Cooking with the Celts

Celtic iron age roundhouse [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Celtic iron age roundhouse [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ever wondered what it would have been like to eat with a Celt? What do you mean, “no?” Go with me on this anyway.

The answer depends on the location and time period. I’m confining my discussion to Britain because that’s what I know best.

The pre-Roman Celts ate with fingers and dagger off of plates made from wood or bread. Food was either passed around or served at a low table. They sat crossed legged or squatted on floors covered in rushes or animal skins. Food was usually cooked over a central fire in a round house. We know the Celts ate well, with pork or beef being boiled in large cauldrons or roasted on a spit. It was also salted for later use. Fish, bread, honey, butter, cheese, venison, boar and wild fowl were also common. A favorite was salmon with honey. Porridge was a typical breakfast, possibly along with ale or mead and maybe a few bannocks (flat cakes made from barley or oats).

Hospitality was highly valued, so much in fact that strangers were allowed to eat before being asked their name or what they needed. At banquets, the chief or king gave the “hero’s portion,” the choice thigh, to the bravest man in the clan.

Replica of a Roman kitchen by Linda Spashett (Storye book) (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Replica of a Roman kitchen by Linda Spashett (Storye book) (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the Roman invasion, kitchens of Celts who adopted the Roman ways weren’t too different from yours, at least in terms of cooking implements. They didn’t have microwaves, but they did have ovens to bake bread and stoves/hearths on which to boil, fry or stew. They also had sieves and ladles, chopping boards, baking sheets, and pots and pans of iron or bronze. They could even adjust the heat level of their stoves by placing the cooking vessels over metal tripods of varying heights.

The Romans brought with them many new  foods, such as onions, leeks, lettuce, lentils, celery, plums, apples and walnuts. They also brought herbs used in healing and cooking such as dill, garlic, fennel, sage and rosemary. Their love of food was accompanied by a great love for wine, which had been imported by the southern and eastern Celtic tribes before the invasion, but was in high demand after. Oddly enough, the Celts were known for their dislike of olive oil, something highly prized by the Romans.

With these new foods came new table manners. Roman men ate on couches, their left hand supporting them, right hand used in eating. Women sat on basket chairs. They used finger bowls to cleanse the fingertips and napkins to wipe their mouths. Napkins were also used to take home leftovers (ancient doggie bag!) According to Gifford, they ate with knives and spoons of bronze, bone or silver. Other historians claim the spoon wasn’t invented until much later on. Those people say soup was eaten out of a communal bowl that was passed among the dinners. (Eww…Soup is off the menu in my books just because I can’t verify which way is correct for eating it.)

What about you? What have you heard, read or seen in books (fiction or non-fiction) or movies about the eating habits of the Celts?



Alcock, Joan. Food in Roman Britain.
Alcock, Leslie. Kings, Warriors, Craftsmen, and Priests: Britain AD 550-850
Duffy, Kevin. Who were the Celts?
Gifford, Clive. Food and Cooking in Ancient Rome.

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Pendragon University, School of Arthurian Legend

A crest I created for Guinevere and Arthur. It could also be the seal for Pendragon University. Copyright: Nicole Evelina

I’ve spent way too much time looking at master’s/Ph.D. programs online lately. Need proof? A few days ago I woke up around
1 a.m. with a thought: what would a major in Celtic Arthurian legend look like? I was awake for the next two hours pondering just that.

I’m betting that somewhere in the world a course design looks much like this, but since I haven’t found it yet, I give you the major of Arthurian Studies at my fictional Pendragon University:

Required Courses

  • Celtic History 101 (Vienna to British tribes)
  • Celtic History 201 (Roman occupation to Anglo Saxon rule)
  • King Arthur: Man or Myth?
  • Arthurian Legend 101 (Characters)
  • Arthurian Legend 201 (Historical, Mythological and Literary Sources)
  • The Battles of King Arthur
  • Celtic Law
  • Celtic Daily Life
  • The Druid Religion: Then and Now
  • Classic Arthurian Literature (myth and oral history through the Middle Ages)
  • Modern Arthurian Literature (18th-21st centuries)
  • Arthur’s Enemies: the Picts, Irish and Saxons
  • The Meaning of Arthurian Legend Today
  • Capstone Tour (Glastonbury, Cadbury, Carlisle, Tintagel, etc.) – this tour does exist and I’m going on it next June!
  • Thesis/dissertation

Optional Courses

  • Archeology (emphasis on Roman occupation and post-Roman Britain)
  • Language of the Celts
  • Celtic Herbalism
  • Arthur’s Children in Myth and Literature
  • Arthurian Places Across Britain, Wales and Scotland
  • Warriors and Fighting in Celtic Times
  • Avalon: Myth, Legend and New Age Pilgrimage
  • Beyond the Walls: The Gododdin and The Highlands
  • Food in Post-Roman Britain
  • Arthur in Film and Pop Culture
  • Standing Stones and Monoliths
  • Lecture Series: Women in Arthurian Legend
    • Morgan
    • Guinevere
    • Isolde
    • Elaine
    • Priestesses of Avalon
  • The Holy Grail
  • Symbolism in Arthurian Legend

I even realized that some of my favorite fellow Arthurian/history bloggers could be instructors that this fictional school: Tyler Tichelaar, Ian Forbes, Tim Clarkson (Senchus) Mac Wilson (Badonicus) and Oxford professor Jonathan Jarrett, just to name a few. And if you want a required reading list, check out my research page.

Do you know of any schools that offer something similar? If a major like this existed, would you be interested? Which classes would you want to take? Which classes would you want to teach? What would you add to the list? What books would you recommend?

Arthurian Legend: Historical Fiction or Fantasy?

When I first started to seriously consider getting my work published, I posted to an online message board asking whether agents/publishers consider Arthurian legend historical fiction or fantasy. I received only one reply (rather snarky), “Oh that stuff gets passed off as historical fiction all the time.”

That was when I realized not everyone thinks Arthurian legend is a serious topic (or sub-genre, if you will) for historical fiction. Where it should be classified really depends on your definition of “historical.” If by that word you mean something firmly grounded in evidence and fact (especially written), then you won’t ever be able to accept Arthurian legend as historical. But if you accept a looser definition that includes anything that takes place in another time period and attempts to recreate the history, culture, politics, religion, etc. of that time, then you open yourself up to including Arthurian legend.

I’m happy to say that the Historical Novel Society (HNS) counts it as historical fiction. As stated in their Guide to King Arthur:

From the point of view of historical fiction, the Arthur mythos has always pin-pointed the fault-line between history and story. The historians pull in the direction of a realistic, Celtic post-Roman world. Their Arthur is without magic, without high-Catholic symbolism, and without chivalry. The fantasy authors pull the other way, setting the stories in a time outside time, often depicting a battle between Christian ‘magic’ and pagan ‘magic’, plundering the myths for narrative and atmosphere. Literary authors tend to stand one foot in both camps, enchanted by the magic realism and epic poetry at the heart of the stories, but wanting to give emotional consistency and humanity (usually historical humanity) to the protagonists.”

Personally, I believe that Arthurian legend can be either historical fiction or fantasy, depending on if the author chooses to ground his/her story in history. As I’ve said before, there is very little historical evidence for Dark Ages Britain and King Arthur. Really all we know for sure is that the tribes of Britain fought against each other after Rome left their shores in 410 AD. They united (presumably under a single leader) to face the Saxons in battle at a place traditionally known as Mount Badon, somewhere around the year 500 AD (some argue as much as 30 years earlier or later on the date). They roundly defeated the Saxons, who then left them alone for decades. Their leader is traditionally called Arthur, which may be a title or a name. Around him grew the stories we know as Arthurian legend (see parts 1, 2, and 3 of my series on the evolution of Arthurian legend to learn more).

Because we have so few reliable records, those of us interested in Arthur and Celtic Britain must rely heavily on myth and tradition. This opens up a lot of room for interpretation and invention. (Hence, the “fiction” part of “historical fiction.”) But it can also lead into the realms of fantasy when we make up things to fill in the historical gaps, especially if those things involve the supernatural. But does magic always mean fantasy? Again, the answer depends on your point of view. The Celts certainly had a belief in magic. And there are people in our world today who will swear psychic abilities, the manipulation of energy and Otherworldly beings are very real, while others say they are pure make-believe or wishful thinking.

In short, until the day someone can definitively prove one way or the other that Arthur did or did not exist and we find records of his culture, there will be the possibility for both historical accuracy and fantasy in fiction that deals with him and his world.

And my books? I never thought I’d say this, but according to the HNS definition, I think I fall in the literary category. My Arthur and Guinevere live in post-Roman Britain (approximately 491-530 AD) and I’ve tried very hard to make the culture/politics true to the time period, but I also couldn’t imagine an Arthurian world without magic. Because of the tensions of the time, I carry on the fantasy tradition of emphasizing the clash between pagan and Christian, but not only in theology, also in politics and power.

Do you think Arthurian legend can be considered historical fiction? Or would you define it as fantasy? Why? Does how it’s classified or shelved at a bookstore even matter to you as a reader?

Trinity College Old Library Long Room – Heaven on Earth

Trinity College Long Room, Old Library. No photography is allowed, so this is a scan of the postcard I bought in the gift shop.

Pardon me while I indulge my dorkdom.

But if I could personally design heaven, it would look exactly like the Trinity College Old Library Long Room. For me, this is heaven on earth and I’m sure my fellow bibliophiles would agree.

Built between 1712 and 1732, it houses over 200,000 rare books. Rotating exhibits line the center isle. The ones while we were there were illuminated manuscripts from various time periods, as well as artifacts from the library’s history, including the oath the library guards have to take. Word to the wise: the guards get tetchy if you lean over the ropes to get a better look at the books, even if your hands are behind your back. Really, all I wanted was to see if I could read the titles on the spines…

The library also houses the Book of Kells, Book of Armagh, the Book of Durrow and the oldest surviving harp in Ireland (you know, the one you see on Irish coins and everywhere else). But for me, the real treasure was the library itself. I actually cried while we were in the Long Room. That’s how happy I was. Somehow seeing all those books confirmed my desire to be a full-time author and also get my doctorate in history. I’m a bookworm to my core.

The spiral staircase that greets you as you walk into the library. Also a scan of a postcard.

I could kiss the person who created this: a 360 degree tour of the Long Room Library. (Put it on full-screen mode to feel like you’re there.) I think it will get me through until I can go back again, which it now appears may be sooner than I anticipated.

In all seriousness, it’s on my Bucket List to get to use one of the books housed here in my research, preferably getting to read it in the second floor reading room. Now I just have to figure out what they have that I would need and how to go about accessing it. I’ve also added visiting all the world’s most beautiful libraries to my list. Anyone want to come with me?

I could sit and look at the stacks of books, breathing in that old book smell forever. Yeah, if I was in the world of Veronica Roth’s Divergent, I’d totally be Erudite.  And that’s fine by me.

What do you think of the library? Have you been there? Do places like this interest you? What places in the world take your breath away?

Tyler R. Tichelaar: Searching for King Arthur in Turkey

Note from Nicole: Today’s post comes from Arthurian scholar and historical fiction author, Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. You may remember his name from a review of his book, “King Arthur’s Children,” that I did a few months ago. I’m thrilled to have him with us because he can always be counted on for thought-provoking insight into Arthurian legend. I will be in Ireland when this post runs, but Tyler is ready to respond to any comments/questions you may have.

I am honored to be a guest on Nicole Evelina’s blog. When I told her I was going to Turkey and it had Arthurian connections, she was surprised and asked me whether I would blog about my trip and those connections when I got home.

While I did not find any legitimate evidence that King Arthur ever visited Turkey, Turkey has many connections to the Arthurian legend, including being home to King Arthur’s ancestors and to many stories and relics that later figure in the Arthurian legends. In fact, I could fill many blog posts with the connections between Arthur and Turkey, but I will just briefly hit some of the highlights here and include a few photographs from my trip.

King Arthur’s Ancestors in Turkey

The ruins of Troy (Photo by Tyler R. Tichelaar)

Who were King Arthur’s ancestors? According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur was descended from Brutus, for whom Britain was named. Brutus came to Britain from Italy where he was a descendant of Aeneas, founder of Rome. Aeneas was a survivor who escaped from Troy after the city fell. Aeneas’ tale is told in The Aeneid by Virgil, and he is also mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. Aeneas was part of the Trojan royal family. Therefore, we can say that King Arthur was a Trojan. Today, it is difficult to imagine what the city of Troy must have looked like since the ruins of Troy are hardly more than small remnants of walls that remain, but even so, I found it spine-tingling to visit those ruins and imagine what it would have been like to live in Troy. Had there been no Trojan War, perhaps there would have been no King Arthur.

King Arthur’s bloodline is also often linked to the Emperor Constantine, best known for having made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. Some sources claim that Constantine was father to Ambrosius Aurelianus, and some scholars think Ambrosius was the real source for King Arthur, while more typically he is depicted as King Arthur’s uncle, brother to Uther Pendragon. Since the Emperor Constantine died in 337 and Arthur traditionally is believed to have died at the Battle of Camlann circa 539, it seems unlikely that the Emperor Constantine was his grandfather, but other traditions link Arthur to Magnus Maximus who vied for the throne of Rome, and Arthur might have also been related to Constantine when it’s considered that many traditions claim Constantine’s mother, Helen, was a British noblewoman and also that Constantine was himself born in Britain. Notably, Arthur’s successor as King of Britain is also named Constantine.

Chapel built on Virgin Mary’s House near Ephesus (Photo by Tyler R. Tichelaar)

The British chroniclers of the Middle Ages linked Constantine as a descendant from Joseph of Arimathea; Joseph prominently figures in the Grail Legends and reputedly was Jesus’ uncle and may have brought Jesus to Britain where he spent his “missing” years of childhood that are not documented in the Bible.

If King Arthur were related to Constantine, and therefore, also to Joseph of Arimathea, he may have also been related to the Virgin Mary since Joseph of Arimathea is often believed to have been Mary’s uncle (so technically Jesus’ great-uncle). Mary traveled to Turkey with the apostle John some time after the Crucifixion. She made her home near Ephesus, one of the seven churches of Revelation. Today a chapel is built upon the place where once her house is believed to have stood.

The Grail Legend
What would the Arthurian legend be without the quest for the Holy Grail? One candidate for the true Holy Grail is a chalice in Spain at the monastery of San Juan de la Peña. According to Wikipedia, archaeologists say the artifact is a 1st century Middle Eastern stone vessel, possibly from Antioch in present day Turkey.

Another holy relic associated with the Grail legends is the Lance of Longinus, which pierced Christ’s side during the Crucifixion. It is often featured with the Holy Grail in the Grail legends and is one of the items carried in a procession that Percival witnesses. This spear was brought from the Holy Land to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey) in the seventh century. It was housed in Hagia Sophia. Later it was moved to the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos. The point of the lance, which was now set in an icon, was acquired by the Latin Emperor, Baldwin II of Constantinople, who later sold it to Louis IX of France.

King Arthur and the Roman Emperor

Hagia Sophia (Photo by Tyler R. Tichelaar)

Several versions of the Arthurian legend cite Arthur’s conflict with the Roman emperor as reason for his journey to the Continent, leaving the kingdom of Britain in Mordred’s hands. Of course, Rome fell in 476 and usually Arthur is seen as living after this date. Therefore, it is more likely that it is the Byzantine Emperor who demands fealty from Arthur. The Byzantine Empire was also in decline in the 5th century but reached its greatest extent during the reign of the Emperor Justinian (527-565), placing him as emperor toward the end of Arthur’s reign, so I suspect Justinian’s increasing power may have been reason for him demanding fealty from a former Roman province such as Britain; therefore, I suspect he is the emperor with whom Arthur has a conflict. The term Byzantine was not applied until recent times by historians, while the medieval chroniclers would have thought of the Byzantine Emperor as the Roman Emperor—especially since there would have been no Holy Roman Emperor until Charlemagne in 800 A.D.

Emperor Justinian

In addition, Parke Godwin in his novel Beloved Exile (1984) about Guinevere’s life after the Battle of Camlann has her end up at the Court of the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople. Constantinople at that time would have been the most resplendent and important city in Christendom.

Anachronistic King Arthur Tales in Turkey
Believe it or not, there is a legend that claims that King Arthur piloted an ark (just like Noah did) during the Deluge (see Noah’s ark reputedly ended up on top of Mt. Ararat in modern day Turkey. There’s no word where Arthur’s ark ended up. Perhaps Arthur was a time traveler, since the Great Flood would have taken place about 6,000 years before Arthur lived.

Another interesting anachronism is the tale of “The Turke and Sir Gawain” which can be read at: The Turks were not known to Western Europeans really until five centuries after Arthur’s time when they entered modern day Turkey and defeated the Byzantine Emperor in 1071. They continued as an increasing threat to Christendom and Europe through their conquest of Constantinople in 1453. This poem was composed about 1500 when the Ottoman Empire ruled by the Turks was at its height and a severe threat to Christendom, so the modern day Turkish threat was cast upon the Arthurian legend.

Therefore, a good case can be made for the significant relationship between the land of Turkey and its people and their influence on the Arthurian legend. Finally, if my Turkey-King Arthur connections are not convincing enough, perhaps you would prefer some good cooking. A quick search on the Internet will find plenty of recipes for using King Arthur Flour to make various turkey dishes including turkey and dumplings:

Tyler R. Tichelaar

Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is a scholar and novelist on the Arthurian legend. You can visit him at his blog and his website

Midnight in Paris: A Movie for Writers

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is a movie all writers should see. No matter what you write, you’ll find something to appreciate in this film. But what surprised me the most when I saw it last weekend was how much it moved me as a historical fiction writer.

I don’t intend this to be a review, so I’ll just touch on the high points of the plot, as they apply to this post. The movie is about Gil (played by Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter turned aspiring novelist who regrets never living and writing literature in Paris. On a trip there with his fiance and her family, he finds that every night at midnight he can travel back in time to the 1920s, a time he yearns for as an ideal age. After various adventures with the literary and artistic elite of the time, including his idols F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, Picasso and many others, Gil realizes that everyone finds the present boring and longs for another time.

I’ll admit, I’m a little jealous of Gil being able to have his work reviewed by one of his historical idols (who wouldn’t be?!) And real-life quotes like Hemingway’s “No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure,” and “If you’re a writer, declare yourself the best writer,” make the movie relatable on a personal level.

But what makes it truly great is a strong theme of living in the past. Anyone who writes historical fiction can no doubt relate to this exchange:

One of the two over-the-top antagonists (I wish Allen had been a little more trusting of his audience and more subtle in their characterization) has one of the most poignant lines in the film, “Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”

Is he right? Yes and no. I agree that yearning for the past is a way of dealing with a difficult present (if we didn’t have difficulties, what would we write about?), but I don’t think it’s a flaw. For some of us, it’s just the way our brains work. If wasn’t, there would be no historians and no record (romantic or otherwise) of what came before. I disagree that nostalgia is denial. It’s recognition that something in the past resonates with us more than the present. We can find ways of mining our love of the past to improve our present by incorporating the values or ways of life we feel our society has lost or is losing, or at the very least, capture them in our writing for future generations.

Historical fiction serves a great purpose. It not only entertains and provides a means of escape, it educates about a bygone time in relatable ways history textbooks never can. Until time travel becomes more than fantasy, it’s the closest thing we’ve got.  We’re fortunate that history gives us such a rich tableau from which to draw in our writing.

By far my favorite scene is this one (I wish I could find a video clip for you):

Adriana: Let’s never go back to the ’20s!
Gil: What are you talking about?
Adriana: We should stay here. It’s the start of La Belle Époque! It’s the greatest, most beautiful era Paris has ever known.
Gil: Yeah, but about the ’20s, and the Charleston, and the Fitzgeralds, and the Hemingways? I mean, I love those guys.
Adriana: But it’s the present. It’s dull.
Gil: Dull? It’s not my present. I’m from 2010.
Adriana: What do you mean?
Gil: I dropped in on you the same way we’re dropping in on the 1890s.
Adriana: You did?
Gil: I was trying to escape my present the same way you’re trying to escape yours, to a golden age.
Adriana: Surely you don’t think the ’20s are a golden age!
Gil: Well, yeah. To me they are.
Adriana: But I’m from the ’20s, and I’m telling you the golden age is La Belle Époque.
Gil: And look at these guys. I mean, to them, their golden age was the Renaissance. You know, they’d trade Belle Époque to be painting alongside Titian and Michelangelo. And those guys probably imagined life was a lot better when Kublai Khan was around.
Adriana:  What are you talking about?
Gil: Adriana, if you stay here, and this becomes your present, then, pretty soon, you’ll start imagining another time was really your, you know, was really the golden time. That’s what the present is. That it’s a little unsatisfying, because life’s a little unsatisfying.

The key point here? No one is ever satisfied with the time in which they live. It’s possible to view the past through rose-colored glasses, but the present is seen with painful clarity. That’s exactly why historical fiction has a market. Everyone has a different point in time that is their escape.  Like Gil says about living in the past, if you read (or write) too much of one time period, you get comfortable with it and it gets boring, so you move on to another, seeking to fill a void created by the present. But for historical fiction writers, the past is the present, and that’s what sets us apart from other writers.

So what do you think? Have you seen Midnight in Paris? Did you like it? Can you relate to what I’ve said or do you think I’m totally crazy? Do you think living in the past is pointless or do you see some value in it?

Six Blogs to Check Out in 2012

I know, I know. I said I wouldn’t do any more posts before the new year. So consider this one a bonus.

As you all know, I’m still fairly new to this whole blogging thing and even newer to following other people’s blogs. But I wanted to take a minute to share the ones I really like and say thanks to all my fellow bloggers out there for their insight. If you’re not on this list, please don’t be upset. I wanted to limit it to six and purposefully kept it to ones I’m really familiar with. If I’m new to following you, chances are good you’ll be on a future list!

General Topics

  1. CrazyBeautiful – Dianne Sylvan is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, but I mainly read her blog because she’s funny. Witty and poignant (sometimes in the same breath), she explores life with gusto and says things the rest of us only think (and sometimes, exactly what we need to hear).
  2. The Raccoon Society – Maintained by Kill Hannah lead singer Mat Devine (and named for the band’s fans), this blog is part musings on life, part tour diary, and part Breakfast Club Q&A. I’ve been reading Mat’s blogs (in various incarnations) for many years, and his intelligent writing, poetic sensibility and out and out compassion give me hope that there are more men out there like him. I tend to skip the Q&A because of all the teenage drama (that’s his fan base), but I laud Mat for being a role model and taking the time to give honest advice I wish had been around when I was a teen.
  3. Lee Safar’s blog – In case you haven’t noticed, Miss Lee is a sort of mentor of mine. She’s a musician, dreamer and seeker of happiness who blogs about all three. Some of her blogs are only for members of the Red Feather community (details on her site), but she shares most with everyone. The thing I love most about her writing is the positive energy, genuine warmth and frank advice. Plus, it’s neat to get an inside look into her burgeoning music career.

History/Arthurian Legend

  1. A Corner of Tenth Century Europe –  This blog, written by Oxford Professor Jonathan Jarrett, is one of the best out there for early medieval history. I don’t always understand everything he writes about, but when I do, he’s brilliant.
  2. Senchus – The subtitle says it all: “notes on early medieval Scotland.” If you’re history buff or wannabe historian, you’ll love Dr. Tim Clark’s well researched posts.
  3. Badonicus – I’m still making my way through the incredibly detailed six-part series on King Arthur that’s part of this blog, but I can say this: if you’re an Anglophile who’s at home dancing the line where history and legend meet, this blog is for you.

What are some of your favorite blogs? Or if you have one, don’t be afraid to mention it here (I’m all for shameless self-promotion). I’m always looking for new ones, so please post links in the comments below.

Celtic Warriors

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.

Outlaws in the Celtic World

The word “outlaw” conjures up images of wild and woolly men, with no allegiance and nothing to lose. In the Celtic world, that’s partly accurate. You couldn’t get much lower than being an outlaw (except maybe being a slave). But outlaws (men and women) had much more in common with the highest Celtic class, the warriors, than you might think.

Simply put, outlaws were exiles from their tribe. You could become an outlaw for many reasons: going against the judgement of Druid (whose word was always final), breaking a tribal law or even not being able to pay a fine. In the later case, you would then plunder a neighboring tribe to raise the funds you needed to be reinstated (logical, right?). Exiled nobles often raised an army and fought their way back into society. But others did not have such options available to them.

Outlaws lived in an area of wilderness between the tribes that was vast and empty of what we would consider organized civilization. But they usually had at least a tacit alliance with a local tribe, for both their protection and that of the tribe. In places where this agreement occurred, the outlaws could be called upon to fight with and defend the tribe, if needed.

But they could also be called upon to do the tribe’s dirty work. Since the land and goods of a monarch were inherited by kin, not necessarily the chosen successor, murder and revenge were common to try to gain power. Nobles often employed bands of outlaws as mercenaries to raid or kill their neighbors. Because they were “outside of the law,” outlaws could not be punished under the law by those they harmed. If the wronged party was to have revenge, they had to track  down the mercenaries in the vast, lonely wilderness, a place which the outlaws knew better than their pursuers.

Because they lived in the wilderness, outlaws were also thought to have special powers over Otherworldly nature creatures, including the Sidhe (faeries) and elves. In Irish mythology, there was a special band of outlaws called the Fianna, an elite group of outlaw warriors, who had no clan and no specific allegiance, but who often passed between this world and the Otherworld.


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.