Friday, July 29, 2016

How The Celts Lived

By Annie Whitehead

Last time, I introduced the Celts and who they were.*

I explained that there were three phases of Celtic settlement in Britain, beginning in around 500-450 BC (perhaps earlier in Scotland), with settlers from France and the Low countries, continuing around 250 BC, and then a third phase, in around 100 BC, of Belgic peoples settling in southern Britain.

This time I’m taking a look at how they lived, although, given the paucity of the sources, it's sometimes necessary to look at those still living in Europe, in order to build up an adequate picture.

Firstly, what kind of housing did they have?

According to Polybus [1] the people who settled in Cisalpine (the Roman side of the Alps) Gaul lived in scattered villages without walls. Their houses were probably wooden, which could easily be burned down and destroyed.

Gaulish houses were usually thatched and dome-like, and built of planks and willow supports. Some had an outer facing of mud, while others were covered with oak shingles, or straw mixed with earth. The Bretons built similar houses of reeds and wood. The Caledonii still had neither fortified walls, nor towns, as late as the second century of the Christian era.

A Pre-Roman Gaulish House

In wartime, the Gauls used to take refuge in the fortified camps known to Caesar as ‘Oppida’. The oppida of the Bretons were nothing more than retrenched camps defended by a ditch and a mound of earth with a stockade, within which they erected temporary huts. The Belgian people who inhabited the Ardennes Forest used to take special precautions in times of war by weaving the branches of thorny bushes into a mesh of thorns, so that invaders would find all paths blocked. In certain places, they would retreat with their families to small islands in swamps deep in the forest, having first driven stakes into the ground along potential paths. The oppida of Gaul were towns which could also offer shelter to the inhabitants of neighbouring areas but which also had a permanent population themselves.

Caesar described the walls of Gaulish fortifications: solid beams were laid out on the ground about two feet apart; they were joined by transverse struts, and the cavity thus formed was filled with earth. Large stones were used to face the front. A second layer was then added, and so on until the desired height was reached. These interwoven layers of stone and wood had major military advantages as the stone was a protection against fire, and the wood against the danger of the battering ram.

The Gauls described by Polybus were not familiar with the idea of furniture and their beds were apparently nothing more than grass.


Posidonius, [2] quoted by Athenus, [3] noted that at mealtimes the Celts used to sit on bales of hay around low circular tables of wood. They used neither spoons nor forks; they simply grabbed chunks of meat and tore them apart. Their dishes were made of silver, copper, or earthenware. Their goblets were of earthenware or silver.

A Belgic bronze tankard was found in Trawsfynydd in Wales, and has been dated to the mid-first century AD. Its base was made of turned wood. Two more tankards were found at Shapwick Heath in Somerset, and one was recovered from the River Thames, at Kew. Belgic wrought iron ‘fire dogs’, would have been used to spit-roast meat at feasts, and examples have been found at Great Chesterford, Essex and Capel Garmon, North Wales.

The fire dogs - pic from bbc.co.uk

Dairy products were much used among the Gauls. (The remains of vast cheese-making installations have been found at Mont Beuvray- also known as Bibracte.) [4]

The Calednoii and the Maeatae apparently made no use at all in their diet of the abundant stocks of fish in the waters of their region.

For their daily sustenance, the Bretons used to shell the oldest ears of cereal in their barns. Some of their tribes were so lacking in industry that although they had plenty of milk, they never made cheese from it. Others lived off bark and roots, and devised a type of food which was so filling that a very small amount was enough to serve as a meal. The fore-runner of the breakfast bar, perhaps? (More about farming in a later episode.)

The standard drink of the Gauls was at one time a beer made from grain. This drink was called ‘corma’. The guests all drank out of the same goblet, which was passed round by a servant.

In the first century BC, wine brought from Italy was the drink of the rich. Some Gauls would lie down on their shields, and, in exchange for wine or money, would allow their throats to be cut, as long as the wine or the money should go to their descendants after their death.

The Celts held ceremonial dinners; the guests sat in a circle, and the man who was the most distinguished in terms of military prowess, birth, or wealth, sat in the middle of the assembled company. The master of the household sat next to him, and the others sat on either side, their position depending on their rank.

So, as they sat there, what would they have been wearing?

It would seem that many of the Celtic tribes were comparatively sophisticated in their dress. Diodorus [5] described the Gauls as having worn tunics and trousers, with striped sashes over their shoulders. Pliny [6] suggested that the Gauls were the inventors of checked cloth; they extracted a purple dye from the bilberry, scarlet from the hyacinth, and colours from various other plants.

The Aedui chief Dumnorix, Museum of Celtic Civilization, Bibracte

The Celts of the La Tène culture had highly developed weaving and dyeing techniques. The men wore close-fitting trousers and pullovers, while the women wore freely-flowing cloaks of the same material.

In Ireland, the men liked to wear woollen cloaks, pinned together at the neck by a brooch. Trousers were worn only by the poor, noblemen preferring ‘Léine’, knee-length linen tunics.

The Celts wore sandals, which left much of the upper foot exposed. These sandals were tied up with leather.

Some Celtic tribes, however, seem to have been quite unaware of the use of clothes. In the second century AD, the inhabitants of Northern Brittany went completely naked. Some Gaulish tribes also were in the habit of undressing completely before battle.

When they were clothed, though, did they wear any other adornments?

Strabo [7] said of the Celts: “to the frankness and high spiritedness of their temperament must be added the traits of childish boastfulness and love of decoration. They wear ornaments of gold, torcs on their necks, and bracelets on their arms and wrists.”

These torcs were heavy rings of solid gold, richly decorated, and with a finger-sized opening at the front. Gerhard Herm points out in The Celts, that they must have been put on with great difficulty, being too small to push over the head, and yet too thick to bend open. Perhaps the most famous of the Celtic torcs were discovered at Snettisham in Norfolk between 1948 and 1968. The largest was 20cm in diameter and made of electrum. It was dated to the mid-first century BC

A more delicate (Bronze) torc

Besides jewellery, the Celts also used the tattoo as a form of personal adornment. Caesar wrote that all the Bretons used to dye their bodies with pastel, thus turning their bodies a bright blue colour, which made them look particularly horrible in battle. It is possibly from the addiction to his habit that the dark-age Picts acquired their name, ‘painted men’.

A brief note on hygiene: Personal hygiene among the Celts cannot have been overly sophisticated. They did, however, make soap from tallow or ash. This was, according to Pliny, a Gaulish invention. In order to preserve the freshness of their complexions, the Celtic women used beer foam. The cleaning of teeth, among the Celtiberians (the Celts who invaded Greece) was done with urine, stored for a long time in special tanks.

Next time: The role of Members of the Community
* Read the first in this series, Who Were the Celts?


[1] Polybus, or Polybius, was a Greek historian who was born between 210 and 205 BC, in Arcadia. He wrote a general history of his time, and died around 125 BC
[2] Posidonius, or Poseidonius, was a Syrian born historian. He was a Stoic philosopher, and emphasised the interrelation of all things in the universe.
[3] Athenus, or Athenaeus, was a Greek writer born in Egypt. He wrote in the end of the second century and the third century AD
[4] The world of the Celts - G.Dottin
[5] Diodorus (Sicilus) of Sicily was a Greek historian who used literary sources with little judgement of his own, but for certain periods he provides the best evidence available.
[6] Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) was born in Northern Italy and wrote 37 books of natural history. The eruption of Pompeii claimed his life.
[7] Strabo was a Greek geographer, who lived from about 58 BC - AD 25. Lloyd Laing (1979) attributes this translation to S. Piggot (1970)

Further reading:
The Celts - Gerhard Herm
Pagan Celtic Britain - Anne Ross
Celtic Britain - Lloyd Laing
The World of the Celts - G Dottin

(all images are in the public domain unless otherwise attributed)

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016 and has been awarded an indieBRAG medallion. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, is available now.
Annie's Author Page
Buy Alvar the Kingmaker
Buy To Be A Queen

Annie's Website
Annie's Blog

Annie has also been involved in a collaborative e-book project re-imagining the events of 1066

5 comments:

  1. Terrific article, Annie! I have never stopped to wonder how they got the torcs on. Maybe the metal was more malleable when it was first crafted? Or did they fuse it after it went on the neck? Can't help but wonder how they did it. I am, however, cringing at the hygiene regiment of the Celtiberians.

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    1. I have a bangle which is very torc-like. If I turn my write sideways on I can just about slide it on - but I can't see how that could be done with one's neck! A mystery...

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  3. I have problems imagining that any tribe would be running about naked at this date, save in a ritualistic type of warfare. I imagine this is something that must have been misinterpreted by outsiders who didn't understand what was going on. Nakedness was also mentioned by the Romans about certain British tribes, and yet we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the weaving of cloth took place in Britain back as early as the late neolithic. (Darn Romans!)

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    1. Darn Romans indeed - but of course they,along with the Greeks, provided most of the commentary - and they weren't writing with any huge amount of sympathy or attempts at understanding, methinks!

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