Passed down for centuries, the Brehon Laws have made it to the present day. Although no longer in practice, the Brehon Laws give us a glimpse of what things were like in Ireland centuries and centuries ago. The actual technical term for the law tracts is Fenechas, which basically means the law of the Freemen. These laws are probably the oldest European laws that we know of. They were originally composed in poetic verse and were memorized by the Filid. Years later they were written down and preserved in several books of law, such as the Senchus Mor, the Book of Acaill, and the Uraiccecht Becc. The Brehon Laws are believed to have existed as early as the common Celtic Period (c. 1000 BCE). According Alix Morgan MacAnTsaoir, author of Introduction to the Brehon Law, “The Brehon Law was ordered codified in 438CE by Laighaire, High King of Ireland. This work was done by three kings, three Brehons and three Christian missionaries, and is contained in the Senchus Mor. The texts originate in the 7th and 8th centuries CE and are found in manuscripts written in the 14th-16th centuries. Ireland is well known for their legends and myths and their laws seem to have mingled within them as well. Legends have become intermingled with almost every aspect of Irish living. Perhaps that is why they are called a “superstitious lot”. It stands to reason then that because of Christianity coming into practice, there are many inconsistencies and later additions that make room for new ideas. In spite of all these discrepancies, the collection of laws that have come to our eyes are astonishing.
Finding information on the history of English Laws was not so simple. England’s country stayed in uproar for much of its beginning years and was held by many different conquerors. Some of the earliest people were the Celtic people. It is not really fair to clump them all together but too difficult to separate all of them in this paper. So, due to the amount of space I am limited to and for better understanding, I will simply refer to the early settlers of England and Ireland as Celts. Unfortunately not a great deal is known about the Celts and their history. We do know, however, that they were a warrior society and their wealth was measured in land and livestock.
The Romans, better known as Julius Caesar, saw the southern Celts as a threat. He invaded twice but neither really represented a conquer. Britain was virtually left alone by the Romans from 54BC through 43CE because the Romans had far more to deal with than the Celts. There were major uprisings and Civil Wars to deal with that took up most of the Romans time and left little time to invade the Celts. The Romans eventually did take England though but they never made it to Ireland. Changing rulers, or conquerors, makes it difficult to lay down some existing rule. The victors had their own set of rules and the English were left always trying to figure out what their rules were since they were taking some of the traditions from many different conquerors. It was not until the High Middle Ages that any real solid laws or traditions were set. Feudalism was the beginning of a way of life for the English.
Feudalism grew out of conditions that went with the collapse of the Roman Empire. There was an urban decline and reduction of trade to luxuries. Small farmers could not sustain themselves with their own production. The system of feudalism brought about a revival of the urban life. It is through this new system that many traditions and hence, laws were made. The aristocracy became very important as did the social status of a person. Class consciousness became most apparent during this age and the idealization of women came into play. Before feudalism there was much chaos and problems were solved in a barbaric manner. Although punishment or acquittal was not exactly pleasant during the feudal days, it was a step up. It was a step towards the tranquil, peaceful and subdued way of life that the English are known for.
Ireland’s Brehon Laws are unique in that they are some of the most liberal laws I have ever seen for that time period. The laws texts were usually generalized into family obligations rather than in individual obligations so that contracts made were between families. The society depended on the family or tribe rather than the individual. It was a must for an individual to be a part of their tribe. The laws set down class distinction and made it quite clear that there were no rights to those that had been exiled from their family or tribe. Although there are class distinctions, the laws are fair and humane. The Brehon Laws clearly state the rights of innocent dependents of guilty parties. There are even such guarantees as barring a witness during presentation that will gain from the
out come. Provisions for protection of the weak members of the community are included
as well as protection for clients from violent or dishonest lords. People that are criminals, non observers of the law, etc…are not given the nice treatment as others. In other words, if you are innocent then you are well provided for but if you are guilty or otherwise not part of the community then you have no rights and will not be treated in an easy fashion.
The English were not quite as forgiving in their codes as were the Irish, however. The Roman Law which was in effect for some time during the Roman period was by far more severe than the Brehon Laws. The book, An Illustrated History of Ireland From AD 400 to 1800 makes a statement comparing the Roman law to the Brehon law, saying that, “the cruel severity of the law for insolvent debtors, forms a marked contrast to the milder and more equitable arrangements of the Brehon code.” The Roman Law rested on the Twelve Decemviral Tables, and therefore on a basis of written law. The Twelve Tables were not the first set of laws but they are some of the earliest recorded. I’m using the Roman Law because that was the main influence on laws during the times of the Brehon Laws. We know much of our information, if it can be called such, not by historical writings but by literature such as the Greek Homeric poems. An essay by Henry Maine on Ancient Laws states, “When a king decided a dispute by a sentence, the judgment was assumed to be the result of direct inspiration.” Customary Law, or an era of codes, was the period of ancient laws such as the Twelve Tables. The aristocracy during the time of Customary Law found it very easy to monopolize their legal
knowledge. It is easy to imagine then that the lower classes were not given as many rights as those of the aristocracy. That would not be common of any law during that time.
One thing that I found to be exceptionally interesting when studying the Brehon Laws was who enforced the Brehon Laws. The job was done by a specialized group of well trained Druids, a religious group of Celts, called the Brithem or Brehon. The training of the Brehons was a long and tiring process and the memorization of long tracts of law was essential. Learning the intricacies of such complex law tracts was mandatory. Alix Morgan MacAnTsaoir says, “Brehons were reciters of the law and Brehons were held personally responsible for damages if they gave false interpretation or recited the law incorrectly. Only after the law was recited by the Brehon could the King or Queen make the judgment. Then as now Truth and Justice were the code of the Celtic people.” The difference I found in this to the English laws was that there was that the King or Queen was the one to make the decision and they did not have to wait for somebody to recite them the law. It seemed to me that the Irish had a very formal and good system.
The issues of personal matters were handled very differently by the Irish and the English. The Brehon Laws gave many more rights to women than most any other law written in that time age. During a time of suppression to women, Ireland gave women rights to do things unimaginable for other countries. Richard O’Connor’s book, The Irish, defines the rights of women as such:
“Foreign invaders may have slaughtered the menfolk and placed the
survivors in captivity, but they also ended what must have been one
of the historic heydays of feminine independence. Under the Brehon
laws of the eighth and ninth centuries, the Irish female possessed rights
which even a modern feminist might hesitate to demand. The Brehon
laws provided that a woman could get a divorce if she considered her
husband sexually unsatisfactory, if he did not promptly make her
pregnant, if he embarrassed her in front of visitors, if he struck or abused
her physically or verbally, or if he was unfaithful.”
All of which could hardly be demanded in England. In fact, in England it was not even socially acceptable to get a divorce and definitely not tolerated for the woman to demand the divorce. Women were looked on upon as chattel to the English. They were the father’s property while young and the husband’s property as an adult. She was expected to provide an heir for the husband and to raise the children but otherwise have nothing to do with her husband’s affairs at all.
The loss of Brehon laws was a terrible thing in certain ways such as providing women’s rights. I think that with that as an example, there may have been headway in the women’s rights. However, the class distinctions are discarded with them and that is a good change. The loss of the Feudal society and laws is also a good thing in my opinion,
since it was also based on class distinction. The similarities between the two sets of laws are almost hard to find since England was changing hands so often in the beginning but once you start to dig then you do find some similarities. I found many more difference however, and obviously that is what I decided to emphasize in this paper. The Brehon Laws basically were more humane and liberal. The different societies that they were formed in though, account for the differences. The Romans had a great affect on the Laws, even if they had little effect on anything else. The fact that they were both preserved says something for both of the laws and that is that they are worth reading and learning from. We can learn from the mistakes made in each set of laws but also in the good things about each.