Celtic Divorce

Photo by Jennifer Pahlka from Oakland, CA, [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Jennifer Pahlka from Oakland, CA, [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, we talked about Celtic marriage. Sadly, not all those ended in happily ever after. In fact, divorce was common in the Celtic world, and relatively easy to obtain in comparison with today’s tangled web of courts and lawyers. There was no social stigma against it, since it was simply viewed as the breaking of a contract, like any business agreement.

In the case of a handfasting where no permanent contract had been signed, tradition tell us that at the end of their year and a day, the couple’s hands were symbolically unbound and they were placed back to back. Each gave their consent to the divorce and they walked away from one another. (Modern neo-pagans sometimes copy this tradition.) Easy enough.

But in a contractual marriage, things got a little more complicated, mainly due to the Celtic concern over property rights and alliances. Although Ginnell argues that “divorce was easy and could be obtained on as slight grounds” as some of the current states of the US, Thompson writes that it was more complicated than that. Ginnell generalizes that the law favored women, who took most of their own property, as well as their husband’s with them (212) in cases of divorce, but Thompson shows the opposite.

The law also changes depending on what part of the Celtic world a couple lived in. I haven’t found any sources that speak of Britain directly, so we need to look at her neighbors to get an understanding of what the law may have been.

“Medieval Welsh law allowed either husband or wife to dissolve a marriage at whim, and legal grounds for divorce only affected the division of property. If both parties agreed to the divorce, and the marriage had lasted at least seven years and three nights, joint marriage property was divided equally…If only one party filed for divorce and/or the marriage lasted less than seven years and three nights, Welsh law used a complex formula to decide which properties would be awarded to the husband, which to the wife and which were to be divided proportionally between them. (Thompson 135). Welsh men could divorce their wives for adultery and they would get all of the marriage property. But if the husband was caught, this wasn’t grounds for divorce; he just paid a fine. Women could divorce only her husband had bad breath (you’d think that would be common…), impotency or leprosy. By the way, these laws were in use through at least the 10th century.

In Ireland, things were better. Either party could file for divorce and there were a lot more legally accepted reasons. A man could divorce his wife for not keeping house well, if she stole on a regular basis (wonder how many women were one-time or infrequent offenders?), had an abortion, betrayed him to his enemies (yeah, I’d want a divorce, too!) or dishonored him (not sure how this was defined). A woman could get a divorce for 14 different reasons, including her husband’s failure to provide for her or her family due to unemployment, mental or physical illness or entry into a monastery; emotional or physical abuse; impotency, sterility, bisexuality or homosexuality (Thompson 136).

If both wanted the divorce, they would get their own private property back and the equivalent land and goods they brought to the marriage. Anything acquired during the marriage was divided equally. If either the husband or the wife had committed any of the above offenses, the non-guilty party would claim all profits (Thompson 136).

Other Instances
Perry notes that there are reasons for divorce that would enable a woman to reclaim the bride price (dowry) her father paid for her, including her husband leaving her for another woman, failure to support her, or her husband “telling lies or satirizing her or  seducing her into marriage by trickery or sorcery.” She could also divorce him for being ” indiscreet enough to tell tales about their love life.” In addition, either party could obtain a “no-fault” separation if one wished to enter the priesthood or religious life.

Perry also notes an interesting legal temporary separation I haven’t seen documented elsewhere. The husband of a barren woman could leave for a while to impregnate a woman in a more informal form of marriage and the wife of a sterile husband could leave to get pregnant by another man. In either case, the child was considered the husband’s. (I think this is what Marion Zimmer Bradley may have been going for in The Mists of Avalon during the controversial scene with Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot, but that’s only a guess. There are a million theories out there.) And this is a good segue into next week, when we’ll talk about the rights of children in the Celtic world.


Ancient Celts: Celtic Marriage by Epona Perry
Women in Celtic Law and Culture by Jack George Thompson
The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook by Laurence Ginnell

What about you? What do you think about these laws? Are they any more complicated than ours? Have you read any other information?