Medieval Ireland and the Wild Vikings
The word medieval conjurs up rich brocades, ladies at court, fine feasts, jousting knights, early scientists, and a world where magic was still very much alive. The medieval reality is considerably more interesting. Borders shifted, beliefs were flexible, religion flexed its muscles, kings were created and tossed over, heroes were bold and heroines were born.
The history of Ireland has been turbulent. (Does that sound like an understatement? It is.) Raiders have come from all directions, each leaving their mark, for better and worse, upon Ireland. The years of Early Medieval Ireland are from from 800 AD to 1166.
Ireland was propserous, rural and well-settled. Irish monasteries were centers for prayer and learning, but also places of great commerce and wealth. Ireland was divided into many small kingdoms called tuatha. Every man who owned land, or was a professional, or was a craftsman was a member of a local assembly called an oenach. These men created policies, delcared war or peace on other groups, and elected or deposed their kings.
The king’s territory wasn’t owned by the king, but by all free men living on the land. (They did owe the king military service and taxes. It seems taxes have been eternal.) The tuath became united for reasons that benefitted all. About 80 to 100 groups were in Ireland at any given time. (There were a few powerful kings above these groups such as the Ui Neill’s.)
Despite infighting among families when it was time for a new king, life was good. Kings of a tuath were considered sacred; so were the clergy and—unbelievably!—the Irish poets. This meant they didn’t have to perform manual labour. (Perhaps this is why so many Irish have become great poets and writers…) Gaelic society was basically a caste system that went down from free men who were landowners down to those without land. These were the laborers. Laws of organization were explicit and written in the Brehon Laws between 600 and 900 AD.
And then came the Vikings. The raiders came from Norway and landed off Dublin. They rained quick and harsh upon Ireland without warning. Just when the poets had it good, they found themselves standing shoulder to shoulder with the laborers.