As promised, here's the next part of my Celtic Social Structures paper.
I hope you enjoy it.
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This message is part of a series that has been and will be published on
the Celtic Culture mailing list <[log in to unmask]>. The
titles of the series which already exist are:
Celtic Religion - what information do we really have (7 part message,
also available as a single .txt file)
Celtic Law - a short summary (12 part message, also available as a
single .txt file)
Celtic Social Structures - a short summary (this message)
The messages are also available on the WorldWideWeb at the Celtic-L
Resources page at <http://unet.univie.ac.at/~a8700035/celtrese.html>.
Celtic Social Structures - a short summary part 2
Before we really turn onto the matter it is necessary to clearly define
the limitations of this paper, and to explain a few terms which will be
frequently used later during the text.
2.1. Time and Area covered in this paper
Of course, Cultures which think of themselves as being Celtic still
exist today. However, those modern societies have, of course, almost no
similarity, at least in regard to the social system, to the societies
formed by the ancient Celts. As I am trying to show a „common Celtic"
social system, I first have to define what I mean with this.
What I think of as being the „common Celtic" social system exists in the
first millenium BC (approximatly) in the Celtic settled areas of
continental Europe and the British Isles. With the end of Celtic
independence on the continent it ends there, but lives on in the British
Isles, outside the areas conquered by the Romans. After the end of the
roman occupation it even returns to some of the areas that had been
controlled by Rome, for instance to Wales, Cornwall and Brittany,
basically to those areas which even today are called the „Celtic
countries". There this system lives on until the end of Celtic
independence in those areas, even though, in some areas, heavily
modified by outside influences.
2.2. Models of Social Structures
Basically I think that most of the sociological analyses existing are
probably quite interesting to comparative sociologists and maybe
archaeological culture classifiers (such persons that like to group
different cultures together because of similarities in their basic
system). They are, however, at least in my humble opinion, not a useful
description of the Celtic Social system itself, as those models neither
explain the exact functioning of the system, nor are the base systems
that currently are most often used detailed enough to allow any
interpretation of specific sociological elements from them.
Currently most frequently used, especially in the English speaking
scholarly community, are the evolutionary sociological models which
assume a general social evolution of mankind from Bands over tribes and
chiefdoms to states, and the Celtic Society is usually classified as
being somewhere in the area of turning from chiefdom to state (see for
this Arnold and Blair 1995). While this classification definitly is of a
certain value, I doubt that such models help us much for really
understanding Celtic Social Structures. Also, the general approach has
lately been questioned (see for this Yoffee and Sherrat 1993).
Other models in use, especially in the German speaking scholarly
community, are such that use a basic „feudal" system, in ist basic
makeup not unlike what would be calssified as a complex chiefdom in the
above system, to describe the social makeup of society (see for this
Kimmig 1969), or describe the political organisation and think this to
be a valid description of the social system (see for this Dobesch 1996).
While, again, those approaches definitly have a certain validity, they
are also not useful when trying to understand how the Celtic social
As such, while plenty of models exist, I do not think they are of great
use when trying to reconstruct Celtic Social Structures in a way that
not only describes surface symptoms, but tries to explain how this
2.3. Specific sociological Terms regarding Celtic Social Structures
When dealing with Celtic Social Structures, a few terms will frequently
be used, that do not belong to the common sociological vocabulary, but
which are of central importance in the Celtic system. Therefore, I will
try to list them up here and give a short explanation as to their
céili (chéile) = client, person that gets a rent of a lord and has to
fulfill certain duties in return
dóer = unfree, base
fine = family, kin-group
cennfine = head of kin (usually the eldest male in the kin, but may
derbfine = kin-group to the fourth generation (i.e. the
máithre = maternal kin
Nemed = „sacred", sociological term used to describe people which are of
sepcial social status, which gives some privileges. It could also
loosely be translated with „noble".
sóer = free
Ok, that's it for now. In the next message we will take a look at family
and kindred, one of the base elements of Celtic Social Structures.
To be continued ...
RAY - Mag.phil. Raimund KARL
Universität Wien, Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte
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