This is a myth I've heard repeated man times. It's refeshing to see it debunked.
The myths of Avalon - Charlie's Diary
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.
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