The economics and ethics of Celtic Ireland
For thousands of years the Gaelic speaking territories of north-western Europe were home to a polycentric legal order that has been of great interest to Austro-libertarian theorists in the field of free-market legal reform (Rothbard, For a New Liberty, 1970). This ancient legal system, known as «Brehon law» after the caste of professional judges called Brehons who wrote and upheld the laws, was best preserved on the island of Ireland where it remained in place from pre-history up until the 17th century.
To understand the economics and ethics of this early Irish legal system one must first detach oneself from the modern setting of ultra-individualistic liberal-socialist Europe. It is impossible to explain Brehon law without simultaneously introducing the reader to the social, political and cultural set-up within which the system of Brehon law existed or what Prof von Mises would have called its thymology.2 For example, there were multiple competing legal schools co-existing in ancient Ireland, a point that might instantly confuse many readers unless one explains how such institutions were radically different in both theory and practice from their modern counterparts. The Brehon legal system also advanced a scholarly oral tradition and a unique legal language of its own which took over seven years to master. As a result there are few surviving legal texts so I shall be drawing heavily upon manuscripts from the 14th-16th centuries detailing the period from the 7th-8th centuries. These texts include wisdom texts, sagas, praise-poetry, saints’ lives, and monastic rules which were recorded and preserved by a class of professional poets who held the most powerful position in Irish society at the time.
Let me first introduce the political setting of the period in question. The basic territorial area in ancient Ireland was the túath which may best be understood as the tribal lands of an extended family. There was on average approximately 150 kings or chieftains who ruled their respective túatha. Some kings were the subjects of other kings in a system of over-lordship but many kingdoms formed trade and, as we shall see, rights granting treaties with each other. Although there were at times powerful kings who held whole provinces under their authority, no king ever became the Ard Rí or «high king» of all Ireland. During this time the Irish population hovered around 400,000 inhabitants and the size of each kingdom was typically 3,000 people. Ireland was densely forested until after the English conquest of Ireland and the on-set of the industrial revolution and the population during the reign of Brehon law was largely rural with exceptions for the many monasteries and the occasional Viking settlements in later periods.
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