Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Iceni hypothesis — part eight

"Who are you really, and what were you before? What did you do and what did you think, huh?"

Forget Paris. The above line is my favorite in Casablanca and it also describes the approach I have always had to the ancient Celts. Unfortunately for Rick, Ilsa replies: "We said no questions". She preserves herself as the woman of mystery and Rick can only say: "Here's looking at you, kid." The Celts have been a bit more obliging for me, even though they speak darkly and in riddles, saying one word when they mean another.

It took me quite a while to obtain Eoin MacNeill, D.Litt., Ancient Irish Law. The Law of Status or Franchise, December 17, 1923, and when it came, it was from an unexpected source; Roger Perrone, an energy research scientist in Kentucky kindly photocopied it at his university and mailed it to me. You, however, will not have to wait because it is now online at the above link (about two thirds the way down on the PDF file linked above).

In the last episode, there was talk of the backward projection of models of society in order to recover what we can about the nature of ancient Celtic society. I could be accused of the same thing in using this paper but the situation is a little different: The Uraicecht Becc is a very early Irish law tract of the mid seventh century AD. Its title was just something that a previous owner had written on its first page and it means "small primer". Unlike England, Ireland was never contaminated by the Romans and it went directly from the La Tène to the Medieval. It thus preserves some of its original Celtic legal practices that had been handed down as an oral tradition for a very long time.

Even so,  we cannot take a Medieval text and offer it, wholesale, as a "window on the Iron Age". What I try to do is to bracket a target text between supporting evidence that is both earlier and later than the text in question. In this way, ideally, the targeted text will show an evolutionary point between the earlier and the later evidence. Anything not accounted for by the other texts could be Medieval in origin.

Another benefit in using an Irish text.is that Celtic studies times are relative: Ireland, in the second century AD was exhibiting some things more typical of England in the first century BC and even earlier. Yet even with such cultural lag, some things still got through at an earlier time than other things. Ireland had an early Christian monastic culture of learning and the monks had access to classical philosophic and historic texts that did not exist in many other places at the time. Sometimes this caused me a problem or two, and when I wanted to try to prove a continuity between Celtic cauldron legends and Holy Grail legends, I was unable to do so because of the strong possibility that the earlier Irish influence might have come from surviving Gnostic texts that had found their way to Ireland. It's not a perfect method but it does keep you a  bit more honest than other views could.

For this part of the series, I will give excerpts from MacNeill's commentary as well as from the Uraicecht Becc itself, with my own commentary and excerpts from other texts that are earlier than the period I am questioning. Obviously, this is going to take more space than a single blog post, so it will continue over more than just this one. Let's get started right away with something from the Uraicecht Beccso, so you can see how it will be structured:
P. 300f:

"The "Second of a king," why is he so called? because the whole tuath looks forward to him for the kingship without dispute. He has five retainers (sechlethe) over and above (the number of clients proper to) an aire forgill. Ten persons are his retinue in the tuath, eight in private, ten on sick maintenance, with the same right (of food provision, relatively, as the aforementioned grades); with amplitude of great cattle, with full number of horses, with apparatus for every season, with a worthy wife. Ten cumals are his capital from a lord, six cows his house-custom. Thirty chattels are his honourprice; he makes oath, is bound, surety, hostage, suitor, witness to that extent. He pays them (i.e. is able to pay to that extent) without security or borrowing, if one sue."

This one I give in full, but for others I will omit the details of the economic matters at the end. In this excerpt, we get an idea of values as a unit of account in social contracts after we can understand something of the terminology. Fortunately, there is a glossary here. Let's start with tauth as it is the easiest to bracket and is a very important term. Its origin is the pre-Roman Celtic word, teuta, touta in Gaulish which means "tribe" or "people". Look at the tuath as somewhere people are gathered in a public space where they have a shared cultural connection with that space. So when his retinue is only eight people instead of ten, it is because the private residence is not as important to the society as the public tuath. It is also a lot safer. Teuta can also be applied to deity as in Lucan's Pharsalia:
"...and those Gauls who propitiate with human sacrifices the merciless gods Teutas, Esus and Taranis - at whose altars the visitany shudders because they are as awe-inspiring as those of the Scythian Diana." (422-465).

Lucan was not writing an ethnology, but a politically slanted play, and the reference to the Scythian Diana was a barb aimed at Caesar's house which was at the site of an earlier cult to that goddess. You can only get so much mileage with this one.

The final term, before I break for today is cumal and I have been looking forward to that one. It means "a female slave worth three milch cows" However, with most transactions, the recipient would most likely be paid with the three milch cows rather than with the female slave. A chattel was valued at just half a milch cow and represented a young cow before her first calf, in other words, a heifer. The second of a king, by the way, is a tánaise ríg, second in line to a kingship. We will take a look at what kings really were, tomorrow.

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