Thursday, July 21, 2016

Bees and the Brehon Law in Early Medieval Ireland

By Kristin Gleeson

St Gobnait by Harry Clarke, Corning Museum

What would happen if bees from your hive swarmed and then settled in a neighbour’s tree, or if you were stung badly by one of your neighbour’s bees? If you were living in Ireland in the 6th century, the matter would be very clear. In the first case, your neighbour would be entitled to half the yield of honey, and in the second case, you would be entitled to a sufficient amount of honey that matched the severity of the sting.

Bees and the honey they produced were an important element in early Medieval Ireland and other parts of Europe. They were a significant source of nutrition for people who lived in a land that in many areas was often wet and difficult to farm. Honey also possessed an antiseptic quality that was important for internal healing, as well as external healing. And of course when fermented, it provided a drink that could make you forget how wet and difficult the land was to farm.

Medieval skep
In Britain and the rest of Europe the hives were made of straw, coiled into the familiar cone shape and stitched together with thin branches of brambles/blackberries stripped of their leaves and thorns, called a ‘skep’ from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘skeppa’ meaning ‘basket.’ In winter they would put straw tents over the skeps to keep out the elements, called ‘hackles,’ if they weren’t in little stone nooks, or ‘boles,’ like those of the monks of Lindisfarne. In Ireland, however, where cattle grazed outdoors all year and little straw was harvested, I was told by local historians sedgegrass was used instead, well up until the last century. The hives were then thatched against the rain that fell all year round and kept against the south wall of the ‘lios’ or wall of the home area.

Irish skep with thatch
Bees were kept not only on farms but also at religious communities in early Christian times. Monks (managh) and nuns (cailecha) tended the sick and injured among their community, as well people in the surrounding area. One such cailecha was Gobnait, a woman who settled in West Cork and established a convent, or community of women. She became so well known for her healing, with honey as her staple medicine, that her fame spread and eventually, after her death, she became the patron saint of bees.

With bees such a vital part of the daily lives of medieval Irish people, it is no surprise that they featured in the Brehon laws. “Brehon” is an ancient Irish term for judge. Over the centuries the judges accumulated a series of laws which they passed down orally from one generation of judges to the next. To qualify to become any one of the various levels of judges and lawyers - which in all likelihood were offshoots of the poets (filidh) - required that the person study at one of the named schools. It was a period of study that lasted a number of years in which they learned poetry as well as the laws.

Under the Brehon laws there were five paths to judgement: truth, duty, right, propriety and proper inquiries. These paths ensured that each case was considered carefully.  The choices were thrashed out beforehand by the respective lawyers in a process called airthacra, which was akin to the hearing of legal arguments in modern court cases.  Most disputes, however, were usually settled before they wound up in court.

During the early Christian period, from about the 5th century to the 8th century, the laws and law cases were recorded by Christian clerics and ‘adjusted’ if the laws didn’t fit the Christian outlook. Most of our knowledge of early Irish or Brehon law comes from these old Irish law texts, mainly composed in the 7th and 8th centuries. Some of these texts have survived in a complete form in later manuscripts (generally of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries), but many are to be found only in fragments. The best preserved collection of early Irish law texts is that of the Senchás Mar, "great tradition," which is likely to have been organized as a unit about A.D. 800. The texts in this collection are all anonymous, and it is not known where or by whom they were put together. However, most of the place-names and personal names cited in the texts relate to the northern Midlands and southern Ulster, so it is probable that the material derived from this area. It may have been assembled in a monastic law school, such as that at Slane, County Meath.
Section of Irish law, Library Ireland

Much of the Brehon law is founded on the principle of restitution, rather than punishment, so often the judgements involved various types of compensation for any injury done. The cases and laws therefore encompassed much of what mattered in everyday life. The Senchás Mar originally consisted of 50 law texts broken up into three sections. There doesn’t seem to be a strict logic to the arrangements except that similar subjects are grouped together. For example, the law text relating to cats is followed by the law text relating to dogs.

In the first third of the work there is a general discussion of legal topics and a description of St Patrick’s role in its codification. This essay is followed by laws on the formal seizure of another’s property to enforce legal claims against him. There is also a discussion on the acts regarding hostages, laws regarding the “free fief” and fosterage fees, as well as free clientship and base clientship which were two different classes in the highly stratified society that was Ireland. There were also other texts dealing with the laws of marriage and divorce, the arrangement of customary behavior and the relationship of society to the Church.

The surviving final third, like the first third, is not complete by any means. It does have evidence that suggests it may have contained laws on carpenters, coppersmiths and blacksmiths, sick maintenance as well as trapping deer. It also has medical legal texts “Judgements of Blood-lying” and “Judgements of Dian Cecht” (a legendary physician).

Included in the middle section, the most complete section, are the judgements dealing with trespass by domestic animals, fencing obligations and other related topics. Here we can learn such interesting judgements like if an animal is killed in a jointly owned herd and the culprit cannot be identified then a lot is cast across the whole herd. The animal on which it falls is held to be responsible. Whether or not that animal is punished is a mystery. Other interesting aspects discussed in this section include rules for bringing water for a mill across a neighbor’s land. Conflict in a situation like this is easily imaginable. A final section, which understandably gets full discussion is  "Judgements Concerning Thefts."

It is in this middle section that the Bechbretha or “Bee Judgements” are found. They include a discussion of trespass by honey bees.  It’s there, for instance, we can learn that a person who is blinded by a bee gets a hive in recompense.  Or that there were penalties for a person who moves a hive not belonging to them. And most reasonably we can learn that if a person shakes or disturbs a hive and the bees should attack that person as a result, the owner was free from liability for any injuries that might result.

The Brehon laws stretched back centuries and through them we can understand the daily life of the ancient Irish. If the laws are anything to go by it shows a society that relied heavily on mediation and compensation, perhaps in attempt to avoid more violent acts of retribution, vengeance and punishment.

Kristin Gleeson holds a Ph.D. in history and a Masters in Library Science. Her novel, In Praise of the Bees, weaves in aspects of the Brehon Law. You can find out more about Kristin and her other books at her website.


  1. Fascinating history - especially as I'm a beekeeper!

    1. Thanks! I'm sure your bees are well behaved and lawful.

  2. Extremely interesting! I'm curious how they'd know whose bees were encroaching on another property. I imagine that a covetous neighbour might want to make this claim for a bit of extra honey.

    1. So glad you enjoyed it. I would say if it got contentious the lawyers and judge were called in. Whether that led to bribery or other shenanigans...who knows. That it was recorded and laws established shows that it happened often enough.


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