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"Do Not Marry the Fat Short One" The Early Irish Wisdom on Women Lisa M. Bitel European barbarians, including the early medieval Irish, never bothered formally to articulate definitions of the sexes and genders. By and large, such questions are modern concerns voiced by historians and other social scientists. The clerics of Gaul did have one hvely discussion in the year 585 as to whether women could rightly be included in the expansive term homo, which they took to mean "human." This was technicaUy a grammatical debate over Genesis, rather than a patriarchal investigation of gender.1 Nonetheless, the problem of woman—who she was, what she was, where she belonged—was one that long annoyed churchmen throughout Christendom.2 In early Ireland, no single writer set down the simple queries: "What is woman?" and "What is man?" Yet those questions must have hovered in the backs of Irish minds during the long centuries of the pre-Norman period. In a culture obsessed with precise calculations of social status, constantly worried about reproductive success, quite openly appreciative of sexual pleasures, and yet ambivalent, at best, towards women, it was inevitable that men and women should wonder about the ways of getting together and, in the process, about the nature of each other. Probably everyone pondered, at some time in his or her life, the nature of the opposite sex. No doubt each individual responded with a different, quite personal answer. We cannot know what women thought of men, since they had neither impetus nor opportunity to record thefr ideas. But we do know what men thought about women. The inteUectuals of early Ireland, who produced the entire extant canon of early medieval Irish texts, were a homogeneous elite composed of freemen educated in monastic communities.3 Most of them were monks (which does not necessarily mean that they were unmarried or even celibate men) but also jurists, historians, poets, and storyteUers who recorded many stories of men and women courting, fornicating, loving, procreating, conversing, doing business, and quarrelling . The sources that contain these stories were aU written by and for men, in Latin and Irish, between roughly 700 and 1100 CE. They include, among other types of literature, saints' hves, poems, sagas and myths, gnomic tracts, histories, chronicles, genealogies, folk tales, and extensive laws and canons regarding marriage, famüy, property, and sex.4 The texts overflow with the incidental detaUs of daUy life and the confhcting evidence of © 1995 Journal of Wömen-s History, Vol 6 No. -»/Vol 7 No. ι (Winter/Spring) 138 Journal of Women's History Winter/Spring symbols and ideals. They also offer an astonishing range of images of women, opinions about women, and laws and rules for women. These diverse documents show that, despite the homogeneity of the literati's background, early Irish writers disagreed about everything, including women. The laws of property, for instance, represented several confhcting opinions on women's rights to own and alienate land and moveable goods. Many saints' hves existed in contradictory versions that were either more or less favorable toward the female sex. Canonists and jurists constantly feuded over the status and privüeges of lay women and nuns, as weU as the importance and meaning of marriage and chUdbearing . Secular tales reveal a vivid array of seductive, exemplary, pathetic, comic, and terrifying female figures. Yet, despite their differences, the literati sounded certain pervasive themes regarding women. In particular, three discrete genres of early Irish documents, all composed at about the same time (700-900 CE.), posed a series of interrelated questions about the nature and behavior of women. Two of these genres—laws of status and contract and wisdom-texts— organized thefr discussion of women in the form of categories and hierarchies of women, men, and other less familiar beings. The thfrd, secular narratives about otherworldly women, offered images of women clearly informed by the concepts also found in laws and gnomic literature. Considered together, as they were meant to be, these documents read like a long man-to-man conversation about women and their place in the cosmos. The texts resonate with one another; one sets questions, another answers the questions and then poses new queries...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 137-159
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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