Tag Archives: Celts

Slavery in the British Isles

Celtic slavery resembled that of ancient Greece and Rome. Slaves were acquired from war, raids, and penal and debt servitude. The word slave in Celtic languages was similar the Latin word for captive which may indicate the early origin of slaves. Slavery was hereditary, though manumission was possible. Manumissions were discouraged by law and the word cumal, meaning female slave, was used as a general unit of value in Ireland.

Slavery in Britain and Ireland dated from before Roman occupation. Parts of northern Britain and Scotland had large slave populations. Taken in war or raids the slaves were racially similar to their masters and were often integrated into the society. Some gained their freedom and became clients of their former masters as in Rome.

Anglo Saxons continued the system of slavery, often working with Norse traders who sold slaves to the Irish. They routinely exported slaves for trade. Dublin was a major slave trading center for centuries. St. Patrick was captured in England by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland. St. Brigit was the daughter of a Chritian Pictish slave.

In the Doomsday Book of 1086 about 10% of the English population were slaves. Legal penalties and economic pressures that led to default in payments maintained the supply of slaves, and in the 11th century there was still a slave trade operating out of Bristol. Chattel slavery gradually disappeared after the Norman Conquest to be replaced by the villeins who were tied to the land. In England, however, beggars could be enslaved until the middle of the 16th century. Tomorrow, The Vikings. Rita Bay

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The Anglo Saxons

The Anglo-Saxons filled the void left by the Romans who departed from Britain in the early 5th century AD.  The Romano-Celtic people of Britain hired the Anglo-Saxons as mercenaries to defend against the Picts and Scots from the north and the Irish from the west.  The Anglo-Saxons liked what they saw and invaded and conquered most of England.


Anglo Saxon Settlements

The Anglo-Saxon masters were very different than the native Celts.  Women had a relatively high status in Celtic society, able to own property and fight as warriors.  The Germanic Anglo-Saxons treated women as property.  When the Anglo-Saxons came to stay, most English Celts had adopted Christianity and St. Patrick had carried the Christian faith to Ireland, from where it was introduced to Scots and the Picts with varying success.

The Anglo-Saxons brought their gods with them. Woden was their primary god but many others of tribal and regional import were worshiped.  They also had elves and dragons in their pantheon.  They worshipped through sacrifice to their deities.  Kings often claimed descent from the gods. The warriors pledged themselves to the chief or king with the expectation of reward for their faithful service.  

Eventually the Anglo-Saxons converted to Christianity, often through the conversion of the king or through the influence of Christians at the court.  Their exploits were recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a fascinating, mostly contemporary, account of the history of the English from the departure of the Romans through the arrival of theNormans. 

Tomorrow, THE SAXON HOARDS      RitaBay

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The Celts & Celtic Culture

Bituitus of the Averni Fighting from his Chariot

The Celts were first documented into written history when the Greeks referred to them as the “keltoi” whom they regarded as barbarians. The Celts originated east of the Rhine but moved south into Italy and parts of Greece, west into France and Spain, and in 300 BC into Britain.  The war-like Celts with their iron weapons even sacked Rome in 390 BC—a defeat the Romans never forgot their defeat by the Celts whom the Romans called Gauls.  The Romans exacted their revenge over the next two centuries when they conquered those areas held by Celtic Gauls, enslaving many of those who showed resistance.

The Celt Silus with Iron Arm Holding Reins Holding Sword and Enemy's Head

The Celts gloried in story-telling, drinking and fighting.  Single combat with the severed heads of the defeated hanging outside the home of the victor was considered honorable.  Little is known about the Celts because their educated class, the druids, were forbidden to write. The Romans may have destroyed whatever Celtic records did exist and certainly attempted break the power of the druids.  Since records written by the Celts themselves do not survive, much of what we know about the Celts was written by their enemies, the Romans in particular.

The Celts settled in Britain before 500 BC where they settled among the indigenous people who were the builders of the henges.  The numerous tribes, ruled by local chieftains and petty kings became known as the Britons. They settled in small villages or farmsteads with smiths and craftsmen and a few larger towns. They built defended themselves in hill forts.

Gunderstrup Cauldron with Mythological Images

The Celtic Britons were not conquered by the Romans until the 1st and 2nd century BC.  The Britons traded metals, wool, hides, hunting dogs, wild animals, cattle and slaves to the Roman Empire for luxury goods. The Irish Gaels and the northern Scots and Picts (despite Agricola’s assaults) were never conquered by Rome. 

Celtic polytheism formed the basis for Celtic mythology. The early Celts maintained a polytheistic mythology and religious structure. Many of the gods of the Celtic pantheon were local deities worshipped by particular tribes. The mythology of Celts in close contact with Rome not survive the Roman empire, their subsequent conversion to Christianity,  and the loss of their Celtic languages.  It is mostly through contemporary Roman and Christian sources that their mythology has been preserved. When Christianity was introduced into Ireland, the Christian monks recorded the Gaelic myths and folklore.

Tomorrow, Celtic Mythology  Rita Bay

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Neolithic Britain: The Henges


The henges are Neolithic and Bronze Age earthworks that were built across Britain between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago.  All the henges feature a ring bank and ditch but with the ditch inside the bank rather than outside which would indicate that they were not for defensive purposes.  The henges were not occupied but were associated with ritual structures such as stone and timber circles.  Henges may contain various internal features, including timber or stone circles, pits or burials, which may pre- or post-date the henge enclosure. Henges and stone circles can exist together or separately. Burials were often located in the areas around the henges, predating or postdating the henges.


Most experts (with exceptions, of course) agree that the henges were unique to Britain. The three largest are Avebury (Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, Stanton Drew stone circles, Ring of Brodgar (Orkney).  The most famous henge (called a henge even though the ditch is outside the earthwork bank) is Stonehenge.  Woodhenge which contained wooden posts rather than stones has been proposed as a place for the living, as opposed to Stonehenge being a place for the dead.  Ritual paths and the river Avon connect the two which are within site of each other.  

There are approximately 100 henges surviving across the British Isles. The construction of the henges vary from a single entrance through a gap in the bank, to two opposing entrances, and the four entrances with two sets of opposing entrances. Orientations (north-south, east-west) of the henges vary, though some of the stones correspond to the soltices.

The exact purpose of the henges is believed to be for rituals and astronomical observational. One theory states that the reversal of the bank and ditch design that was traditionally used for defense was that the purpose of the henges was NOT to keep something from getting in but to get something FROM GETTING OUT.  WHOA!!   Given the lack of contemporary evidence, however, the purposes of the henges are the conjecture of one culture about another culture with a vastly different worldview.  Later cultures and groups co-opted the henges for their own ritual purposes. The henges are associated with but were not constructed by the Druids. 

Tomorrow, The Celts & Celtic Culture      Rita Bay

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Origins of the English Language

Cheddar Man & His Descendant, Adrian Targett

     No one knows the language that the first people who walked across the land bridge from France to England more than 800,000 years ago spoke.  The language of Cheddar Man who died in Cheddar Gorge in Sussex England about 9,000 years ago or the residents of Skara Brae, a 5,000-year-old community on the island of Orkney, is also unknown.  The theory is that all of the European languages-Germanic, Italic, Celtic and Hellenic- are descended from a branch of the ancient “IndoEuropean” language which was spoken about 6,000 years ago. 

Skara Brae

     The first identifiable language spoken in Britain was Celtic around 1000 bc.  The Celts brought their language, weapons technology, and pottery to Britain.  Over the years, the Celtic language evolved into two distinct branches.  Goedelic Celtic included Manx, Irish Gaelic, and Scots Gaelic.  Brythonic Celtic included Cornish, Breton, and Welsh.

Celtic Warriors

In 49 bc, the Roman general Julius Caesar, invaded southern Britain.  The Celtic tribes either surrendered to or were defeated by the Roman legions.  The Romans brought with them their culture and technology—and their language—which influenced the English people for the next four centuries. 

Anglo-Saxon Helmet

     The Romans and Celts brought in Germanic mercenaries to fight the tribes of Scotland who constantly invaded southern Britain. In the 5th century AD the mercenaries—Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, and Danes—liked what they saw so they stayed, forced the Celts to flee to the west and north, and settled their families in the choicest areas.  They also brought their Germanic language which became the primary influence on the English language.

King William & His Brothers

In 1066 AD the Norman French invaded England.  While the Normans continued to speak French for more than a century, the French language was not spoken by the populace.  The French language did make numerous contributions to the English language some of which we’ll see later.  Over the centuries the English language evolved into several forms of Modern English—American, Canadian, British, Australian, Indian, Irish, and Scottish.

Tomorrow:  Using Prefixes to Maximize Your Vocabulary    Rita Bay

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