Social hierarchy was very much prevalent in early Irish society. You were either free (Saor) or unfree (Daor). Slaves obviously fall into the latter category and as a slave, you were considered an ambue (non-person) and had no protection against being killed or injured. The terms used in the texts are Mug for male slaves that were used for menial labour and Cumal for female slaves who were in turn used for household tasks. The Cumal was of great value, so much so that the term would later be used to denote a unit of currency or a specific size of land (1 milch cow = 3 Cumhal (female slave) = 1 ounce of silver). These slaves could be people obtained as debt slaves, prisoners of war from raids into other Tuatha (petty kingdoms), or prisoners from raids on Britain (the most famous captive of which being Saint Patrick himself) . Even more abhorrent is what we find in the law text Gúbretha Caratniad, which implies that children may have been sold into slavery by their parents. The motivation behind this can only be speculated at, but it doesn’t lessen how horrific it is.
Another law text, Di Astud Chirt acus Dlighid, tells us that it was seen as an anti-social act for a king to release slaves as it was believed that it would entail cosmic/supernatural retribution in the form of crops failing and milk drying up as such slaves were an integral part of the kings prosperity. However, the law texts also claim that the king should have a freed slave (having previously been held captive by a rival king) as part of their bodyguards. Runaway slaves (élúdach) could not avail of sanctuary and could not be protected by anyone, even if they were high status or Nemed (privileged, sacred). Slaves could be hurt or killed by their master with no repercussion and any attack on them by others resulted in compensation being paid to the master, not the slave. Next I will cover hostages, who were in most cases in a completely different league to slaves when it came to status.
The material below regarding hostages is taken from the lecture “Hostages in Medieval Ireland” given by PHD candidate Philip Healy on the 27th Feb 2020 at University College Cork.
When looking at the manuscripts, we have numerous mentions of hostages throughout the heroic literature, the law tracts and the annals, especially covering the periods between the 7th century to the 12th century. These hostages were given for a variety of different reasons including:
- Suriety for legal cases
- Submission to subordinate kings
- To secure political agreement
The major differences we see between slaves and hostages was that they were not mistreated and there is evidence to suggest that they retained their status, enjoyed the hospitality of the king and had freedom of movement within the Tuatha (people would not typically have any legal rights outside their own kingdom). The legal text Críth Gabhlach tells us how forfeited hostages may be fettered but more often than not they enjoyed meals at the high table between the king and filidh or brithim . The Senchas Már tells us that hostage giving in legal disputes was commonplace among the upper classes (the high cost of default is another piece of evidence in regard to this).
Between the years 600-1000 we see no evidence of any hostages being harmed, however between 1000-1200 we see that five hostages were killed. The reason for this is likely due to a general increase in violence and social upheaval. During this period we see an increase in mutilations, castrations and blindings.
The terms used when referring to hostages depend on the period we are looking at:
- Gíall (continuous use)
- Aitre (11th century onwards)
- Brága (12th century onwards)