Children in Celtic Law

Girl from Malorossiya by Nikolas Kornilievich Bodarevsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Girl from Malorossiya by Nikolas Kornilievich Bodarevsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In a tribal society where kinship was revered above all, children were given special prominence in law.

Raising children was generally the equal responsibility of both parents and their families. Oddly enough, if a child was born due to rape, seduction or if the family didn’t give consent, the responsibility for raising the child fell to the father. (You’d think it would be the other way around, but maybe this was a form of punishment for wrongdoing.) The father was also responsible if the mother was dead, ill, disabled, insane, a satirist or outcast from her tribe.

The mother had the sole responsibility for the rearing of the child if the father was foreign, a slave, a satirist or outcast from his tribe. If a woman got pregnant by a son with no income/lands of his own against the wishes of his father, she was responsible for the child. Also, a prostitute was responsible for all of her children.

There was no such thing as an illegitimate child in the Celtic world. All children were raised by the tribe. However, in the case of nobility, a man would have to “adopt” his illegitimate son for him to be considered an hier.

Fosterage was very common. In short, it meant that a child, whether male or female, would spend some part of his or her childhood in the household of another family, learning a trade, how to fight or govern (depending on their class) from them. The child could be sent to the foster family at any time once he or she reached one year of age. The child would return to their birth family when he or she reached marriageable age (14 for girls, 17 for boys).

This situation not only helped educate their children for their future roles in society, it strengthened bonds between families and tribes. During the time the child was being fostered, the foster family was responsible for their education (facing heavy penalties if it wasn’t imparted well) and was responsible for any harm or injury to the child.

There was also literary fosterage, where ollamhs, or masters of craft, who took students in for payment (or in some cases, nothing). These students were essentially adopted by the masters.

Under Celtic law, a man was required to care for her elderly parents. If he couldn’t afford to care for both, he was to care for his father and forget his mother (so much for the rights of Celtic women!) Couples who had no boys had the option of adopting a male heir, although this was considered a last resort under Irish law, and not even mentioned in Welsh law (Thompson 134). Kin could also adopt children if something happened to their parents. Nothing that I have read mentions adoptions by childless couples, but I’m sure it happened.

As with everything else in Celtic law, inheritance was complex. Under Irish law, children had the same rights of inheritance regardless of the status of their mothers (first wife, second wife, mistress, etc.). So the son of the chief wife and the son of a lesser union (see the types of Celtic marriage for examples) had equal right to inherit, provided the father acknowledged both children. However, the sons of known prostitutes, sons who were outlawed, or abandoned children who had not been formally adopted could not inherit.

Daughters were entitled to a share of personal property, but not necessarily to land unless there were no sons or the daughter’s husband was a foreigner with no land of his own. Even when a daughter was considered an heiress, she “received only a ‘life estate’ of family property which then reverted back to her paternal family group at her death” (Thompson 138). However,  Thompson also notes that “in some tracts, daughters divided property equally with sons, whereas in others, a single daughter divided the estate with her brothers. In any event, parent-daughter(s) transmission of wealth was clearly guaranteed by law in the late-classic and early Christian periods of Irish history” (146).

I promise, this is the last post on Celtic law for a while…maybe ever. I just felt that I’d be remiss to not to broadly cover these important parts of Celtic life.


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 do you think about this topic? How have you seen inheritance or other laws regarding children played our in Arthurian or Celtic literature? Please let me know in the comments.

Celtic Divorce

Photo by Jennifer Pahlka from Oakland, CA, [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Jennifer Pahlka from Oakland, CA, [CC-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?