About women in early Ireland
In some ways, women in early Ireland enjoyed greater equality and freedom than most women of their era. Medieval Irish women could occasionally run abbeys, receive education, serve as poets or even brehons or judges, and fight alongside men. They had specific rights under the laws, could inherit property, and could divorce unsuitable husbands. Irish legends include great female leaders and warriors, most notably Queen Medb (spelled variously, pronouced "mave," and depicted below by illustrator J. Leyendecker).
Yet at the same time, ordinary women were still basically property under the authority of the men in their lives, whether husband, father, uncle, or brother. Their value was one half that of men in the same social stratus, and the fines due to a rape victim were payable to her husband or father and aligned with the penalties for theft, not bodily injury. It was not at all uncommon for men to have multiple wives and consorts, which I doubt many women found ideal (depending on the husband, I suppose!), if for no other reason than that the husbandís wealth or labor were spread thinner. It also created murderous competition among half-siblings for the fatherís wealth and power. Status as an illegitimate child, like Lana, was perhaps rarely a problem for boys, because sons (and heirs) were so highly valued that their fathers generally claimed them, unless their mothers were a complete embarrassment. Girls were less valuable, seen as more of a liability to raise, and were more readily blamed for the sins of sexuality, particularly once the Roman Catholic Church got involved. And while I realize there are great dangers in judging other customs by modern and foreign standards, I have to think that the early Irish habit of fosterage was onerous for a lot of women, too.
In fosterage, children were often raised and educated not by their biological parents but by relatives ó or others whom their father needed politically. An underling would foster a superiorís children to earn favor (and often payment), pawning his own kids off on someone who wanted to please him in turn. In some cases, kids were little more than political hostages ensuring peace and allegiance between two uneasy neighbors. The custom undoubtedly forged strong ties across family groups, because aunts and uncles or more distant relatives gained the emotional bond while natural parents retained economic bonds. Still, it must have been very hard for many women to turn their toddlers over to someone elseís care before giving their attention to substitute kids foisted on them.
I didnít address fosterage in The Humming of Numbers because the custom was not universal and, given the complexity of explaining and dealing with both foster parents and natural ones, it seemed mostly irrelevant to the story. But itís a fascinating topic that I hope to explore in a future book featuring a strong young woman.
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