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.