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?

Marriage in the Celtic World

The Uninvited Guest by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Uninvited Guest by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Marwage. Marwage is whaught bwings us togethor, today. Marwage, that bwessed awangement, that dweam within a dweam.”

(If you don’t know where that quote is from, get thee to Netflix!)

Celtic marriage was very different from what we think of today. It was very rarely done out of love, usually out of political gain for the families/tribes involved. It also was not a religious event, but a contractual agreement. (Celtic law is very complex, so what I’m going into here merely skims the surface. It’s based in Brehon Law, which is the only extant law we have for the Celtic people. It is known as the law of Ireland, but likely similar laws existed in Britain as well.) The laws governing marriage were set up to ensure children were protected (illegitimacy did not exist – more on that in a future post), make clear the rights of the husband and wife, and protect the property rights of both parties.

You may have heard of the practice of handfasting, trial marriages that lasted a year and a day. These did happen, most commonly on Lughnasa when the tribes were together, but when this occurred, it was more like an engagement. The realities of contractual marriage were much more complex. (If you want details that will make your head spin, read Thompson’s book, p. 129-175)

Under Brehon Law, there were 10 forms of marriage, each diminishing in importance, legal rights and desirability (thanks to Epona Perry for this simplified list):

  1. A first degree union takes place between partners of equal rank and property.
  2. A second degree union in which a woman has less property than the man and is supported by him.
  3. A third degree union in which a man has less property than the woman and has to agree to management of the woman’s cattle and fields.
  4. A fourth degree union is the marriage of the loved one in which no property rights changed hands, though children’s rights are safeguarded.
  5. A fifth degree union is the mutual consent of the man and woman to share their bodies, but live under separate roofs. (And ideal situation for some, I’m sure!)
  6. A sixth degree union in which a defeated enemy’s wife is abducted. This marriage is valid only as long as the man can keep the woman with him. (We see this a lot in Arthurian legend and traditional Welsh tales.)
  7. A seventh degree union is called a soldier’s marriage and is a temporary and primarily sexual union (a one night stand).
  8. An eighth degree union occurs when a man seduces a woman through lying, deception or taking advantage of her intoxication (equivalent to the modern definition of “date rape”).
  9. A ninth degree union is a union by forcible rape (this also occurs in Arthurian legend and Celtic folk stories).
  10. A tenth degree union occurs between feeble-minded or insane people.

Under the law, women had the right choose their husbands and could not be forced to marry. Although, given the nature of some of the types of marriage listed above, and the likely influence (read: threats) of family members, one has to wonder how much choice some women really had. Dowries were very important, as brides were purchased from their fathers by their husbands for what became known as a bride-price. Some of this was kept in reserve for the woman, should her marriage end at the fault of her husband, so she would not be left destitute. (More on divorce in a future post.) There was also a virgin-price that guaranteed the wife’s purity. It’s also interesting to note that if two people of unequal rank wanted to marry, the person of lower rank was responsible for the financial burden. We can assume this was meant to keep Celtic nobility from “marrying down.”

The Celts were believers in polygamy, so second wives and concubines were common, especially before the Roman invasion of their native lands. Multiple husbands were less common, but not unheard of. There were even laws that stated a first wife could legally murder the second wife within the first three days of marriage! She would still have to pay a fine, but other than that she was within her rights. (Brehon Law used the payment of fines to solve just about every problem, from divorce to murder.) Some say this is where the tradition of a honeymoon, or a husband and second wife going away for the first few days of their marriage, originated. (Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.) A chief wife had rights to her husband’s estate, while other wives were govered by informal contracts that often didn’t require the first wife to provide for them at all, or for the husband to leave them anything in the event of his death.

It’s hard to tell how Roman law, and then Christianity, affected these practices, but I believe it’s safe to assume polygamy and some of the more scandalous forms of marriage fell out of favor once Christianity became a major factor in Celtic life. We know that by the time these laws were written down by Irish monks, they were already amending pagan-era rules to suit their Christian audiences.

In my books, I use these laws as the basis for my characters’ actions, but I don’t stick strictly to them since we know so little about where and when they were really applied. Besides, the threat of death is much more dramatic than just paying a fine, and I find it hard to believe that the war-like Celts didn’t exact bloody revenge when they were wronged.


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 have you read/heard about Celtic marriages? How have you seen them portrayed in books and in Hollywood? What do you think about these laws?