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Life for women among the ancient Celts about 2,000 years ago was surprisingly desirable, especially considering the treatment of women in most ancient civilizations. Celtic women could enter a variety of professions, hold legal rights-especially in the area of marriage-and have rights of redress in case of sexual harassment and rape, the most famous of which was Boudicca.
Celtic Laws Defining Marriage
According to historian Peter Berresford Ellis, the early Celts had a sophisticated, unified law system. Women could govern and take prominent roles in political, religious, and artistic life, and even act as judges and lawgivers. They could choose when and whom to marry. They could also divorce and they could claim damages if they were deserted, molested or maltreated. Today, two of the Celtic legal codes survive: The Irish Fénechas (known as the Brehon Law), codified during the reign of the High King Laoghaire (428-36 A.D.), and the Welsh Cyfraith Hywel (the Law of Hywel Dda), codified in the tenth century by Hywel Dda.
Marriage Among the Celts
In the Brehon system, at the age of 14, Celtic women were free to marry in one of nine ways. As in other civilizations, marriage was an economic union. The first three types of Irish Celtic marriages required formal, prenuptial agreements. The others-even the ones that would be illegal today-marriage meant men assumed financial responsibilities for child-rearing. The Fénechas system includes all nine; the Welsh Cyfraith Hywel system shares the first eight categories.
- In the primary form of marriage (lánamnas comthichuir), both partners enter the union with equal financial resources.
- In lánamnas mná for ferthinchur, the woman contributes fewer finances.
- In lánamnas fir for bantichur, the man contributes fewer finances.
- Cohabitation with a woman at her house.
- Voluntary elopement without the consent of the woman's family.
- Involuntary abduction without the family's consent.
- Secret rendezvous.
- Marriage by rape.
- Marriage of two insane people.
Marriage did not require monogamy, and in Celtic law, there were three categories of wives paralleling the first three types of marriage, the main difference being the attendant financial obligations. Neither was there a dowry required for marriage, although there was a "bride-price" which the woman could keep in certain cases of divorce. Grounds for divorce that included the return of the bride price were if the husband:
- Left her for another woman.
- Failed to support her.
- Told lies, satirized her or seduced her into marriage by trickery or sorcery.
- Struck his wife causing a blemish.
- Told tales about their sex life.
- Qas impotent or sterile or obese enough to prevent sex.
- Left her bed to exclusively practice homosexuality.
Laws Covering Rape and Sexual Harassment
In Celtic law, cases of rape and sexual harassment involved punishments to help the rape victim financially while permitting her rapist to remain free. That might have provided less incentive for the man to lie, but failure to pay could lead to castration.
The woman, too, had an incentive for honesty: she had to be certain of the identity of the man whom she was accusing of rape. If she made an allegation that later proved to be false, she would have no help raising the offspring of such union; nor could she charge a second man with the same crime.
Celtic law didn't demand written contracts for liaisons. However, if a woman was kissed or interfered with bodily against her will, the offender had to make compensation. Verbal abuse also fetched fines valued at the person's honor price. Rape, as defined among the Celts, included forcible, violent rape (forcor) and the seduction of someone asleep, mentally deranged, or intoxicated (sleth). Both were regarded as equally serious. But if a woman arranged to go to bed with a man and then changed her mind, she could not charge him with rape.
For the Celts, rape doesn't seem to have been so much shameful as a crime that must be avenged ("dial"), and often by the woman herself.
According to Plutarch, the famous Celtic (Galatian) queen Chiomara, wife of Ortagion of the Tolistoboii, was captured by the Romans and raped by a Roman centurion in 189 BC. When the centurion learned of her status, he demanded (and received) ransom. When her people brought the gold to the centurion, Chiomara had her countrymen cut off his head. She is said to have quipped to her husband that there should be only one man alive who knew her carnally.
Another story from Plutarch concerns that curious eighth form of Celtic marriage- that by rape. A priestess of Brigid named Camma was the wife of a chieftain named Sinatos. Sinorix murdered Sinatos, then forced the priestess to marry him. Camma put poison in the ceremonial cup from which they both drank. To allay his suspicions, she drank first and they both died.
Boudicca and Celtic Laws on Rape
Boudicca (or Boadicea or Boudica, an early version of Victoria according to Jackson), one of history's most powerful women, suffered rape only vicariously-as a mother, but her revenge destroyed thousands.
According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, made an alliance with Rome so that he would be allowed to rule his territory as a client-king. When he died in 60 A.D., he willed his territory to the emperor and his own two daughters, hoping thereby, to placate Rome. Such a will was not in accordance with Celtic law; nor did it satisfy the new emperor, for centurions plundered Prasutagus' house, whipped his widow, Boudicca, and raped their daughters.
It was time for revenge. Boudicca, as ruler and war leader of the Iceni, led a retaliatory revolt against the Romans. Enlisting the support of the neighboring tribe of Trinovantes and possibly some others, she resoundingly defeated the Roman troops at Camulodonum and virtually annihilated his legion, the IX Hispana. She then headed towards London, where she and her forces slaughtered all the Romans and razed the town.
Then the tide turned. Eventually, Boudicca was defeated, but not captured. She and her daughters are said to have taken poison to avoid capture and ritual execution at Rome. But she lives on in legend as Boadicea of the flaming mane who stands towering over her enemies in a scythe-wheeled chariot.
Updated by K. Kris Hirst
- Ellis PB. 1996. Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- The Brehon Law Academy
- Bulst CM. 1961. The Revolt of Queen Boudicca in A.D. 60. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 10(4):496-509.
- Conley CA. 1995. No Pedestals: Women and Violence in Late Nineteenth-Century Ireland. Journal of Social History 28(4):801-818.
- Jackson K. 1979. Queen Boudicca? Britannia 10:255-255.