Law and Ritual

“When the blessed Columba was still a young deacon living in the region of Leinster and studying divine wisdom, it happened one day that a certain man, a cruel and pitiless persecutor of the innocent, was pursuing  a young girl as she ran away across the level plain. When she happened to see the young deacon’s elderly teacher, Gemman, reading on the plain, she fled straight to him as fast as she could. Alarmed by this sudden event, Gemman called Columba to him, who was reading a little way off, so that together they might defend the girl from her pursuer in so far as they could.

But when the man drew close he showed them no reverence, and he killed the girl with his spear as she hid under their robes. Leaving her lying dead at their feet he turned away form them and began to go away.


The old man was deeply saddened then and he turned to Columba and said, How long, O holy boy Columba, will God the just judge allow this crime and our own dishonor to go unpunished? Whereupon the saint pronounced this sentence on the wicked man, saying, In the same hour in which of the girl whom he has killed rises to heaven, let the soul of her killer descend to hell. And quicker than speech, like Annanias before Peter (Acts 5.5), at Columba’s woord that killer of innocents fell dead on the spot before the eyes of the holy youth.

The news of this sudden and terrible vengeance immediately spread around the many provinces of Ireland, with the wonderful renown of the holy deacon.”


Life of Saint Columba 


One of a number of issues surrounding the study of early Irish law codes on violence surrounds the observations of ethnologists, that in conflict situations the use of ritual is the effective manager of conflict rather than the use of legal codes.

In this case we have two assaults one on the woman one on the honor of the saint.  A ritual speech act, resolves the situation and it may be suspected the reported effectiveness of such rituals is intended to act as a deterrent.


Penance is viewed as a prime candidate in this period as ritual act which may play a significant role in the management of violence and sexual misdeeds.

Attracting aristocratic patrons to seek sanctuary and spending time in a monastery, as part of its lay population, paying penance for social transgressions, may have been a significant factor in the growth of monastic institutions in Ireland and Gaul.

Protection of its lay population (or potential clients) was clearly a factor for early monastic institutions and by the 7th century the use of ritual is complemented by the writing of specific legal codes.

When written in the 7th century the law was specifically intended to apply to the monastic community of Iona and its lay population. By the 10th century that legal memory has altered significantly as the law is described as protecting all the women of Ireland.

I think I need to cast my eye further and look at ritual and legal memory.

With early medieval  law its not how it alters things in the moment that is the interesting factor, but how it gradually and incremental alters social status and identity over the long term.


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