Medieval Irish cursing – when even saints loved to swear

Speech in Medieval Ireland held such power that laws existed to control poets and satirists, whose insults could bring on physical illness, blemish, and death. Medieval Irish cursing had quite a reputation. As Gerald of Wales put it in the 12th century, even Irish saints had a particularly “vindictive cast of mind”.

Cursing from a height

One contemporary wrote:

“Early Medieval Ireland was clamorous with with voices blessing, praying, chanting, poetizing, satirizing, tale-telling, negotiating, murmuring, chattering, gossiping, slandering, insulting, and cursing….The Irish were specially prepared to hear saintly curses”

The ancient Druids famously had a love of cursing. In an old Druidic practice called “cursing from a height”, one would curse people from on high, presumably so they would thud on the recipient with a great impact.

In another type of magic known as corrguinecht or “heron (or crane) killing”, a druid or poet recited a satire while standing on one leg, with one arm raised and one eye shut.

Did saints like Ruadan, of whom it was (quite affectionately) said: “he loved cursing” ever kick off a Medieval Irish cursing competition with the Druids?

Cursed in the head and the brain

Here’s an all-purpose malediction (divine curse) from the Abbey of Féfchamp from the late 10th century:

“May they be cursed in the head and the brain. May they be cursed in their eyes and their foreheads. May they be cursed in their ears and their noses. May they be cursed in fields and in pastures … . May they be cursed when sleeping and when awake, when going out and returning, when eating and drinking, when speaking and being silent. May they be cursed in all places at all times.”

Curses were often built into church contracts. One 12th-century charter on land transfer from a layperson to the Church called down the curses of no fewer than 144,380 on whoever breached the contract.

Cursed by Ulcer and Axe

A saint’s curse could have delayed and mysterious effects. The Annals of Loch Ce recall the death of Strongbow in 1176 as a miraculous punishment by ulcer:

“The Saxon earl died in Ath-Cliath of an ulcer which attacked his foot, through the miracles of Brighid and Colum-Cille, and the other saints whose churches he had spoiled.”

Another Medieval Irish curse via axe (self-administered):

“Domhnall O’ Cannannain wounded his foot with his own axe, at Doire (Derry), while cutting a piece of wood, and he died thereof through the curse of the community of Colum-Cille.”

 

Saint Patrick

Even Saint Patrick partook in Medieval Irish cursing. Ireland’s patron saint cursed annoying pagans with the term “Mudebroth”.

“..And holy Patrick said: ‘Mudebroth, in spite of all your labour you shall achieve nothing.’ And so it happened. The following night there came a heavy storm and stirred up the sea, and the storm destroyed all that the pagans had done, as the man of God had said.”

Muirchú, Life of Patrick, 7th Century AD

We still don’t know exactly what Mudebroth means. It seems to be three words jumbled together: mo de broth. According to a 10th century source, it may have been “My God’s Judgement (on you)”, or perhaps “My God’s Doom (on you)”.

While that may sound tame, try replacing it with : F*** you and the horse you rode in on’ or ‘Eat s*** and die screaming’. That comes close to the Medieval impact.

One article mischievously suggests we listen to how mudebroth sounds to modern ears. And fill in the gaps accordingly.

Flyting

Flyting is a ritual, poetic exchange of insults. The Tain, for instance holds such curses as “You shit of a crane” and “May your body be a feast for wolves”.

The Roman Diodorus describes Celtic warriors in battle breaking forth:

“into a song of praise of the valiant deeds of their ancestors and in boast of their own high achievements, reviling all the while and belittling their opponent, and trying, in a word, to strip him of his bold spirit before the combat.”

He later describes them as ‘boasters and threateners,’ though sharp-witted. The battlefield custom sounds like a Celtic form of flyting.

Jump forward to the early 16th century and  The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, translated from the Middle Scots, includes:  

“Gray-visaged gallows-bird, out of your wits gone wild,

Loathsome and lousy, as wet as a cress,

Since you with worship would so fain be styled,

Hail, Monsignor! Your balls droop below your dress.”

Bards

The court bards were required to have seven times fifty chief stories and twice fifty-stories ready at any time to entertain Irish Kings and chiefs. A poet who achieved the status of Master Poet or Ollamh was entitled to wear six colours in the weave of their cloaks. Only Kings and Queens wore more.

The Church itself was not immune from the power of satire and its poets. Saint Columba (Colum-Cille) is once described in a cold sweat, fearing satire from a poet he cannot pay. Columba is saved when his sweat turns to gold, which he immediately offers in compensation!

Poets were feared for their satirical curses which could cause facial ulcers and even death. On the other hand, if a person was satirised without just cause, the poet got the ulcers and a swift death. Illegal satire included publicising a false story, mocking a disability, wrongful accusations, and technically flawed satire. It was also illegal to satirize someone after death.

The poet Senchán kills ten mice through a satire. Luaine, King Conchobar’s fiance, is satirized three times, leaving the customary blotches of Shame, Blemish, and Disgrace on her face. Naturally, she dies of shame.

Ferdiad, the friend of Cuchulainn, is threatened with death by satire, so prefers death in battle instead. The woman Maistiu is satirized to death by a female satirist, Gris. Another female satirist, Dub, finding out that she is married to a polygamist, kills her rival wife through a “sea-spell.”

A king, the one eyed Eochaid, plucks out his eye and gives it to the poet Aithirne to avoid a satirical attack. Kings surrender their wives to the demands of the same satirist.

Not surprisingly, sometimes the poet wound up (violently) dead.  In one case, the satirist Redg, king Ailill’s jester, is sent against the famous warrior Cuchulainn. He asks for the hero’s spear, and when he is refused, threatens the hero with satire. Cuchulainn responds by throwing the spear through the back of Redg’s head.

“‘Now, that is a stunning gift,’ the satirist cried,” and promptly dropped dead.

 

Some favourite Medieval Irish cursing, if you want to try them out at home:

Marbhfháisc ort! (May you be wrapped in your shroud)

Lá breá ag do chairde – dod adhlacadh (May your friends have a fine day – burying you)

In ainm Chroim (In the name of Crom – a pagan, bloodthirsty God)

Snaidhm bundúin ort (May your anus be knotted)

 

If you enjoyed this, you might like an overview of Medieval swearing to now or why Medieval people didn’t give a S***t

 

Some great sources on Medieval Irish cursing:

Tools and Scripts for Cursing in Medieval Ireland

The Reformations in Ireland: Tradition and Confessionalism, 1400–1690

“God Damn”: The Law and Economics of Monastic Malediction

Mudebroth! An ejaculation of St. Patrick

Chapter 17. Kissing the Leper: The Excluded Poet in Irish Myth