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
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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 (2 parts + this message)
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Celtic Social Structures - a short summary part 3
3. Family and Kindred
Now we can look at the first important element of Social Structures, so
to say the smallscale social system, family and kindred. Actually, the
kin, or fine, can be seen as the basis of the Celtic social system, as
somebody who had no kin could claim no place in society, more or less.
3.1. The makeup of a „Celtic" kindred
At first, let us look at the functioning of a fine, the basic makeup of
it. Generally, a fine is a family-group that goes back to a common
ancestor via the male line. In contrast to larger units, like the tuáth
(i.e. „tribe", more or less), which also usually claims to go back to an
eponymous common ancestor, the fine is constructed in a way that the
common ancestor, even if no longer alive, was still known personally by
some living members of the kin. Why this is so will be explained
3.1.1. The Derbfine
The largest unit in the fine is the socalled derbfine, which is the
whole fine. It consists of all direct male and unmarried female
descendants of a common great-grandfather. As it can be assumed that,
most often, the grandchildren would have known their grandfather, it can
be assumed that they still had personal knowledge of the common ancestor
of the fine.
The derbfine had a number of social responsibilities against every
member of the kindred - for instance to pay for his debts if a member
itself could not pay, as well as a share of the common kinland for every
male member of the kin. Also, kinmembers were expected to act on behalf
of others of their kin if they could not act for themselves (because
they were legally incapable or because of any other reason), and to help
them in legal disputes, for instance as giving pledges or acting as
sureties or witnesses on behalf of their kinmembers (for such functions
see also my paper Celtic Law - a short summary).
In return for this, they were allowed, to a certain extent, to negate
deals a kinmember struck, which could adversially affect the kin, as
well to a share of the inheritance if a kinmember died without leaving
heirs, as well as to a share of every land such a kinmember had aqquired
additionally to his share of kinland.
This is how it was in the Irish system, we know less about it in the
Welsh and the continental Celtic system, but it can be assumed that a
similar system existed there. Hints to this can be found in the literary
sources from Wales, and, for the continent, in the archaeological
material, where functions in the kin described later in this chapter can
probably be identified, as well as notes as in Caesars De bello gallico
(DBG VI, 11,2-3) regarding political splits running even through
families can be interpreted as hints towards „larger" family groupings
not unlike the derbfine.
3.1.2. The close family
The close family was the smallest division inside a kin, the
intermediate divisions being of interest only in regard to shares of
inheritance and debts. The close family had more immediate
responsibilities to help a member of it, both to financial and legal
aid, but therefore was also allowed to more directly interfear with
actions of one of ist members and entitled to the greatest share of
The social status in the kin and in society also was largely dependend
on the position in the close family, as a son of a living father was
considered as only partlially legally competent and as having a very
restricted social position, regardless of the status of his father (see
for this also my paper Celtic Law - a short summary).
However, once the father died, his social status would be „divided" by
his sons, and what was left to them after sharing would give them their
new social status. Thus, if a rich father died, having only a single
son, this son would inherit his fathers rank, both inside the kin as
well as in the social system in general. On the other hand, if a poor
father died, leaving his inheritnace to be divided by many sons, these
could easily be worse off than while their father was still alive.
One of the worst things that could happen to a person was to become
kinless, either because his kinmembers threw him out of the kin because
his actions would create too big damage to the whole kin (for instance
his actions would have incurred debts or legal punishment which the
whole kin could not afford without being ruined) or because he commited
the act of fingal („kinslaying", i.e. killing another kinmember), or
because his whole kin died out.
Such a person, who had nobody who would or could act on his behalf,
could act as a surety or in other legal functions for him (see for this
also my paper Celtic Law - a short summary), was virtually a social
outsider with no rights in society. As the members of a kin were also
expected to act as witnesses on behalf of their kinmembers, and were
expected to enforce the legal rights of ist members, without such help
the kinless person had no possibility to enforce ones rights, and was
actually defenseless against any injustice committed against him.
Most interestingly, Caesar describes in his De bello gallico (DBG VI,
13,5-6) that the worst kind of punishment the Gauls have is to expell a
private person (or a whole people) from the religious services, which
can very well be interpreted as describing a very similar practice as
the one of expelling somebody from the kin. As such a person then would
be without any legal protection and rights, it is easily imaginable why
this is considered to be the worst kind of punishment.
3.2. Social organisation inside the kindred
The kindred itself also has an internal social organisation, which is,
of course, intertwined with the external social structures of ist
various members, but which also has a logic of ist own. Basically, the
kin is organised in a hierarchical way, with the elder ones having more
importance than the younger ones (which is also displayed by the fact
that sons of living fathers have very limited capacities and rights).
However, limitations exist to this rule, as certain things exist inside
a kin that can influence this rule.
3.2.1. The Cennfine
The first thing that has to be mentioned here is the person called
cennfine, which literally means „head of kin". This person is „elected"
from amongst the members of the kin, and is something like the „chief"
inside the kin. Usually it is expected that this position is held by the
eldest male person in the kin, but other things like economical
prosperity and sociopolitical status may make another coice more
As such, it is more likely that actually the most influencial person in
the kin, because of his riches and/or social position in the common
social system, would hold this position, and not necessarily the oldest
The cennfine had certain rights and responsibilities in the kin that go
beyond that of ordinary kinmembers. He was responsible to represent the
kin in all problems with could affect the whole kin - be it in legal
disputes with other kins, in problems with the tribe or any other
„external affairs". He also was the person who would be distrained (see
for this my paper Celtic Law - a short summary) if an ordinary kinmember
had open debts that could not be distrained from the kinmembers
property, he had to act as a surety on behalf of any kinmember needing
such assistance and had to see for the enforcment of the legal rights of
On the other hand, anything which could affect the whole kin had to have
his consent. More or less, his position inside the kin was that of a
„lord", and actually he has most of the legal rights of a noble in
regard to his own kin, regardless if he actually is a member of the
nobility or not.
Most interestingly, archaeologists in Bohemia think to be able to
identify persons with quite a similar function in some of the Celtic
Bohemian settlements and graveyards, a person they have called
„Dorfchef" (="village-chief") (see for this Waldhauser 1993, 223 pp. and
3.2.2. Other special elements inside a kindred
Additionally, we can assume that there were some other internal social
elements inside a kindred.
What we have direct evidence of is that standard clientship
relationships were expected to be formed also inside a kindred (more on
clientship later in this paper). As such, it can be assumed that some
members of a kin were lords of other members of their kin, which again
would result in exceptions to the elder-younger rule (if a younger
member of the kin inherited the lordship from his father, who had been
lord of other members of the kin, he of course would be in a more
important social position not only outside but also inside the kindred).
Additionally, we can assume that certain specialists, be it judges,
craftsmen or others, would also hold special positions inside the kin.
That such diverse functions were already common in old Celtic Society is
evident from various texts, the most prominent mention of such a
situation is again in aesars De bello gallico (DBG I, 3,4-6 and later I,
18,1-10) where of the brothers Diviciacus and Dumnorix the one is a
druid while the other one is a „standard" noble.
3.3. Marriage and Divorce
What also belongs to the functions of a kin are the regulations
regarding marriage and divorce. A more detailed treatment of them can be
found in my paper Celtic Law - a short summary. Here it is, however,
necessary to look at some elements having to do with the kinship
relations resulting from marriages.
When a woman married, she became a member of her husbands kin, even
though here ties to her old kin were not completely severed, nor were
those of her children. The maternal kin, even though not of high
influence, had some rights in regard to the wife and her children. As
such, maternal kin (máithre) has a right to some share of body-fines
resulting from harm done to the woman or her offspring, and if those are
badly treated in their fathers kin, can act on their behalf. Also,
members of the máithre were often taken as foster-parents for children.
Obviously, it was also a common practice that members of the same
kindred married, especially if a member of the kin died leaving only
female heirs. Especially in this case it seems that poorer members of
the kin were preferred marriage partners for the female heirs, as this
kept the property in the kin and allowed their offspring to inherit as
would children of male heirs (the inheritance of offspring of female
heirs was limited to a certain amount, to not allow too much property
get lost for the kin).
The laws on divorce and inheritance of wedded partners have been treated
in Celtic Law - a short summary as well, but it should be noted here
that strong similarities can again be seen here to Caesars descriptions
in his De bello gallico (DBG VI, 19,1-3).
3.4. The status of children inside the family
Children had a very limited status inside the family, as has already
become evident from the position of sons of living fathers. Children
that were not old enough to have a legal status of their own were more
or less considered to be property of their parents.
However, in special cases this could be different. If the father died
before male children were old enough to be themselves legally competent,
other members of the kin usually took over to represent them, with the
children themselves having at least some rights to interfere with the
decisions of their kinmembers.
Also, a very special element is the matter of fosterage. All persons
that could afford such contracts probably gave away their children to
foster-parents between (at least usually) the age of seven and fourteen.
Preferred foster-parents were of course other kinmembers, but also
members of the máithre, or anybody else with which amicable relations
were wanted. Foster-children were in a very special situation, as they
often were not of the same social status as their foster-parents (even
though of course fosterage with people of the same status was, at least
for persons of higher social status, expected), and because being
fostered with other children also created relations to the
foster-parents and the other children living at their house. As a result
of this, foster-parents and socalled milkbrothers, i.e. children living
at the house of the foster-parents, had some rights to the children,
especially to a certain amount of body-fines and similar restitutions.
As long as they were in fosterage, the responsibilities for their
upbring were split between their biological parents and their kin and
the foster-parents and their kin.
Ok, that's it for today. In the next message we will take a look at
class and status in the tribe, which formed the makeup of the Social
To be continued ...
RAY - Mag.phil. Raimund KARL
Universität Wien, Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte
A-1190 Wien, Franz Klein Gasse 1
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