Today I attended another seminar run under the auspices of the Institute for Mediaeval Studies at the University of St Andrews, presented by Dr. Mark Zumbuhl, of Oxford University. Although his title, ‘The Emergence of Queenship in Pre-Norman Ireland?’, was not quite so provocative as the one I have chosen, the heart of the talk quickly centred upon whether there was a strong idea of queenship in Ireland before the 11th century.
The question, whether formed conservatively or radically, is not quite so strange as it first appears.
Although many early mediaeval societies had strongly defined ideas about the institution of kingship, the status of the king’s wife was not always so well defined. Some wives, usually of high status, might be anointed in a ceremony, control resources particular to her office, and perform set duties in much the same way that her husband did, but this was not always the case. In some regions, the queen was a wife like any other noble wife, and had no sacred, God-chosen identity or special cache.
Given these ambiguities, today’s presentation hoped to consider the evidence from pre-Norman Ireland, an extremely fragmented region where kings, over-kings, and high-kings all competed for supremacy. What if found is that there are many many queens, but that we know almost nothing about them. Often, the annals (yearly historical entries) record only their names–like Gormlaith, Aebinn, Eithne–and the name of their husband. This is in marked contrast to the mediaeval Irish literary works, which have head-strong, fully realised female characters in plenty.
To further confuse the issue, many queens are interchangeably referred to as kings’ wives, and little trace of their financial situation, their duties, or full social function remains. Thus, although it is undoubtedly the case that their were queens in Ireland, the rigorous historian must admit that we know next to nothing about them in the pre-Norman period.