24 August 2011

a chariot worth thrice seven bondmaids

'Go here, Mac Roth,' Medb said. 'Ask Dáire to lend me Donn Cuailnge for a year. At the end of the year he can have fifty yearling heifers in payment for the loan, and the Brown Bull of Cualinge back. And you can offer him this too, Mac Roth, if the people of the country think badly of losing their fine jewel, the Donn Cuailnge: if Dáire himself comes with the bull I'll give him a portion of the fine Plain of Ai equal to his own lands, and a chariot worth thrice seven bondmaids, and my own friendly thighs on top of that.'

- Thomas Kinsella (trans.), The Táin, p55
Sex sells, apparently, even in our own national epic of cattle theft, the 8th century Táin Bó Cúailnge. Queen Medb of Connacht implores Dáire Mac Fichna to lend her his brown bull of Cooley, the finest bull in all the land of Ireland, and offers up not only land and goods, but a night with her good self as well. When the deal collapses she begins her plotting and scheming to secure the bull by violence and theft. At one stage she attempts to seduce Ferdia, foster-brother of Cúchulainn, the warrior charged with protecting the Cooley herds, bringing him to her tent:
'...to give you a chariot worth three times seven bondmaids, with warharness enough for a dozen men, and a portion of the fine Plain of Murtheimne. Also the right to stay forever in Cruachan, with your wine supplied, and your kith and kin free forever from tax and tribute. And this leaf shaped brooch of mine that was made out of ten score punces and ten score half-ounces and ten score cross-measures and ten score quarters of gold. And Finnbair, my daughter and Ailill's, for your wife. And my own friendly thighs on top of that if needs be.'

- Thomas Kinsella (trans.), The Táin, p169
So in 8th Century Ireland we clearly have a strict hierarchy of economic needs, cattle at the top, then land and bling, followed a good bit further down by the prospect of female company, thrown in for good measure like a salesperson giving you a 10% discount for paying in cash. While the modern reader may be shocked by the prospect of Queen Medb desiring the Bull so much that she would offer her own body to anyone willing to get it for her, the truly shocking part of both passages often goes by unnoticed at first reading, the almost offhand reference to the chariot worth "thrice seven bondmaids", a bondmaid being a female slave.

Slavery was widespread and extensive in the Ireland of the first millenium of the common era, and contrary to our modern perception of slavery based upon images of nineteenth century America, the majority of slaves were female. So common were female slaves in early Ireland that, according to Nini Rodgers in Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: 1612-1865 they formed a basic unit of currency:
"In the law tracts (the bulk of which were compiled c. AD 700) they are most frequently listed as units of currency. Cattle were the normal medium of exchange employed in receiving a stipend or rendering tribute, but slaves constituted a higher unit of currency. The value of land was calculated in numbers of slaves - cumal, a single Irish word requiring a double barreled term in its English translation 'female slave'...

...The law tracts show seven cumals as a key unit underpinning the institutions of early Irish society. A small farmer would have land worth seven cumals; a strong farmer fourteen cumals. The basic rate payable to the kin group for the murder of a freeman was seven cumals, though it could go higher...

...The conversion rate of the female slave to milch cows, the commonest unit of exchange, naturally varied over the period of time covered by the law tracts and later commentaries (eight to twelfth centuries) but Crith Gablach, a law tract on status, suggests an eight-century price of three milch cows to a cumal."

- Nini Rodgers, Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: 1612-1865, pp8-9
Cumals, or bondmaids, were most often women stolen or captured during tribal conflicts. They looked after livestock, milked cows and made butter, and were the primary grinders of grain, a very labour intensive and arduous activity. They were also expected to provide sexual services. They were outsiders, alien and Other, their degradation and use as objects justified because they did not come from the same tribal structures as their possessors, and the entire economy of 8th to 12th century Ireland was built upon their trafficking and exploitation.

Over the weekend Ruhama, a Dublin-based NGO that works with female sex workers, issued its annual report. It revealed that up to 1,000 women are involved in sex work throughout the country on any given day, and it worked with just over 20% of those involved over the course of the year, providing substantial support in 140 cases. Of these 140, 80 were classified as trafficked, and half of all the non-trafficked women were originally from outside of Ireland, mainly from Eastern Europe and Africa. Of the 80 who were trafficked an astonishing 49 came from Nigeria. The picture that emerges from their report is of a sex industry in Ireland that is more than 75% populated by foreign women, the majority of whom have been trafficked into Ireland. Ruhama also reported that of the new cases of trafficking that they worked with last year, more than half were trafficked directly into Ireland, and of these over 80% were trafficked to locations outside of Dublin.

Here in Ireland the law still views the selling of sex as a criminal act, but not the purchasing of it.

And for those outside the sex industry the news isn't good either. On Friday the Central Statistics Office reported that the gender pay gap had increased in Ireland by over 2% between 2007 and 2009, the latest year for which data is available. Men now earn on average 12.8% more than women. On Monday it was reported that the government is failing to hit its own miserable target of 40% of state board positions being occupied by women, with less than 34% of current positions being filled by women.

Article 41.2.1° of The Constitution "recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved", and in the home she is to remain, milker of cows, grinder of grain, or to be stolen from abroad to service the sexual needs of the warriors of Ireland.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The cumal system thrives in the ashes of the Celtic Tiger.

Image: Cúchulainn mounting into his chariot by Louis le Brocquy. Part of the amazing series of lithographs he produced for Thomas Kinsella's 1969 translation of The Táin, from his website here.

The Táin, 1969 Thomas Kinsella translation.
The full series of le Brocquy's lithographs for The Táin can also be found on his website here.
Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery: 1612-1865, Nini Rodgers' examination of Irish as slaves, slave owners and emancipators.
Ruhama's 2010 annual report (pdf download link).



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