Tag Archives: Irish history

Sex and Scandal in Medieval Ireland

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On January 13th 1358, John Rathcoul a merchant from Dundalk agreed to take on a young apprentice Nicholas O’Molaghallyn. The two made a contract where John agreed to teach Nicholas the ‘merchants arts’ while in return, Nicholas had to agree to several conditions. These included not revealing John’s secrets of the trade and agreeing not to ‘misbehave in respect of Johns wife, daughter, nurse or maid servant’.[1]183-108q, sig. N4v (hanging man and three people in bed)

While circumspect this clearly refers to John Rathcoul’s fears of what liaisons that might develop from having a young man around the house. He had good reason to be concerned. While modern histories of medieval Ireland rarely refer to sex, when we look at the sources it’s clear that in spite of church teaching, sex was common and just like today it did caused its fair share of scandal.

Indeed a story of another merchant in early 14th century Cork illustrates this in a somewhat gruesome fashion. In 1307 a merchant John Don left his new wife Basilia at home while he traveled overseas on business. However while he was away Basilia attracted the attention of Stephen le Clerk who euphemistically asked Basilia if he ‘might be her friend’. The ‘friendship’ developed and they ‘lay together at their will for the whole time when John was in parts beyond the sea’[2].

medieval-sexOn his return John soon found out what had been happening in his absence. His response was reasonable and measured; he warned Stephen to stay away from his house. It had little effect. Shortly afterwards John then travelled to the town of Cork and Stephen and Basilia resumed their affair. On returning to hear of the affair for a second time Stephen resolved to take decisive action.

Announcing he was leaving for a third time he instead remained in Youghall but enlisted the help of a tavern keeper whose establishment Basilia and her lover frequented. The tavern keeper agreed to inform John Don if his wife and her lover met up.

Unsurprisingly, thinking John was absent, the two lovers met again in tavern retiring to a room on the premises. On this occasion, the tavern keeper, informed John Don who was waiting in a house nearby. With a group of friends he entered the tavern armed but the commotion alerted Stephen and Basilia. Stephen tried to escape but was caught by the enraged husband. After he was beaten Stephen was bound head and foot. John Don then took decisive action, ending his wife’s affair for good and all by castrating her lover. [3]

While most mentions of sex in medieval Ireland were not as scandalous they were generally recorded because they were associated with some form of controversy. For example in 1307 Nicholas Crik was due to marry Margery Fleming. [4] However the two ended up in court when it emerged that David had slept with two of Margery’s cousins.

Several cases were also recorded in the 1370s by then Archbishop of Armagh Milo Sweteman because they were adulterous or deemed improper. For example In June, 1377 Maurice Broun and Felicia Aleyn were convicted of having ‘lived in fornication for seven years[5]’, basically sleeping with each other outside of marriage. This was a fineable offence and the two were charged. Maurice admitted his guilt and agreed to a fine; Felicia didn’t turn up.bed

Among other cases listed in Sweteman’s records was that of Nicholas Corner who had abandoned his wife and took up with another woman, a certain Alice. When charged with criminal behavior the two fled[6]. There was also the case of Jake Archbold, who lived in Fingal outside Dublin. Jake’s crime was to allow a married woman Johanna Sollon and her lover Thomas Monteyn stay with him. However perhaps the greatest scandal of all was not among the laity but closer to the archbishop himself – his subordinate the bishop of Kilmore Richard O’Reilly[7].

Sex scandals and the Bishop of Kilmore

In 1366 it emerged bishop Richard O’Reilly was not only breaking his vows of chastity but he had been having an affair with Edina O’Reilly a married woman who was also his first cousin[8]! The bishop made no attempt to deny the charge. Unsurprisingly his superior archbishop Milo Sweteman was not enamoured by his behaviour. Bishop Richard O’Reilly was excommunicated on August 27th 1366 but story didn’t end there.

Richard O’Reilly by November had met with the archbishop and agreed “to put away Edina” after which the decree of excommunication was lifted. However within a few months O’Reilly had returned to his lover. Later in 1367 when he was attacked by his relative Phillip O’Reilly the king of Breifne, a plea to Archbishop Sweteman fell on deaf ears. In his reply Sweteman stated Bishop O’Reilly had ‘been recalcitrant and has been living in mortal sin for many years, and that he therefore deservedly suffers’[9].

seduction

While there is clearly evidence of heterosexual sex in medieval records, evidence of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered sex or even relationships are very difficult to find. This is due to two factors. Firstly such relationships had to be clandestine as if discovered they would result in severe punishment for those involved. This makes them unlikely to survive in records in large numbers.

This coupled with the general lack of study in the modern era into this topic makes it very time consuming and difficult. Sadly this places it beyond the scope of this article given the resources and time needed. Nevertheless there are some well-known homosexual relationships from the medieval period. Most historians agree that King Edward II and the one time lieutenant of Ireland Piers de Gaveston were lovers. Terms like ‘immoderate’, ‘excessive’, and ‘beyond measure’ were used to describe the two men’s relationship.

In many regards medieval life was similar to modern society in terms of sex. People engaged in all sorts of affairs and relationships, however the ones that make the biggest news and survive the test of time are those that created scandal.

[1] Dowdall deeds p87.

[2] Cal Jus Rolls Vol. II p376

[3] Cal Jus Rolls Vol. II p377

[4] Cal Jus Rolls Vol. II p397

[5] Lawlor, H.J. A calendar of the Register of Archbishop Sweteman Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, Vol. 29 (1911/1912), p262

[6] Lawlor, H.J. A calendar of the Register of Archbishop Sweteman Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, Vol. 29 (1911/1912), p262

[7] Lawlor, H.J. A calendar of the Register of Archbishop Sweteman Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, Vol. 29 (1911/1912), p262

[8] Lawlor, H.J. A calendar of the Register of Archbishop Sweteman Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, Vol. 29 (1911/1912), p240

[9] Lawlor, H.J. A calendar of the Register of Archbishop Sweteman Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, Vol. 29 (1911/1912), p247.

 

 

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(944 – 980) The Pursuit of Power (part II): The Rise of Brian Boru and the Dál Cais

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Episode 8 sees medieval Ireland stand of the edge of a precipice. A rootless struggle for control of the O Neill kingdom breaks out in the North,  while in Munster a new comer to the podcast – the Dal Cais … read more