Episode Four: The True Judgement of Niall Frossach
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
This week, we pick up an Irish tale that's a bit queer in more ways that one... This story questions what it means to be a true king in Ireland, and how to best serve all one's subjects.
As usual, here's some background on where this story comes from! The True Judgement tale comes from the annals of the kings of Ireland, and is recorded in the 12th century Book of Leinster and the 15th century Liber Flavus Fergusorum (the Book of Fergus the Blonde). Niall was a historical Irish king who ruled in the 8th century, but how true the events in the tale are, we leave to you to judge.
In this episode, Zoe introduces the birth tale of Niall Frossach and his close relative, Aed Allan, to provide some background to why the legitimacy of Irish kingship is so important. Then, we go over the True Judgement of the King.
The Birth of Niall Frossach: Niall's mother, the princess of Ireland, is barren, and entreats a local nun to pray for her on her behalf. The nun does so, and the princess becomes pregnant. When she gives birth to Niall, it is said that three showers accompany the day: showers of wheat, silver, and blood. These portents symbolize the three things that any good king should be able to provide his kingdom: maize and fertility in the land, prosperity and wealth, and the protection of the land the Irish have inherited, respectively. Niall's second name, Frossach, alludes to the showers which fell at his birth.
The Birth of Aed Allan: Aed was also a historical king, though his reign was short and violent. The princess in this story was sent to a nunnery by her father to protect her virtue and chastity. This ploy did not work, as the young woman fell in love with a noble called Fergal and became pregnant. When the king heard rumors of this, he stormed into the nunnery, and the woman hid Fergal in her mattress while her father searched the place. Finding no one, he begged her forgiveness. When the princess was due to give birth, she had the child secreted away by two servants, representing two warring rival clans of Ireland. These two women literally fist-fight to determine whether they should kill the child, and Cenel Eoghan (Clan of Owen) takes victory when she grabs the other woman by her Adam's apple. The women raise the child together, and when the princess happens to see the boy, she is convicted and confessed what she had done. The women reveal that this is in fact her son, and he is returned to the princess.
Notably, women at this period did not have to be nuns to live in a nunnery; these were few of the women's only spaces that allowed a woman a degree of autonomy (albeit, not much in the medieval world). It is interesting, however, that these two women raised the child together and are not specified to have lived in the convent. Additionally, the mention of the woman's Adam's apple is curious, as that is generally known to be a masculine trait.
Niall and Aed's birth-tales are a wonderful example of Irish medieval revisionist history; the compilers of these stories describe Neil's birth so that he clearly is the rightful king of Ireland and divined by God, while his brother's tale ensures that he is illegitimized both naturally and divinely. While Niall's birth is divinely sanctioned, Aed's birth desecrates holy spaces, marking him as an ill king.
The Heroic Biography: any good protagonist (or villain, for that matter) needs to have a good backstory, and the medievals and ancients were the first to invent this trope. The heroic biography compiled the early extraordinary events of a hero's life to explain how and why they became a hero; it establishes a pedigree for a hero. Examples of heroic biography include the tales of King Arthur (English), Cu Culainn (Irish), Romulus and Remus (Roman), and Egil Skallagrimsson (Nordic). These are just a few examples; give it some thought and you'll be sure to think of one in any mythos.
Most heroic biographies, regardless of culture, fall into the category of monomyth and follow a certain pattern, described here: the hero is born miraculously (occasionally the child of a god or previous hero), magical portents accompany or foretell the birth, the child's life is threatened, the child is spirited away to the fringes of society and brought up as an outsider, and then the child grows into a man or woman and returns to claim their rightful place.
The True Judgement of Niall Frossach: In medieval Ireland (and in pre-Christian Celtic Ireland), the king must prove his divine right to be reign through a demonstration of fir flatha, or kingly judgement. This story provides a unique look at how Niall proves his fir flatha.
When the king was crowned, he provided a great feast for his people. At this feast, a woman comes before him holding her new child, and, thrusting it into the king's arms, asks him to divine (by his kingly judgement) who the carnal father of the child was, since she had not been with a man. King Niall knows he cannot deny the challenge, and considers the demand. After a moment, he asks the woman whether she had been with another woman "in playful tumbling," which she says she had. The king explains that the woman she had lain with had just been with a man, and his seed spilled from one woman to the other, making her pregnant.
Notably, it is possible for a woman to get pregnant in this way (see our sources for more), and so this occurance, while odd and outside the norms of accepted intercourse at this time, is a non-miraculous event. However, given that the occurrence would be extraordinarily rare, only a king with true fir flatha would have been able to solve the riddle. What happens next, on the other hand, is definitely miraculous!
When the woman admitted this, the king went red (whether from embarrassment about lesbian sex or just talking about sex in the court, we don't know), and a steam rose from his head. Suddenly, a creature fell from the heavens, and proclaims itself to be a priest. This priest declares that he had been too prideful to hire a carpenter, and so made a deal with the devil to build his house. Due to his pride, his head literally swole up like a balloon and he was taken up into the aether by demons. When the king pronounced his judgement and the steam rose, he explained, the demons dropped him and he returned to earth.
There are a few notable things in these stories, the most prominent of which is the agency of women. The women in these stories, while unnamed, have more agency than most women in medieval tales. There are also two cases of instances where two women and a man are needed to produce a child- the birth of Niall himself, and the child that Niall holds in the story. Further, the overt reality of homosexual acts is extraordinary in a medieval tale, especially homosexual acts between women. In the later compilation of this tale, the woman seeks out her female companion because the man she had just been with did not give her any pleasure, illustrating that not only did the woman desire sexual fulfillment, she was willing to go to another woman to receive it. The queerness of this tale is curious and thought provoking; whether or not an occurrence like this happened historically, the fact that medieval compilers (likely clerical men) wrote this brief saga down is a testament to the diversity of human nature throughout all time.
Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!
Wiley, Dan M. "Niall Frossach's True Judgement." Ériu, 2005, Vol. 55, 2005, pp. 19-36.
Bernhardt-House, Philip A. "Queer Conceptions and Calculations: Niall Frossach and the Easter Controversy." The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2015, pp. 186-205.
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