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The myths of Avalon

In almost every subject, there are things which 'everyone knows'. The earth is round. Apples fall down, not up. You can see the Great Wall of China from Space. Some of these are true, more or less; some, like the one about the Great Wall, are not. History has its fair share of these, and Celtic history has its own subset - nature loving Celts, with their vast cultural empire spreading across much of central and western Europe, worshipping in the kindly, pagan-influenced Celtic church, men alongside women, all free and proud and equal, possibly dressed in plaid and woad, but all fabulously egalitarian and modern in their attitudes to gender politics, sexuality, abortion and the natural world. Such are the myths of Avalon.

And of course, like many myths, they aren't true. There was no great empire: the whole issue of pan-Celticism is coming increasingly under critical scrutiny from archaeologists and historians and being found wanting. The practices of the churches - note the plural, it's important - in the different Celtic and Gaelic speaking areas were varied and variable, most churches operating alone or with a small group of others. There is no evidence that the Celts were any 'greener' in their approach to their environment than any other peoples. (They liked to write nature poetry, but then so did the Anglo-Saxons. And the mediaeval Han Chinese, for that matter.) And then there's that great sacred cow, the myth of the strong, equal, Celtic woman. Of all the arguments I've got into over the years about 'what everyone knows' about early mediaeval Ireland and Wales, this is the commonest. And the one that winds me up most. I tend to refer to it as Celtic Druidical Princess Crap. Because, frankly, it is.

I blame the Victorians. I blame the writers on the mystical 'Celtic Twilight'. I blame folklorist Jean Markale, whose research methods were, frankly, inadequate. I blame Jessie Weston. I blame all the writers of romantic Celtic fantasies featuring right-on feminist ass-kicking super-powered heroines front and centre. Because - and watch carefully - there is no evidence to support this.

Let me say it again, louder. THERE IS NO EVIDENCE FOR THIS. The bulk of our extant sources - law codes and chronicles, saints' lives and charters, prose tales and poems - paint a picture that is almost the exact opposite. Women in early mediaeval Wales and Ireland were far from equal. They remained, lifelong, legal minors, subject to the control of their father, husband or son. Their lives were worth less than those of men. They could not own land, nor could they own much property, and, with a few minor exception (all small personal items, clothing mainly) they could not dispose of their property without the permission and sanction of the man who controlled them. They could not bear witness in court, even to acts of violence against them, because, legally, they were not fully people, their words weren't valid in law. They could not inherit land (save in very, very unusual circumstances) nor could they inherit offices. They could not choose their own husbands, and, while they could divorce their husbands in some circumstances, their children would remain with the father (whose property they were) and a divorced woman would probably have to return to her birth kin. Once there, she was likely to end up as a servant, unless her father was very powerful and could find a man willing to marry a non-virgin. Women whose kin cast them off had nowhere to go, no options beyond service or prostitution. And, if they left the lands of their husband, father, son or overlord, they could be enslaved without sanction. (This latter could befall men, too: outside your homeland, your legal status became much lower.) Women did not rule, did not become warriors, did not make laws or participate in public society. They were, by and large, property. Irish law codes make this explicit: the two units of currency recognised under them are cattle and slave girls. Women were commodities, not full legal people.

At about this point, most modern people say, 'Oh, but, what about Boudicca and Cartimandua, Mebh (Maeve) and Scathach, Rhiannon and Morgan? They were queens and warriors and druidesses.' If I'm really lucky, they'll go on to explain to me that all the things I've said are down to interference and reorganisation of 'proper' Celtic culture (always a monolith in this argument) by the church. 'It was St Patrick. He made the women unequal. But the old sources show that really they were equal to the men, before him.'

The 'old sources' are the same sources I'm talking about, read, usually, through the lens of Jean Markale and his successors. What Markale, and other promulgators of this myth did was this: they gathered together every source they could find mentioning women, from across several countries and cultures which they chose to call 'Celtic' and dating anywhere from the 5th century to the nineteenth, set them down side by side as all equally valid and reliable, and then picked out the examples of women that looked good, that gave this 'equal, powerful' image. Most things that contradicted it were thrown away as 'Christian-influenced' and thus inauthentic. As historical methodology goes, this leaves a lot to be desired.

For one thing, not all sources are equal. A late source - from the eighteenth century, say - cannot be expected to be as reliable and accurate as an early one. The later the source, the more chances there are of errors and reworkings and introduction of materials from elsewhere. Wales is not Ireland, nor is Brittany Wales, and southern France is none of them. Peoples who speak related languages, even mutually comprehensible ones, often differ quite noticeably from each other in culture. And then, most of these sources are written. Writing, in the Celtic countries, is an artefact of the introduction of Christianity. There are many people - few of them historians - who believe you can take an early text, the Mabinogi, say, and go through it and pick out the 'Christian' influences, leaving behind a 'pagan' core. Alas, it's not that simple. Certainly, some things are more overtly Christian than others - you can see this most clearly in law codes, where laws derived from Biblical precedent sit alongside laws that clearly reflect native practice. But this does not mean that one strand is necessarily older than the other, and even if one is, that strand is seldom the one you want it to be.

One of our earliest surviving law codes for Ireland is the 6th century Cain Adomnan, the Law of Adomnan, which is concerned with the treatment and protection of widows and orphans, in particular against abducting or enslaving them, abandoning or starving them, and the expropriation of their goods. It's not concerned with making women obey men, or give up their property to men, or stopping them being warriors or queens. It's about protecting women from men. There's a reason for this. Early Ireland was not a particularly nice place to be a woman, especially a widow, because widows had no value in that society. No-one was obliged to look after them and they possessed no legal voice of their own. Adomnan, who was the abbot of the monastery of Iona, was trying to give them that. If they had been equal, there would have been no need for him to do so. Much of the earliest Christian writings from Ireland show concern about the treatment of women and an desire not to downgrade the women, but to make the men treat them better. The missionaries who came to Ireland in the fifth century did not find a feminism heaven. They found hierarchical, male-dominated, warlike, slave owning culture that had little care for the weak.

So what about Boudicca and Mebh and the rest? They all have one thing in common: they exist in exceptional circumstances. They do not represent the norm. Both Boudicca and Cartimandua came to the fore when their cultures were under great pressure from the Romans. Cartimandua very possibly owes much of her significance not to her fellow Britons but to the Roman invaders, in fact. The Romans were accustomed to women who, if not rulers, influenced and manipulated rulers, disposed of property and had considerable power. They expected Cartimandua, who was the wife of a chief, to be the same and they treated and depicted her that way. Boudicca was a product of a crisis, of a desperate war. She was clearly an extraordinary person, capable of inspiring and leading, but her position was due to circumstance, not daily practice. Deprived of male leadership, she stepped into the role and was accepted, because the situation was dire, and she, clearly, was able to inspire those around her. But she was not commonplace.

As to Mebh and Scathach, Rhiannon and Morgan... They all have one thing in common: they're fictional. They're creatures of myth and story, a milieu in which daily norms are frequently overturned or abandoned, in which the abnormal, the bizarre - a woman ruling men? A woman warrior? - is expected. Their roles in those myths tell us what their function was: they are there to be defeated and overthrown, mastered and married. They transmit and confer power and glory on men: they do not keep it for themselves. And if they try - as Mebh and Morgan do - it goes wrong, it brings decay and danger and dissolution. A woman ruling is a bad thing, the myth says. A woman will bring only harm. This isn't the coding imposed on a once feminist myth by Christianity. This is the mythology of a society that knew that women were second class, lesser than men, not fit to own land, to fight, to rule.

And, as my friend J once said: how is this supposed to work? The women are equal to men, they're warriors and queens, until a handful of foreign priests turn up and say, 'This is wrong! Stop it!' And these powerful women say, 'Oh, oops, you're right,' and just hand over the power to their husbands and brothers? And the men - who have accepted them as equal for generations - just let that happen? That's saying the women may have been powerful, but they were also really stupid, and the men were all misogynist really. That's not a theory, that's an insult. If the women really had been as the modern myth insists, why didn't they just turn on the missionaries and drive them out or kill them?

There are three answers, I guess. The first is the one J offered, that the women just gave in and the men, all closet misogynists, rubbed their hands in glee and accepted. The second involves accepting that the Christian missionaries really did have some kind of divine power that made this happen and that their god really did create women as second rate, and has the power to enforce it. I don't believe either of them. Neither of them are remotely sensible as answers.

The third is this: there were no Celtic Druidical Princesses. There were no self-empowered feminist kick-ass warrior-queens as a daily occurrence. The women of early mediaeval Ireland and Wales were second class people within their own cultures, controlled by their kinsmen, expected to serve at home and stay out of public life.

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This page contains a single entry by Kari Sperring published on August 26, 2012 5:14 PM.

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