St Adamnán was Abbot of Iona, an island on the west coast of Scotland, in the 7th century. The traditional culture of what was still in many places a pagan land had treated women as disposable property.
IN 7th century Ireland, the lot of women was unenviable. Serving women were a form of coinage: fines were calculated in cumals, or maidservants, each equivalent to three milk-cows.
A woman spent much of the day almost naked in a waist-high pit dug into the floor, supporting the spit while the meat roasted; at supper-time she stood holding a candle, dripping hot fat, to light the men’s feast, and then was banished to a hut outside the enclosure, as a first defence against attack.
In time of war, women were conscripted for the front line, whipped forward from behind by the men.
At the Synod of Birr in 697, Adamnán’s prolonged campaign finally brought bishops, monks and princes together to sign the ‘Law of the Innocents’.
The first such law anywhere in the world, it made the killing of women and their children a criminal offence, disqualified them from armed service, and gave them dignity and standing in the home.