Episode 17 Celtic Women, Families and Social Structure
The Celtic World
Dr Jennifer Paxton (2018)
Paxton cites historian Daniel Binchy in describing medieval Irish society (the same mostly applies to medieval Wales) as tribal, rural, hierarchical and familial.
Medieval Ireland had at least 100 kings at any one time. Each king ruled a kinship group of a few thousand people.
There were no cities in early Ireland, and its five provinces (Ulster, Connacht, Meath, Leinster and Munster) were purely geographic designations with no political authority.
Membership of the nobility required having clients dependent on you. There were two kinds of clientship, free and base. A free client paid higher rent and could end the clientship at will. He was required to provide some labor services for the lord (or get one of his own clients to provide it) and to participate in his war band. A base client received land and a few cattle in return for labor services, diary products, grain, malt and meat he paid as rent. He also had to help dig the lord’s grave, patrol border lands and participate in expeditions to weaker territories. He had to pay a fee to leave a base clientship.
Aside from the nobility, there were learned classes consisting of poets, lawyers and (prior to Christianity) Druids. Unlike lawyers in rest of Europe, Irish lawyers remained independent of the church. Like poets, they were allowed free passage between warring kingdoms.
The honor price for killing or maiming someone was based on their wealth and occupation. It was calculated in “cumal,” with one cumal equal to one slave girl or three cows. Kings, bishops and high poets had the highest honor price, followed by nobles and learned classes, followed by farmers. Slaves, who were regarded as property, had no honor price. Wealthy Irish could also file suit if some maimed or insulted them.
Irish kings weren’t lawgivers in medieval Ireland, where the legal system relied mainly on common law, judges and lawyers. However many legal texts, recopied many times, survive from the Middle Ages. One law that was extremely frustrating for British colonizers was “distraint,” a legal method of forcing someone to comply with a judge’s order by simply helping yourself to the loser’s cattle.* It was also acceptable to pressure someone into complying by fasting on their doorstep.**
In Ireland, all property transactions had to be approved by everyone descended from the same great grandfather. A family could be artificially extended by adopting foster children, and women joined joined their husband’s kinship group. Legal marriage wasn’t required so long as a woman’s partner acknowledged paternity of her offspring. Owing to the absence of a criminal legal system, it was up to the kinship group to file suit on behalf of a murdered family member.
Early Ireland was an extremely patriarchal society although Irish women had somewhat more rights than those of Britain or Europe.
In both Wales and Ireland, women could initiate divorce and couples could form temporary unions that could be dissolved by mutual consent
There were women poets and doctors in medieval Ireland.
Some women were allowed to own property, but in most jurisdictions it was forbidden.
There was considerable evidence of polygamy among high status men.
Slave girls were often sexually exploited by their masters.
If a woman dissolved her marriage, she returned to her father’s guardianship.
*This was necessary in a society where there was no infrastructure to enforce laws.
**This tradition gave rise to hunger strikes as a weapon in the fight for Irish independence in the early 20th century and during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland.
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