“Adamnan of [Iona] will help you, O women!

Give unto your prince all the good things that are you!”

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

In our final foray into the earliest of surviving medieval European legal codes, we turn to the farthest frontiers of Roman Britain. About the year 697, a monk and hagiographer named Adamnan delivered his “Law of Innocents” to a large and important assemblage of Irish clerics and noblemen celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of St. Columba’s death. St. Columba was venerated for spreading Christianity to Scotland, and Adamnan intended to honor the saint’s gift by enlarging the law’s protective sphere. Adamnan’s proposed “Law of Innocents” survives through a later copy which relates the law as a sort of epic story. The new laws were among the first in Europe to dramatically limit the scope of violence within Christian societies, and though we have no records of any cases tried under Adamnan’s law, the text offers valuable insight into the state’s role as the former and shaper of social classes. The laws note that before Adamnan, Irish women were kept as slaves, outside the protection of the law, discriminated against as a class of humans without rights as individuals. Women thus “had no share in bag or in basket,” and existed at the sufferance of their husband‐​owners. Through Adamnan’s laws, kings agreed to no longer relegate women to the legal wilds, and many of the socio‐​economic distinctions between men and women were thus dissolved. We are told that the great law‐​giver was inspired to act when he and his mother chanced upon a field of dead women and children. When one of them rose to life at Adamnan’s touch, he devoted his remaining days to freeing women. As a result of his labors, the Irish nobility and clergy welcomed women into the sphere of state protection, but as ever, the state’s gifts came at a cost. The Law of Innocents demands that women venerate Adamnan, that they subject themselves to the rule of his legal wardens (whatever their particular constituted forms), and proscribes an appropriate scheme of tithing and taxation to support the new legal framework. While the new law accomplished great ends in protecting a new class of people, the more fundamental distinctions between those subject to the law and those executing the law remained.

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1. Five ages before the birth of Christ, to wit, from Adam to the Flood, from the Flood to Abraham, from Abraham to David, from David to the Captivity in Babylon, from the Babylonian Captivity to the birth of Christ. During that time women were in bondage and in slavery, until Adamnan…came.

The Canons of Adamnan, or the Law of Innocents (ca. 697)

2. Cumalach was a name for women till Adamnan come to free them. And this was the cumalach, a woman for whom a hole was dug at the end of the door so that it came over her nakedness. The end of the great spit was placed upon her till the cooking of the portion was ended. After she had come out of that earth‐​pit she had to dip a candle four man’s hands in length in a plate of butter or lard; that candle to be on her palm until division of food and distribution of liquor and making of beds, in the houses of kings and cheiftains, had ended. That women had no share in bag or in basket, nor in the company of the house‐​master; but she dwelt in a hut outside the enclosure, lest bane from sea or land should come to her chief.

3. The work which the best women had to do, was to go to battle and battlefield, encounter and camping, fighting and hosting, wounding and slaying. On one side of her she would carry her bag of provisions, on the other her babe. Her wooden pole upon her back. Thirty feet long it was, and had on one end an iron hook, which she would thrust into the tress of some woman in the opposite battalion. Her husband behind her, carrying a fence‐​stake in his hand, and flogging her on to battle. For at that time it was the head of a woman, or her two breasts, which were taken as trophies.

4. Now after the coming of Adamnan no woman is deprived of her testimony, if it be bound in righteous deeds. For a mother is a venerable treasure, a mother is a goodly treasure, the mother of saints and bishops and righteous men, an increase in the Kingdom of Heaven, a propagation on earth.

5. Adamnan suffered much hardship for your sake, O women, so that ever since Adomnan’s time one half of your house is yours, and there is a place for your chair in the other half; so that your contract and your safeguard are free; and the first law made in Heaven and on earth for women is Adamnan’s Law.

6. This is the beginning of the story. Once Adamnan and his mother were wending their way by Ath Drochait…[She said to Adamnan] “I desire…that you should free women for me from encounter, from camping, from fighting, from hosting, from wounding, from slaying, from the bondage of the cauldron.’

7. Then she went on her son’s back until they chanced to come upon a battlefield. Such was the thickness of the slaughter into which they came to that the soles of one woman would touch the neck of another. Through they beheld the battlefield, they saw nothing more touching and pitiful than the head of a woman in one place and the body in another, and her little babe upon the breasts of the corpse, a stream of milk upon one of its cheeks, and a stream of blood upon the other.

8…At the word of his mother Adamnan turned aside, adjusted the head on the neck, and made the sign of the cross with his staff across the breast of the woman. And the woman rose up.

9.‘Alas! O my great Lord of the elements!’ said she. ‘What makes you say alas?’ said Adamnan, ‘My being put to the sword on the battlefield and thrown into the torments of Hell. I know no one here or yonder who would do a kindness or show mercy to me save Adamnan, the Virgin Mary urging him thereto on behalf of the host of Heaven’…

11. ‘Well now, Adamnan,’ [his mother said,] ‘to thee henceforth it is given to free the women of the western world. Neither drink or food shall go into thy mouth until women have been freed by thee’. ‘No living creature can be without food,’ said Adamnan. ‘If my eyes see it, I shall stretch out may hands for it.’ ‘But thine eyes shall not see and thine hands shall not reach it.’

[Adamnan confines himself to a pit and engages in a full fast until women be liberated. He dies, his mother buries him, and angels visit his tomb.]

15. At the end of four years God’s angels came from Heaven to converse with him. And Adamnan was lifted out of his stone chest and taken to the plain of Birr at the confines of the Ui Neill and Munster. ‘Arise now out of thy hiding‐​place,’ said the angel to Adamnan. ‘I will not arise,’ said Adamnan, ‘until women are freed for me’.

16. ‘It shall not be in my time if it is done, ’ said Loingsech Bregban, native of Fanait he was, of the race of Conall. ‘An evil time when a man’s sleep shall be murdered for a woman, that women should live, men should be slain. Put the deaf and dumb one to the sword, who asserts anything but that women shall be in everlasting bondage to the brink of Doom.’

17. [The kings of Ireland] arose at the word of Loingsech to put Adamnan to the sword… Adamnan took no sword with him to battle, but the Bell of Adamnan’s Wrath, to wit, the little bell of Adamnan’s alter‐​table. It is then Adamnan spoke these words:

18. ‘I strike this little bell…[and] I shall sing my psalms to‐​day in the stone cave, may it not be without fame!…God’s curse on Elodach, the chief of Femen of the Deissi, lest king or king’s heir spring from him after him! My humble, gentle attendant, thou armed son of the rule , strike the bell against Cellach of Carman, that he may be in the earth before a year’s end.’

[Adamnan proceeds to strike his bell, levying curses against the Irish kings who refused to recognize ‘The Law of Innocents’]

22. Adamnan did not rest satisfied until securities and bonds were given to him for the emancipation of women…

23. Those guarantors gave three shouts of malediction on every male who would kill a woman with his right hand or left, by a kick, or by his tongue, so that his heirs are elder and nettle, and the corncrake. The same guarantors gave three shouts of blessing on every female who would do something for the community of Adamnan, however often his reliquaries would come. A horse to be given quarter to his reliquaries, (to be sent) to the coarb to the bath at Raphoe; but that this is from queens only, with whatever every other woman is able to give.

24. Woman have said and vowed that they would give one half of their household to Adamnan for having brought them out of the bondage and out of the slavery in which they had been. Adamnan accepted but a little from them, to wit, a white tunic with a black border from every penitent nun, a scruple of gold from every chieftain’s wife, a linen cloth from every gentleman’s wife, seven cakes from every unfree woman, a wether from every flock, the first lamb that was brought forth in a house, whether black or white, for God and for Adamnan…

It is then that Adamnan spoke these words:

27. ‘Unless ye women of this world do good to my community, the offspring ye will bear shall decay, or they shall die full of crimes. Scarecity shall fill your storehouses, the Kingdom of Heaven ye shall not obtain; ye shall not escape by niggardliness or falsehood from Adamnan of Hi [Iona].

‘Adamnan of Hi [Iona] will help you, O women!

Give unto your prince all the good things that are you!’

Adamnan of Hi [Iona], beloved of all, has read the books of the Gael.

28. This is the enactment of the Law of Adamnan of Hi [Iona]. At Birr this enactment was enjoined by the men of Ireland and Britain as a perpetual law by order of their nobles, clerics and laymen, both their chiefs and ollaves and bishops and sages and confessors, including [a list of several dozen names]…and the intercession of all the men of Ireland, both laymen and clerics.

29. All then, both laymen and clerics, have sworn to fulfill the whole Law of Adamnan till Doom. They have offered up the full eric of their female stock to Adamnan, and to every coarb who will be in his seat till Doom, nor does Adamnan take way fines from cheiftain and chruch and family to whom they are due…

33. Here begins the speech of the angel to Adamnan: —

After fourteen years Adamnan obtained this Law of God, and this is the cause. On Pentecost eve a holy angel of the Lord came to him, and again at Pentecost after a year, and seized a staff, and struck his side and said to him; ‘Go forth into Ireland, and make a law in it that women be not in any manner killed by men, through slaughter or any other death, either by poisen, or in water, or in fire, or by any other beast, or in a pit, or by dogs, but that they shall die in their lawful bed. Thou shalt establish a law in Ireland and Britain for the sake of the mother of each one, because a mother has borne each one, and for the sake of Mary mother of Jesus Christ, through whom all are. Mary besought her Son on behalf of Adamnan about this Law. For whoever slays a woman shall be condemned to a twofold punsihment, that is, his right hand and his left foot shall be cut off before death, and then he shall die, and his kindred shall pay seven full cumals, and one‐​seventh part of the penance. If, instead of life and amputation, a fine has been imposed, the penance is fourteen years, and fourteen cumals shall be paid. But if a host has done it, every fifth man up to three hundred shall be condemned to that punishment; if few, they shall be divided into three parts. The first part of them shall be put to death by lot, hand and foot having been first cut off; the second part shall pay fourteen full cumals; the thrid shall be cast into exile beyond the sea, under the rule of a hard regimen; for the sin is great when any slays the mother and sister of Christ’s mother and the mother of Christ, and her who carries a spindle and who clothes every one. But he who from this day forward shall put a woman to death and does not do penance according to the Law, shall not only perish in eternity, and be cursed for God and Adamnan, but all shall be cursed that have heard it and do not curse him, and do not chastise him according to the judgement of this Law’.

This is the speech of the angel to Adamnan.–

34.This is the enactment of Adamnan’s Law in Ireland and Britain: exemption of the Church of God with her people and her emblems and her sanctuaries and all her properties, live and dead, and her law‐​abiding laymen with their lawful wives who are obedient to Adamnan and to a lawful, wise and pious confessor. The enactment of this Law of Adamnan is a perpetual law on behalf of clerics and women and innocent children until they are capable of slaying a man, and until they take their place in the tribe, and their (first) expedition is known.

35. Whoever wounds or slays a young clerical student or an innocent child under the ordinance of Adamnan’s Law, eight cumals for it for every hand (engaged), with eight years of penance, up to three hundred cumals; and one year of penance for it for each one from three hundred to three thousand or an indefinate number; and it is the same fine for him who commits the deed and for him who sees it and does not save to the best of his ability. If there is neglect or ignorance, half the fine for it, and (arracuir) that is neglect and that it is ignorance…

37. These are the judges of Adamnan’s Laws in every church and in every tribe, to wit, the clerics whom the community of Adamnan chooses and to whom they commit the enactment of the Law…

42. Whatever violent death a woman dies, except it be (by) the hand of God, or (in consequence of) rightful lawful cohabitation, it is paid in full fines to Adamnan, both slaying and drowning and burning and poison and breaking and perishing in a quagmire and death by tame beasts and pigs and cattle. If, however, it is a first crime a folath (foluth?) or on the part of pigs or hounds, they shall be killed at once, and half due to the human hand for it; if it is not a first crime, full due is paid.

43. There shall be no cross‐​case or balancing of guilt in Adamnan’s Law, but each one pays for his crimes for his own hand. Every trespass which is committed in Adamnan’s Law, the communities of Adamnan are to a forbach of it, apart from women, whether it be innocents, or clerics, or anyone to whom they commit it, viz. a cumal forbaich to the community of Hii where seven cumals are paid, and half a cumal from seven half‐​cumals. Six séts on thirty séts, three séts on five séts.

44. One‐​eighth of everything small and great to the community of Adamnan from the slaying of clerics or innocent children. If it be a life‐​wound any one inflicts on a woman or a cleric or an innocent, seven half‐​cumals are due from him, fifteen séts upon the nearest and remoter kindred as being accomplices. Three séts for every white blow, five séts for every drawing of blood, seven séts for every wound requiring a tent, a cumal for every confinement to bed, and payment of the physician besides. If it be more than that, it goes upon half‐​dues for killing a person. If the blow with the palm of the hand or with the fist, one ounce of silver (is the fine) for it. If there be a green or red mark, or a swelling, an ounce and six scruples for it. For seizing women by the hair, five wethers. If there is a fight among women with outrage (?), three wethers.

45. Men and women are equally liable for large and small dues from this on to (any) fights of women, except outright death. For a woman deserves death for the killing of a man or woman, or for giving poison whereof death ensues, or for burning, or for digging under a church, that is to say, she is to be put in a boat of one paddle as a sea‐​waif (?) upon the ocean to go with the wind from the land. A vessel of meal and water to be given with her. Judgement on her as God deems it.

46. If it be charms from which death ensues that any one give to another, the fines of murder followed by concealment of the corpse (are to be paid) for it. Secret plunderings and cnáim‐​chró which are traced (?) to (one of ) the four nearest lands, unless these four nearest lands can lay them on any one particularly, they swear by the altbu (?) of their soul that they do not to lay it upon any one and pay it themselves. If they suspect any one and prove it, it is he who shall be liable. If the probability lie between two or a greater number, let their names be written on leaves; each leaf arranged around a lot. and the lots are put into a chalice upon the altar. He on whom the lot falls is liable.

47. If the offenders who violate the Law do not pay, their kindred pay full fines according to the greatness of the crime, and after that (the offender) becomes forfeited, and is banished until the end of the law. One‐​half of seven cumals for accompliceship upon every direct and indirect kindred afterwards. If there be assistance and shelter and connivance, it is death for it; but such as the fine (of the principals) was such shall be that of accomplices.

48. A further enactment of the Law: they shall feed the stewards of Adamnan’s Law, whatever their number, with the good food of their people, viz. five men as guarantors, and the feeding of every one who shall levy the dues of the Law shall be according to the wealth of every one, both chieftan and church and people. A cumal for leaving any one of them fasting, while fines are being levied, and offenders with regard to feeding, and they sustain a joint contract of debts unless they feed them. Two cumals to them from offenders.

49. This is the exemption of every guarantor who come to levy this tribute, viz. the guilt of their family does not come upon them so long as they support guarantors and while they are in possession and do not escape; but their own guilt (comes upon them) or the guilt of their offspring and their children and of their retainers.

50. If it be rape of a maiden, seven half‐​cumals (is the fine) for it. If a hand (is put) upon her or in her girdle, ten ounces for it. If a hand (is put) under her dress to defile her, three ounces and seven cumals for it. If there be a blemish or her head or her eyes or in the face or in the ear or nose or tooth or tongue or foot or hand, seven cumals are (to be paid) for it. If it be a blemish on any other part of her body, seven half‐​cumals are (to be paid) for it. If it be tearing of her dress, seven ounces and one cumal for it.

51. If it be making a gentlewoman blush by imputing unchastity to her or by denying her offspring, there are seven cumals (to be paid) for it until it comes to (the wife of) an aire désa. For her onwards to a muiri, seven ounces.

52. If women be employed in an assault or in a host or fight, seven cumals for every hand as far as seven, and beyond that it is to be accounted as the crime of one man. If a woman has been got with child by stealth, without contract, without full rights, without dowry, without betrothal, a full fine for it…

53. Three guarantors for every chief church for the Law of Adamnan, viz. the prior and the cook and the steward; and a guarantor of the Law from (every) parent‐​family throughout all Ireland; and two guarantors of the Law from high chieftains, and hostages to be held for its payment, if there be the proof of a woman.

This document has been reproduced for non‐​commercial purposes from Fordham University’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and is accessible here.