We may not know much about the truth behind Arthurian legend, but one thing is pretty certain: if King Arthur existed, he was a warrior. And probably even Guinevere, too. Women were just as likely to be battle trained as men in Celtic society. As I mentioned in a previous post, in King Arthur’s world, you couldn’t get much higher than being a warrior (except maybe being a Druid) because they were the ruling class.
The Celts were fearsome warriors. Over a period of 800 years, they massacred four entire Roman legions and even sacked Rome in 390 BC. One of their most famous revolts was led by Queen Boudicca in Britain in AD 60-61.
Membership in the warrior class was usually hereditary, but status as solider often came as part of a complicated agreement similar to feudalism. Any freeman (anyone who was not an outlaw, exile or slave) could get a loan of grain, tools, livestock, horses or whatever else was needed) from another freeman in exchange for military service at an interest rate around 30%. But if a Celt wanted a lower interest rate (around 8%), he or she also had to give food and free labor to the overlord. Because being under service to someone else did not preclude you from having someone in your service, so the web of loyalties and debts often got very complicated. Out of this web emerged the concept of knighthood (and perhaps Arthur’s venerable Knights of the Round), though chivalry would come much later.
Anyone with at least five free clients (under the lower interest loan) and five base clients (the higher interest loan) was considered some level of noble. So the more people in your service (and hence, the bigger your army) the more powerful you were. But it was your military and political prowess that really determined your rank among the nobility.
So if you met a Celtic warrior in a dark alley (which I wouldn’t advise) what would he or she look like? Both men and women wore trousers, colorful cloaks and tunics, and gold or silver plated belts. Some sources say the Celts stiffened their hair with lime when they went into battle. (But no one seems to explain why, at least that I’ve found.) Many fighters would have been armed with chain mail, which the Celts invented. They fought with a long sword, which hung from their right side by a bronze chain, and carried spears or lances to hurl at oncoming fighters. Some also fought with a weapon called a madaris, which seems to be similar to a javelin. And if they were so minded, they could use a sling and bow for distance weapons, but these were not the most important in their arsenal. Defense came in the form of shields made of wood, leather or bronze, which covered the fighter from knee to shoulder. Warriors could be mounted on horseback (whether or not their saddles had stirrups is a matter of controversy), on foot or if in an earlier time than my books, even in a war chariot.
And battle? One-on-one combat was valued, even as whole armies watched, so the outcome of a battle could be decided without mass casualties, but how often this technique was employed is unclear. What we do know is that unlike their Roman counterparts, the Celts were not good at formal formations (except for simultaneously putting up their shields to form a beetle-like barrier against javelins and other missile weapons) and organized techniques of warfare. In many cases, tribal loyalty counted above all, even the orders of a commander, so the battlefield always had the potential to be chaotic.
All the members of a family went off to war together and often died together. Camp women (pregnant and non-warrior women), artists and children often followed the battles, providing needed services such as cooking, laundry, healing and yes, sex. If the army they were following was defeated and they survived, many fled into the wilderness or to the nearest tribe seeking refuge, but most ended up as slaves to the victorious army.
*In case you’re interested, most of this information came from Who Were the Celts by Kevin Duffy and Women in Celtic Law and Culture by Jack George Thompson, both of which are mentioned on my research page.
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