Power: 840-1066


Social Impact of the Norse

The early medieval economy was based on the exchange of goods and services through reciprocal relationships: client and lord, king and overking, etc. Economic units, accordingly, tended to be food items (Gaelic míach “a sack of barley”), livestock (Gaelic sét), and slaves (Gaelic cumal “a female slave”). Early Welsh documents similarly record payments in terms of beer, bread, meat and honey. The Vikings introduced silver into the economy of the British Isles in the ninth century; the translation of cumal into an equivalent amount of silver demonstrates the impact on economic transactions.

A town, according to the classic definition offered by Susan Reynolds in 1977, is a permanent concentration of habitation where people consumed food grown elsewhere, with a sense of clear separation from that agricultural base. There were very few towns in Britain in the early ninth century and only two in Ireland at that time: the monastic centres of Kildare and Armagh.

While the Norse are often credited with stimulating the development of urban centres, in reality factors such as geography, access to exploitable resources and navigational routes, and political conditions limited or enabled the growth of settlements. While they worked favourably for the early urban centre of Dublin, for example, they worked against the creation of similar centres in northern Scotland, despite a larger Norse population. Dublin was the first truly urban centre in Ireland, created with a blend of Irish and Norse building techniques in the 10th century. In the 11th and 12th centuries, urban centres were evolving in Wexford, Waterford, Limerick and Cork. Although these latter also had strong Norse foundations, they became increasingly Irish (and less Norse) over time.

Little was known about contributions to the Welsh economy by Norse trading networks, but a recent excavation has revealed a Norse settlement in Llanbedrgoch, near the eastern coast of Anglesey. A small manufacturing site and trading post there, dating to the ninth and tenth centuries, suggests that the dynasty of Gwynedd had fostered links with Norse traders to exploit their trade links.

As we have seen, in previous centuries the Christian church had been highly critical of unrestrained violence and sought to undermine institutions which promoted brutality and bloodshed. The church was largely successful in altering social values and practices of their communities by this period, but the appearance of the Vikings – pagans from outside of the moral boundaries and geographical limits of Christendom who threatened with violence – caused the re- militarization of society out of self-defense. One of the results of this entrenchment of military interests was related to the management of estates and may have reinforced socio-economic trends already underway in western Europe.

By this time the church had accumulated a great deal of lands and goods: unlike the members of secular families, it was not subject to the laws of partible inheritance. During the crisis brought about by the Viking invasions, some rulers looked for assets to fund and support the military forces necessary to counter this new threat and found them in the hands of the church. Lands were appropriated and granted to a military class which was under the direct control of the king, an innovation justified by their role in defending Christian society against pagan adversaries. Such estates could not be subdivided and they were to be worked by a peasant class (rather than the warriors who lived on it).

This was at least one aspect of the creation of fiefs (land grants held under special conditions of subordination), which was beginning to happen in several parts of the British Isles by the mid-9th century, including Anglo-Saxon England, Cornwall, southern Wales, and probably parts of Pictland (see below).

This fragmentation of larger estates seems to have been done with a great deal of planning and consideration, as the boundaries of these estates were designed so as to enable them to have access to a range of the landscape features necessary for self-sufficiency (access to fresh water, navigational routes, arable land, grazing areas, etc). These smaller-scale landholdings allowed a new class of aristocrats to occupy a middle layer in society and to maintain a greater presence on the ground in the running of these estates than was possible for the king of a vast domain. Kings no doubt also realized the advantages of appropriating church wealth and exploiting it for their own benefit.


Religious Orders

By the 10th century, Armagh had gained supremacy amongst the churches of Ireland: the abbot of Armagh practically wielded the power of a king, being able to force tribute from churches and kingdoms throughout Ireland. Many of the offices of the church were held by men who inherited them, and the church held the right to many estates which were inhabited by both clergy and laypeople. The church received patronage from nobles from across Ireland.

By this era, the churches in all of the communities of the British Isles were having something of a “crisis of success,” given that they had become powerful, wealthy, and penetrated by worldly, rather than pious, values and practices. The group established by the 8th century in the Gaelic world to counter the secularization of the church and reform it according to Christian ideals of asceticism and piety was known as Céli Dé “Servants of God” (often anglicized as “Culdee”). The Céli Dé were first established in Ireland and seem to have thoroughly penetrated the churches of Scotland after their promotion by Diarmait, abbot of Iona 814-830s.

The Céli Dé order was patterned after Christ and his The Céli Dé order was patterned after Christ and his disciples: each church in which they operated tended to consist of an abbot and twelve monks. The presence of these committed monks may have legitimated relaxing the moral and ascetic requirements for the other members of the religious establishments at which they were found, especially those whose role was to interact with the secular world outside of the monastery. The two communities undoubtedly saw themselves as complementing one another, providing different aspects of God’s mission on earth.

It was extremely unusual for churches in Celtic areas to be built from stone until the ninth century or later (one of the few exceptions being the beehive cells built in the south-west of Co. Kerry, Ireland).10 One of the most distinctive buildings to emerge in this period is the “round tower,” tall (10 to 30 metres in height) stone structures associated with churches in Ireland. They were probably first made of timber and made for ringing bells across the religious community for the keeping of time; by the mid-10th century they were being made of stone and came to be used as watchtowers and places of refuge. The entrance door was some distance from the ground, accessed by means of a ladder; there were several wooden floors internally, each having a narrow window facing a different direction. There is a round tower on the Isle of Man and two in Scotland (Abernethy and Brechin).

Social and Legal Aspects of Warfare in Ireland

As we have seen, it was due to the work of Irish churchmen that customary law began to be formalized and recorded in written form. The church had avoided discussion in the original law tracts of many social customs and economic and legal ramifications of military institutions of which they disapproved, such as the fían bands.

Attitudes about and evidence of warfare began to change by the 10th century, however, and increasingly so into the 12th, for several reasons: key offices within the church were held by laymen who had inherited these positions and had a less antagonistic view of secular society; the church had been largely successful in reforming many aspects of the “internal violence” of Gaelic society (the institutions of díberg and fían had been disbanded); Ireland was threatened by external parties – the Vikings (and later, the Anglo- Normans) – against whom severe force was actually needed. Ironically, the three classes which had earned the condemnation of the first Irish legal commentators – the brigand-warrior, the druid, and the satirist – were praised by later commentators for their value in protecting Gaelic society. This can be seen, for example, in the legal tract Bretha Crólige “Judgments of Blood-Lyings”:

Even though they do not have the required wealth of a bóaire [high-status property owner], they may be due the payment due to a bóaire for participating in warfare because (1) of avenging a hit-man (aire échta) for his atrocities on territory and kin-group; (2) of the magic mist created by the druid which he sends across the border into the enemy host so that they cannot enter into the territory and do damage; (3) of the knowledge of all of the types of poems that the satirist knows, which prevent another poet entering the territory with ill-intent.

The Old Irish law tract Córas Béscnai “The Regulation of Proper Behaviour” mentions that one of the obligations owed by clients to their lords was that of slóiged “hosting summons”; in other words, a lord summoned his clients to raise a military force (a “host”), for a number of offensive and defensive purposes.

There were two different kinds of clients under Irish law: free (or noble) clients and base clients. Free clients were wealthier than base clients and had more flexible and advantageous terms on the contracts they negotiated. The law tract Cáin Sóerraith “The Law of Free Fief” specifies that contracts of clientage for free clients lasted for seven years; they were obligated to provide men for their lords to engage in three kinds of labour services: harvesting, building construction, and military hosting. Base clients were bound for life to their lords and were obligated to escort their lords to public assemblies, to join expeditions to exact vengeance, and to provide men for “attack and ward” services (fuba agus ruba). This last duty entailed guarding the passage ways on the border and defending the territory from hostile forces, including raiders and wolves.

During this era a hosting lasted, by default, a maximum of three days; each man had to arm and feed himself. There were essentially three kinds of hosting summons: (1) the king needed the heads of noble households to accompany him (fully armed) to the border as a show of force when negotiating with a neighbouring king, in case negotiations broke down and violence was threatened; (2) the king needed the heads of noble households and their adult sons to lead a raid on enemy territory; (3) the king needed all common freemen to gather for battle. The fine of a cow was to be paid for each man absent; according to Irish laws of distraint, a three-day notice was necessary before seizing the property of any men who had failed to appear for the hosting.

The forms of military resources were changing during this era. As we’ve already seen, by the mid-9th century, Gaelic kings were hiring bands of Norse warriors and by the late 10th century Gaelic warriors were also contracting their services to lords, especially in mercenary groups called ceithirne. A Munster law tract from the 11th century, Uraicecht Becc “The Little Primer” refers to foreign mercenaries as well as local mercenaries of a lesser status in a king’s household, confirming that professional mercenary forces had formed during this era.

Class Discussion

What does Críth Gablach § 105, 119-21 say about military duties and the relationship between and tuath regarding military matters?

What does the poem “Sén Dollotar Ulaid” say about the mobility and military might of the men of Ulster? Where and who are the targets of their hostilities and why?

Gaelic Law in Scotland

Although the laws of Cináed mac Ailpín are mentioned in historical sources, they themselves do not survive; there is no reason to doubt, however, that many elements of them were directly related to the Gaelic law used in Ireland. As we will see later, aspects of Gaelic law have survived in Scots law even to the present day.

Landholding In Gaelicized Pictland

There are many surviving place names in the east of Scotland (see map below) – the area which was once the core territory of Pictland – which begin with the element pett (later taking the form pit). It is certain that this word is Pictish in origin (Gaelic did not originally have a “p” sound) and is cognate to Welsh peth “thing” and Gaelic cuid “share, possession.” This element in these place names seems to have had the meaning, in the case of place names, of “major estate.” The second element in all of these place names is Gaelic, indicating that this Pictish term had been adopted by the Gaelic-speaking élite of the region.

Current research suggests that pett– names were coined by Gaelic speakers between the mid-ninth to the mid-eleventh centuries. A few examples of these names are Pett Carmaic (modern Pitcarmick “Cormac’s estate”) and Pett an t- Sagairt (modern Pittentagart “the priest’s estate”).

The fact that this Pictish term was used in these estate names, rather than a Gaelic term of a similar meaning (such as baile), suggests that it had a special function or meaning, something not conveyed by baile or any of the Gaelic terms already in existence which indicated land settlement in general.

It has been suggested by Alex Woolf that the Picts began to join in the transformation of estates that was happening elsewhere in Britain in the ninth century, and that they used the term pett for the fragments of large estates that were granted to vassals in exchange for military service. As this was not a concept or practice previously known to the Gaelic world, the term was adopted by Gaelic speakers as they took over Pictland. The Book of Deer, a Latin gospel book originally written in the 10th century in the northeast of Scotland, contains a number of notes about land holdings, written in Gaelic in the 11th or early 12th century. Several of the estates mentioned have the element pett in their names, although the Gaelic term cuid is also used. This is the earliest surviving documentation of the use of the element pett.

Brittonic Kingdoms


According to tradition, the Welsh king Hywel Dda brought together lawmen to create a codification of Welsh law during the time that he had unified Wales under his control (942-50). We have already seen a few surviving fragments which demonstrate aspects of Brittonic or Welsh law that existed before the time of Hywel Dda, such as the marginal notes in the Lichfield Gospels.

The Welsh nobility were supposed to take their sons to the king when they turned 14 years of age to commend them for service in the royal retinue or war-band (teulu). The retinue consisted of up to about 120 males, most of whom were soldiers aged between 14 and 21. Welsh law only entitled a king to lead a hosting of his military forces out of the kingdom once a year for a maximum of six weeks. By the 10th century, the Welsh kings were also using foreign mercenaries (probably Norse).

The leader of the royal war-band (the penteulu) was generally expected to be the son or nephew of the king. He was given the largest house in the centre of the royal township, near the other members of the teulu, and was entitled to a third of the plunder taken by the war-band in a successful expedition. Several of the Welsh literary triads commemorate the deeds and failings of legendary war-bands.

Class Discussion

How does the Introduction to the Welsh Laws of Hwyel Dda depict the creation of the laws? What does this suggest about the ability of the laws to unify all of the Welsh kingdoms? What does it say about the involvement of the church? What does § 1-2 imply about the social strata of Welsh society and the way of life of the Welsh élite?


The Bretons were generally quite effective in defending their land and independence from would-be Frankish overlords. Not only could they successfully wage guerrilla warfare through their exploitation of the local terrain, they were renowned for their horse-based military tactics: their cavalry would lead a sudden charge, throw a volley of javelins, retreat, regroup and charge again. The heavily-clad Frankish troops, prepared with swords for close combat, were thrown off guard.


Bhreathnach, “Ireland.”

Carr, “Teulu.”

Crawford, “Settlement.”

Fleming, “Lords.”

Griffiths, “Exchange.”

Laing, The Archaeology.

Preston-Jones and Rose, “Medieval Cornwall.”

Pryce, “The Christianization.”

Simms, “Gaelic Military History.”

Smith, Province.

Woolf, From Pictland.