and a Daddy to bring them up* they could have several of them, at different times or maybe all at once. The ‘traditions’ of marriage and family in Ireland argue for an inclusive and grown up view of human relationships and not a singular vision that cuts many Irish people out.

When you think about it ‘traditional’ forms of Irish marriage make the proposed granting of equal rights to same-sex marriages look a bit tame and more than a bit necessary and just if you ask me.

gay marriage

* Should also be noted that many children were fostered out to relatives and friends to be brought up and also the concept of ‘illegitimacy’ as many understand it didn’t hold much sway in Irish history. In fairness though, people were probably too busy trying to keep up with a revolving door of husbands, wives and sexual partners than to really bother about who was ‘legitimate’ and who wasn’t.

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She was the yoke that bound them’: Irish children and the medieval ‘Mammy’


irish mammy and child



(Gaelic Irish people, woman is on the left by Lucas d’Heere, circa 1575. )

The title of this blog references a quote from a translated Gaelic Irish poem of the thirteenth century that laments the death of a child, Gormfhlaith, the daughter of Domhnaill Mór Ó Domhnaill, who died of an unknown disease in her fifth year. The poet describes the traumatic effect of the young girl’s death not on her birth mother, as might be expected, but rather on her foster mother, the wife of O Neill. The emphasis on the foster-mother’s grief is a crucial point in understanding the dynamics of family life in later medieval Gaelic Ireland. The effects of the girl’s death and the impact her brief life had on those around her is described as follows,

‘Her father was Domhnall in the west – she set their hearts
along a common path; her foster-father was Domhnall in the
east – she was the yoke that bound them.

Cattle and bright clothing were brought along with her, there
were brought prosperity and wealth; mourning for her after the
good fortune she caused, is a bronze tail on the gifts

Her foster-mother spends a while weeping, a while telling
stories of her; what recollection would be more sorrowful to her
foster-mother than the remembrance of her gaiety?

‘Her foster-mother spends a while weeping, a while telling
stories of her; what recollection would be more sorrowful to her
foster-mother than the remembrance of her gaiety?’

(from, N. J. A. Williams (ed.), The Poems of Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe, (Dublin 1980), ii, pp 22-29)

The snuffing out of such a young life was a bitter experience for this foster mother because she was the woman who cared closest for the child. This woman who had fed her, cleaned her, taught her and mourned her passing was not a family member so to speak but her sorrow at the death of her young foster-daughter conveys to the reader, in a simple way, the complexities of family life in later medieval Ireland. It also tells us that children were loved and cherished and their early passing was a cause of great grief.

Fosterage was an intrinsic part of medieval Gaelic life. There is a large body of evidence about the practice from various sources. The practice could happen from infanthood up as there are references to foster-mothers suckling their new charges. Thus increasing the likelihood of a close bond. References in the medieval legal codes to nursing clothes and breastfeeding in realtion to fosterage appears to suggest this. After the nursing by the foster mother (Muimme) was over and when the child matured a little he or she would be trained by the foster-father (Aite). This training was both gender and rank-specific

Sons of royalty were taught horse riding, archery, and courtly board games; their sisters were instructed in sewing, dress making, and embroidery. Humbler freemen were taught skills of animal husbandry and cereal preparation; their sisters learned to grind flour at the hand-quern and to knead dough in the trough. In a society obsessed with hierarchy and status, rank also entitled infants to sumptuary adornments of clothing and graded rations of cereal porridge after weaning. This training continued until marriage which took place at fourteen years for a girl and seventeen for a boy.

irish  man and woman

(Irish man and woman Lucas d’Heere, circa 1575)


Thus in the Gaelic tradition the foster-mother (Muimme) would become the child’s principal carer, the only mother it knew. The birth mother likely maintained contact with the child but it was probably intermittent and as she would have always known that this event was going to happen she may have prepared for it by perhaps distancing herself from her children in order to fortify herself for the long break ahead. On the other hand the foster-mother had no such difficulties and relations between foster child and its ‘Mammy’* (Muimme) were recognised by the Irish as being particularly close. The child’s bonds with foster parents and foster siblings were inevitably closer than with their own families and there are many tales of people defending their foster families to the death and feeling as though they belonged more to the foster family than to their own birth family.

However, closeness to one’s foster rather than one’s birth family could also have negative effects. It meant that blood brothers and sisters sometimes hardly knew each other and that could lead to highly irregular situations. An incestuous brother-sister relationship may have involved the Sugán Earl of Desmond and Edmund, the last White Knight, was alleged to have had an incestuous relationship with his own daughter. These are exceptional cases though. More likely is that blood relatives simply did not get on with each other having grown up amongst a different family, perhaps with a different set of values and cultural traditions.

* Mammy is used here as it is a word that conveys the close and affectionate nature of the foster-mother and child bond rather than the possibly more distant one with birth kin

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Magic in medieval Ireland (sure everyone was doing it)

As people who follow me on Twitter may know, I am fascinated by magic and witchcraft and, in particular, women’s uses of magic. Ireland has it’s own share of magical women who are quite well attested to in the sources. As early as the 5th/6th C a document known as the First Synod of St Patrick condemned belief in witchcraft

A Christian who believes that there is such a thing in the world as a lamia, that is to say, a witch (striga) is to be anathematized – anyone who puts a living soul under such a reputation; and he must not be received again into the Church before he has undone by his own word the crime that he has committed, and so does penance with all diligence‘.

So, if you even simply believe in a witch (female one) then you are to be cast out, excluded from civilised society. It seems that witchcraft (in the context of the times) is associated with prohibited Pagan practice. So magic was performed by women (amongst others) and this is reflected in a text known as ‘The Deer’s Cry’, a prayer famously attributed to St Patrick himself in which he asks for protection.

 ImageSt Patrick looking fiercely at women, smiths and druids 😉 


I summon today all those powers between me and every cruel, merciless

power that may oppose my body and my soul,

against the incantations of false prophets,

against black laws of paganism,

against the false laws of heresy,

against the deceit of idolatry,

against the spells of women and smiths and druids,

against every evil knowledge that is forbidden man’s body and soul…

Women are associated with smiths (a highly magical grouping) and druids (speaks for itself). Magic working by women is mentioned in other sources of this early period of Christianity in Ireland and is often associated with the creation of potions and charms to cause abortions, to kill love rivals and the creation of love magic to make or break relationships and so on. This is what (in the clerical mind anyway) magic working women were up to in early medieval Ireland. Female magic is associated with sex and relationships by the clerics but there may be some truth to the fevered imaginings of these men. It is highly likely that Irish women (and men but the focus is not so much on them, no surprise) were using potions and spells to control their reproductive ability. It was happening elsewhere in Europe so why not here too and the various mentions of their magical abilities (often in connection with abortifacients) seems a clue that women did seek out and use plant-based contraceptive aids (as seems likely). These actions were unilaterally condemned and exclusion of such practitioners by the Christian community was advised.


Yes, a ridiculous image of an, erm, ‘Irish witch’ and possibly not the most historically accurate!

The Irish penitential, the Penitential of Finnian lists the punishments for those who transgress (note the last one which is surprisingly lenient for those who commit abortion).


  • If any cleric or woman who practises magic have led astray anyone by their magic, it is a monstrous sin, but it can be expiated by penance. (Such an offender) shall do penance for six years, three years on an allowance of bread and water, and during the remaining three years he shall abstain from wine and meat.

  • If, however, such a person has not led astray anyone but has given [something] for the sake of wanton love to someone, he shall do penance for an entire year on an allowance of bread and water.

  • If a woman by her magic destroys the child she has conceived of somebody, she shall do penance for half a year with an allowance of bread and water, and abstain for two years from wine and meat and fast for the six forty-day periods with bread and water.

 And yet…and yet even the ‘best’ of women in medieval Ireland joined in with the magic-making. In the ‘Life of St Brigit’ the sainted abbess and ‘Mother of Ireland’ is shown performing magic and what’s worse, it’s love magic – long condemned by her male counterparts as interfering with the natural order. She does so by helping a man who came to her in distress about his wife who ‘hated’ him. There are different versions of the saint’s ‘Life’ in which this episode is recounted but in one of them the man specifically asks her for a ‘charm’ to help him and the saint agrees. She appears to bless water, thereby conveying a supernatural power on it through this ritual and, as some contend, her use of ‘words of power’ on it. The man took the water, sprinkled it over his wife and she adored him from then on.

Image A wife who ‘hates’ her husband. He is wondering where to find the nearest amenable saint and a jug!


Brigit’s act, the transformation of reality through a magical ritual was in many ways laudable from a Christian perspective as she helped to keep a married couple together but she acted without permission and transformed reality with a ritual. If that is not magic then I don’t know what is. More importantly if Ireland’s best loved female saint could use magic to influence reality then why couldn’t anyone else? That’s a difficult argument to win against even for the clerics and it seems that they continued to lose it.

ImageSt Brigit looking like she actually could be persuaded to do a bit of magic for you

Ireland didn’t participate in the witch hunts, the reasons for which are many and varied but the participation of immensely powerful female figures in magical acts (in the mythology there is a plethora of powerful, magical women too) must indicate that, culturally, the belief in the magical powers of women stayed just the right side of positive.









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Alice, Alice…who’s afraid of Alice? The First (and Worst) Witch in Ireland.

Alice, Alice, who’s afraid of Alice?


Ireland’s ‘first witch’ was a wealthy middle aged woman living in town called Kilkenny in fourteenth century Ireland. Her name was Alice Kyteler, she worked as a merchant and moneylender and had acquired four husbands. It was her step children from her fourth marriage (to Sir John le Poer) who raised the accusations of sorcery and maleficium against her around the year 1324, in which her other stepchildren joined. By that stage Alice was rich on the income from her accumulated dowers alone, a fact of which her accusing stepchildren were well aware and included in their list of accusations, saying that she had acquired her wealth through bewitchment and murder. These step-children complained bitterly that Alice had used sorcery to kill their fathers, and had persuaded and infatuated the others with witchcraft so that they had left all their wealth to her and her only son William Outlawe, and left them, the rightful heirs, nothing.When they took these complaints to the local Bishop Ledrede of Ossory he reacted swiftly by holding a formal inquiry early in 1324.

Image Alice’s House – now a pub

Bishop Ledrede, an Englishman, was educated at Avignon whose thinkers were at the vanguard of new theological developments in the areas of heresy and demonology and he brought all this new ideas to bear on Alice’s trial. Ledrede’s patron, Pope John XXII (1316-1334), had a fear of sorcery and claimed that his life was in danger from witchcraft, which he listed as a heresy in his bull Super illius specula. As a papal appointee, Ledrede attempted to put into practice in Ossory those inquisitorial techniques learnt at Avignon. Among the witnesses called were the dispossessed heirs from Alice’s previous marriages who “urged the bishop with public clamour, demanding remedy and aid.”1 Ledrede, however, once convinced of the alleged heresies took the matter further, unable to leave the charges at maleficium and multiple homicide. Dame Alice and William Outlawe, her son, were charged with being sorcerers, heretics and of leading followers into organised heresy and witchcraft.2 The group accused along with William and Alice were all Anglo-Irish, among them Alice’s servant Petronilla of Meath. Ledrede accused them of communicating with the demons, of having the name of the Evil One stamped on the Sacred Host and of offering sacrifices to Satan.

In all seven major charges were brought against Alice Kyteler and her associates: that they were denying Christ and the church; that they cut up living animals and scattered the pieces at cross roads as offerings to a demon called the son of Art in return for his help; that they stole the keys of the church and held meetings there at night; that in the skull of a robber they placed the intestines and internal organs of cocks, worms, nails cut from dead bodies, hairs from the buttocks and clothes from boys who had died before being baptised; that, from this brew, they made potions to incite people to love, hate, kill and afflict Christians; that Alice herself had a certain demon as incubus by whom she permitted herself to be known carnally and that he appeared to her either as a cat, a shaggy black dog or as a black man, Aethiopis, from whom she received her wealth; and that Alice had used sorcery to murder some of her husbands and to infatuate others, with the result that they gave all their possessions to her and her son, William Outlawe, thus impoverishing her stepchildren. Furthermore it was claimed that Alice’s fourth husband, Sir John Ie Poer, was being poisoned. The final accusation may have some truth to it as a description of him in 1324; emaciated, with nails fallen out and body hair all gone is consistent with arsenic poisoning.3 In Dowling’s Annals Dame Alice is said to have practiced spells in public by gathering the filth of the streets and piling it before the door of her son, while mumbling:

To the house of William my son

Hie all the wealth of Kilkenny town.4

What the group was eventually accused therefore went far beyond the original accusations of Alice’s children. Ledrede took the original accusations and embroidered them with many more. The details of Alice’s activities included grave-robbing, concocting powders, pills and ointments from herbs and a variety of other ingredients including unbaptized children’s swaddling clothes and of making candles from human fat.


Eventually all the accused were found guilty. Alice, meanwhile, had managed to escape from Kilkenny and made it to Dublin where she was given some help by the Bishop there (who was not a fan of Bishop Ledrede) . Alice was related to many of the most powerful Anglo-Irish families in Ireland and those connections served her well. Back in Kilkenny though her co-accused were suffering. The fortunate members of the group escaped with public flogging, or excommunication, but, her servant, Petronilla of Meath was burned alive, based on her detailed confession obtained by torture. When Ledrede eventually requested Alice’s return to Kilkenny from the diocese of Dublin it appeared that she was allowed to flee from there and escape Ledrede’s persecution.5 She was never heard of again. Her son William Outlawe did not flee with her and in 1325 Ledredee saw a useful way to further the faith and save himself some money. William was required to purge his alleged sin of heresy by undertaking to roof the chancel and adjacent Lady Chapel of the Cathedral at Kilkenny with lead at his own expense. It was so heavy that the roof collapsed.2

This witchcraft trial in Ireland is extremely important with regard to the genesis of the witch belief in medieval and Early Modern Europe. The accusations against Alice and her co-accused are seen as the first link between previous representations of heretics in the Middle Ages as secret, nocturnal, sexually promiscuous devil-worshippers to also being practitioners of low magic. Alice and her co-accused were accused of using witchcraft but also of belonging to a set of heretics that met at night, renouncing the Christian faith and of making sacrifices to demons. Importantly, Alice was also accused of copulating with a demon. That is why this trial is so important as charges of magic became intertwined with charges of heresy and devil worship and it reflects for the first time the belief that witches were organised in a devil-worshipping heretical sect. Without this belief in the sabbat the witch hunts would have been a much smaller affair in the rest of Europe.

Intriguingly this trial is one of a handful of witch trials that took place in Ireland. The witch hunting craze never caught on and many reasons have been proferred for this. A clue, perhaps, as to why the Gaelic Irish and Anglo-Irish inhabitants (remember the island was split into spheres of power between English and Irish) didn’t show much enthusiasm for joining in the witch hunt might be seen in a speech given by a relative and friend of Alice Kyteler, Arnold le Paor who was the Seneschal (sort of a governor) of Kilkenny

He said of Bishop Ledrede – ‘if some vagabond from England has obtained his bull in the pope’s court, we do not have to obey it unless enjoined on us by the king’s seal.’ He also claimed: ‘As you well know, heretics have never been found in Ireland, which has always been called the ‘Island of Saints’. Now this foreigner comes from England and says we are all heretics and excommunicates … Defamation of this country affects everyone of us, so we must all unite against this man’.

Alice’s trial brings up all sorts of interesting questions about cultural affiliations and loyalties; about Crown vs Church power and about how these factors drove and influenced the very obvious lack of enthusiasm for witch trials which is such a feature of medieval Ireland.

So, yes, she might have slept with a devil but because a foreigner said so, in the clannish, suspicious and independent world of medieval Ireland then…nobody was going to punish her for it and that was that!

1 Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, (London: Sussex University Press., 1975),ibid., pg 198.

2 ibid., pg 198.

3Bernadette Williams, The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler, History Ireland, vol. 4, issue 2 (1994)

4 S. Malone, Church History of Ireland, Vol. 2, pg 3.

5 S. Malone, op. cit., pg 7.

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Independent Women: Poetry, power, art and looking for love in medieval Ireland


ImageI have mentioned before how, after women married in the Irish tradition they could control the goods they brought with them to the marriage. A favourite way for women to dispose of any such income was to commission poetry. The (grateful) bards, who lauded these women’s personal wealth, celebrated the extent to which Gaelic wives could control their possessions (and the extent to which that control could benefit the bards – natch). Here’s a fourteenth century poem addressed to Sadhbh Magauran makes explicit reference to her personal wealth. The poet states that:

Every poet-band shares her wealth nor is there any whose

desires she grants not; Sadhbh, Branch of Gabhair, has

attained high fortune but not higher than her excellence1


Another woman who was typical of these wealthy patrons was Margaret the daughter of Conor O’ Brien and wife of O’ Rourke, lord of Breifne. When she died in 1513 she was lauded as the;

‘…radiant paragon of the Gaels, to whom God gave prosperity and royal state and great wealth; hearth of hospitality and maintenance, humanity and charitable entertainment for scholars and ollavs, the weak and the wretched and all, whether mighty or outcast, who stood in need thereof; one who never as long as she lived denied any man craving a boon; died after Unction and Penance and was buried in the monastery which she had herself built to the honour of God and St. Francis, namely the monastery of Creevlea.2


The Gaelic Irish wives who encouraged and supported poets left behind them a legacy of poems, which praised them in life and eulogised them after death.3These women upheld a tradition of the Gaelic world that was often carried on by their daughters. A mid fifteenth-century poem makes reference to Fionnghuala, the daughter of Calvach O’ Connor Faly and his wife, the famously generous Margaret O’ Carroll. The poet also indicates the status and power of Fionnghuala as a wife as well as her wealth.

Equally balanced are Brian’s son and his wife; so that neither

scale sinks down, a hero like Aodh being weighed against



Fionnghuala’s splendour is so great that no woman

can be set above her


From her girlhood-high praise! – her mother’s nature shows

in her; ‘ere she came to a husband she was pregnant with


The ‘mother’s nature’ referred to was that of Margaret O’ Carroll. She was a remarkable woman, who was lauded at her death as,

Mairgreg (Margaret) … was the best of the women of the Gaedil, and the one who made most causeways, churches, books, chalices and all articles useful for the service of a church; and she issued two general invitations in one year, at Killeigh at the feast of St. Sinchell and at Rathangan at the first festival of Mary.5


Margaret’s fame rests on the two general invitations referred to there, which she issued to the learned men of Ireland in 1433 and which are mentioned in her obituary. These were essentially huge feasts for poets.6 A description of the feasts can be found in the annals where Margaret is described as sitting at the feast clad in cloth of gold and surrounded by friends as well as judges and clergy. Her husband is described as overseeing the orderly dispensation of provisions and seems rather sidelined as all the emphasis is on Margaret as principal patron.7


Because of all this lavish spending, Margaret was, of course, a favourite of the poets. A poem by Seithfín Mór, which celebrated the martial exploits of her husband, also included her in its acclaim.

Margaret’s fame has established her protection; palm-branch who

breaketh not her words; a lady who has not learned to refuse; darling of

the blood of earls; flowing tresses whose fosterer is Jesus; heart bounti-

ful and pious. To drink feasts she never forsook her prayers – a woman

who lives by rule. She protects herself against our art, her words are on

our side’.8


Gaelic wives patronised poets for a number of reasons; to show off, to display one’s largesse and cultural leanings but, most importantly, because it served a very important function in Gaelic society. Bardic poetry acted as propaganda for the chief and his family and it was an important duty of the wife to see to it that the right type of poetry was written about her (i.e. her husband’s) family. The great fear was that poets would be displeased and a disaffected poet satirising those who had offended him could ruin a family’s reputation. It was also believed that a poet’s curse could have a serious debilitating effect on one’s health and wellbeing so there is an element of blackmail going on here with the interactions between patrons and poets.


The wife needed the poet to make both her and members of her family look good and the poet needed her patronage for him to survive and prosper. This symbiois was mutually beneficial most of the time. Personal attributes of the lady were often topics of great praise in poems commissioned by them which, frankly, isn’t a surprise. A poem addressed to Gormlaith, the daughter of Brian Magauran, spends most of the time praising her hair for example. Gormlaith’s husband may have been dead by this stage and such concentration on her physical attributes may have been signalling her readiness to find another husband.

Brian’s daughter has hair as Eimhear’s, a young maid

Braiding it, her head of hair is like a bright gold bracelet;

Like too (to Eimhear’s) is the arrangement of the curls in

the back of it


In her plundering of gold (from her husband) for young

Poets, in her brow with its curling dark crest, in her noble-

glancing eye, in her blushing face showing no anger at

rough word’.9

Medieval Irish poetry….the online dating game of its day 🙂


1 Lambert McKenna, The Book of Magauran (Dublin, 1947), verses 19, 20 and 23, p. 414.

2 A. Conn., 1513.2

3McCauley, Roisin, Female Patrons of Bardic Poetry ( M. Phil dissertation, University of Dublin, 2000) pp 20, 24.

4 Aithdioghlum Dana, ed. Lambert McKenna, (Dublin, 1939) i, pp 73-4; ii, p. 44,

5 A. Conn., 1451.2.

6 Katharine Simms, ‘Guesting and Feasting in Gaelic Ireland’, J.R.S.A.I., 108 (1978), pp 91-2.

7 A. F. M. 1451, note t.

8 Osborn Bergin, Irish Bardic Poetry (Dublin, 1970), pp 284-5.

9 McKenna, Book of Magauran, pp 312-6.



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Don’t mess with a medieval Irishwoman

Don’t Mess With A Medieval Irish Woman: Discovering Female Agency in Gaelic Ireland


The question of agency and of how medieval women exerted it is a topic that interests me. One bonus of studying the history of medieval Ireland is that, during the later period (post 1170) there were two very distinct societies on the island. The society of the Gaelic Irish and that of the English in Ireland. I am particularly intrigued by the status of women in these contrasting societies as expressed through the laws and traditions governing women’s behaviour during this period. These different societies assigned different methods (and levels) of exerting agency to women but what I am (very briefly) going to look at today is the phenomenon whereby Gaelic women could keep control of their dowry upon marriage which allowed them (I think) a measure of said agency in conducting their own and their family’s affairs.

In Gaelic society dowries usually consisted of movables (cattle etc) and at the top of society women could be given valuables, sometimes soldiers (including galloglass/mercenaries) as their dowry.


Galloglass (on the left) nonchalantly chatting but always tough, note how everyone else is keeping a distance 🙂

Yes, that’s right, a Gaelic bride could go lovingly to her new husband escorted by a crack team of soldiers who were hers. The Annals of Loch Cé, for example, refer to the thirteenth century marriage of Aedh O Conor and Ailin, the daughter of Dubhgall MacSomhairle, upon which the young wife brought as her dowry one hundred and sixty galloglass.1 In the early fourteenth century Angus Óg, Lord of the Isles, married Agnes, the daughter of Cú Mhuighe O’ Cathain of Ulster, and he is said to have received a dowry (or a tocher, as it was known in Scotland) of 140 men of every surname in O’ Cathain’s territory with his new wife.2 This made for interesting situations when women chose to exert their control over these ‘dowries’ of soldiers.

One famous situation stands out. In 1315 during the Bruce wars Dervorgilla [Dervla] who was the wife of O Donnell joined her husband in making war on Rory O Connor in Carbury. She is recorded as leading galloglass (mercenary soldiers) in an attack on a church. It is not clear as to whether they are hers but, they may well have been. The following year Rory O Connor made peace with O Donnell. However, Dervorgilla refused to acknowledge the peace her husband had made and hired another band of galloglass to which she offered a reward for killing Rory. It is interesting that she hired different galloglass as one gets the feeling that this is how she circumvented being asked/told not to use her own men. Importantly she had the means to pay the galloglass she hired, independently of her husband. The galloglass did their job and Rory was killed in direct contravention of the wishes of her husband.3


Here’s a woman attempting to beat up a monk, it seems (*Dervorgilla-lite)

Gaelic wives’ independence and willingness to join their resources with their husband’s in making war ensured that some were formally acknowledged by the authorities as being both troublesome and dangerous to both Church and State. In 1315 Donal O’ Neill, his wife Gormlaith and their son, John, issued Letters Patent, in which they promised to the harassed Archbishop, Dean and Chapter of Armagh that they would no longer make any demands upon ecclesiastically owned lands and tenants for themselves or their allies’ troops. They also promised to restore all church lands, which they had seized and to deliver pledges for good behaviour.4 The following year, in 1316 the Justiciar of Ireland was ordered to ascertain whether the release from prison of Mór, the wife of O Hanlon, who was being held in Drogheda, would be prejudicial to the keeping of the peace, or injurious to the interests of the king.5 High ranking women in the Gaelic world were, therefore, active in the political happenings and associated crimes of their day. Their continuing control of their own assets (dowries) enabled them to exert agency in their and their family’s affairs.

Now if you look at the situation of the ‘English’ women in Ireland, a very different picture emerges but that’s for another blog post!

1 A.L.C., 1259.

2 Rosalind K. Marshall, Virgins and Viragos: A History of women in Scotland from 1080-1920 (London. 1983), p. 29.

3 A. Conn., 1315.20, 1316.2.

4 ‘Calendar of the register of Archbishop Fleming’, ed., H. J. Lawlor, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 30 C (1912-13), no. 170,

5 Brendan Smith, ‘The Medieval Border’ in Raymond Gillespie and Harold O’ Sullivan (ed.) The Borderlands; essays on the history of the Ulster-Leinster border (Belfast, 1989), p. 50


October 16, 2013 · 12:42 pm

The woman who killed Brian Ború

2014 sees the 1000th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf. Brian Ború of late and glorious memory saw off the Vikings (but died doing it) and we all lived happily ever after, right?

brian boru

Eh, no but that’s a story for another day.

Anyway, back to Brian. He had a wife who has been all but forgotten about and yet she supposedly played an enormously important part in the politics around 1014. In fact, she is blamed for the Battle which killed Brian but made Ireland safe from Viking depredations according to various sources. Her name was Gormlaith and she was the daughter of the King of Leinster Murchad Mac Finn. What was she like? Your guess is as good as mine. She is supposed to have been beautiful/desirable etc but with a bit of an evil edge.

warrior woman

Njal’s Saga in the thirteenth century called her ‘the fairest of all women, and best gifted in everything that was not in her own power, but it was the talk of men that she did all things ill over which she had any power‘. Oh yeah and she was supposed to have had red hair (Danger!!)

So she was beautiful and deadly – yes that old trope rears its head once again in a depiction of a medieval woman but I think it would be fair to imagine that Gormlaith could take care of herself politically. She did have a habit of marrying powerful kings, so political machinations would have been an essential skill.

Her marital history (in an age of secular-law led marriages) was referred to as her ‘three leaps‘. Her first husband was probably Amlaíbh Cuarán, the Norse king of Dublin and he was a lot older than her. We don’t know dates of birth of course but Gormlaith died in the 1030s and this marriage took place in the 970s so, it can be pretty much worked out that she was very young and he was an old man. He retired to Iona in 980.


She had a son by this marriage and his name was Sitric (Silkbeard) a famous king of Dublin whose name and image are flogged to visitors to the capital still.

Her second husband would seem to have been Brian Ború and her third was possibly to Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill maybe after she and Brian were divorced. Divorce and multiple marriages were options available to people (especially the noble class) in Gaelic society.  So she was the daughter of a king and she married kings…story of a thousand medieval lives I know. But this one, this woman is different. She has been blamed for the death of the greatest king Ireland has ever had!

Her notoriety comes from her role in the build up to one of the defining moments of Irish history, the Battle of Clontarf. So what was that all about? Well, it’s complicated and it’s about jockeying for power within Ireland in a land of many kingships and it’s about new cultures (Hiberno-Norse) rubbing against old ones (Gaelic)and so on.

Essentially in 1013, Mael Mordha (Gormlaith’s brother) the king of Leinster went into revolt against Brian who claimed a type of overlordship over him and joined forces with the Vikings in Ireland, led by Sitric of Dublin. Gormlaith’s brother and son attacked her ex-husband. Together, they attacked the kingdom of Mael Sechlainn of Meath who summoned the help of King Brian and a battle took place at Clontarf in Dublin. Eventually Brian’s army drove the Vikings back towards the sea. Here is what the CogadhGaedhail re Gallaibh says about it


It was at the full tide the foreigners came out to fight the battle in the morning, and the tide had come to the same place again at the end of the day when the foreigners were defeated; and the tide had carried away their ships from them, so they had not at last any place to fly to, but into the sea; after the mail-coated foreigners had all been killed by the Dal Cais….and the foreigners were drowned in great numbers by the sea, and they lay in heaps and in hundreds’.

Brian himself was murdered in his tent. A period of relative peace followed where the Gaelic kings and the Hiberno-Norse rulers managed to carve out a co-existence of sorts.

Gormlaith has been blamed for the whole thing. Forget the build up of tension, the political flurries leading up to it, the political plotting…no, this is all down to a woman feeling rejected apparently.

In Njal’s Saga her part in the lead up to battle at Clontarf is seen as very significant. She is represented as scheming with her son, Sitric. In the Saga, Gormlaith is presented as a sort of Lady MacBeth, controlling the actions of her son and continuously urging him to kill Brian and she is blamed for sending him to Earl Sigurd of Orkney to seek support. When Sitric was forced to promise the earl not only the kingship of Ireland but also marriage to his mother in return for such support, Gormlaith was said to be delighted (showing enthusiasm for marriage and sex was, of course, unseemly). Moreover she also told her son to form a similar pact with two other powerful Viking leaders moored off the Isle of Man and to also promise her hand to one of them. (obviously she was calculating that not everyone could survive a battle).

She also can be found in Irish literature. In one instance (in the Cogadh) she is described as taunting her brother (the King of Leinster) for accepting gifts from her ex, Brian Ború, and of throwing one such gift, a silken tunic into the fire. Interestingly she also states that Brian’s offspring will outstrip those of her brother in power. Seeing as she is said in some sources to have had a son with Brian, Donnchad, this is enlightening about the strength of Gormlaith’s continuing identification with her birth family. In Gaelic society, a woman’s ties with her natal family were never fully severed after marriage and Gormlaith’s behaviour here illustrates this very vividly.

Why did she want to cause a war?

Well, the answer according to the Saga is that she had become so angry at Brian after their divorce that she wanted him dead. Her thirst for revenge is contrasted to that of her ex-husband who is portrayed as being far more Christian (i.e.good) and so, I think, the reasons assigned to her must be taken with an extra-large dose of salt. She is depicted as a devil-woman, out of control and giving in to violent emotion. She is a cipher, a literary device and if she did actually get involved in politics in 10th and 11th century Ireland then her real reasons remain hidden. In the sources where she can be found, one thing is clear-a woman such as she needs an atavistic reason to get involved in politics and war and thus, act like a man. She can’t possibly just be clever or desperate enough to compete with the big boys can she? Remember her family was at war with each other, I imagine her behavioural options consisted of trying to stay alive in the most beneficial way possible. When reading the Saga it is noticeable that she is portrayed as the anti-Brian; the evil Queen to his saintly King and furthermore she is associated with pagan elements in the Saga. She is an independent force and so is frightening and desirable all at the same time. By goading men to violence, by being portrayed as a sexual being are there shades of the Morrigan and Medb in her depiction? She seems to incorporate some of their attributes, her beauty, her wantoness, her destructiveness – it is a potent mix.


Beautiful and Evil Queen/Goddess or Eternal Scapegoat?

You decide.


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The Irish Merlin (with a dash of Arthur thrown in)

I sometimes teach on magic in the Middle Ages and I continue to be fascinated by a man who is not at all well known but has been characterised by some as Ireland’s own Merlin. A fourteenth century (c. 1338-1398) nobleman, politician, poet and (supposedly) adept of the Dark Arts. His name was Earl Gerald FitzGerald the Earl of Desmond (a large chunk of southern Ireland) and he, an Anglo-Irish lord, wrote his poetry in Irish. The Irish know him as Gearóid Iarla and he was an admired writer. 

Here is a translation of what is probably his most famous poem, Mairg adeir olc ris na mnáibh or Against Blame of Women

Speak not ill of womenkind
‘Tis no wisdom if you do,
You that fault with women find
I would not be praised of you.

Sweetly speaking, witty clear
Tribe most lovely to my mind,
Blame of women I hate to hear
Speak not ill of womenkind.

Bloody treason, murderous act
Not by women were designed.
Bells o’erthrown nor churches sacked
Speak not ill of womenkind.

Bishop, King upon his throne,
Primate skilled to loose and bind
Sprung of women every one
Speak not ill of womenkind.

For a brave young fellow
Hearts of women oft have pinned,
Who would dare their love to wrong?
Speak not ill of womenkind.

Paunchy greybeards never more
Hope to please a woman’s mind,
Poor young Chieftains they adore
Speak not ill of womenkind.

So, a man well-disposed to liking the ladies and versed, it would seem, in courtly love. Culturally, he was also heavily influenced by his Gaelic neighbours and kin (his family intermarried with the Gaelic Irish and he was surrounded by Gaelic Irish retainers and servants). Poetry was an acknowledged art form in the Gaelic world and also a powerful weapon. It was believed, for example, that a wronged poet’s satire could exact physical harm on a target (including death).  Poetry could be used as a vehicle for magic and poets were both revered and feared.

This brings me on to the magical aspects of Earl Gerald’s story. He was supposedly a great magician and had a room in his principal castle  (possibly Lough Gur) that was used for sorcery.


Legends abound about his exploits. It was said that he could jump in and out of a bottle. That he could shape-shift and, very interestingly, that his mother was an Irish goddess, Áine. Close to Lough Gur is Knockainey which was a place sacred to the goddess who was a sovereignty goddess of Munster (the region in which the Desmond lordship lay). Some folk tales say that he, along with Black David FitzGerald and Donall O Donnchu learned magic in a school run by the devil. Popular legend had it that Gerald eventually disappeared from one of his Munster castles (supposedly because his wife saw him performing sorcery and expressed such screaming dismay that he instantly disappeared. Apparently his shape-shifting involved some very disturbing shapes). The story is that one day he will return, in the hour of Ireland’s greatest need (much like Arthur for Britain) and that he is magically alive under Lough Gur where, once a year, he emerges on a white horse (a classic fairy motif) and can be glimpsed by those brave enough to wait and have a look. Interestingly folklore in County Louth, on the east coast of Ireland, holds that Gerald and his knights lie asleep in a hill and that only a six-fingered man can wake them up when Ireland needs them.

I always think of Inigo Montoya when I ponder that!

Ireland awaits…




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The Abelard and Heloise of Ireland – sort of

One of the most beautiful and heart-felt poems ever written in the vast corpus of Irish literature was (reputedly) written by a woman. Her name was Liadan and the poem she wrote tells of her lost love, another poet, a man called Cuirithir. The poem is called Comrac Liadaine ocus Cuirithir (The Meeting of Liadan and Cuirithir) and has been dated to the 9th or 10th century. The poem describes how Liadan was torn between Cuirithir’s love and serving God. And, yes, it’s a medieval love story hence the ‘love of God’ theme. It’s a story that is compared to that of Abelard and Heloise but, as Abelard has always appeared to me as a craven sort of soul, I get the comparison but don’t fully welcome it.

Anyway this (almost) love story is the story of a woman’s difficulties when it comes to choosing between earthly and spiritual love. The poem reflects the difficulties of reconciling desire and duty for a woman; of choosing between a solitary but welcome path (as a poet and intellectual serving God) and a path shared (as a cherished wife and mother with a physically and intellectually compatible man). For a female poet like Liadan, the choice was undoubtedly a difficult one.  Let’s not forget, she was a writer. She was a woman used to composition and the time needed for that. At any time (and especially in early medieval Ireland) life as a wife and mother would have spelt an end to her creativity, her need to express herself through poetry.

Or she could choose marriage to a fellow poet. It is unlikely that his creative juices would have been dried up by marriage and children.  I can imagine her married to him, seething with resentment and frustration, churning butter, holding a baby, embroidering clothes (a very important job in medieval Ireland) staring at her husband as he gets ready for a ‘poetic tour’ and leaves her and all her creativity behind. It’s hard to believe that she didn’t also envisage a similar type of scenario but we are told that she did agree to marry Cuirithir but put off the wedding until after she finished her ‘poetic tour’ – a last flourish of her talent maybe? However, she is said to have become a nun (or taken a vow of chastity) on her return after which he visited her. He also took a vow of chastity, in despair at his lost love and in the hope they could still be in some way together. Following this both poets put themselves under the spiritual guidance of St. Cummine who gave them various tasks it seems in a bid to be ‘soul friends’ rather than lovers. One of them was to be put in bed with a novice between them to make sure that nothing happened. It seems that the saint was unaware that Liadan had taken the veil and the wannabe lovers found this task ‘difficult’. Eventually they were allowed to speak but not to meet and eventually Cuirithir went on a pilgrimage. It seems he was probably banished by his saintly mentor for asking could he and Liadan meet. When she, broken-hearted, followed him, he sailed away and she died on the stone on which he prayed. Later St. Cummine placed the stone over her grave as a marker. Small comfort for lost love 😦

Excerpts from Comrac Liadaine ocus Cuirithir

Without pleasure

the deed that I have done;

The one I loved I have vexed.

It were madness

not to do what he wished

Were it not for fear of the king of Heaven.

Not profitless

to him was that which he desired,

To reach past pain to Paradise.

A small thing

vexed Cuirithir against me,

My gentleness to him was great.

i am Liadan;

I loved Cuirithir,

It is true as is said.

A roar of fire

has split my heart;

For certain, without him, it will not live.

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