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The Celts Essay

4110 words - 17 pages

While textbooks stress the descent of Europe from classical culture, the face of Europe throughout most of the historical period was dominated by a single cultural group, a powerful, culturally diverse group of peoples, the Celts. By the start of the Middle Ages, the Celts had been struck on two fronts by two very powerful cultures, Rome in the south, and the Germans, who were derived from Celtic culture, from the north. Through the period of classical Greece (corresponding to the La Têne culture in central Europe) to first centuries AD, most of Europe was under the shadow of this culture which, in its diverse forms, still represented a fairly unified culture.This monolithic culture ...view middle of the document...

The later monolithic European culture is greatly influenced by these early peoples.Most of what we know about Celtic life comes from Ireland--the largest and most extensive of the Celtic populations, the Gauls in central and western Europe, we only know about through Roman sources--and these sources are decidedly unfriendly to the Gauls.We know that the early Celtic societies were organized around warfare--this structure would commonly characterize cultures in the process of migration: the Celts, the Huns, and later the Germans. Although classical Greek and Roman writers considered the Celts to be violently insane, warfare was not an organized process of territorial conquest. Among the Celts, warfare seems to have mainly been a sport, focussing on raids and hunting. In Ireland, the institution of the fianna involved young, aristocratic warriors who left the tribal area for a time to conduct raids and to hunt. When the Celts came into contact with the Romans, they changed their manner of warfare to a more organized defense agains a larger army. It was these groups that the classical writers encountered and considered insane. The Celtic method of warfare was to stand in front of the opposing army and scream and beat their spears and swords against their shields. They would then run headlong into the opposing army and screamed the entire way--this often had the effect of scaring the opposing soldiers who then broke into a run; fighting a fleeing army is relatively easy work. If the opposing army did not break ranks, the Celts would stop short of the army, return to their original position, and start the process over agina.Celtic society was hierarchical and class-based. Tribes were led by kings but political organizations were remarkably plastic. According to both Roman and Irish sources, Celtic society was divided into three groups: a warrior aristocracy, an intellectual class that included druids, poets, and jurists, and everyone else.Society was tribal and kinship-based; one's ethnic identity was largely derived from the larger tribal group, called the tuath ("too-awth") in Irish (meaning "people") but ultimately based on the smallest kinship organizational unit, the clan, called the cenedl (ke-na-dl), or "kindred," in Irish. The clan provided identity and protection--disputes between individuals were always disputes between clans. Since it was the duty of the clan to protect individuals, crimes against an individual would be prosecuted against an entire clan. One of the prominent institutions among the Celts was the blood-feud in which murder or insults against an individual would require the entire clan to violently exact retribution. The blood-feud was in part avoided by the institution of professional mediators. At least an Ireland, a professional class of jurists, called brithem, would mediate disputes and exact reparations on the offending clan.Even though Celtic society centered around a warrior aristocracy, the position of women was...

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