Your Pain is My Pain

Last time, we took a look at summertime hazards – klutzy/clumsy self-inflicted accidents that might befall any one of us – and the early Irish herbal remedies used to treat the wounds. But what if your summertime blues spreads to another person? Let’s say you’re out hunting wild boar with your sword-brother Fergus. You hear a clicking sound emanating from the undergrowth. You each assume a defensive stance, leveling your sharpened spears at the rustling bushes. All of a sudden, Fergus lunges with a death-defying scream. You rush in to flank him – literally. In the ensuing leaf-ravaging chaos, you manage to slash Fergus’ thigh. How’s your liability insurance?

After helping your friend limp home, heart heavy with guilt, your burden grows even heavier when Fergus’ kin insist that you provide sick-maintenance. What does this mean? Essentially, you’re responsible for his injury and are required to nurse him back to health – under a healer’s care – at your own expense. But it was an accident, you assure them. And Fergus willingly exposed himself to the dangers of the hunt. He knew the risk.

Determining liability is a fascinating study in early Irish law – one we’ll leave for later – but for the sake of this case, let’s say a judge determines you’re liable. What now?

Fergus, according to the procedures in the law tract Bretha Crólige (Judgments of Blood-Lying), is brought home and nursed by his kin under the supervision of a healer for nine days. At the end of that period – if he’s still alive and expected to recover — Fergus is brought to the house of a third party (likely belonging to a kinsman of yours who can best keep him comfortable). Oh, and this has to be witnessed by three lords as a formality. Your shame deepens. You’re not only expected to support the injured man by providing suitable food, shelter, and medical attention but also food and shelter to any retinue he’s permitted according to his status. Thankfully, Fergus is a young man of lower status, but he’s newly wed and brings his wife, and his sister comes to help. Now you’re feeding and accommodating three people for the length of his recovery. Here’s what’s expected of your household: “There are not admitted to him into the house fools or lunatics or senseless people or half-wits or enemies. No games are played in the house. No tidings are announced. No children chastised. Neither women nor men exchange blows….No dogs are set fighting in his presence or in his neighborhood outside. No shout is raised. No pigs squeal. No brawls are made. No cry of victory is raised nor shout in playing games. No yell or scream is raised” (Kelly, 1995, p. 130).

I’m glad we cleared that up! And don’t forget that while Fergus is down, you’ll have to find someone to do his daily work for him. Fergus is a farmer, so you’ll be responsible for plowing his fields as well as your own. According to the Bretha Déin Chécht (Judgments of Dían Cécht, a mythological physician), you’ll be paying a fine “to cover ‘the fear of death, gravity of the [accompanying] sickness and the extent of the blemish” (Kelly, 1995, p. 131). The healer is entitled to a portion of this payment, depending on the severity of the wound. If the wound becomes a disability, you’ll be compensating your friend more – possibly for life. For example, “a blemish on the face is regarded as particularly serious, as it exposes the victim to public ridicule. A cumal has therefore to be paid for each public assembly which the victim has to endure with facial disfigurement” (Kelly, 1995, p. 132). A cumal was a unit of value equivalent to a female slave.

Oh, and there’s just one other thing – while Fergus is laid up, he can’t procreate. So, you’ll have to pay a fine for the ‘barring of procreation’ while he’s on sick-maintenance. And that wild boar you were hunting? It was a squirrel.

Those painful insurance premiums nowadays aren’t looking so bad.


Kelly, F. (1995). A guide to early Irish law: Dublin: Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.

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