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Social Classes of the Celts

The Celts were well defined when it came to the set up of society. Tribal structure was the most important. There were distinct social classes in the divisions of the tribes. And tribal law was set up for the common good of all.

All tribal land was owned by the tribe in general. Any land in the territory occupied by the tribe was to be divided for the use of the tribe, and could not be owned by individuals. Natural boundaries set up borders for the land division. In fact, the word tribe came from an old Celtic word meaning boundary or trench.

Sections of the land were appropriated by the ruler and his civil service group for the work that they performed for the general group. There were large sections of land that were set aside for the public good, and was used by the entire tribe. Usually these were pastoral or grazing areas, and very fertile growing sections. Other sections were set aside for the elderly, disabled, and the poor of the tribe.

Land held by individuals was subjected to taxes to help support the less able members of the tribe. However, if a man died, and had outstanding taxes, surviving relatives didn't have to assume his debts. Celtic laws stated that "every dead man kills his own liabilities." This was also partly the Celtic view of the afterlife: when a person died, he or she would proceed in the next life as they did in this. Many times debts were not paid, with the expectation that they would be collected on the other side.

Since the tribe held title to the land, and it could not be sold, there was no absolute ownership of land in Celtic society. The land held by the chieftains and the nobles was still to be held in the public good. Every tribesman was able to keep and work his land, but could not sell it, conceal it, or use it to pay for any crime or debt. Livestock was also included in the issue. Any disposition of cattle held by one person had to be approved by the tribe, so as not to harm the collective welfare of the tribe.

The overtly communistic nature of the Celtic society also played into the way the tribe worked the land. Plowing was done on a communal basis. The Celtic plow was one of the great developments of the Bronze Age. It allowed the farmers to work the land deeper and more thoroughly than contemporary devices. Since cattle were often held in common fields, the manure that was left was used by the tribe on a common basis as fertilizer. The Celts also harvested together. One of the devices that they used was a harvesting machine. The Roman, Pliny the Elder, commented on this, and how it made life easier. He said, "A big box, the edges armed with teeth, and supported on two wheels, moved through the cornfield pushed by an ox; the ears of corn were uprooted by the teeth and fell into the box."

The principles of common ownership of Celtic lands lasted a long time. The last practiced use was to occur until the Highland clan chiefs were to be appointed nobles in the united Scotland and England. Until then, the lands were held in common trust, and no chieftain would ever consider that clan's land his own property. The actuality of the Celtic land practices would last even longer. Until the middle of the 19th century, Scottish farmers on the Hebrides still farmed and harvested in the old fashion. In some ways, the cotters and spalpins of the west of Ireland still practiced a version of the Celtic land use, when the tenant farms were subdivided to postage sized plots. The Famine helped to eradicate its use.

Social Set Up in Celtic Society

Celtic society was set up with six basic classes. However, a person could rise from the lowest class to the largest class, or move in the other direction. The good that was done in service to the entire tribe was the basis for the advancement in Celtic society. Since everyone was expected to serve in the military, there was not a lot of status advancement in serving bravely.

The lowest class was what was called the ""non-freemen." These were lawbreakers, and as such lost their civil rights, tribal distributions, and were prohibited from working in the various professions. Since the Celts held that lawbreakers should be made to repay their debt to society, or debts in general, physical determent was not considered an option. Rather, the non-freemen were expected to work off their debt, and make contributions to the welfare of the entire tribe. Non-freemen also consisted of deserters from battle, hostages, and prisoners of war. Contrary to Roman custom, Celts did not believe in the keeping of slaves, because of the belief that one person couldn't own another. Rather, they held people for ransom, even for years at a time.

The second grade of Celtic society was the itinerant tribesman. These people hired themselves out as herders, or field workers. They also filled the rosters of the military. However, since they didn't work their own land, they had little political influence.

The next part was the tribesman that worked his own land. These were the basis of the Celtic tribe. This subsection of Celtic society was the group that paid the taxes, elected officials to their assemblies, and provided the largest part of the military when needed. The craftsmen, the people that tanned leather, made swords, gold and silver smithed, as well as the blacksmiths, were also a part of this section.

The group above the tribesmen was that of the elected officials . These were the group that carried out the administrative duties of the tribes. They maintained the social fabric of the tribe. This group collected taxes, maintained roads and bridges, the public mills and fishing equipment; the tribal hospital, orphanage, and other aspects of the public good; to organize the army, and keep it supplied. They also made certain that the farmers were well supplied. Keeping with the communal setting, if one farmer had a surplus, he could cover for another that had a shortage. For this, the elected officials were provided land during their lifetime or service time as payment. Roman writers mistook this elected class for nobility.

The professional classes were the next stratum of the society. This included the druids, the bards, and the lawyers and doctors. The druids were trained in druidic colleges, with the training often lasting for as long as twenty years. Anyone from any section of Celtic society was eligible to enter the priesthood. The druids not only functioned as the religious of the Celtic society, they also were the philosophers, doctors, magistrates, and judges of the group. The druidic class was also experts on the rights of inter-tribal and international law. They could stop inter-tribal warfare, because their authority was greater than the chieftains.

Equal to the druids in status were the bards. The bards were the minstrels, storytellers, and oral tradition teachers of the Celts. Their training was almost as extensive and long as the druids. This was mostly because Celtic traditions were oral, and required the learning of the many tales and stories. They had to be word perfect, meaning they couldn't leave out words or phrases, because the group would let them know immediately. The bards were given a high status in Celtic life even through to the time of Christianity. The ransom price for a bard was almost equal to that of a chieftain.


The last layer of Celtic society were the Chieftains. The chiefs were elected by the tribe in general. There was no such concept as that of primogeniture, the rights of the first born, to maintain the hereditary title of the position. There were families that had a number of members elected to such office, by they still had to be elected. The Celtic chiefs were not lawmakers, as much as administrators, having to answer to the will of the people. Chiefs could be male or female, although the election of a woman as chieftain was rare.

Burial Rites| Who Were the Celts?| La Tene|Halstaat
Celtic Tribes| TORCS| Hillforts and Oppida
Boudicca and the Romans| Druids||Social Classes
Terrifying Helmets|Arms And Weaponry|Gods and Goddesses
Were the Celts Illiterate?|European Celtic Place Names