While textbooks stress the descent of Europe from classical culture, the face of Europe throughout most of the historical period was dominated by a single cultural group, a powerful, culturally diverse group of peoples, the Celts. By the start of the Middle Ages, the Celts had been struck on two fronts by two very powerful cultures, Rome in the south, and the Germans, who were derived from Celtic culture, from the north. Through the period of classical Greece (corresponding to the La Têne culture in central Europe) to first centuries AD, most of Europe was under the shadow of this culture which, in its diverse forms, still represented a fairly unified culture.
This monolithic culture spread from Ireland to Asia Minor (the Galatians of the New Testament). The Celts even sacked Rome in 390 BC and successfully invaded and sacked several Greek cities in 280 BC. Though the Celts were preliterate during most of the classical period, the Greeks and Romans discuss them quite a bit, usually disfavorably.
From this great culture would arise the Germans (we think) and many of the cultural forms, ideas, and values of medieval Europe. For not only did medieval Europe look back to the Celtic world as a golden age of Europe, they also lived with social structures and world views that ultimately owe their origin to the Celts as well as to the Romans and Greeks. The period of Celtic dominance in Europe began to unravel in the first centuries AD, with the expansion of Rome, the migrations of the Germans, and later the influx of an Asian immigrant population, the Huns. By the time Rome fell to Gothic invaders, the Celts had been pushed west and north, to England, Wales and Ireland and later to Scotland and the northern coast of France.
The Celts are traditionally ignored in world history textbooks and course, but the Celtic way of life, Celtic institutions, and the Celtic world view were superimposed onto Germanic and classical culture. The later monolithic European culture is greatly influenced by these early peoples.
Most of what we know about Celtic life comes from Ireland the largest and most extensive of the Celtic populations, the Gauls in central and western Europe, we only know about through Roman sources and these sources are decidedly unfriendly to the Gauls.
We know that the early Celtic societies were organized around warfare this structure would commonly characterize cultures in the process of migration: the Celts, the Huns, and later the Germans. Although classical Greek and Roman writers considered the Celts to be violently insane, warfare was not an organized process of territorial conquest. Among the Celts, warfare seems to have mainly been a sport, focussing on raids and hunting. In Ireland, the institution of the fianna involved young, aristocratic warriors who left the tribal area for a time to conduct raids and to hunt. When the Celts came into contact with the Romans, they changed their manner of warfare to a more organized defense agains a larger army. It was these groups that the classical writers encountered and considered insane. The Celtic method of warfare was to stand in front of the opposing army and scream and beat their spears and swords against their shields. They would then run headlong into the opposing army and screamed the entire way this often had the effect of scaring the opposing soldiers who then broke into a run; fighting a fleeing army is relatively easy work. If the opposing army did not break ranks, the Celts would stop short of the army, return to their original position, and start the process over agina.
Celtic society was hierarchical and class-based. Tribes were led by kings but political organizations were remarkably plastic. According to both Roman and Irish sources, Celtic society was divided into three groups: a warrior aristocracy, an intellectual class that included druids, poets, and jurists, and everyone else.
Society was tribal and kinship-based; one’s ethnic identity was largely derived from the larger tribal group, called the tuath (“too-awth”) in Irish (meaning “people”) but ultimately based on the smallest kinship organizational unit, the clan, called the cenedl (ke-na-dl), or “kindred,” in Irish. The clan provided identity and protection disputes between individuals were always disputes between clans. Since it was the duty of the clan to protect individuals, crimes against an individual would be prosecuted against an entire clan. One of the prominent institutions among the Celts was the blood-feud in which murder or insults against an individual would require the entire clan to violently exact retribution. The blood-feud was in part avoided by the institution of professional mediators. At least an Ireland, a professional class of jurists, called brithem, would mediate disputes and exact reparations on the offending clan.
Even though Celtic society centered around a warrior aristocracy, the position of women was fairly high in Celtic society. In the earliest periods, women participated both in warfare and in kingship. While the later Celts would adopt a strict patriarchal model, they still have a memory of women leaders and warriors.
Celtic society was based almost entirely on pastoralism and the raising of cattle or sheep; there was some agriculture in the Celtic world, but not much. The importance of cattle and the pastoral life created a unique institution in Celtic, particularly Irish, life: the cattle-raid. The stealing of another group’s cattle was often the proving point of a group of young warriors; the greatest surviving Irish myth, the Táin Bó Cualingne, or “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” centers around one such mythically-enhanced cattle-raid.
There was no urbanization of any kind among the Celts until the advent of Roman rule; in Ireland, urbanization did not occur until the Danish and Norwegian invasions. Society was not based on trade or commerce; what trade took place was largely in the form of barter. Celtic economy was probably based on the economic principle of most tribal economies: reciprocity. In a reciprocal economy, goods and other services are not exchanged for other goods, but they are given by individuals to individuals based on mutual kinship relationships and obligations. (A family economy is typical of a reciprocal economy parents and children give each other material goods and services not in trade but because they are part of a family).
From the nineteenth century onwards, Celtic religion has enjoyed a fascination among modern Europeans and European-derived cultures. In particular, the last few decades have seen a phenomenal growth not only interest in Celtic religion, but in religious practices in part derived from Celtic sources.