|"I'm officially an adult. I have a butter dish."|
photo and caption by The Digital Pimp
"His food-provision is for three persons. He is entitled to have three persons on sick-maintenance; to butter on the second, third, fifth, ninth, and tenth day, (and) on Sunday. Fresh or salted onions for condiment." Eoin MacNeill, D.Litt., Ancient Irish Law. The Law of Status or Franchise, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 1923., p. 290Every level of Irish society from an overking down was regulated by law. These laws determined the size of your house; the number and types of retainers below you; details about loans of cattle and the interest on such loans, and if and when you were allowed to have butter in the house. All of this seems like feudalism meeting the condo board. Feudalism, though, is a modern construction; a class within a subjective classification system. It is not even supposed to have started by the time these laws were written down. Later feudalism was certainly very slanted to the rights of the lord, but the Irish laws paid much more attention to the obligations of the lord, and anyone, with some dedication to the task, could raise themselves through various levels of status. Is this system even typically Medieval? Caesar writes (VI,13):
Throughout Gaul there are two classes of men who are of some account and are held in esteem. The common people are considered virtually as slaves, never daring to do anything on their own initiative and never consulted on any matter. Most of them, overwhelmed with debt or heavy taxation or oppressed by the injustices of those more powerful, surrender themselves to the service of nobles, who have the same rights over them as masters do over slaves. Of the two classes mentioned one consists of Druids, the other of Knights.Caesar would seem to be describing something more like our notions of the later Medieval feudal system as satirized in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yet just before those words appear, he says (V,11):
For further discussion about these matters, see Russ VerSteeg, Law and Justice in Caesar's Gallic Wars, Hofstra Law Review, 2004.In Gaul, not only every tribe, canton, and subdivision of a canton, but almost every family, is divided into rival factions. At the head of these factions are men who are regarded by their followers as having particularly great prestige, and these have the final say on all questions that come up for judgement and in all discussions of policy. The object of this ancient custom seems to have been to ensure that all the common people should have protection against the strong; for each leader sees that no one gets the better of his supporters by force or by cunning — or, if he fails to do so, is utterly discredited. The same principle holds good in intertribal politics: all the tribes are grouped in two factions.
Sadly lacking in most archaeological and historical writing is the psychological factor. If you find that some culture has a law against shooting a crow on a Thursday afternoon, then you can be sure of two things: i: people had done just that, and ii: it had caused problems. We might not have any of the details, perhaps it had some religious significance; perhaps Thursday afternoon is the time that the leader gives his weekly address to the people and did not want his words interrupted by the sound of gunfire, and crows were the only creature that could be hunted on his estate. The laws avoid having to keep explaining things to newcomers and, probably, newcomers are allowed a certain period of grace to make a social blunder or two before the swords are drawn (depending on their status, of course). A problem in Ireland was that the laws of one tuath could vary from the laws of another just down the road. The laws are all "organically grown", nourished by local conditions that might not apply at your neighbour's settlement, they develop in an evolutionary manner. After a while, the inconvenience of having to know all of the laws of your neighbours' tuatha would bring about a certain amount of levelling in these laws. Proximity plays an important part, and I once read about an African tribe whose set of punishments for offences was adjusted in severity depending on how far away the victim lived. If the victim was from another tribe many miles away, the punishment would be light, but if the victim was your own kinsman then it would be very severe, indeed. Even then, though, when it came to an actual fight with weapons between the criminal and and the victim (or their representatives), an elder would stop the fight after the appropriate amount of injury was suffered by the guilty party. There were issues about fighting for your rights, displaying your status and not losing face, but there was also the elder's judgement about what was best for the rest of the village and he had to balance all of these things.
Sick maintenance was a very interesting part of the ancient Irish laws. It represented the personal maintenance needs of people under your power, so that if you were to be injured or fell ill and were unable to take care of your charges, that expense would be taken care of by the person you serve. The number of people allowed such support depended on your status. The society was supported and protected by members of the society according to their rank. If you were of high rank, you paid more. Perhaps Caesar was of two minds about social justice in Gaul: looking at it at first as an integrated and self-supporting Gaulish system, and then, more personally, how some things jarred against his Roman customs and morals. I think that if you replaced "nobles" with "the wealthy" in, "Most of them, overwhelmed with debt or heavy taxation or oppressed by the injustices of those more powerful, surrender themselves to the service of nobles, who have the same rights over them as masters do over slaves", then you would get a pretty good snapshot of our society today.
Like the English, or cats, the ancient Celts appear to have hated being embarrassed, and their laws and customs also evolved from within that psychology. They also paid great importance to matters of status, and how well you understood these things was the measure of how well you could do in that society. Once you had obtained some status, it was very visible to all by the numbers of your retainers, the amount your tenants would pay you in interest for the cattle you loaned them, and in the size and numbers of armies you could muster. There was no tribal standing army: officers and troops came from the general population and included everyone from the lowly rancher, paying off his debt on the cattle you gave him to tend on your own land, or his land, if he was of that status, to the king who had the right to raise three armies to support your plans.
As gold was the standard form of payment for troops, it is commonly understood that if your gold coin is not up to acceptable standards, then fewer troops will be willing to join your army. A lot of ancient warfare involved the hire of auxiliary units: spearmen, bowmen, slingers and so on. The Celts, at one point, were popular as spearmen. Polybius thought that the term for them, Gaesatae, meant "mercenary", but it came from the Celtic word for spear or javelin. To this day, the Celtic troops are still referred to a mercenaries instead of the more correct, auxiliary armies. When Caesar complained about Viridovix' army: "...from all over Gaul a host of desperadoes and bandits, to whom the prospect of fighting and plunder was more attractive than farming and regular work." He was not complaining about them being drawn from farmers, as even the top warrior of the tribe would also be a farmer with many head of cattle and workers to take care of them, he was complaining about Viridovix being rather cheap and scraping the bottom of the farm barrel for his own army.
It happened that a society fell on hard financial times and devalued its currency. This had a devastating effect in times of hostilities because only the local people would be interested in fighting to protect their own property and would thus just suffer with the substandard pay. The specialist soldier from far away would not care about any of that, and would not fight for bad money. So you might think, then, that if you offered extremely good gold, you would get the best troops and more of them. This worked, in fact, very well indeed for Dionysius I of Syracuse. He paid far more for his crack Celtic troops than any other commander, and the Celts flooded across the Alps to join him, setting up large bases in northern Italy. It amazes me that people can call these troops "mercenaries". These were armies who supported themselves between campaigns with their own farms and retainers according to their own laws of status. Even earlier than that, Celts had crossed the Alps to become part of the Golasecca Culture, married into Etruscan families, adopted Greek lifestyles and had become quite cosmopolitan. Dionysius was interested only in his own city of Syracuse, other Sicilians meant nothing to him and he sold out one or two to the Carthaginians when it favored Syracuse. He appreciated the lowly man, though, providing he had the right stuff, and a good worker at one of his building sites might even be invited to dine with Dionysius. What was said about him depended very much on who was saying it. Dionysius did not have to worry about the not so obvious ramifications of paying too well. He was at the top of the food chain.
Imagine that you are a Celtic commander in Britain. Things in your home territory are not going very well: a rival is making a play against you, and he has a lot of support. Your only way out of this mess, short of fleeing for your life, is to gain some military support from your more distant allies. These people have both social and trading connections with you and would benefit, anyway, by helping you. Still, it is not a given, some faction might point out that once you are gone, the more powerful people taking over might be even better for business. You are going to have to win them over. You had better bring gold and a lot of cattle for a feast. You had also better make sure that you look very fashionable and wealthy with lots of retainers in tow (the term "small groups of elite" you encounter in some archaeological writing is an oxymoron, elite is very big). Better they see you as a presenter of an opportunity to capture booty than a pathetic loser looking for a way out of the mess he probably created in the first place.
Now, providing that you are not a pathetic loser, you will also realize that while you could raid the treasury to pay for your local supporters on the journey plus having lots left over for the other tribe, the form of that payment is going to have to accord with their laws which in turn, reflect the status requirements of the members of that tribe. There is a situation there, where one of their kings has regularly provided gold for the entire tribe's military needs. As such, the entire tribe is socially indebted to him. Because of his status grade, he also controls a very large number of small farms to varying degrees, by outright ownership and vassalage, or by cattle loans to farmers owning their own land. Some of the latter farms would be large enough or specialized enough to be tuatha in their own right, and with their own king of lesser status. His social connections are embedded in his society and include many more things than the matter of gold content in the money. Most of his people do not even use money.
If our king were to show up and start handing out more intrinsically valuable gold coin, the other king will lose face and his people will most likely come to his aid. If he shows up with an equally valuable coinage, he pays respect to that same king. There are different ways to do the latter: you can advertise yourself on the coinage, providing you have accomplished enough to already be a legend; you can honor the receiving high status king by reflecting his society with the coinage; or you can show up with just bullion or all of the alloying metals and hand that over to the moneyers of the faction you most want to attract. How the latter moneyers would design the coinage; whether it would reflect their importances, their factions, their tuath, or their tribe's, or your importance, would depend on the social connections they had with others and with yourself. Our king's chance of success will depend on his knowledge of, and involvement with these social structures (which greatly resemble the Chinese Guanxi).
When you toss in the factors of Celtic fosterage which ties different families, villages, clans, tribes and nations, and the common tribal practice of arranged marriages between tribes (all regulated by their own tribal laws), you end up with a multi-dimensional matrix barely recognizable or measurable by archaeological methods. I did say barely...