Photograph by Riona Doolan.
The medieval Irish law tracts, popularly known as the Brehon Laws, were in use from the early medieval period to the start of the seventeenth century in Ireland. The canonical text of most of these laws were first written down between AD 650-750, and the laws with associated gloss and commentary survive in manuscripts from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. Though many of these laws have been rendered into English, a large number have yet to be critically edited and translated.
Punitive imprisonment was not regularly used in medieval Ireland for a crime; instead, compensation was paid to a victim according to his or her status in society. This compensation could involve a specific crime-related payment plus a payment of honour-price (wergild) depending on the seriousness of the crime. There were two main units of value in medieval Ireland: cumals (1 cumal = 3 milch cows) and séts (1 sét, generally = ½ ounce of silver, depending on the law text), with a man’s worth regularly measured in livestock.
Some of the original canonical texts are no longer extant; this unfortunately limits the amount of information we have regarding how certain crimes were treated in the early medieval period. In Britain, a large amount of medieval case law survives which show us not only the extant laws but how justice was applied in individual situations. In Ireland however, hardly any case law remains which means we must interpret the laws primarily as they are presented in the manuscripts. One such canonical tract that is no longer extant is Bretha Forloisctheo ‘Judgments on Arson’. Even though we no longer have the primary text, five legal commentaries on the law tract do survive to inform us regarding this crime. These commentaries were written in the late medieval period in legal schools based in various locations around Ireland.
Arson was treated as a serious crime in the medieval period. Buildings were mostly made of wood, and fires could spread easily. It was a crime that had the potential to impact not just the victim but also the entire community, with disastrous consequences if the fire got out of control. I have recently completed a translation of the oldest of the five commentaries on arson dating to the fourteenth century. It is divided into three separate sections. The first section deals with deliberate burning of a house. A fine of six cows and full compensation had to be paid; compensation was awarded if a house alongside or opposite burned down as well. There was no exemption from payment for negligent burning of a house, but leniency could be granted to the guilty party if the fire spread to adjacent buildings, and if other people in the area failed to help bring the fire under control.
The second section is concerned with industrial buildings such as mills and kilns. A penalty of three cows and full compensation had to be paid if these structures or the adjacent buildings were deliberately burned. If these were being used without the permission of the owner, then negligent burning was considered to be equivalent to deliberate arson. However, if they were being used with the permission of the owner and a fire accidentally broke out, the penalty was halved. If it occurred within the first three uses of either building, then no penalty had to be paid. Three séts had to be paid for burning a barn containing animals such as calves, sheep or pigs.
Finally, the third section focuses on the payments that had to be paid by the arsonist according to the victim’s status. The higher a person’s status, then the higher the compensation. In the commentary on arson, four different status levels are mentioned:
- urrad – a man native to the territory;
- deorad – a man from Ireland but not native to the territory;
- murchuirthe – a man from overseas;
- daer – an unfree member of society.
If an urrad was the victim of an arson attack, he was entitled to the full amount of the fine plus restitution; a deorad was entitled to half the fine plus restitution; a murchuirthe could expect one quarter of the fine and restitution; while a daer received restitution only.
Finally, if a person was killed in an arson attack, it was considered the equivalent of murder and a penalty of seven cumals (21 milch cows) had to be paid to the victim’s family; this was a standard penalty for murder.
Though the original law text on arson is no longer extant, we can still get a clear picture of how this crime was treated in the medieval period in Ireland. The effects of arson could have repercussions, not just for the victim, but for all members of a community, and as a result the fines were high. At the same time, the law acknowledged that accidents could happen and reduced the fines where appropriate showing fairness in its application of justice.
Fergus Kelly, A Guide To Early Irish Law (Dublin, 1988), DIAS.
Fergus Kelly, Early Irish Farming: A Study Based Mainly On The Law-texts Of The 7th And 8th Centuries AD (Dublin, 2000), DIAS.
A. T. Lucas, ‘The Plundering And Burning Of Churches In Ireland, 7th to 16th Century’, North Munster Studies: Essays In Commemoration Of Monsignor Michael Moloney (ed.) Etienne Rynne (Limerick, 1967), pp. 172-229.
Riona Doolan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Early and Medieval Irish, University College Cork, Ireland. Her doctoral thesis entitled, ‘Arson in Medieval Ireland’ is being funded by a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship from the Irish Research Council.