About Early Christian Ireland
Irish society prior to the Norman invasion in the 12th century presents an odd (to me) mix of sophistication and rustic traditional ways.
One the one hand, the people had a highly structured, if inequitable, society based primarily on the ownership of cattle. A complex system of social obligations, fealty, and rents known as clientage knit families and rulers into extended kin groups and interdependent communities. Extensively codified laws, the Brehon Laws, touched virtually every aspect of life and at least attempted to ensure justice for even lower-class members of society. Punishments were generally economic and embarrassing rather than the brutal “eye for an eye” approach of most other cultures at the time. Strong social conventions based on reputation, status, and kinship responsibilities apparently helped ensure respectable behavior most of the time. Scholarship and many forms of artistic achievement arguably surpassed that in all of Europe during what was elsewhere a pretty dark age, and a great many classic works of Western literature and philosophy would have been lost forever if not safeguarded and copied in Irish monasteries after the fall of the Roman empire.
On the other hand, the early Irish endorsed slavery, had no written language prior to the introduction of Latin and did not begin writing down their oral traditions until even later, and celebrated power and trickery over righteousness or compassion. Even the law codes pose questions: if people were at all well behaved, why did they need such exhaustive and detailed laws? Rules are generally defined in the breaking. (And in The Humming of Numbers, I included some unapologetic villains because there’s evidence that such things were common. Besides, I don’t think there’s been a human society in history, before or since, in which power was not abused. Laws tend to influence the behavior of the middle classes, not those on either extreme.) Survival was often difficult, given less than ideal agricultural conditions, frequent fighting between many small-time tribal chieftans, and centuries of periodic raiding and colonization by Danes and other Norsemen.
Yet despite this hard-scrabble life, the early Irish created a passionate and intricate culture with deep connections to the natural world and an unusual tolerance of traditional beliefs alongside or woven into Irish Christianity. I hope a hint of these passions are reflected in Aidan and Lana’s world.
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