Class in Celtic Society

Celtic Warriors by Antoine Glédel (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“It’s good to be the King,” or so says Mel Brooks. But in Celtic society, it was also good to be a Druid, warrior or even highly skilled craftsman. These were the high-ranking classes, the movers and shakers of their tribes and kingdoms. (When I say Celtic, keep in mind there were Celts in continental Europe, too. I’ll try to limit myself to the British Isles and note when I’m referring to a specific people, but a lot of research lumps them all together, so I have to as well.)

In modern America, we’re raised to be individualists, concerned mostly about our own wants, needs and achievements. The Celts were the exact opposite. In their world, loyalty to tribe and clan (and to a lesser degree, kingdom) was everything. While they honored and rewarded individual acts of political and military prowess or extraordinary bravery, in the grand scheme, their family and societal units were the most influential in shaping their mindsets and defining who they were.

There were five major groups in Celtic society. Both men and women could be members of any of these groups.

Boudicea haranguing her troops by Edward Farr (and others) (The national history of England) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

1. Druids – The Druids were the most powerful class in Celtic society. Much more than the ancient equivalent of priests, they also functioned as judges and lawgivers, poets/musicians, healers, teachers and prophets.  They had the power to incite rebellion or stop war with a single word. Their word was law, and if you crossed a Druid, you risked being stripped of your societal status and deemed an outlaw (see#5 below). Free from taxes and able to demand certain types of exorbitant payment for their services, some historians speculate they were even wealthier than the warrior class.
2. Warriors– The most powerful warriors often were also the clan chieftains. The Celts were fearsome fighters, but they didn’t fight in organized units like the Roman army. Because tribal loyalty was more important than battle tactics, if a Celtic general chose to break his war band up into units, he’d have to make sure the unit could survive on its own, in case the members decided to ignore his plans and fight individually. The most popular weapon for a warrior was a spear or javelin, but swords were also common. The Celts fought on horseback, as well as on foot. As in every other culture, to the victors go the spoils, so successful warriors were often very rich.

3. Professionals – The professional class included anyone with specialized skill: blacksmiths, metal workers, genealogists, historians, lawyers and physicians are all frequently mentioned in contemporary Roman, Greek and other accounts of Celtic society. Any one of these professions could include the Druids and warriors, too. If a person proved multi-talented, they were given a special elevated status and often accumulated great power and wealth.

4. Slaves – The Celts owned slaves. There I said it. As uncomfortable as it is to modern sensibilities, it’s true. Slaves were often members of conquered tribes or peoples and frequently were used as currency to pay debts or honor agreements. Female slaves actually had a going rate that fluctuated over time and were the most popular, followed by children. Hey, I never said Celtic society was all rainbows and butterflies.

5. OutlawsOutlaws are exactly what the word sounds like, people who were “outside of the law.” They lived in wilderness areas between tribes and often functioned as a makeshift sort of police force. But before you go thinking all Robin Hood, keep in mind these were people without a tribe or family in a world where those relationships defined you. In a way, Celtic society was similar to the Quakers or Amish. If you were shunned by society, you no longer existed. But unlike those later societies, the Celts had to do more than say they were sorry to get back in. More on that later.

You may notice there is no separate category for nobility. That is strange to those of us used to a more Medieval mindset, but in the Celtic world, both the Druids and the warriors could be nobles depending on their lineage, function and wealth. The Celts had a rule that any member of honorable society (the first three classes) could be stripped of their legal rights if they failed to execute the legal obligations of their station.

There is much more that can be said about the Druids, warriors and outlaws, so I’ll address each in more detail in future blog posts. Warning: I have fascination with the Druids, so you’re going to get to know them pretty darn well.

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12 thoughts on “Class in Celtic Society

  1. I’m sure you know about the aes dana–the creme de la creme of professionals.

    Are you counting the Fianna as part of the outlaw class, since they were famous for having no land and no clan?

    Have you thought about becoming a Druid? (i.e.: joining OBOD, ADF or one of the others?)

    • Yes, the aes dana were explored in a book on Women in Celtic law and culture that I’m still making my way through. In regard to the Fianna, I’m not really counting them at all at this point because I’m concentrating more on Britain and haven’t had the time to really dig into the intricacy of Irish law. But I’ll have to for Book 4, so I’ll make sure they’re on my list.

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    • Hi Chris! Thanks for the great article. I just bookmarked it so I can use it when I delve into Irish society specifically in Book 4.

      I did talk a little about changes in class status in my article on Outlaws in the Celtic World, which goes into a little information on how one could lose one’s status, and also in my post on Celtic Warriors, which talked about the feudal-like system of borrowing/debt and warrior status.

      But again, thank you for the great resource. I always love meeting people of like mind.

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