Women of God in the Seventh to Ninth Centuries (2024)

Women in a Celtic Church: Ireland 450-1150

Christina Harrington




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Women in a Celtic Church: Ireland 450-1150

Christina Harrington


Christina Harrington

Christina Harrington

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    April 2002


Harrington, Christina, 'Women of God in the Seventh to Ninth Centuries', Women in a Celtic Church: Ireland 450-1150 (Oxford, 2002; online edn, Oxford Academic, 1 Jan. 2010), https://doi-org.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198208235.003.0006, accessed 22 June 2024.





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If the living situations of religious women in early medieval Ireland were diverse, so too were the grades and varieties of their profession. There were two, possibly three, grades of female monastic: the virgin, the widow/penitent, and the priest's ‘wife’, in addition to the peregrina or religious pilgrim. Some religious women acquired a special status in law, achieving a high degree of law-worthiness, and were deemed as equivalents to bishops and presbyters. Their high legal and ecclesiastical status is understandable in the context of the theological ideas which lay behind the idea of their offices. The virgin and penitent widow in particular carried a complex of symbolisms which, though grounded in the Western tradition, reflected a particularly Irish ‘take’ on them. This chapter discusses the ecclesiastical status of nuns as well as their status with respect to the law in Ireland during the 7th to 9th centuries.

Keywords: virgin, priest's wife, widow/penitent, medieval period, virgins, widows, penitents, law, ecclesiastical status


History of Gender and Sexuality History of Religion Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) Irish History

Collection: Oxford Scholarship Online

If the living situations of Irish religious women were diverse, so too were the grades and varieties of their profession. There were two, possibly three, grades of female monastic: the virgin, the widow/penitent, and the priest’s ‘wife’, in addition to the peregrina or religious pilgrim. Some religious women acquired a special status in law, achieving a high degree of law-worthiness, and were deemed as equivalents to bishops and presbyters. Their high legal and ecclesiastical status is understandable in the context of the theological ideas which lay behind the idea of their offices. The virgin and penitent widow in particular carried a complex of symbolisms which, though grounded in the Western tradition, reflected a particularly Irish ‘take’ on them.

Before turning to discussions of each of the grades of nunhood in early Ireland, though, it is as well to digress to consider the means by which women would decide to enter the church, and the reasons why they might do so. Such decisions, in Ireland, were taken not by women alone but rather by their male guardians with the input of other men in the kindred—just as in decisions on contractual marriage. The fact that nuns were highly regarded and could command great respect would make such an option attractive for not only a woman but also her family, of course, but there were pragmatic aspects to consider.

High Status Families And The Virginal Profession: Considerations

In early medieval Ireland, women were an integral part of their kindreds and an important tool in their strategies for economic well-being.1 The matter of taking up the religious life thus had serious implications for the immediate family and wider relatives. It was of particular relevance for the derb-fine (‘certain kindred’), which was all those descended from a common great-grandfather, and more technically, was the body of men who administered and handled the property and affairs of the group. Men inherited property from the kin land, and could pass it on to their heirs but could not alienate it. In contrast, women could not inherit kin land, but only movable goods, unless their father had produced no sons. In such a circ*mstance the heiress, as she was called, did get a portion of kin land but only for her use during her lifetime, and after her death it returned to the common stock of the derb-fine. Heiresses were probably no more than one in five women, given the roughly twenty per cent occurrence of nuclear families with only daughters. Women who married in a formal contract, however, passed out of the responsibility of the kindred, and became largely the responsibility of their husband’s. Those women who did not marry, or who had less formal marriages, remained largely or exclusively the responsibility of their natal kin, making them somewhat of a burden on its collective resources.

One question which must be asked, given the power of the kindred in shaping and guiding a noble woman’s life, was why she would be allowed to forego marriage and take up life as a holy virgin. Several things would appear to militate against it, most importantly the fact that women were so useful in cementing family alliances. As Thomas Charles-Edwards has put it, ‘a woman’s expected role in kinship was that of a principal bonding agent’.2 Another was more the monetary consideration, for a bridegroom ‘purchased’ his bride from her family with a bride-price. There appears to have been no equivalent payment by monasteries to families of incoming nuns, so a woman’s male relatives forfeited the bride-wealth windfall if she took a heavenly rather than a worldly spouse. In the case of Brigit, as told by her hagiographers, this was a major reason the saint had so much objection to her vocation. Her brothers, angrily disappointed at the prospect of losing out on the bride-price if she became a virgin, tried to force her to marry a noble suitor. As is well known, she thwarted them by plucking out her eye or, in other versions, getting a horrible eye disease, thus making herself undesirable to mortal men. Not all women were as strong-willed as Brigit, and the vast majority were, like most early medieval people in the West, identified strongly with their family and its interests, so widespread teenage rebellion cannot account for the flowering of Irish female monasticism.

The advantages to kindreds in having some of their women as ‘brides of Christ’ are nowhere made explicit, so any answers must be deduced tentatively from surviving material on other, related topics and from cautious comparisons with elsewhere. The question could easily be the subject of an entire monograph, so a few suggestions are simply offered here. Firstly, there is the matter of alliances. At times it would certainly have proved advantageous for a kindred to strengthen its links with local church hierarchies, given their political and economic power. To insert a woman into an ecclesiastical familia could best be done, in many instances, by making her a religious—she could then be co-opted into the church familia whilst at the same time bringing honour, prestige, and ‘protection’ of a sort to her natal kindred, much as if she had married into it. If the family was ambitious, as were the Uí Dúnlainge in Leinster who succeeding in taking over Kildare, they could use women in their strategies to infiltrate a monastery’s leading offices and subsequently share in the wealth of the place’s income from tributes and renders. If a family was going to place a woman in an extant institution, the ideal would be for her to become its abbess, by hook or by crook, though it could prove very difficult if the place was run by an unrelated family group.

Then there were economic considerations. Though it was customary for bridegrooms to provide bride-wealth, Charles-Edwards has identified a trend among the nobility towards payments going the other way, namely dowries, where the flow of wealth went from the bride’s family to the new husband.3 Thus as time went on during this period, the loss of income to a woman’s kindred resulting from her entering a monastery possibly diminished, and in some cases her failing to marry could have produced a saving. When entering a monastery, though a woman doubtless brought some wealth with her, there is no evidence to suggest that a dowry was required, though one cannot of course argue from silence. It may have been a cheaper option than marrying her. In the absence of charters it is impossible to trace the transfers and negotiations over property by secular and ecclesiastical families, but from what we know of Irish maneouvring for status and wealth, these few observations seem secure enough.

Demographics may have played a role in why families allowed some of their women not to marry; if there were more women than men of marriageable age, then there would have been too many women for too few husbands. Whether this was the case seems impossible to determine, though it is feasible that a good number of adult males were unavailable for marriage, either because they were vowed to celibacy, or because they were simply absent through having been killed in battle. Given that from the eighth century many of the men in the church were married, not only most priests but some bishops and abbots, and given that the number of celibate monks and anchorites (anchoritae) is unknown, it is impossible to guess even the proportion of unmarried churchmen. Ireland did have another way to deal with any imbalance in the sexes. This was a form of polygamy, which was not only legal but apparently widespread: in addition to a principal wife (cétmuinter) a man might take a ‘concubine’ spouse (adaltrach) or two. Thus, if a derb-fine had an excess of women compared to the number of suitable husbands, it could encourage the ‘surplus’ female relatives to try to become a rich man’s adaltrach rather than join the church. Why they might not do this, though, is that in becoming an adaltrach a woman would consign herself for life to having a quite low status, probably lower than if she became a nun, and her status would reflect at least indirectly upon her family.

Certainly families must have considered the religious life for women with more interest given the range of options, the varieties of profession, and flexibility in living arrangements, which they could work with. If a woman was entered as a member of an established community, the father and/or the other members of the derb-fine could consider which would be most advantageous for her to join—like a choice of husband. The relative relations of dynasties, kindreds, and the issues of honour and tribute would have been, one presumes, the subject of some consideration, for these had an impact not just on the woman herself but on the kindred as a whole.

Another option, the sources hint, was to set up the woman at a small local church. This could be done in one of several ways. The kindred could set aside some of its land and build a church on it for her, which would not require its alienation from the collective patrimony (as it would be a proprietary establishment), nor loss of control of the staffing of its offices. The kindred could also place her in an existing small church, situated on kin land or on lands acquired by purchase. If the woman could perform miracles or do other things to make herself something of a major character in the region, this would only add to the likelihood of the church turning into a revenue-producing centre. This strategy had another advantage: if at the death of the virgin the church was successful in these mercenary terms, the kindred could place into her shoes a successor of either sex—there are numerous examples of churches having leaders of first one sex then the other. Or, of course, the woman could presumably continue to live off her family’s wealth on family land which remained essentially dedicated to secular use. The kindred had many options.

Women’s Religious Professions: Virgins

An essential key to understanding the female profession in Ireland, and indeed much of the willingness of families to encourage female members to join it, lies in the symbolic status associated with the holy virgin. The seventh century saw the rise of the literature of sanctity, and it is from this time onward that the writings provide material for such an understanding. The virgin was the highest grade of nun, as we have seen, and for the Irish, as for Christians elsewhere, the holy virgin epitomized the ideal of womanhood transformed through dedication to God. She captured the poetic imagination of the Irish as she did writers in churches across Christendom, and she was clothed with epithets, symbolic attributes, and exalted metaphors. She dwelt at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of believers, was the especial daughter of the Virgin Mary, a bride of Christ, a mother of Jesus, a warrior against Satan, and a possessor of the hardiness of men. The particular package of symbolic qualities attributed to the holy virgin is in some ways general to the Christian West, and in other ways particular to Ireland.

The threefold schema of Christians, discussed in the context of earlier centuries, remains centrally important during the seventh to ninth centuries, staying popular perhaps because it appealed to the Irish legalistic sense of hierarchy in social structure.4 The seventh-century anonymous exegetical tract Expositio Quattuor Evangeliorum states that the thirtieth fruit—

ostendit ordinem coniugatorum, sequentium mandatum Dei; fructus sexagisimis ordinem viduarum, perseverantium in Domino; fructus centesimus, hoc sunt ordines martyrum, monachorum, vel virginum.5

shows the order of the married, following the mandate of God; the sixtyfold fruit is the order of widows, persevering in the Lord; the hundredfold fruit, these are the orders of martyrs, monks and virgins.

Here the virgin is not only placed at the top of level of the threefold schema, she shares this spot with two other types of believer, the martyrs and the monks. The virgin is, in the Expositio author’s eyes, their spiritual equal. The virgins, too, are an order (ordo) just as are the monks and martyrs. There is no sense here that the female is placed below the male in that grade.

According to another text, not only are virgins the best type of Christian, their patron is the queen of heaven herself. The eighth-century litany Ateoch Frit gives patrons to each ‘order’ in the threefold schema:

Ateoch frit hule noeb-inghena ógha in uile domuin, im Muire óig, imot noeb-máthair uadhessin; Ateoch frit na huile fhedbai aithrigecha im Muire Magdalena; Ateoch frit huile lochta in chomamais dligtheig, im Iob nimnedach, forsa tarta faichide.6

I entreat Thee by all holy virgins, with virgin Mary, Thine own holy mother; I entreat Thee by all penitent widows with Mary Magdalene; I entreat Thee by all folk of lawful marriage, with Job the suffering, on whom came [many] trials.

Mary was generally known in the West as the patroness of holy female virgins, for she embodied the highest virginal ideal. In other words, she was all that religious women were told to aspire to. In the twelfth-century litany A Muire Mór, for example, she is called ‘head of virgins’ (chend na nóg).7 The Irish likened their female saints to Mary, for such women had, as it were, achieved the goal of becoming like their patroness. In two seventh- or eighth-century hymns, Monenna is said to be sancte Marie imitatrix, una cum sancta Maria, and Marie matris imago mirabilis.8 Brigit is Mariae sanctae similis in another of the same period.9 Irish hymn writers and ecclesiastical authors were unafraid to put their female saints on a par with Mary. The concluding lines of the ninth-century hymn Ní Car Brigit run, ‘I have found not [Brigit’s] like save Mary’ (ni far a set ached Maire). And elsewhere in the same hymn the writer says

Fail dí chaillig i rrichid · nícosnágur dom díchill,

Maire ocus sanctBrigit · for fóessam dún díb linaib10

There are two nuns in heaven, who I do not fear will neglect me,

Mary and Saint Brigit: may we be under the protection of them both.

Possibly inspired by the deep importance of kinship in Irish society, the likening to, and pairing with, the Virgin Mary could be expressed in explicitly familial language. In the Martyrology of Oengus, Monenna is called ‘sister of great Mary’.11 The placing of virgins at the pinnacle of a spiritual hierarchy, with Mary as their patroness, was reflected also in their dress and veil, which, unlike elsewhere in the West, was white in colour. It recalled to mind the white garb of heavenly beings and angels who presided in heaven with Christ and who might deign to visit the living in visions, and to give guidance or prophecy. Not only do the sources report angels dressed in white, but so too the virgins when they appear in visions. To cite but two examples, in the Vita I Brigit apppeared thus to a magus, and a hymn to Monenna says she fulget in albis / stolis claris candidis.12

Virgins were also the brides of Christ, the king of heaven. Conjoined to the celestial ard-rí or high king, they had the honour of being spouses of the most powerful ruler of Creation. In Ireland, the idea that the dedicated virgin was the bride of Christ was widespread. Of course, Mary is the first and foremost virgin bride of Christ, and she is described as such in a seventh-century poem from Bangor as nuptiis quoque parata regi domino sponsa.13 That all dedicated virgins were Christ’s brides is seen first in the seventh century, in Tírechán’s memoirs. Patrick says to two pagan princesses: ego vero volo vos regi caelisti coniungere dum filiae regis terreni.14 In Brigit’s Vita I the consecration of an unnamed aspiring nun is described in marital terms: filia liberata a carnali sponso colligata est Christo, sicut vovit in corde suo.15 The bridal motif is found also in a seventh- or eighth-century hymn in praise of Monenna, Audite Sancta Studia, likely to have been composed at Killevy. It opens with a praise of God: Deum deorum dominum / autorem vite omnium / regem et sponsum virginum. It calls Monenna very dignified spouse of God, sponsa Deo dig-nissima, and later states that sponsum sequitur ubique.16 Another poem to her contains the stanza Celestis virgo / intrans cum melodia / obviam sponso / cum electo oleo.17

The Irish picked up on the marital theme from normal Western ideas. Legrand, who studied the doctrine of virginity in depth, wrote ‘it is the allegory of marriage … which accounts best for the Pauline and Christian doctrine of virginity’.18 The association between virginity and marriage to God was taken up by other Christian writers very early on. Precedents for the analogy were set by the Old Testament, in which Israel was frequently called the bride of Yahweh; New Testament authors, following this tradition, came to call the new Church, Ecclesia, the bride of Christ.19 In the New Testament Matthew and Paul show the beginnings of a bridal analogy for the individual in relation to Christ, thus introducing the virginity/marriage image to individuals. It is Paul who most explicitly formulated a Christian linkage between virginity and marriage to Christ:20

For I am jealous of you with the jealousy of God. For I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear lest, as the serpent seduced Eve by his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted and fall from the simplicity that is in Christ.21

The marital theme as a spiritual metaphor was taken up avidly both within and without canonical circles in the early church. Among canonical writers, Tertullian in the third century is the first known author to designate the Christian virgin as the bride of Christ: he portrayed Christ specifically as the bridegroom of virgins and holy women dedicated to chastity. In the fourth century, Athanasius asserted that virgins were customarily called brides of Christ, while Ambrose stated that a virgin was one who ‘gives her hand in marriage to God’.22 Cyprian applied the bridal idea almost exclusively to female virgins in his De habitu virginum, warning them to avoid dressing so as to attract mortal men.23 Jerome, too, used the bridal imagery for Christian virgins in his letter to Eustochium, for example where he says ‘Let the seclusion of your chamber ever guard you; ever let the bridegroom sport with you within. If you pray you are speaking with your spouse.’24 Thus, the conclusion to be drawn is that the Irish were indeed citers of patristic orthodoxy at times, but selectively: as a rule, they quote the exhortations which are positive and affirming of the nun rather than those restrictive ones demanding her enclosure.

The virgin was also spiritually fertile, in contrast to the sexually active woman who was physically fertile.25 The three-grade schema contains these implications, for in it the virgin bears the most fruit, the ‘hundredfold’. So too was Mary the archetype of virginal fertility having given birth to God in the person of Christ. As one seventh-century Irish poem expressed it, Mary was ‘virgin most fruitful, and yet an inviolate mother’ (virgo valde fecunda; haec, et mater intacta).26 In Irish sources altogether the idea that exemplary virgins were, like Mary, spiritually fruitful was held both directly and indirectly. The indirect association is expressed in the topos of the Irish saint who suckles the infant Christ as would a mother, most famously expressed in the (probably) early tenth-century poem Ísucán, written in the voice of St Ita.27

The above demonstrates that the Irish believed that dedicated virgins could transcend female weakness—those who did might be female saints, their successors the abbesses, or female ascetics. This conviction is evidenced not solely through the symbolic language of poetry, however. It manifested in the ‘real world’. It is in the legal texts that it is most apparent that consecrated women, or some of them, were considered so different from laywomen that they had an authority in law usually reserved for men. It was the virginal nuns who held the highest status, not only in the theologian’s threefold schema, but also in Irish law. It was these who enjoyed some legal autonomy. This of course reinforced the nun’s identification with the Virgin Mary. But holy women shared in Mary’s position as mother of Christ even more explicitly than this. Brigit, in Ní Car Brigit is called ‘mother of my great king’ (mathair mo rurech) and ‘unique mother of the Son of the Great King’ (óenmathair Maicc Ríg máir).28 An Irish exegetical note suggests that it may have been an interpretation of a biblical passage which lay at the root of this rather literal expression of the idea; the seventh-century Expositio Quattuor Evangeliorum glosses Luke 1: 42 (‘blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb’) with the comment dum non sola Maria mater Christi est.

Some Irish virgins were fruitful like Mary in a literal way. These were the alleged holy-virgin mothers. Reported in hagiographic texts, their conceptions are usually described in the context of the life story of the child produced, who was invariably a male who grew up to become a great monk or cleric. There are, unsurprisingly, only a few. Beccnat, mother of saint Fínán, was one such; when she was bathing in Loch Lein a salmon of red-gold swam up against her ‘so that it became her husband’ and as a result ‘like the Son of the Virgin was Fínán Camm born to her’.29 Another was Cred (also called Trea), mother of the male saint Báithíne; she was unwittingly impregnated by eating some cress she had picked which, unbeknownst to her, had upon it the fresh sem*n of a Peeping Tom who had been spying on her from a tree. We know that Cred was a holy virgin (not just a secular virgin) from two references in the anecdote: first, the well was within the walled bounds of a church, and secondly, a poem is quoted which describes Cred ‘with her dear church’ (cona caimcill).30

The Irish also exalted the woman of God for her ability to transcend the limitations of her sex, according her epithets associated with military heroes, for they were seen as people who were engaged in combat with evil forces. The hymn Brigit Bé Bithmaith (dated to the seventh century) contains actual military elements: ‘May Brigit deliver us past throngs of devils: may she break before us the battles of every plague. May she destroy within us the taxes of our flesh’ (ronsóira Brigit sech drungu demne: roróina reunn cathu cach thedme. Dirodba indiunn ar colno císu).31 Another says Brigit achieved victory over her adversaries when tempted by the sons of Satan and furthermore donavit illi maximam Deus virtutum gratiam.32 Ní Car Brigit shows Brigit not as a soldier of Christ per se, but as a militaryspiritual ally:

Donfair co claidiub thened don chath fri íalla cíara. Ronsnádat a nnóebitge hi flaith nime sech píana. Ria ndul la haingliu don chath recam in neclais for rith.33

May she help us with a fiery sword for the battle against dark flocks. May her holy prayers protect us into heaven’s kingdom past pains. Before going with the angels to the battle let us come to the Church speedily.

Brigit is not exceptional in being cast in this way. The Martyrology of Oengus is particularly rich in military imagery, applying it to numerous virgins: ‘a fresh champion was Cíar’, ‘crucified was the body of Agatha, pure champion’, ‘ten shapely holy virgins with the passion of a manly host’.34 Other women in the Martyrology of Oengus are also described as being with a host (slóg), a word which has the ambiguous implications of both military hosts and angelic hosts.35 This dual meaning of course mirrors the late antique association between military spirituality and the vita angelica. Like other early medieval writers, these Irish authors found no inconsistency in giving military descriptions of virgins in the same texts which also call the same women ‘brides of Christ’; the readers were able, we presume, to absorb the multiplicity of metaphors without difficulty although the modern reader can find the juxtapositions somewhat jarring. Bugge observed that in both male and female monasticism, ‘monastic virginity takes on a profound metaphysical significance: it becomes far more than bodily integrity, but a symbol, in some way, of the invincibility of the soul which renounces contact with matter’ and that ‘monasticism drew its picture of the perfect Christian life along martial lines in imitation of the angels’ military prowess’.36

Elva Johnston has suggested that laudatory ascription of martial qualities to exalted women was unusual, and when it did appear it was focused on Brigit in the context of Laigin politics; also, she takes the view that ‘Brigit’s participation in battle is an essentially “unfemale” thing’. Of course she is right that in Ireland mortal women were not supposed to engage in military activity, but Brigit is not in fact exceptional in being a martially-imaged female saint, and we have to see both her and other saints’ ascriptions as coming out of a widespread and longstanding Christian tradition.37

The virgin who successfully defeated temptations had virtus. Thus, for example, the Vita I praises Brigit’s divina virtute 38 and a seventh- or eighth-century hymn says the same saint fulsit virtute.39 Even the Virgin Mary, epitome of meekness and mildness, was given by the Irish the muscular attribute of virtus: an eighth-century hymn includes the line: Per mulierem et lignum mundus prius periit, per mulieris virtutem ad salutem rediit.40 Some Irish texts went further than attributing virtus to their holy women and actually likened them explicitly to men. In Brigit’s Vita I, a virgin student of Brigit’s countered an attack of lust by burning her feet, and was praised for fighting lust viriliter.41 Making the gender point even more explicitly, another hymn likens Monenna to a man in a woman’s body (virum gerens proposito in corpore femineo).42 Only a little less explicit is the eighth-century hymn, Christus in Nostra Insula which says of Brigit not only: Ymnus iste angelicae summaeque sanctae Brigitae fari non valet omnia virtutum mirabilia, but also perfectionem quam promisit viriliter implevit.43

The dress of nuns, like that of monks, included a belt or zona, integral to the religious identity. The zonae of saints served as wonderworking objects and much was made of them in the Lives; Brigit’s belt accomplished at least one miracle, and Coemgen’s (according to a late Life anyhow), was said to be made of gold.44 Presumedly it is a saint’s zona which was formerly contained in the famous Moylough belt shrine, for we know they could be preserved as relics, as was Monenna’s. The zonawas symbolic as well as practical, and was linked in the early Irish mind with the Biblical injunction to harsh austerity, ‘Gird up thy loins’, which is cited for women in particular in the very famous Epistle 22 of Jerome.45 In the twelfth century at least one writer thought that this holy command was unsuited to women, but in these earlier centuries the zonawas treated almost like a warrior’s buckler, but recalling the discipline of fasting. Of Monenna, whose supreme virtue was her great fasting, and who was likened to John the Baptist in a number of ways, her nuns sang a hymn with the line, ‘the hard belt of Christ surrounded the holy body’ (zona Christi durissima percinxit sancta viscera), a reference to John’s leather belt. Monenna, also like John, was said to have worn rough animal skins—both were warriors against the temptations of softness. Brigit’s followers, too, sang of the belt of their holy warrioress, which encircled that saint’s holy loins: zona sanctae militiae sanctos lumbos praecingere consuevit diurno nocturno.46

When a woman, by her holiness, transcended the weakness associated with the female gender in the male authors’ eyes, she did not lose any of her positive female qualities. She gained a strength beyond that considered normally possible for those of her sex, but the texts also continue to praise them for such feminine attributes as humility, beauty, and bridal status. Nor should this be seen as evidence that the Irish were prone to loathe women, for they did not. Rather it shows that the Irish partook of a typical Western patriarchy reinforced by Christian doctrine, but they put a slant on it which, paradoxically, could pave the way for certain women to be regarded as being more capable of responsibility and autonomy.

Consecration Rites

Virgins were consecrated in rites performed by bishops, and three accounts from early Ireland survive. The earliest of these is in Brigit’s Vita I, probably from the seventh century.47 In this account several virgins were presented to the bishop, the priest Maccaille announcing, Ecce sanctae virgines foris sunt quae volunt velamen virginitatis de manu tua accipere. The text relates that the bishop consecrated Brigit first, placing a veil on her head with speeches and readings; then, with her head bent in submission, she touched the wooden base of the altar (lectis orationibus Brigida capite submisso pedem altaris ligneum in manu sua tenuit). The other virgins then received the veil in the same manner. It is unclear whether the touching of the base of the altar was part of the ceremony or a chance action on Brigit’s part. Her parents seem to have been present, because after the ceremony they offered her some land, though in Cogitosus’s shorter account of the same event there is no mention of parental permission or presence. The attitude of the woman is also given: the girl was to be kneeling humbly and offering her virginal crown to almighty God (genua humiliter flectens et suam virginalem coronam Domino omnipotenti offerens).48 In the ninth-century Bethu Brigte, Brigit’s consecration ceremony was performed by a bishop, but here there is mention of another person, a minister, one of whose tasks in the ceremony was to hold the veils.49

From these sparse indications, it would seem that the Irish consecration of virgins was roughly standard in relation to other parts of Western Christendom in the same period. This impression is corroborated by the one other known source directly relating to the consecration rite, a ninth-century St Gall manuscript fragment found in 1874 by a Dr Keller of Zürich. Kenney dated the fragment to ‘the tenth century or earlier’ and Keller himself dated it, on the basis of the manuscript, to the early ninth.

Permaneat ad prudentibus qui … virginibus vigilantia…. adferte copuletur … per

dominum nostrum Jesu Christum …

Oremus, fratres carissimi, misericordiam, ut euntum bonum tribuere dignetur huic

puellae N. quae.

Deo votum candidam vestem perferre cum integritate coronae in resurrectione vitae

aeternae quam facturus est; orantibus nobis, prestet Deus …

Conserva, domine, istius devotae pudorem castitatis dilectionem continentiae in factis,

in dictis, in cogitationibus; per Christe Jesu, qui cum patre vivis …

Accipe, puella, pallium candidum quod perferas ante tribunal Domini.50

As in Cogitosus, there is both a white veil and a white garment. The term pallium was used, from the fifth century in the West, to refer to a holy virgin’s veil; it remained the normal term until around the time of the Missale Francorum, so in this respect the Irish terminology is standard.51 What is unusual, however, is what the virgin received in the rite. In Frankia holy virgins received a veil, a ring, and a torques or crown; in England they were given a veil and ring: the Irish virgin received a dress but no ring.52 The formal presentation of the dress, furthermore, is not found in the Roman pontificals. As mentioned previously, the colour the Irish virgin wore was distinctive, too, in comparison with other parts of the West, where veil and dress were normally black rather than white.53 Cogitosus is among the several sources who specified the colour of the veil as also being white.54

In the Zürich fragment there have been noted similarities to the consecration in the Gallican use, but the wording of all but the last few lines is different. In this text, as in the Gallican and unlike the Roman, the officiant’s speech is addressed to the others present, identified as fratres. The Gallican version begins Faventes,dilectissimi Fratres; in the Roman rite the equivalent speech is addressed to God (Respice, Domine, propitius super has famulas tuas).55 Mohlberg found that three of the four prayers have counterparts in Continental texts, and as for the fourth, Sims-Williams has determined that it uses a peculiarly Irish phraseology.56

In Irish texts, both in this fragment and in the numerous hagiographical accounts, the person who performs nuns’ consecrations is always male and, where identified, is of episcopal grade. There is no suggestion here, as there is elsewhere, that abbesses, perform the rite, though it cannot be ruled out as a possibility.57

Nuns In The Ecclesiastical Structure And At Law

An anomaly to be noted in both the Latin and Irish legal texts is the sheer paucity of references to nuns, which is striking, in contract with the coverage given to every other conceivable type of person or entity; the laws cover all sorts of women, even rare ones (e.g. female druids), and there are thousands of references to clerics and monks.58 One possible explanation is that nuns were so few in number that mention in legal texts was not felt to be warranted, but this idea can be eliminated in the light of the very large number of nuns mentioned in such texts as the Lives and martyrologies. Another is that nuns were so segregated that their rules were not sufficiently ‘mainstream’ to warrant inclusion in the laws; but since nuns were clearly not enclosed and had much interaction with both ecclesiastics and laypeople, this too seems extremely unlikely. The most plausible explanation for this curious lacuna (though by no means a satisfactory one) is that nuns were governed by a combination of the normal rules for either Church members and those for women generally.

For the ecclesiastical and theological status of nuns as reflected in social prerogative and identity, the early eighth-century Collectio Canonum Hibernensis is an important text. It is admittedly problematic, because it is difficult to assess its relevance to its own time. For the most part it imports material from earlier, often foreign, sources without alteration; thus, as Sharpe observed, ‘one must naturally pause before accepting any statement as directly relevant to the Irish church at the beginning of the eighth century’. But equally ‘one ought not reject any section as irrelevant or inconsistent without showing why it was included’. Inconsistencies are not, however, due to the text being of antiquarian nature and containing legislation at least in part redundant (as Hughes had suggested), but because it was a living text compiled in an environment in which some diversity prevailed, even on important issues.59 The Hibernensis gives a definition of the nun, the caillech or palliata:

Pallium a palliditate dictum, hinc et palliata sive Pallas Dea, quae et Minerva, cuius tem-plum pallidum est, cuius sacerdotes virgines erant palliatae, hoc est velatae; hinc mutata specie eodem nomine perseverante, licet in novo ad palliatas, hoc est velatas censeri permissum est.60

Pallium [veil ] is named from paleness, this and palliata or ‘Goddess Pallas’ who is Minerva, whose temple is white, whose priests and virgins a re palliatae, that is, veiled; this, in mutated form perseveres with the same name, [thus] it is permitted nowadays that the pallium-wearers, that is to say, the veiled women, may be esteemed.

The authors also state explicitly that nuns are to be greatly honoured because they have transcended the fragility of their gender:

Palliatae, hoc est velatae, magno honore habeantur, quia sexum, hoc est fragilitatem vinc*nt, et se mundi actibus abdicant.61

Pallium-wearers, that is the veiled women, are to have much honour, because they conquer their sex, that is to say, their fragility, and they withdraw from the world through their actions.

This conquest has more to do with the spirit than the body: Hibernensis follows Jerome in asserting that a nun remained pure if she had been raped against her will—her purity was a spiritual state which physical violation could not mar; as the chapter headed De eo, quod non inficiat sanctaemoniales vi obprimi states, the bodies of holy women are not soiled, except by will.62

Hibernensis also links the status of nuns to the ‘grades’ of the Church, a concept normally associated with the Church’s men, and clearly articulates the idea that in the female religious profession there were two grades, that of the virgin and that of the widow or penitent. It cites Augustine for a division into virgins and widows, Jerome for a division into virgins and penitents: ‘the first is similar and comparable to bishops, the second to the grade of presbyters, i.e. seniors’ (primum genus episcopis simulatur et comparatur, II gradus presbiteris, hoc est senioribus).63 By stating that nuns were equivalent either to bishops or to presbyters, Hibernensis is rendering explicit a very important notion which is found obliquely in other material of the period. Furthermore, by specifying that the second type of nun had to be under the ‘hand’ of a pastor for her whole life, the text implies that the virginal nun did not. In other words, the virgin could enjoy a level of autonomy which, although not specified here, is in some way comparable to that of a bishop.

The application of grades to nuns is interesting because the grades, after all, are those of the clergy—bishops, presbyters, deacons, and so forth, as described at length in this text and others. Monastics might be laymen or holders of a grade (fer gráid), meaning that they were also clerics. Donnchadh Ó Corráin observed that the monastic who is a grade-holder is more closely identified with the Church than is the lay monastic; when an abbot parts from his church his separation arrangements vary depending on this factor; he takes less with him if he is also a fer gráid, a priest. In other words, those who hold a grade are more tightly bound or ‘married’ to the Church.64 The same language is used for nuns, i.e. nuns are holders of a ‘grade’: some Middle Irish notes refer to a ‘penitent grade’ sought by a nun from a priest, for example.65 Furthermore, the language of ceremonial inauguration is often the same: the Irish term ‘ordain’ is used for consecration of nuns as well as the inauguration of abbesses.66

There are other indications in the literature which suggest some ecclesiastical equivalence between nuns, monks, and clerics. Hibernensis tends to accord nuns the kind of privileges given to male clerics. Its burial regulations, governed by considerations of status and sanctity, permitted religious women to be buried with honour near the altar of a church. It cites Gregory on the rulings about the burial of nuns, stressing that the virginity of a nun is a more important consideration in the decision to bury her near the altar than even her stultiloquium.67

Equivalence is not restricted even to the Latin material. One vernacular law tract specifies that the evidence of a nun may be accepted against that of a cleric, because both parties are in orders, are holders of ‘grades’.68 Another classes nuns, with clerics, among those who are governed by the Church: they are both bound by the Church subject to their soul-friends.69

In arguing that the Irish mentality included nuns into the corporate body of ecclesiastics, and that virgins were equivalent to male counterparts and might be so esteemed, we are not losing sight of the very real differences which the Irish specified between nun and cleric or monk. It is very clearly spelt out, for example, that women could not receive sacerdotal office. Citing Isidore, the chapter in Hibernensis reiterates the biblical injunction against women speaking or teaching in church, and against trespassing into areas of the sacerdotal office reserved for men.70 So although sharing an equivalence of sorts, the nuns of Ireland were very clearly not clerics.

Status in Vernacular Law

The status of a person in Irish society was marked by such things as honour price, the mode of compensation for injury, and the ability to give testimony. Thus these laws are a natural place to turn in looking for the social and legal position of nuns. Unfortunately there is too little on nuns per se in the material to allow certain or comprehensive conclusions, but there is enough evidence to warrant consideration in light of the ideas raised so far.

With regard to the honour price of nuns, the evidence indicates that nuns were not actually above the highest laywomen, but rather were classed with them. Thus when raped, a mac-caillech (usually translated as ‘young nun’) who has not renounced her veil (i-mmaccaillig na diulta cailli) was entitled to the maximum fine, the same as that which a daughter of childhood age or a first wife would receive.71 The fine consists of ‘the full eric fine’, and the full honour price (lóg n-enech) of her superior is to be paid to that person. The fine went to a superior within the Church, not to a member of the nun’s kin, according to the gloss.

We may digress here to ask: what exactly was a mac-caillech? A novice nun? More logical would perhaps be a ‘virginal’ nun, as distinguished from a widow or penitent nun. Although one cannot be sure, as there is nothing on the honour prices of other sorts of nuns in Cáin Lánamna (‘the Law of Connections’), logic and the other extant references to mac-caillech suggest that it actually refers to a virginal nun—in this and other instances. The word prefix mac, meaning ‘son’ or ‘boy’, is seemingly illogical at first glance. There is, however, a parallel term for the male, mac-clerich, which appears somewhat more frequently in Irish material: it is normally treated as ‘young cleric’ or ‘novice’; however if it is translated as a virginal cleric, one who was in orders before becoming sexually experienced, such passages are rendered more comprehensible.72 This, I would suggest, is the basic term, from which the female one was formed—the mac prefix coming to connote virginity generally and thus being grafted unchanged onto the caillech term. The argument in favour of interpretating the mac-caillech in this way is strengthened by a passage an eighth-century penitential tract, De Arreis. In the section on the appropriate commutations for the cleric, monk, mac-caillech, and laywoman, the authors make a set of parallels, in which the layman is said to differ from the cleric in the same manner as the laywoman differs from the mac-caillech. Even more persuasive is the appearance of the word ban-maicc, used in a ninth-century text to refer to female holy virgins; when Oengus called Romula, Curufin, and Sabina ban-maicc he meant not ‘woman-boys’, the literal translation, but female virgins.73 It is then, as virginal nuns, that one reads the setting of penances in the Old Irish tract on commutations:

Amal file tra deochair etir laechu 7 clerchu, etir maccaillecha 7 laechesa, imtha samlaid deochair etir a saethar 7 pennainn. Ata dano etir na harraib ata cora do denum doib. Arra na n-athlaech 7 na athlaiches cétumus, feis i n-uiscib, feis for nenaid, feis for blaescaib cnó, feis la marb i-ndeirc, uair nad bi coimtig laech nó laeiches nad bi cuit oc marbad duini. Ate immorro arra ata cóire do clerchib 7 do c[h]aillechaib acht anti dib marbas duine, mani dentar ar imt[h]ormach fochraice. i. feiss doib i n-ecailsib uaraib nó a cubachlaib deirritib oc figlib 7 oc ernaigthib cen c*msanud. i. cet suide, cet lige, cet cotulta …74

As there is a difference between laymen and clerics and between virgin-nuns and lay-women, so too there is a difference between the kind of mortifications due from them, as well as between the kind of commutations which may properly be performed by them. First, commutations proper for former laymen and women: spending the night in water or on nettles or on nutshells, or with a dead body … On the other hand there are commutations which are proper for clerics and nuns except such of them as have slain a man (who are required to perform the first kind) unless (a commutation of the first kind) be performed for the purpose of increasing one’s reward: spending the night in cold churches or remote cells while keeping vigils and praying without respite, i.e. (without) leave to sit or lie down or sleep.75

It follows that there was some semblance of equivalence perceived between the cleric on the male side and the mac-caillech on the female side. One notes that further down in the same passage the author has reverted to a looser term for nun, the simple caillech. The passage does not make much sense if we interpret mac-caillech as a novice nun, just as the above section of Cáin Lánamna is less comprehensible for doing so.

There is nothing to my knowledge in the edited legal corpus which comments on the nun per se as plaintiff, but presumably a nun would have needed a superior’s backing to instigate a legal case, unless perhaps if she were of very high religious status—an abbess or an anchoritic holy woman with semi-saint status. Free women could be plaintiffs, and numerous rules survive about the notice they had to serve, the limitations on distraint they had to observe, and the situations in which they could stand surety. One hagiographic tale has a nun as a plaintiff. A tenth- or eleventh-century anecdote in the Martyrology of Tallaght tells of the nun (caillech) Lúachair of Kells bringing a complaint to a king when his son stole her special cow. The king condemned the prince to death.76 The judge is here a king rather than a legal judge, but even so it is noteworthy that there is no mention of a male advocate for the nun, and the word of the nun was taken over the word of a prince. Whether or not nuns in reality usually brought cases or made testimony against laymen, at least one later hagiographer was happy to portray them doing so.

The validity of a person’s testimony is another means of assessing status. One must note first that the norm in Irish law was for the testimony of women to be considered invalid, either outright or unless supported by a man. Hibernensis in one place denies the testimony of women altogether: testimonium feminae non accipitur, sicut apostoli testimonium feminarum non acceperunt de resurrectione Christi.77 Elsewhere the text expresses the view that women can give testimony, but only with the approval of their (male) superior: mulier si iurando se constrinxerit maritusque aut si pater eius una die tacuerit, voti rea erit.78 The ambiguity in law is evidenced elsewhere too; one vernacular tract says that a woman’s evidence is always invalid; another says it is valid, providing her superior concurs.79 A nun was not just a woman, but also a monastic: monastics too had limitations on their ability to give testimony. Monks needed the approval of their abbatial head when they were witnesses.80 It is therefore safe to infer that most nuns would have needed the concurrence of a superior in order to give testimony. As to the identity of the superior, perhaps it was the abbess or a male cleric: the Díre text says that when a woman is in the Church it is the Church who supervises her, but unfortunately it does not specify further. Another specifies that fines for a nun’s rape went to the Church, as her superior.81 The gender of the head is by no means a settled matter, as the next chapter, which deals with abbesses, will demonstrate.

One law tract does actually deal with a situation in which a woman gives evidence against a cleric. Gúbretha Caratniad (‘The False Judgements of Caratnia’) deals with exceptions to normal legal principles, and it asserts that the evidence of a woman is valid against that of a cleric when it is a case of one ordained person giving testimony against another. The relevant passage takes the form of a dialogue between the mythical judge Caratnia and a king about a specific case. In that instance Caratnia had decided, seemingly against custom, that a woman’s witness against an ordained person (rucus fiadnisse mná for fer ngráid) was valid. Challenged by the king, Caratnia explains, ‘I did it quite in order because an ordained person was opposed to another ordained person’ (Ba deithber, ar ba fer gráid for fer ngráid n-aile).82 Fergus Kelly saw this passage as applying to nuns, presumably taking fer ngráid as referring to a nun.83 If interpreted this way, the tract suggests that judges should permit a nun to give testimony against a cleric on the basis of her ecclesiastical equivalency to a cleric. An alternative view of the passage, which takes account of the fact that a closer translation of fer ngráid would be ‘a man in orders’, could be that a woman could give such testimony providing she had a sponsor who was a man in orders. The women most likely to have such a sponsor were nuns, whose superiors were ecclesiastical.

Thurneysen thought that this law meant that women were allowed as witnesses at certain periods or in certain regions when there was a suit between ordained people, perhaps only because an ordained person was representing a woman. He also thought it meant that the glossator did not recognize the witness of women, though the glossator apparently knew two other cases where women could bear witness: when a lord exercised his office as judge over his vassals, and in commercial contracts. These cases were not mentioned explicitly, but as women were allowed to offer their own goods as guarantees and to engage in business with them (the goods) then presumably, Thurneysen ventured, they could appear as a witness in these matters.84

The hagiography does show nuns bringing legal complaints against clerics. A single story, appearing in two versions, Bethu Brigte and Brigit’s Vita I, deals with exactly this. In both versions the nun brings a charge against a cleric, not to a secular judge but to a synod of church authorities.85 In the Vita I version the nun complained she had been made pregnant by one of Patrick’s bishops; in Bethu Brigte, the nun accused the bishop of having raped her. In both versions the bishop denied the accusation, and the synod did not know how to resolve the issue, as it was a case of her word against his. It is noteworthy that the nun’s complaint is portrayed as being taken seriously, and her word is not dismissed as invalid on account of her being a woman. In the end Brigit miraculously revealed incontrovertible proof that the nun was lying, and she set the nun’s penance.

The legal sources contain special stipulations for certain types of high-status nuns. For example, the sick-maintenance of holy women ‘abundant in miracles’ was handled differently from that of ordinary women. A woman’s testimony was valid, according to Hibernensis, providing she was a domina and/or a virgo sancta. These cases are discussed in the following chapter as they may well be most relevant to abbesses or other nuns of very high office, in which cases the specific privileges can be better thought of as belonging not so much to their virginal status as to their position in a monastery, church, or community. Another angle on this must be mentioned as well. Irish law made special provision for women who were members of professions, giving them extra autonomy approaching that of men in some situations, as has been demonstrated in a study of the status of those in the secular sphere.86 The ultimate origins of such an attitude, whereby those females who hold power and greater responsibility are entitled to a legal position accordingly higher than they would have otherwise, must lie in native Irish culture: it appears that the Irish allowed for, and recognized, the ‘exceptional woman’.

The legal material, offering as it does a way into the social organization of Irish society in this period, demonstrates that as far as the lawyers were concerned there were numerous sorts of holy women, or nuns at least. It also makes it clear that nuns formed a segment of the female population who were governed by special considerations, though the texts are not always clear how these worked. What is evident, though, is the conviction that, sometimes at least, nuns could transcend the more normal female legal incompetence.

Holy Virgins and Sexual Lapses

In the last chapter it was shown that in the Lives of the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, the living arrangements and monastic environments were largely unconcerned by the proximity of nuns to monks or other members of the opposite sex. The Irish monks, in their turn, suffered little if at all from gynophobia and did not normally ban women from their places. This relaxed approach was not, according to the evidence, restricted to matters of accommodation. The prescriptive material shows a similar outlook regarding nuns’ sexuality generally. A virgin, it was acknowledged, might have a lapse. As the various stories indicate, there were women who did not live up to the glorious ideal of Christian virginity so exalted in the religious literature. The legal implications of lapses in Ireland, for both clerics and for virgins, are of especial interest.

An early penitential stated explicitly that a virgin might regain her virginity after losing it, after seven years’ penance. In this period we have more relevant material; an eighth-century Irish penitential does assert quite clearly that, as far as ecclesiastical rules went, a fallen nun could make amends for sexual sin (at least if it was a one-off event) through penance: the penance, as in the earlier penitentials, is the same as that of a cleric:87

Maccleirech adella banscail fu oen bliadain pennite for usciu 7 bargin ma dufusme clann is a cethoir is samlaid dano pennit mac-cailligi cuilles a ccaillecht.88

A virgin-cleric who visits a woman but once does penance for one year on bread and water: if a child is born from it, four years. The same penance is for a young nun who pollutes her virginity [lit. nunhood].

This later penitential does not, however, say that the woman could regain her status as ‘virgin’. It might be that by the time the Irish penitential was written, the transition back to being a ‘virgin’ was an informal one, occurring without ceremony after the nun had completed penance and was again admitted to communion. Alternatively, there may have remained a formal reinstatement which is simply not mentioned as such. A third possibility is that by the eighth century there was a wider variety of people in female communities, and the issue of being ‘virgin’ in a strict sense may have declined in social importance within the community; the eighth century saw a well-documented decline in celibacy in Irish church communities generally, and nuns’ places had on their premises a whole host of different sorts of women.89

We do know that a cleric could regain his status after a lapse. The following entry is one of several dealing with general guidelines for sexual penances:

Asbert tra arre aili dinab ecnaib fri huaiti aesa graid consacratar inna huli grada-sa frisna timtherechta cetna iar pennind 7 aithrigi 7 tiagait fo laim nespscuip. i. epscuip túath 7 asrochoilet a mbith-manchai fu mam apad chraibdich.90

One of the wise said, on account of the fewness of persons in orders: All these orders are reconsecrated after doing penance, with the same functions; and they go under the hand of a bishop (meaning a bishop of the laity), and they vow perpetual monkhood under the yoke of a pious abbot.

Did the female side of ecclesiastical life suffer from ‘the fewness of persons in orders’? The term used for ‘orders’ is grád and it was used also for women monastics, but as to a shortage, the question is open. It does seem unlikely, since it was a shortage of people able to perform pastoral duties like saying the mass, baptism, and so forth that concerned Church authorities at this time. But even if female monasticism did not suffer from low numbers, we may still wonder if in the eighth and ninth centuries fallen nuns might regain their position as ‘virgins’, as had been possible in the earlier penitentials. A vernacular law tract says that dedicated widows (and/or penitent nuns), i.e. nuns who had sexual experience, enjoyed the same honour price as virginal nuns, providing they kept to the religious life.91 The hagiography certainly affirms the power of penance for redemption of the fallen virgin: the corpus of Lives contains a handful of anecdotes in which a young nun falls pregnant, either through rape or through calculated assignation. When a nun deliberately engages in sexual activity, the abbess saint always prophetically discovers the fact, and the girl always confesses. Usually fallen virgins agree to, and perform, the penance prescribed. The anecdote usually ends at this point, and we do not know what happened to the nun’s status, legal standing, or social condition afterwards. But there seems to have been no further ado once the penance was accepted, and the stories treat penance as a real and complete solution to the problem, so it seems reasonable to infer that such nuns could be re-integrated back into the monastic mainstream with their non-lapsed colleagues, regardless of whether they held a title of ‘virgin’, if indeed such titles remained important. In most of these anecdotes, once the nuns have committed the sin they are no longer called virgo but are referred to by other terms: filia, sponsa Dei, famula, monialis, and the like, as well as by general female terms, like mulier, bánscal, and femina. While perhaps no longer ‘virgins’, they had definitely not lost their standing as nuns. Certainly there is no case of a nun being evicted from the monastery for such a sin, providing she expressed regret and was willing to perform penance. The generous attitude of lawyers towards nuns who fell pregnant is made more understandable in light of the open monastic living arrangements in Ireland at the time, discussed in the previous chapter. The temptation for sexual lapse was presumably greater, and perhaps more forgivable, than it was in those societies where strict enclosure was the rule.

One legal source in which one would expect to find material on nuns is in Cáin Adomnáin, promulgated in the late seventh century jointly between secular and ecclesiastical authorities for the protection of innocents: women, clerics, and children.92 But oddly, nuns are not mentioned in the law even though they were innocents on two out of three counts. The law portrays the Church as a protector of women and an elevator of their position in Irish society

quod grande peccatum qui matrem 7 sororem matris Christi 7 matrem Christi occidit 7 collum unumquemque portantem 7 omnem hominem vestimentem contrivit.93

for the sin is great when anyone slays the mother and the sister of Christ’s mother and the mother of Christ, and her who carries the spindle and who clothes everyone.

Nuns did not need to be actually mentioned in order to be covered by the stipulations of the ruling, since the text prescribes an equal fine for the injury of all women regardless of class or profession, but their absence is none the less peculiar. It seems even more so in the extensive Irish accretions to the text, which do mention offences against different types of women, for example, rape of a maiden (ingen), the humiliation of a gentlewoman (dagmná) and women of other grades, including the wife of an aire désa, the most common grade of nobleman.94 Perhaps nuns were not mentioned because this portion of the text stresses that the law was to be applied also to clerics and children, with exactly the same fines applying to injuries against these people as to injuries against women. Nuns, belonging to both the Church and the female sex, were clearly going to have the stipulated fines applied to them. And in the section on rape, where fines are prescribed for attacks on maidens, perhaps nuns were automatically understood to be ‘maidens’—this is not unlikely considering that the word for maiden, ingen, is a common Irish term for a nun.

And yet the virtual absence of nuns in Cáin Adomnáin serves to highlight a more general silence in prescriptive texts, and in this case as in many others one is forced to fall back on classifying the nun as either a ‘woman’ or a ‘monk’ and presuming that the Irish used for them the regulations for one of the two. As mentioned above, there are no rules for nuns on many of the indicators of social status. As to which set of rules Irish judges used in any given case involving a nun, the example of Judge Caratnia suggests that it was not always clear. But it seems reasonable that the decision would be taken on a case-by-case basis, using the laws which could be deemed applicable, bearing in mind the nun’s social background and family wealth.

The Irish virginal nun remains somewhat enigmatic, and yet her relationship to her sexuality, namely having transcended it and its attendant feminine weakness, helped to give her a special place in Irish law. So too did it inform her position within the ecclesiastical hierarchy, as equivalent in some way to the bishop’s. Like the bishop, the virginal nun was ‘ordained’, and bound to the Church with vows likened to those of marriage, in a ceremony presided over by the bishop. In society and in the church, she was rewarded highly for having vanquished the debility normally afflicting her sex. It is possible that even if she lapsed, she might have been able to regain her position amongst the virgins after doing penance, and if this was indeed the case it must surely be one of most remarkable of all the equivalencies between virginal nuns and bishops in the clergy in early medieval Ireland.

Holy Widows And Penitent Nuns

To be a religious widow in Ireland in the early medieval period was to be part of the church’s holy people, and to enjoy a paradoxical status which on the one hand placed her above the married laity in the eyes of God and yet might also place her in the ranks of the penitents, those who were atoning for former sin. The holy widow, for all the anomalies of her position, was nevertheless very clearly a member of a recognized and dedicated path within the Irish church, and her profession was formalized with a promise which was considered binding in the eyes of both ecclesiastical and secular law, as we shall see below.

In spite of the certainty that holy widowhood was a distinct and demarcated religious profession, it is none the less problematic for the historian. To begin, Ireland has left no treatises on widowhood, no homilies or epistles extolling its virtue, and no hagiographic stories centring on widows. Furthermore, identifying a religious widow is sometimes tricky, for unless a qualifying adjective or the context indicates religious context or profession, the historian is left guessing as to whether the woman was simply a bereaved wife of the ordinary laity. Sometimes a text helpfully discloses that a woman was a religiosa vidua, sancta vidua, or, in Irish, fedb chráibdech.95 Other times the context itself indicates that a widow was religious; in other cases however, the context is of no help whatsoever. In my analysis, I use only widows actually specified as religious.

The Irish word for widow, fedb, was derived from the Latin vidua. Its primary meaning was the same as in late antiquity, namely a married woman whose husband had died. But in the Irish law tracts we meet a woman called a ‘widow’ who is a sworn-celibate woman whose sexual partner, not necessarily a formal husband, might still be alive. The compendious etymological Dictionary of the Irish Language notes that the term fedbacht (‘widowhood’) could refer to a committed continence by either a man or a woman after the loss of a spouse, and it cites a number of examples from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. One of these is in the Annals of Ulster for the year 1224, where there is a report of a man who after his wife’s demise, ‘observed the strictest continence (feadhbhacht) until the day of his own death’.96 This secondary meaning is evidenced also in the late antique world, where vidua can also refer to a woman who has professed religious continence but who might not have been bereaved. Since the Irish were voracious readers of patristic literature, it is not too surprising that they should have taken it over. However, before we can understand the Irish widow’s profession we must take into account the late antique Christian concepts which informed it.

Late Antique Background

By the seventh century there existed five hundred years of practice and writing affirming Christian holy widowhood as a vowed or sworn profession with a special place in the theological hierarchy of believers. It originated with the very beginnings of Christianity, from which it evolved into a multi-faceted and complex vocation. The Pauline epistles contain reference to religious widows in 1 Timothy 5: 3–20, where Paul writes of the election of widows to a religious order or to some position of responsibility within the Church.97 Tertullian, writing in the early third century, bears witness in his essay on the veiling of virgins to an order of widows, but his language is unclear regarding what sorts of women actually belonged to it.98 In the fourth century John Chrysostom’s treatise ‘Against Remarriage’ shows the profession as having become more formalized: in his day, we learn, undertaking the widow’s life involved a pledge not to remarry, something the profession had not involved, at least formally, in the second century—an inference we may draw from Paul’s letter to Timothy. Elizabeth Clark emphasizes that by Chrysostom’s time both widowhood and virginity were ‘true religious “professions” for which a solemn pledge was taken’.99 Widows often appear in the Apocryphal Acts, e.g. the Acts of Paul, Thomas, John, and Peter. These too date from around the fourth century.

The widows we may find in the Acts would include women who are virgins or widows or women who have separated from their husbands by choice. They would be somewhat different from the widows known to us from most other early Christian literature wherein women were encouraged (if not required) to maintain their marital ties.100

Throughout these early centuries vidua could refer to any woman who had formally renounced sexual activity after having participated in connubial relations. To qualify as a widow one’s spouse need not have died; he might be abandoned. Tertullian, for example, wrote of pagan priestesses who renounced their husbands and lived in strict viduitas. In late antique hagiography and in the Apocryphal Acts ‘the technical term “widow” might often apply to a woman, virgin or widow, particularly dedicated to continence and Christian piety’.101 Widowhood implied ‘a pledge of continence, a resolution to be faithful to Christ rather than to a partner in an earthly marriage’.102 Furthermore, the Apocryphal Acts obliquely encourage women to leave their husbands and become religious widows.

The widow’s profession received a boost during the Church’s debates on remarriage. Many Christian thinkers believed that marriage was literally forever, and at the resurrection couples would be reunited. In this view, people who remarried after the death of their spouse were perforce committing adultery. So bereaved wives were encouraged to take a vow not to remarry but instead to dedicate the remainder of their lives to God.103 We should not be surprised, then, to find the chaste widow in the popular threefold schema of the faithful. In late antique texts the widow was the sixtyfold fruit, enjoying the sixtyfold reward of heaven, located as she was between the hundredfold virgin and the thirtyfold married Christian. Jerome said that the widows reap the sixtyfold reward ‘because they are placed in a position of difficulty and distress’, on account of their depression and ‘the greater difficulty in resisting the allurements of pleasure once experienced’.104 The heavenly reward for the widow was quite exalted: she ‘will be honoured on earth by men and she will receive eternal glory from God in heaven’ and those widows ‘who have served uprightly will be magnified by the archangels’.105

Holy Widows in Ireland

The earliest appearance of the widow in Ireland is in this context, in Patrick’s fifth-century Epistola. He refers to women of the three grades—virgin, widow, and celibate married—and says that in Ireland there was an increasing number of virgins, ‘widows, and the self-denying’. If Patrick was not just writing formulaically, we could infer that he was recruiting women for dedicated widowhood, in which case it was a path open to Christian Irish women from as early as the fifth century. In any case Patrick is establishing that widows have an identity in Christianity as widows. Somewhat later Pa2, the Second Synod of St Patrick, says that the sixtyfold are the clergy and widows who are continent: clerici et viduae qui continentes sunt.106 Widows appear in the threefold schema also in the seventh-century Expositio quattuor evangeliorum, which says that the sixtieth fruit are the order of widows, who are persevering in the Lord (fructus sexagisimus ordinem vidua.rum, perseverantium in Domino). It is worth noting that the author says ordo viduarum, treating widows as an order. These two texts show familiarity with the spiritual rewards offered the religious widow and with what was expected of such a widow, namely continence and perseverance in a religious life.

In the seventh century the writings of Isidore of Seville were transmitted very quickly to Ireland, and it may well be from Isidore that the Irish gained some of their concepts of widowhood. In his De ecclesiasticis officiis, Isidore dedicated a chapter to the widow (situated between chapters on virgins and married Christians) and discussed the biblical and patristic sources which treat the profession, stressing the irreversibility of a widow’s vow of continence:

Praedicat autem idem apostolus damnationem habere viduas quae post propositum continentiae nubere cupiunt: cum enim, inquid, luxoriatae quia primam fidem irritam fecerunt, id est quia in eo quod primo voverant non steterunt.107

This same apostle predicts to have damnation those widows who after their promise of continence desire marriage; when, then, he says, they are harlots it is because they made their first vows void, that is, because they did not stay in that state which they first vowed.

Thus by the time it arrives in Ireland, and at the time we first see evidence of it there, the profession of widowhood was both theologically contextualized and liturgically formalized. The late eighth-century litany Ateoch Frit asks for the protection of virgins, widows, and the lawfully wedded (in that order).108 The late eighth-century Stowe Missal, possibly from Tallaght, contains petitions for all the officers of the Church, including one pro integritate virginum et continentia viduarum.109

It is known that women could separate from their living husbands in order to enter religious life in monasteries, and in those circ*mstances they would have had the widow’s grade. Columba’s Life recounts a story in which a woman so hated the connubial act with her husband that she asked permission from the saint to leave him and enter a monastery. In such cases it would be normal for the spouse’s permission to be sought. Indeed Irish biblical glosses do stress that both women and men require their partner’s agreement to abandon the marital bed.110

The dedicated widow formed the second grade in some formulations of the two grades of holy women. Hibernensis, cited earlier, speaks of two levels of nuns, and says the lower must think of Anna, the traditional patroness of widows. Cogitosus’s seventh-century Life of Brigit affirms this further, where the description of the church at Kildare mentions there is a door to the sanctuary reserved for ‘the abbess and her nuns and faithful widows’ (abbatissa cum suis puellis et viduis fidelibus).111 Cogitosus’s remark joins with others in other Lives to confirm the reality of the widow’s profession. In the Vita I of Brigit, for example, Brigit was taken as a young girl to a religious synod by religiosa quaedam vidua with the permission of her father. The widow lived near to Brigit’s father’s house, we are told.112 In the ninth-century Bethu Brigte, the same story is related, but with the widow now called a ‘senior holy nun’ (senior caillige craibdigi). These remarks certainly confirm that the Irish writers of this century were familiar enough with holy widows to include them without much ado into their hagiographic tales, and could, in the case of Bethu Brigte, imagine them attending a synod.

Widow as Penitent

On the theological level the widow presents numerous complexities. The glory of the religious widow, her exalted status on the heavenly plane and the Church’s approval gained for her continence, were accompanied in Ireland by another, more dubious connotation. In Ireland, widows were seen to have links with, or in fact to be, penitents, people in especial need of God’s forgiveness.

Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha has demonstrated this interchangeability, citing these and other examples. Legal and ecclesiastical writers were clearly working in a long tradition which made loose associations between widowhood and the renunciation of sexual activity, which was in turn associated with the notion of being a penitent.113 The seventh-century Liber Angeli, for example, uses ‘widows’ and ‘penitents’ interchangeably. In the description of Armagh, the author mentions three categories of religious people who belong to it. In this place, it says, tres ordinibus adherent: virgines et poenitentes [et] in matrimonio ligitimo aeclessiae servientes.114 Thus the middle grade, usually of widows, is here again made up of penitents. The Hibernensis passage on the two grades of nun, cited earlier, says the second grade, penitents comparable to presbyters, should take their inspiration from the biblical widow Anna and, presumably unlike virgins, must remain under the hand of a pastor for the whole of their lives.115 Elsewhere it classifies the two explicitly as the virgines habitu virginitatis ornatae and the penitentes. In this formulation, the penitent takes the second level of nunhood. To cite a final source, a gloss on the vernacular legal text Córus Béscnai says of the bonds binding members to the church, that penitent nuns and pilgrims (o ailithrib ocus o caillecaib aitrige) are bound by a promise (tarngaire) they have taken; this shows that penitent nuns belonged to an order of sorts, and had joined it by taking a formal oath.116

Why and how could the Irish have come to associate the dedicated holy widow with the reformed penitent harlot? Ní Dhonnchadha proposes that it was because many who took up the order of penitent were in fact widowed women, often elderly women, and thus the term evolved connotations of widowhood. In that case one should not overstress the penitential nature of the position. The penance implied by the term caillech aithrige should not be overplayed if the root of aithrige connotes departure from a former way of living more than it does penance for former sinfulness. Caillech, meaning ‘veiled person’, can have uxorial and marital connotations. So for her, these women are more to be seen as conversae from marital, i.e. lay life, who have adopted dedicated celibacy.117 My own study of the texts leads me to agree strongly with much of this view. The nuns who are interchangeably called widows and penitents are best seen as gaining their designation from their departure from the life of the laity and the sexuality which, for the Irish, characterized it.

Certainly it is right that the grade of penitent did not always have connotations of former lasciviousness, and Ní Dhonnchadha astutely observed a passage supporting this in the notes on the Martyrology of Oengus, which date from the tenth or eleventh century. The gloss explains how Brigit was consecrated: seeking to have the order of penitence (grada aithrige) conferred upon her, Brigit went with seven other nuns in search of Bishop Mel. Finding him, she was introduced as the famous nun (caillech arderc) of Leinster, and he agreed to confer the orders of penitence upon her.118 Although these notes are dated from beyond the period under consideration here, it is important to mention them because they show that at that time, if not earlier, people could imagine an already pious, chaste woman actively seeking out the formal conferring of an order of penitence. Because Brigit is definitely universally accepted to have been a virgin and someone who did not have a sinful life, we have to consider that taking the order of penitent nun was seen in the glossator’s day as a pious undertaking rather than an imposed punishment.

The term widow was not, however, incorporated into the terminology of the order of penitents. Rather, I see it as being the other way around. Viduitas or fedbacht from the outset meant a state enjoyed by those who renounced the lay life. This is amply demonstrated in the late antique precedents. Furthermore, some texts allude to the particularly sexual cast of the previous life, and do so in strong, even condemnatory tones. The key text is a dramatic passage in the law tract Di Astud Chirt 7Dligid, which dates from the seventh or eighth century. The tract itself is a long text containing a wide variety of legal material, and within the section on honour-prices of various sorts of women, widows are covered. The passage under consideration links the holy widow’s profession to that of the converted, penitent harlot.

Fedb, aindir, be carnna, doranidar setaibh oige diarub la fo fuiristar, acht ro pennead a nilpeacta ciarob iar nilar comleachta.119

A widow, a ‘non-virgin’, a wanton, are paid dire [honour-price] in chattels of virginity (i.e. receive the same honour-price as a virgin), if they abide by goodness [virtue], even should it be after many cohabitations, provided that they have done penance for their many sins.

The widow here is defined as a formerly dishonourable woman who had given up her carnal ways and done penance for them. We may note parenthetically that an eleventh- or twelfth-century gloss on the above passage specifies that the penance was to be done ‘according to the directions of a confessor’, a phrase which emphasizes the involvement of ecclesiastical officers. Both the tract and its gloss use the term bé carnna to describe the woman; Power has translated it as ‘wanton’. It is here glossed as ‘a woman who sleeps with numerous men in one night’; in another text, the word is defined as meaning merdrech (Irish equivalent to the Latin meretrix, i.e. ‘harlot’), and another says that the bé carnna is the worst type of woman there is.120

The idea of the widow as a woman reformed from a sexual, even harlotlike existence, is found elsewhere in Irish sources as well. The eighth-century Irish litany Ateoch Frit speaks of widows as penitents, whose patroness is Mary Magdalene: ‘I entreat Thee by all holy virgins throughout the whole world, with the Virgin Mary thine own holy Mother; I entreat Thee by all penitent widows (fhedbai aithrigecha) with Mary Magdalene; I entreat Thee with all the people of lawful marriage, with Job the suffering, on whom came many trials.’ As the sequence indicates a use of the threefold schema, it is notable, and unusual, that widows are specified here as penitent widows, as this is not seen in patristic formulations. It is significant that Mary Magdalene is given as their patroness in Ateoch Frit, and not the usual widow Anna. In Augustine’s De bono coniugali, one reads of the married chastity of Susannah, the good of the widow Anna, and the excellence of the Virgin Mary. Isidore of Seville in De ecclesiasticis officiis specified that widows should think of Anna, and virgins of Mary.121 Anna appears in the Bible in Luke 2: 36–8, speaking in the temple about Jesus to all who looked for redemption. Mary Magdalene, in contrast, was by the seventh century named as the biblical prostitute who famously renounced her wicked ways for love of Christ. Gregory the Great’s homilies, widely circulated across the West (and indeed reaching Ireland) had made the identification unequivocally. Beyond this, she was also conflated with the adulteress with five unlawful husbands whom Christ had met at the well (John 4: 17–18)—and she too became a devotee of Christ.122 The Irish use of Mary Magdalene as the patroness of the middle grade has the same kinds of allusions to sexual promiscuity that we saw in Di Astud Chirt.

Whilst Ní Dhonnchadha is certainly right that many who took up the order of penitent/widow were older women whose husbands had died, one is inclined to think that many came to it from a type of sexual life about which the Church had a certain amount of disapproval, namely marriages which were perhaps looser in structure than the full-fledged lifelong monogamy defended by church fathers since Augustine. We would do well to remember that divorce and remarriage were normal and legal in native Irish law, and are well-attested practices. There must have been many women who had had more than one, or even two, husbands. Patristic sources considered any woman who remarried after divorce a harlot (meretrix or similar). By patristic definition, therefore, Ireland was rife with women who were harlots, even though such women were behaving normally in terms of Irish secular custom. Added to this, patristic writers used vidua of a woman who voluntarily separated from a living husband in favour of religious continence. Thus, a woman married more than once (via divorce) who then renounced marital life for religious continence would be both a penitent harlot and a widow. Ireland doubtless had many such women. In addition, it must be remembered that marriage in Irish custom was not an either/or affair, with one being either married or single. Rather there were different types of union, some stronger than others. Some of the less strongly bonding types of union may not have been considered by ecclesiastically-minded law authorities as full marriages in the Christian sense—i.e. as eternally bonding in the eyes of God. And if they were not, then the sex between such partners perhaps lay on the border lines of fornication, and turning from this to a life of continence may have been seen as a renunciation of lasciviousness.

Overall, the Lives are unforthcoming on the marital or sexual backgrounds of the religious widows they do occasionally mention. Thus there is admittedly little in Irish hagiography to add confirmation to this theory, but neither do the texts provide evidence against it. Other sources are equally silent on that paradoxical interweave of harlotry, penance, and the order of widows. Nevertheless, we can conclude with certainty that the Irish mentally associated widowhood with the repentance of sexual activity and even of sexual promiscuity.

The search for illumination of the religious widow leads inevitably to a study of other ‘wanton’ women who come to the religious life. The very famous and enigmatic poem in Irish, the ‘Lament of the Caillech Béirre’, deals with exactly that. This poem of uncertain date essentially consists of the lament in the voice of an old woman, who calls herself the caillech Béirre, the ‘nun’ or ‘old woman’ of Beare.123 Controversy has raged over whether the old woman is meant to be understood as a nun, because there is no incontrovertibly monastic material in it; on the other hand, there are semi-religious references, and caillech means ‘nun’ so often in Irish texts of the period that a non-religious use of the word strikes one as odd. Ó hAodha thinks that the caillech is indeed a nun, but one who took up religion late in life, as does Ní Dhonnchadha.124 If this is the case, and I think it is, then she is a woman who would qualify as a holy widow/penitent nun. Furthermore, the poem has even those veiled allusions to former sexuality which are also seen in Di Astud Chirt, namely the promiscuity.

The poem, long and descriptive, is quite rich in suggestive information. The caillech is a formerly beautiful woman of the secular world, now living in poverty in a church. She mourns the passing of her resplendent youth, remembering dressing in finery, embracing kings, and wearing ‘coverings of many colours’ upon her head. Now, her many years of beauty are gone ‘because wantonness has spent itself’; she is too thin to wear even a ragged shift, covers her head with a white veil (caille finn), and drinks watery whey among withered old women (eter sentainni crína).125 She is, she says, in the darkness of a wooden church (dorchae derthaige), a sad comparison with her former feasting by bright candlelight.

We should note that the caillech is nowhere in the poem described as a widow. Though she may not have been a religious widow, she does fit even more closely into a category of religious woman, the ‘ex-laywomen’ or athlaeches. This is the female equivalent of an athlaech, literally an ‘ex-layman’, but more fully it means a man who has become a cleric (presumably at an age later than normal).126 The eighth-century tract on penance, De Arreis, is one of the few texts, if not the only, one, which deal specifically with the female version, the ex-laywoman. The text mentions appropriate commutations for the cleric, monk, mac-caillech (young-nun), and laywoman; it then goes on to those appropriate for ex-laymen and ex-laywomen.127

The ex-laywoman, having come to the Church later in life, was likely to have had less religious and ascetic training.128 The Customs of Tallaght (dated to the ninth century) a story in which an athlaech tells a monk (mac bethad, lit. ‘son of life’) ‘I do not understand your continual singing of the Beati and the Canticle of Mary’. From this one infers that such a person would often have little knowledge or understanding of religious practices, even though living in a monastic context.129

Other sources containing evidence on the athlaech link them with penitence. In one law tract there is a reference to ‘ex-laymen who renounce their sins’ (athlaich fristongat dia pecthaib).130 Elsewhere, ‘penitent’ is equated to an ex-layman and ailithrigh.131 Given all of this, it is not surprising that there is some suggestion that the athlaech was ineligible for some ecclesiastical offices.132 If we apply this to the caillech Béirre, it is not difficult to imagine her as an ex-laywoman, living out a worldly life until, in her old age, she turned to the Church to support her in her final days, but harbouring no moral regrets about her sumptuous and sexual past.

It is perhaps in this context that we should consider the annal entries that praise kings and queens for dying ‘in penance’. The Annals of Ulster tell, for example, of Eithne daughter of Bresal of Brega, queen of the kings of Tara (obit Ad 768) who ‘deserved to obtain the heavenly kingdom, having done penance’; Gormlaith daughter of Donnchad (obit Ad 861) who ‘died after repentance’; Flann daughter of Dungal, queen of the king of Tara (obit Ad 891) who ‘fell asleep in penance’; Eithne daughter of Áed (obit Ad 917) who ‘died truly penitent on the feast of Martin’; and Gormlaith daughter of Flann son of Mael Sechnaill (obit Ad 948) who ‘died in penitence’. Perhaps these queens ended their days attached to the church, like the caillech of Beare, guaranteed support, piety, and a place in heaven, having made a commitment such as is alluded to in Córus Béscnai, and supervised at least indirectly, as is suggested in Hibernensis.

Irish Nuns in the Context of the West

The Irish profession of holy women, having two main levels, has some similarities with that elsewhere. In Frankia, there were regular, virginal nuns (the sacrae virgines) in the top rank and canonesses in a lower position. There, liturgical sources survive for both, unlike in Ireland, so much more can be said about the latter and the distinctions between the two. The canoness, for example, received at her consecration only a veil rather than the ring and crown which the virgin received, and there were in the ninth and tenth centuries both regular and canonical abbesses.133 In England, Bede is a relatively early witness to the fact that in monasteries there the holy virgins were but one type, and that highest level, of females who lived under the vow. They were distinguished from those who entered religion in later life.134 It is only in the post-970 period though, that English sources clearly show the distinct grades of nuns found earlier on the Continent, namely the virginal or regular nun and the canoness. In that later era, though, the English material refers to the vowed widow, not as a canoness but as a third type. Though the evidence on the last is indirect, Schneider found they could be found living at nunneries or in minster churches, as well as alone.135

For Ireland probably even more than England and Frankia, we shall never fully understand the conceptual boundaries distinguishing the professions of widows, penitents, and ex-laywomen. The sources suggest a certain amount of fluidity, and perhaps evolution over time. It is evident that the female profession was often thought to consist of two tiers, the upper being that of the virgin and the lower being this less clearly-defined grade of late-comers, old women or pious humble women. The upper tier, that of the virgin, seems to have been accorded a great deal of legal status and autonomy. The women of the lower tier, according to Hibernensis, were always under the direct guidance of a pastor, right up until death. They may have been bound by a different sort of vow than virgins, if we correctly understand Córus Béscnai. What is quite clear, however, is that being a penitent nun or a holy widow involved formal links to the ecclesiastical hierarchy and to Church authorities, having made a formal promise and undertaken to wear a veil as part of that new life.

Much more basically, however, these professions and the women who lived them were fully Christian. To scholars familiar with the early medieval period, this is a point so obvious it appears silly to make it, but it is worth stressing for the benefit of those whose background may lie in the more feminist or folkloristic school of thought. Yes, some were of special status if they were deemed miracleworkers and held in special esteem by their communities; yes, some did provide direct care to laypeople, including at their deaths; yes, some were treated as sufficiently exceptional to enjoy legal autonomy. For all this, though, just as Kildare was no vestal temple, these vowed holy women were not priestesses. There is the obvious fact that Irish pagan religion, almost imperceptible though it is, had not normally included women in its priesthood. But in the Christian era too, nuns were not even quasi-priests. They did not administer sacraments, or even appear to help doing so as deaconesses.136 There were in these early Christian centuries Irish poetesses, female druids, and women in other post-druidic professions, but none of the associated activities—judging, satirizing, composing poetry, and suchlike—appear among nuns’ duties. Only magic in the broadest sense did they have in common, but even this, among the nuns, is framed in such Christian-miraculous terms, and owes such great debts in the texts to patristic and Continental models, that it cannot be treated as evidence that the Irish nun was essentially a pagan priestess in a veil.



As explored most fully by Charles-Edwards, Kinship.


Charles-Edwards, Kinship, 87.


Ibid. 463–6.


The Irish use of the threefold schema has also been observed by

Ní Dhonnchadha, ‘Caillech’, 72–3.


Plummer, Irish Litanies, 31–2

; discussion and dating in

Kenney, 725–6



A Muire Mór, in

Plummer, Irish Litanies, 48–51 at 48–9

(there titled ‘Litany of the Virgin’). Dating according to Stokes; discussion in

Kenney, no. 592



Audite Sancta Studia, stanzas 15 and 22; Audite Fratres Facta, stanza 12. Both hymns dated to 7th or 8th cent. Discussion of texts in

Kenney, no. 162



Christus in Nostra Insula, stanza 2 (J. Bernard and R. Atkinson (eds. and trans.), The Irish Liber Hymno-rum, i (Henry Bradshaw Society 13; London 1898), 14–15). Dated to 7th or 8th cent. Discussion of text in

Kenney, no. 98



Discussion and dating of the poem to the 9th cent. in

Kenney, no. 148



Martyrology of Oengus, 6 July.


Hibernensis, book 45, ch. 10

, pallium a palliditate dictum; Vita I of Brigit, ch. 123; Audite Fratres Facta, stanza 10.


From the Versiculi Familiae Benchuir, stanza 3, in

P. O’Dwyer, Mary: A History of Devotion in Ireland (Dublin, 1988), 35–43.

See also

Kenney, no. 92

, who dated it to the 7th cent. Carney dated it to c.Ad 600 (

PRIA 73C, 335

). The poem is actually describing the rule of Bangor, but uses Marian imagery throughout making a metaphorical point.


Tírechán, Memoirs, ch. 26.


Vita I, ch. 120.


Stanzas 1, 4, and 19.


Audite Fratres Facta, stanza 3. For other examples see

Ní Donnchadha, ‘Caillech’, 81–3.


Legrand, Biblical Doctrine, 104.


OT references: Hosea 2: 21; Joel 1: 8; Isaiah 54: 5; Jeremiah 3: 1; Ezekiel 16: 6–43. Discussion of Old and New Testament parallels in

Legrand, Biblical Doctrine, 102–4.


Legrand, Biblical Doctrine, 102–4.


2 Cor. 11:2. In the Book of Armagh this passage is underlined and the word ‘Brigit’ is added in the top margin of the page, folio 125v.


Bugge, Virginitas, 59.

Tertullian, De oratione, ch. 22

(ed. G. Diercks, CCSL 22. 255–74)


Athanasius, Apologia ad Constantium, ch. 33 (PG 25. 593–642)


Ambrose, De virginibus I, ch. 8.


Cyprian, De habitu virginum.


Jerome, Epistola 22, ch. 25 (PL 22. 394–425).


Discussed in depth in

Legrand, Biblical Doctrine, ch. 7.


Versiculi Familiae Benchuir (O’Dwyer, Mary, 35).


An excellent discussion, with bibliography of the scholarly literature and main debates, is that in

E. Quin, ‘The Early Irish Poem Ísucán’, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 1 (1981), 39–52.


Lines 4, 63.


Martyrology of Oengus, notes on 7 Apr.


Ibid., notes on 22 May.


Quote from Thes. Pal. ii. 325

. Discussion and dating in

Kenney, no. 95



Audite Sancta Studia.


Ní Car Brigit, lines 91–4.


Martyrology of Oengus: 5 Jan., 1 Feb., 28 Feb.


e.g. ibid., 23 Mar. For use of slóg for a host of angels, see the Preface, verse 129.


Bugge, Virginitas, 54, 49.


E. Johnston, ‘Transforming Women in Irish Hagiography’, Peritia 9 (1995), 197–220, at 218–19.


Vita I of Brigit, ch. 107.


Audite Fratres Facta, stanza 13.


Cantemus in Omni Die (Bernard and Atkinson (eds.), Liber Hymnorum, i. 32–4). Text discussed in O’Dwyer, Mary, 54–6, and

Kenney, no. 98



Vita I of Brigit, ch. 99.


Audite Sancta Studia.


Christus in Nostra Insula, stanzas 1 and 2.


Vita I of Brigit, ch. 46; Latin Life of Coemgen, D text, ch. 26 (PVSH i. 234–57).


Jerome invokes the commandment with regard to chastity rather than fasting, but notably juxtaposes with the reference to the wearing of a leather girdle, the material of the Irish zonae. Ep. 22, ch. 11: ‘God says to Job: “Gird up thy loins as a man.” John wears a leather girdle. The apostles must gird their loins to carry the lamps of the Gospel.’


Irish Life of Adomnán, ch. 1; Audite Sancta Studia, stanza 24; Christus in Nostra Insula, stanza 3.


Vita I of Brigit, ch. 18.


Cogitosus, Life of Brigit, ch. 2.


Ch. 18. There are similar descriptions from later Lives. Ita’s late Life mentions who performed the ceremony and the fact that its central act was the acceptance of the veil: ab ecclesiasticis viris consecrata est, et velamen virginitatis accepit.


Untitled entry,

Archaeological Journal 31 (1874), 85–6.

Printed in

F. Warren, The Liturgy and Ritual of the Celtic Church (2nd edn., with introduction and bibliography by J. Stephenson; Woodbridge, 1987), 23.

Discussed in

Kenney, no. 565

, under ‘The Zürich Fragments’.


Hodgson, ‘Frankish Church’, 224.


Ibid., 101–2, 226–8


Schneider, ‘Anglo-Saxon Women’, 57–9.


Hodgson, ‘Frankish Church’, 165,

with references. At the Irish monastery of Bobbio in northern Italy, however, the virgin received a white dress with her veil (

E. Lowe (ed.), The Bobbio Missal (London, 1920), at 547)



Cogitosus, Life of Brigit, ch. 2: caeleste intuens desiderium et pudicitiam et tantum castitatis amorem in tali virgine, pallium album et vestem candidam super ipsius venerabile caput inposuit.


M. duch*esne, Christian Worship: Its Origin and Evolution (London, 1927), 424–7.


P. Sims-Williams, ‘Thought, Word and Deed: An Irish Triad’, Ériu 29 (1978), 78–111.


e.g. in

Frankia, Admonitio Generalis (789)

; in England, an 11th-cent. fragmentary Life (Schneider, ‘Anglo-Saxon Women’, 191).


On the usefulness of these texts for ecclesiastical matters, see Sharpe, ‘Some Problems’;

L. Breatnach, ‘Canon Law and Secular Law in Early Ireland: the Significance of Bretha Nemed’, Peritia 3 (1984), 439–59


G. Mac Niocaill, ‘Christian Influences in Early Irish Law’

;, in

Ní Chatháin and Richter, Irland und Europa, 151–6


D. Ó Corráin, ‘Irish Law and Canon Law’


ibid. 157–66


D. Corrá in, L. Breatnach, and A. Breen, ‘The Laws of the Irish’, Peritia 3 (1984), 382–438.

The laws have long been used in studies of the social position of Irish lay women, e.g. in SEIL: Power, ‘Classes of Women’, 81–108;

D. Binchy ‘Family Membership of Women’, 180–6


D. Binchy, ‘The Legal Capacity of Women with Regard to Contracts’, 207–34


M. Dillon, ‘The Relationship of Mother and Son, of Father and Daughter, and the Law of Inheritance with regard to Women’, 129–79

. More recently:

D. Ó Corráin, ‘Women in Early Irish Society’, in M. MacCurtain and D. Ó Corráin (eds.), Women in Irish Society: the Historical Dimension (Dublin, 1978) 1–13


C. McAll, ‘The Normal Paradigms of a Woman’s Life in the Irish and Welsh Law Texts’, in D. Jenkins and M. Owen (eds.), The Welsh Law of Women: Studies Presented to Professor Daniel A. Binchy on his Eightieth Birthday (Cardiff, 1980), 7–22.

On married women specifically,

D. Ó Corráin, ‘Marriage in Early Ireland’, in A. Cosgrove (ed.), Marriage in Ireland (Dublin, 1985), 5–24


Kelly, Guide, 70–5


D. Ó Corráin, ‘Women and the Law in Early Ireland’, in M. O’Dowd and S. Wichert (eds.), Chattel, Servant or Citizen: Women’s Status in Church, State and Society (Historical Studies 19; Belfast, 1995), 45–57


B. Jaski, ‘Marriage Laws in Ireland and on the Continent in the Early Middle Ages’, in C. Meek and K. Simms, The Fragility of her Sex? (Dub lin, 1996), 16–42


Charles-Edwards, Kinship, passim


Sharpe, ‘Some Problems’, 236–7.

Hibernensis is now used as a living text by scholars examining ecclesiastical structure and offices, e.g.

Charles-Edwards, ‘Pastoral Role of the Church’.


Hibernensis, book 45, ch. 10

, citing Sinodus Hibernensis as its source. It is worth mentioning here that it is from palliatae that the Irish derived their word caillech, which literally means ‘veiled one’. Regarding Hibernensis, see

Hughes, Church, 123–42.

Hughes felt it was antiquarian and could not be used as a living text (Church, 124, cf. 132), but Sharpe successfully defends its currency in ‘Some Problems’, 236–7.


Hibernensis, book 45, ch. 13

, citing Sinodus Romana as its source.


Ibid., book 45, ch. 17

: Corpus sanctarum mulierum non vis maculat, sed voluntasnon ita amittitur corporis sanctitas violata, animi puritate manente, etiam corpore oppresso; sicut amittitur corporis sanctitas violata animi puritate, etiam corpore intacto.


Ibid., book 45, ch. 12



Ibid., book 43, ch. 6

. Discussion in Hughes, Church, 158–60; see also Ó Corrain, ‘Early Irish Churches’, 333, who thinks the analogy of marriage is a very good one, as the separation rules are ‘remarkably close to the secular rules governing divorce’.


10th- or 11th-cent. gloss on

Ní Car Brigit (Thes. Pal. ii. 330)




Gilla Easpuic, De Statu Ecclesiae on ordination of abbesses (PL 159. 995–1004, at 1002).


Hibernensis, book 18, ch. 8

, entitled De eo, quod non prodest malis sepeliri in locis sanctis: Quedam femina sanctemonialis in ecclesia sepulta iuxta altare, pars eius una igni consumpta visa est, pars intacta permansit, id est inferior, quia ipsa mulier virgo fuit, tamen stultiloquium non vitavit. Cf.

Gregory, Dialogi.


Gúbretha Caratniad, ch. 35 (CIH 2192–99, at 2197.5–6

trans.German R. Thurneysen, ‘Aus dem Irischen Recht III. Die falschen Urteilssprüche Caratnia’s’, nZCP 15 (1925), 302–70, at 345)

. See also

Kelly, Guide, 78.


Córus Béscnai (in CIH at 523

; with

trans. in ALI iii. 14)



Hibernensis, book 45, ch. 20

, entitled De mulieribus vel feminis non accipientibus ullum virile vel sacerdotale of-ficium. It says: Feminis in ecclesia loqui vel docere non permittitur; sed nec contingere vel conferre ullius virilis muneris aut sacerdotalis officii sortem sibi vindicare.


Cain Lánamna, ch. 8, entitled

Lánamnas Eicne (CIH 502.29–519.35

; also

R. Thurneysen, ‘Cáin Lánamná’, in SEIL, 1–80, at 71–2

; also

ALI ii. 404, 406).


There are many such references, but see e.g. the Stowe Missal (Warren, Stowe Missal, 28, 42) where the best and holiest kind of cleric is deemed the mac-clerich.


Martyrology of Oengus, 20 July.


De Arreis, chs. 7–8 (

ed.K. Meyer, ‘An Old-Irish Treatise De Arreis’, Revue Celtique 15 (1894), 484–98, at 488).


De Arreis, chs. 7–8 (

trans. D. A. Binchy, ‘The Old-Irish Table of Commutations’ in Bieler, Irish Penitentials, 277–83, at 278–9


Meyer, ‘An Old Irish Treatise De Arreis’, 484–98).


Martyrology of Tallaght, notes on 5 Apr. Fergus Kelly discusses the material which deals with king’s roles as law-enforcers (Guide, 22–3).


Hibernensis, book 16, ch. 3, citing Sinodus Hibernensis



Ibid., book 35, ch. 6, entitled De iuramento non solvendo, citing Lex



Kelly points out that Heptad 49 places a total bar on female testimony, but notes that elsewhere one finds the view that women could bear witness in civil law in the context of their capacity to requisition land (Din Techtugad) and to take rent or fines (Di Chetharślicht Athgabála), at least from other women: (

Kelly, Guide, 75, 207).


Monastics also needed a superior in order to be witnesses, at least as a general rule.

Hibernensis, book 35, ch. 5

, citing Sinodus Hibernensis, says: Iuramentum filii aut filiae nesciente patre, iuramentum monachi, nesciente abbate, iuramentum pueri et iuramentum servi non permittente domino irrita sunt.


Díre Text, ch. 38 (SEIL 213–14,); Cáin Lánamna, ch. 8 (

Thurneysen, ‘Cáin Lánamná’, 71–2).


Quotation follows

R. Thurneysen’s edition, ‘Gúbretha Caratniad’, 345–6

, corresponding to

CIH 2197.5–6

. The text itself discussed in

Kelly, Guide, 24, 266.


‘A nun has certain legal rights not possessed by laywomen. Hence the evidence of a nun may be accepted against that of a cleric, though a woman is not normally entitled to give evidence’ (

Kelly, Guide, 78).


‘Gúbretha Caratniad’, 345–6.


Vita I of Brigit, ch. 39.


T. Clancy, ‘Women Poets in Early Medieval Ireland: Stating the Case’

, in

Meek and Simms, Fragility, 43–72

; see also Ó Corrain, ‘Women and the Law’.


This entry on nuns, like that of the earlier Latin penitential, essentially consists of an addendum which states that the penance for nuns is the same as that for the cleric. This raises the question as to whether this was a general rule, and whether the penances in entries following this one (which is first in a series of sexual penances for clerics and monks) were understood to apply to nuns as well, on the basis that they were to perform the same level of penance as clerics, if a cleric’s penance was specified.


Old Irish Penitential, ch. 2, item 11. A more accurate translation of the passage is in Bieler, Irish Penitentials,

263. I have translated mac as ‘young’, the traditional translation of the word, rather than ‘virginal’, although I suspect the latter might be more what is meant.


The decline of asceticism in the Irish Church from the strict asceticism of the first two centuries is treated at length in Hughes, Church, and Ó Corráin, Ireland Before the Normans.


Old Irish Penitential, ch. 2.10. The preceding clerical offices discussed did not include nuns or any female office, so when the author writes ‘these orders’ he is not directly (if at all) referring to female orders.


Di Astud Chirt 7 Dligid (CIH 223.22–244.22

; also

ALI V. 426–93, at 448

). For a superior translation see Power, ‘Classes of Women’, 108.


Discussed in M. Ní Dhonnchadha, ‘The Lex Innocentium: Adamnan’s Law for Women, Clerics and Youths, 697 Ad’, in O’Dowd and Wichert, Chattel, 58–69.


Ch. 33, with the Latin of the original uncorrected (

K. Meyer (ed. and trans.), Cáin Adamnáin: An Old Irish Treatise on the Law of Adamnán (Anecdota Oxoniensa 12; Oxford, 1905).


Cáin Adomnáin, chs. 50–1.


e.g. Vita I of Brigit, ch. 14.


This secondary use is evidenced as late as the 15th cent.


See discussion in

B. Witherington, Women in the Earliest Churches (Society for New Testament Studies 59; Cambridge, 1988), 201–3.

Also discussed in

S. Davies, Revolt of the Widows: The Social World of the Apocryphal Acts (Carbondale, 1980), 70–1.

Also discussed in

O. Stählin, ‘Chéra’, in G. Friedrich (ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, 1974), ix. 448–65, at 453.


He speaks of a virgin of less than 20 years being enrolled with the widows, and mentions that apparently married women and even mothers and teachers of children were being elected to an order either of widows or virgins. See Stählin, ‘Chéra’, 462–5, and

Davies, Revolt, 71–2.


Clark, ‘Introduction to John Chrysostom’, 233.


Davies, Revolt, 72.


Davies, Revolt, 72.




Tertullian, De exhortatione castitatis, ch. 9 (

E. Kroymann, CCSL2.1013–36

). Also, the Apostolic Constitutions, ch. 3, as cited in Stählin, ‘Chéra’, 462. See also

Clark, ‘Introduction to John Chrysostom’, 233.


Jerome, Adversus Iovinianum, book 1, ch. 3.


Didascalia book 3, ch.1, as quoted in Stählin, ‘Chéra’, 465.


Pa2, ch. 18. Bieler thought that the line must have had an extra et after viduae, rendering the meaning ‘clerics and widows and those who are continent’; however, I have translated it without the insertion. Expositio quattuor evangeliorum (

PL 30. 531–90, here at 552



Ch. 19 (

C. Lawson (ed.), De ecclesiasticis officiis, CCSL 113 (Turnhout, 1989), 89



The word used for widow is fedb; emphasis mine. Nom Churim ar commairge also called ‘Litany of the Virgins’ (

Plummer, Irish Litanies, 92–3

). Textual discussion in

Kenney, no. 590

. Ateoch Frit (

Plummer, Irish Litanies, 30–45



From the section on the Mass (

Warner, Stowe Missal, ii. 11)



Adomnán, Life of Columba, book 2, ch. 46. Eighth-cent. Würzburg Glosses on the Pauline Epistles, 1 Cor. 7: 4: ‘she cannot practice continence unless the husband pleases, i.e. unless it be agreeable to the husband, i.e. let the husband not boast this time in his power for he, too, cannot practice continence or copulate unless the woman pleases’

(Thes. Pal. i. 556).


Ch. 32.


Vita I of Brigit, ch. 14.


Ní Dhonnchadha, ‘Caillech’, 83–4, 89.


Bieler, Irish Penitentials, 186.

Here I agree with Bieler’s interpolation of et, since the text goes on to refer to these as three orders. See also

Ní Donnchadha, ‘Caillech’, 72.


Book 45, ch. 12.


Córus Béscnai at CIH 523


ALI iii. 14–15.

For discussion of ailithir and caillech aithrige, see

Ní Dhonnchadha, ‘Caillech’, 88.

Hibernensis, book 45, ch. 14



Ní Dhonnchadha, ‘Caillech’, 83–5.


Martyrology of Oengus, notes on 2 Feb. See also

Ní Dhonnchadha, ‘Caillech’, 88–92.


Di Astud Chirt 7 Dligid, section on the fedb, as cited in Power, ‘Classes of Women’, 108; an older edition and translation is in

ALI V. 448




‘Classes of Women’, 107–8.


Augustine, De bono coniugali, ch. 8 (PL 40. 373–96)

; Isidore, De ecclesiasticis officiis, chs. 17, 18.


On Anna: ‘And there was one Anna, a prophetess … She was far advanced in years and she had lived with her husband seven years from her virginity. And she was a widow until fourscore and four years, who departed not from the temple, by fastings and prayer serving night and day.’ On Magdalen as ‘harlot’ in Gregory the Great, and dissemination of the identification with prostitute and adulteress:

S. Hoskyns, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor (New York, 1993), 16–26, 40, 95–6.


Donncha Ó hAodha dates the text to c.900, Murphy thought it was from the late 8th or early 9th cent., and Meyer thought it was from the 11th (

ed. and trans. D. Ó hAodha, ‘Lament of the Old Woman of Beare’,


D. Ó Corráin, L. Breatnach, and K. McCone (eds.), Saints, Sages and Storytellers: Studies in Honour of Professor James Carney (Maynooth, 1989), 308–31



Ní Dhonnchadha, ‘Caillech’, 92.


The commentaries on Cáin Adomnáin, possibly somewhat later, state that penitent nuns wear white garments with black borders; the 8th- or 9th-cent. Stowe Missal, like the earlier penitential, attests to the penitent receiving a white garment at their rite of reconciliation (

Warren, Stowe Missal, 31–2)

; so this white veil was probably typical.


Royal Irish Academy, Dictionary of the Irish Language (compact edn.; Dublin, 1983)

under athlaech. Textual citations as given there. For a related example, in the 9th-cent. story of Liadain and Curithir, a poet becomes a pupil of a saint, living in the monastery; he is referred to as an ex-poet (athéces), presumed by Greene and O’Connor to be a play on athlaech, ‘ex-layman’ (

Greene and O’Connor, Golden Treasury, 75).


Chs. 7–8.


Ní Dhonnchadha, ‘Caillech’, 84 –5.


Customs of Tallaght, ch. 1.


Bretha im Fuillema Gell (CIH 462.19–477.30

; also

ALI V. 377–423

), here from

ALI V. 420.


O’Donovan’s law transcripts of the Royal Irish Academy, 3.17, c.654, cited in Dictionary under athlaech.


Dictionary cites evidence suggesting that an athlaech was barred from certain ecclesiastical offices.


Hodgson, ‘Frankish Church’, 204–11, 226–8.


Schneider,‘Anglo-Saxon Women’, 50,

citing Bede, Historia ecclesiastica, book 4, chs. 9, 23, 25 (

C. Plummer, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Oxford, 1896)).


Schneider, ‘Anglo-Saxon Women’, 87, 93, 305.


Inspite of the well-known early case of two priests in Brittany, Lavocat and Catihern, who were chastised for using female assistants in the mass, this was not apparently a pan-Celtic practice, nor even necessarily one common in Brittany. For the classic discussion see

L. duch*esne, ‘Lavocat et Catiherne, prétres bretons du temps de Sta Merlaine’, Revue de Bretagne et de Vendée 57 (1885), 5–21


J. Loth, ‘Un Ancien Usage de L’Église Celtique’, Revue Celtique 15 (1894), 92–3.

Ellis has misinterpreted the original text as indicating that the women themselves performed the mass (

Celtic Women, 142

), whereas it actually states that they helped distribute the chalice.

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