Women in Medieval Irish History Blog

Monstrous Women and Irish Beards

If one were to trust the Welsh cleric and writer Giraldus Cambrensis’ view of the Irish people the impression would seldom be positive.  In his twelfth-century History and Topography of Ireland Giraldus outlines some of the curiosities of Ireland and her people, and devotes a section of his work to one Irishwoman in Limerick who was particularly strange.

This woman, he explains, was covered in hair and possessed a long beard.  Beards were often determined as physical indicators of a wild and barbarous nature and, although generally associated with Irishmen, it appears that some rare unfortunate Irishwoman sported equally threatening hair.

Royal 13 B.VIII, f.19

(British Library, MS Royal 13 B viii, fol. 19)

§53 “A woman with a beard and a mane on her back”

Duvenaldus, the king of Limerick, had a woman that had a beard down to her waist.  She had also a crest from her neck down along her spine, like a one-year-old foal.  It was covered with hair.  This woman in spite of these two enormities was, nevertheless, not hermaphrodite, and was in other respects sufficiently feminine.  She followed the court wherever it went, provoking laughs as well as wonder.  She followed neither fatherland nor nature in having a hairy spine; but in wearing her beard long, she was following the custom of her fatherland, not of her nature.’

Giraldus Cambrensis, The History and Topography of Ireland tr. John O’Meara pp72-3.


Harbingers of Death: the Badb

(image above, British Library MS Royal 2 B vii, fol. 130)

The names, ‘the Morrígan’, ‘the Badb’ or ‘Nemain’ (‘Frenzy’), are three names for the same entity, sometimes refering to one tripartite goddess and at other times, to a trio of goddesses. Seeming to delight in the incitement, perpetration and unending death, this goddess is held responsible for bloodshed and violence on the battlefield.  Scholar Lisa Bitel contended that in Irish literature and histories the Badb or Morrígan appeared before ‘an impending battle to shriek at warriors, either to fire them for the fray or terrorize them into defeat and death.’

The utilization of the Badb, would have been a strong literary motif, indicative of a fierce, bloody battle and well understood by an early medieval Irish audience. In these literary accounts, she is generally depicted inspiring fear or courage in warriors before a battle or predicting the death of a specific man in the battle to come, like the Banshee. Badb literally translates to raven or crow, an entity synonymous with this shape-shifting goddess of battle. Within the Cogadh, the Badb bore part of the responsibility for the lack of control and the ferocity of the conflict. This goddess is literally the personifcation of this concept of feminization of violence.

To learn more about these mythological female figures of medieval Ireland and about their role in society please check out the Battle of Clontarf website found here.

Gormlaith: A Case Study

(image above, The Lewis Chessmen, © Trustees of the British Museum)

A prominent medieval Irish queen of Munster living in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, Gormlaith has acquired an infamous repute as the jealous ex-wife of Brian Boru. It is alleged that Gormlaith incited men to such a degree that she caused the battle of Clontarf.

But this perception is based on the narrative sources, which were written some time after her death. In reality, Gormlaith is probably the innocent victim of a common early medieval Irish literary motif: inciting women.

Often portrayed in later sources as a twisted divorcee hell bent on her ex-spouse’s destruction, the negative perceptions of Gormlaith stem from the potential misinterpretation her depiction in the Cogadh Gáedhel re Gallaibh, composed circa 1103 to 1111, detailing the ascent to power of Brian Boru and his lineage, the Dál Cais, and their wars against the Vikings and their allies.

Cogadh Gaedhel Re Gallaibh

For more information on Gormlaith and to learn more about the Battle of Clontarf in general please check out her entry in the Battle of Clontarf website found here. For further resources on Gormlaith herself see Howard Clarke, ‘The Mother’s Tale’ in Sparky Booker and Cherie N. Peters (eds), Tales of Medieval Dublin (Dublin, 2014), pp 52-62.