Celtic Roots
Women and the Celts
 in the Middle Ages

by Dr. Paul R. Lonigan

Paul Lonigan compares the situation and rights of Celtic women to those of other cultures in early medieval times.
With all of its prestige, and deserved veneration, the classical period of Greece and Rome shows evidence of few rights for women in the modern sense of the word. As an illustration of conditions from tbe highest to the lowest levels of society, it may not be unfair to offer the Roman family as typical down to the time of Christ and beyond. Ruled by the absolute will of the pater familias (the"father of the family") it was autocracy in its simplest and most immediate form. The father had complete and unquestioned control over his domicile. Wives in such circumstance neither had the vote nor (at least legally) questioned their husbands' decisions. In fact, in accordance with the principle of manus, the wife's "person and property were so completely his [i.e., the husband's] own, that he.... had the right to kill, punish, or sell her." (Seyffert, p.375.)
"Romantic love" —i.e., loving according to a fantasy idealized or, to be anachronistic, as one would in a novel (i.e., in a romance, a roman) —was frowned upon, considered effeminate, dangerous and subversive, especially in ancient Rome. The most cynical attitude toward women and sex is to be found in the words of Ovid: Artis amatoriae and Remedia amoris "Love" = sexuality = appetite, and appetite is to be satisfied by whatever means. For such expression Ovid was banished by Augustus Caesar, not so much because it was a sin against the gods or even man, but because it was a perversion of the true calling of Roman men (especially among the upper classes) which was the advancement of the destiny of Rome and its eternal mission of civilizing the world. Whatever a man's tastes and appetites, duty to the state was primary, as for the rest, keep it to yourself. Scandal, by definition, is public and as such undermines the social fabric. For the improprieties of scandal, Augustus exiled his own daughter for life.

In the non-classical world attitudes were not all that different. Jewish and, later, Christian and Muslim rules toward women early on demonstrate suspicion and implicit fear of the female often referred to as descendant from Eve and, because of her child-bearing instincts, uncontrollable in her lust. As might be expected, some of the strongest warnings against women, and admonitions to men, came from monastic ranks and their adherents such as Saint Jerome. It is in the pursuit of a love due, above all, to God that monastics have always advocated continence for all and for centuries were the leading exponents of celibacy for the clergy.

We might, indeed, see the Marian cult, the veneration of Mary as the mother of Jesus and intercessor to what might otherwise be seen as an unapproachable God, as a counter weight against the restrictions upon female freedom and as reason to lessen the limitations placed upon it. And, truly, such, in the long run, is true. However, there can be seen in this type of devotion just as strong an argument favoring the less tolerant persuasion: Mary is the chosen one, called to her high standing precisely because she had been able to forego the sins of the flesh and, therefore, overcome the innate frailties of her sexual nature.

Theories of churchmen are generally hostile to women, although Church principles and practices improved their status. Therefore there was an ambivalence implicit in the attitude toward them. Still, woman was considered, generally, to be Satan's instrument in the perdition of man, the reincarnation of Eve who had caused Adam to lose paradise. But, although she was inferior to man, the Church did insist upon monogamy, one standard of morality for both sexes, and honored the mother of Jesus. After all, so prestigious a figure as Augustine of Hippo had said that even though Eve proved to be the undoing of man, still, through the purity of Mary, man may achieve salvation (De Agone christiano). And, on a more practical level, he insisted that women had the right to inherit property.

As in other cultures, among the Celts women were admired for traditional values such as modesty, virtue, discretion and keeping a good home. ln fact there is in one of the 'Wisdom Texts' a passage which, today, might be taken as positively insulting: the three glories of a gathering are "a beautiful woman, a good horse and swift hunting dog". But, it must be recalled that, in a society based on class structure and frequent warfare among petty kings, there would be very little difference, if viewed from the outside, among the lives of the majority of people. It is, therefore, to the exceptions that we must look if we are to trace at least the potential and direction of the condition of women.

To use historically attested cases, rather than pure myth, first, there is the case of Boudicca, leader of the Iceni ( 1st century AD), who in the tradition of women leading the Britons, directed a bloody revolt against the Roman occupiers for having conducted a punitive raid against the natives, which included the violation of her daughters. The Roman historian Tacitus informs us that the Celts did not distinguish between the sexes when it came to leadership. And so, in a much later age, there are many abbesses mentioned in the Irish chronicles, due to the frequency of religious institutions established for women, and which in turn often recall the Celtic reverence for female divinities in pre-Christian times — and form of respect which would be acculturated by adapting the identities of such goddesses to the cult of the new religion.

A primary example being that of the fire goddess Brigit (whose continental and insular existance in pagan times is well attested). She appears in the historic period as Saint Brigit whose cult place was located at Kildare ("church of the sacred oak") wherein she, in the form of a sacred flame surrounded by a hedge, was attended by a company of twenty Christian vestals who forbade the entry of any man within the inner precincts.

More practically, among the Irish — whose testimony is by far the richest of the northwestern cultures in both amount and archaic nature — legal references to women relate mostly to marriage (or 'union '). As with other archaic forms of such arrangement, such a transaction was, above all, a contract, with (depending on rank and circumstances) guarantees, usually counted in cattle, offered by the families of both sides. But, unlike the other cultures of Europe, there is a complicated system of distinctions — nine in all — in which a woman's rights amd status are carefully defined: ranging from the first category, in which a wife is a partner who has contributed to family property, down to the last two (which are, in effect, not marriage at all) involving respectively rape and the union of two insane individuals.

Were this not complicated enough, since pre-Christian (and for quite a while Christian) Ireland allowed for polygamy, a man with more than one wife might very well find himself in varying degrees of connubiality. In case of such, wives retained their rights according to their status, while, at least in theory, sons had rights of inheritance. There are, of course, variants in texts and reinterpretations according to chronology and local custom. There is also one extraordinary detail of distinctive reciprocity—surprisingly in favor of the "wife" of lesser status: since a concubine's legal obligation to her "hushand" was less than that of his chief wife, the concubine could choose to be under the rule and protection of her son or her husband or another (blood) relative. The chief wife had to remain under her huband's rule unless he failed in his marital obligations.
Marriages were arranged, with the husband contributing a "bride price", part of which was the bride's portion: and the bride retained her own name. Therefore, contrary to immediate impression, the "bride price" was not simply a sum involved in the transfer of property. On the contrary, it was, among other guarantees, a safeguard to protect the rights of the female involved by allotting her a share of the exchanged amount. As to a woman's identity, one need but contrast the provided retention of her name with Roman practice whereby traditionally she would simply have her father's clan name (e.g. Julius Caesar's daughter was signified as "Julia"). (Seyffert, p.412.)

Other responsibilities are carefully distinguished: if a child is born of a union forbidden by the woman's father, it is the man's obligation to raise it; if a child is born of a union forbidden by the man's father, the woman must raise it. Complex provisions also apply to separation, divorce and abandonment with provisions and rights varying, once again, according to the status of the principals involved. In summary, woman's protection is provided for from birth to death: in childhood by the father, in youth by her husband, in old age by her sons: and if the latter be lacking, then by her kin.

A woman did, as well, have the right to give items of her personal property as a pledge and also as a guarantee for another person and had the right to interest and a fine if that person broke his word. But larger, more valuable items, she could not dispose of without her husband's permission. However, if her father had no sons, she was entitled to full inheritance; and if she married a man without land or someone from another tribe, it was she who assumed the responsibilities of the man, with her property being inherited by her own people and not her husband or sons. There is also an entire list of women who incurred special rank based on service and skills — for example, those who could manufacture items (such as wheels), or healers, or possessing magic skills.
Additionally, crime against a woman was considered a crime against her guardian, to whom the offender had to pay all or part of his honor price. It is the Church which sought to make killing a woman a worse offence than killing a man, and Church texts prescribe harsh penalties for such: the cutting off of a hand and a foot, followed by execution and the payment by his relatives of 7 cumals ( = 21 milk cows).

On the question of rape, early Irish law distinguishes between two types: forcible and non-consensual sex. The latter is often associated with drunkenness, and apparently intercourse with a intoxicated woman was considered to be as serious as forced rape. Nonetheless, if a married woman goes unescorted to a drinking establishment, she was entitled to no compensation if she was a victim of non-consensual (i.e., non-forcible) intercourse, for it was judged wrong for her to be in such a place without her husband's protection.

As to penalties: the violator had to pay the honor price (based on status and class) of the victim's guardian, plus full body-fine of 7 cumals for the rape of a girl of marriagable age, of a chief wife or of a nun. The rape of a concubine required half that amount. If the victim became pregnant, the violator was responsible for raising the child. There are several categories of rape with no liability, including: of adulterouos women, unreformed prostitutes, a woman who arranges a sexual meeting, a married woman who agrees to meet another man, a woman who fails to register her complaint of non-consensual sex within three days. Also, a woman was to be paid her full honor-price if kissed against her will. According to the Cain Adomnain, (brought to lreland in 697 by Adomnan, abbot of lona), a man must pay ten ounces of silver for touching a woman or putting his hand inside her clothing, and 7 cumals and three ounces of silver for putting his hand under her dress to dishonor her.

What we have seen would surely go far to support the opinion that it was the Church which did much to raise the conditions of women in Irish society, and, indeed, in varying degrees, throughout Europe. As early as the 5th century, St. Patrick emphasizes his conversion of women from all levels of society, and this theme is stressed by his 7th century biographers, one of whom features that of the very daughters of the king himself. Many of these women were to become nuns. And so great did the status of nuns in Irish society become that they were accorded rights a laywoman did not have, such as giving evidence against a cleric.
There is also much greater freedom for women among the Vikings than seen among Mediterranean' cultures: but this 'freedom' was based as much on superstition (magic was strongly in the hands of women), the awe of birth and a sense of the value of property, as it was upon any modern idea of human dignity.
Among the continental Germans, women had far fewer rights. A girl remained under her father's protection until passing over to that of her husband whereas a boy achieved individual freedom upon reaching physical maturity. Here too a groom was required to pay a "bride price" but he continued to hold it as a fund for his wife. He could divorce her as he wished, but would incur a financial penalty. Possession of family property eventually evolved into the ownership of the head of the family—due to the need to avoid chaos resulting from the law of equal division among male heirs upon the death of a father. (One need but consult the history of the Frankish Merovingian monarchy and the centuries of bloodshed caused by this custom. So fearful was even the mighty Charlemagne of such anarchy that he undertook to limit excesssive collateral kinship by forbidding his daughters to marry.) Indeed, the prohibition of daughters from inheriting land was so ingrained from the time of the Salic Law (c. 507-511 AD) that this was used as late as the 16th century as an argument against females' or their descendants' succession to the crown of France.

But, a counter-current lingering throughout the centuries, found in Irish missionary values brought to France by the likes of St. Columban (d. 615) and significantly present in the very first literary work in the French language (and, therefore, in Romance speech) —the Cantilene of Saint Eulalia (c. 881), extolling the virtues and courage of a female martyr, would eventually bear fruit (Lonigan, pp.78-9 ) And so, progress in women's status becomes quite noticeable as one passes through the 11th century, and increasingly dramatic the more one moves into the 12th. For, although the epic is the dominant literary type during the first generation in 12th century France, it was already before 1100 that new tastes had begun to emerge. It is in 1066 that the Normans conquer England and eventually make contact with an excitingly different culture—the Celtic—whose literary tales and legends include stories of Tristan and Isolde which reveal the delights, dangers and disasters contained in that most perilous of phenomena, love, and, most importantly, bring upon the scene an equally important personage, one whose emotions, talents, intelligence, beauty, cleverness and powers command our attention, sympathy and unending fascination: woman in all her archetypical seductiveness, inspiring the strains of a troubadour — courtly love which has influenced lyric poetry worldwide ever since.

Ludwig Bieler, ed. The Irish Penitentials. The Dublin Institutes for Advanced Studies1975; Ludwig Bieler, trans. and commentary, The Patrician Texts in the Book of Armagh, The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1979; Ludwig Bieler, annotated and trans. by. The Works of St. Patrick, St. Secundius, Hymn on St. Patrick, Ancient Christian Writers No. 17, Newman Press: New York, N.Y., Ramsey, N.J., 1953; Johannes Broandsted, The Vikings, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960; Myles Dillon and Nora Chadwick, The Celtic Realms, The New American Library, New York, 1967; Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawford eds., The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1998; Fergus Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law, The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1988; Paul R. Lonigan, ' An Unexplored Question: Celtic Church Influence on Old French Hagiography', Eire-Ireland IX, no. 1 (1974), 73-79; Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, Thames and Hudson: London 1961, Oskar Seyferrt (revised and edited, with additions by Henry Nettleship and J.E. Sandys), Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, Meridian Books, Inc.: New York 6th Printing 1960; Jacquline Simpson, Everyday Life in the Viking Age, Dorset Press, New York, 1967; Malcolm Todd, Everyday Life of the Barbarians: Goths, Franks, and Vandals, Dorset Press: New York, 1972; Paul Veyne, ed., and Arthur Goldhammer, trans., A History of Private Life: from Pagan Rome to Byzantium, The Belknap University Press: Cambridge and London, 1987.

To reproduce any portion of this copyrighted issue of Oidhreacht, please make a written request of Celtic Heritage Books, copyright 2002. ISSN 1451-7816.

Author: Dr Paul R. Lonigan is a contributing editor to Oidhreacht newsletter.

Source: Celtic Heritage Books, PO Box 770637, Woodside, New York 11377-0637 USA. Tel/Fax: 718-478-8162. e-mail:
Spring 2003, vol. 2, No1.
Click here to Subscribe!
Feel free to send our web address, and the password for this issue, to a friend.
Encourage them to subscribe! Click here!

A subscription is 10.00 euros or US$13.00 for 4 issues. If using another currency please pay the equivalent. PayPal is an easy way to pay online, or you can send a cheque or credit card details by post. We will accept cheques in any currency, but cannot accept bank drafts.
AISLING Magazine, 'An Charraig', Mainistir, Inis Mór, Aran Islands, County Galway, Éire
Phone: + 353-(0)99-61245 - Fax: + 353-(0)99-61968 - E-mail: