I grew up being told that I was a Yankee, which in Connecticut meant a New Englander of English descent. Most of my ancestors were in New England a century or more before the American Revolution. But it turns out that they were not all English. I did know there was some Scottish in there, but wasn’t sure how much. My mother, after all, was a Stewart. As ancestry.com continued to refine my ethnic heritage, I turned out to be 50% English (my father’s side), 40% a mix of Scottish, Irish, and Welsh, and the rest Norwegian—those Vikings visiting the British Isles and leaving their DNA behind.
Along with a mostly Welsh friend and a mostly Irish friend, I had watched the Great Courses series The Celtic World as we celebrated our shred ancestry. But my proudest moments of being 40 percent Celtic came with two unrelated discoveries, the Irish monk and heretic Pelagius and the delightful historical mystery series by Peter Tremayne, set in seventh century Ireland with Sister Fidelma as the heroine.
Pelagius was a fourth century monk who differed significantly from the emerging Augustinian orthodoxy of original sin and predestination. Arguing that we were created in the image of God, Pelagius believed in free will and the opportunity for all to be saved. That might sound obvious to modern ears, but it was heresy in his day. When my Monday night discussion group discovered Pelagius, we agreed that those of us who had been to seminary who had heard of him at all had been told he was a heretic. He was, indeed, a Christian Universalist like the second century theologian Origen, affirming a heresy that has been embraced by most of contemporary mainstream Christianity
More important than the theology to me was the culture embodied by Sister Fidelma. Fidelma was the sister of the king of Muman (later Munster, one of five Irish kingdoms under the High King). She was a well-educated person and a dalaigh—an officer of the court, a lawyer with investigatory powers under Brehon law. She was not alone. Other women held positions of authority in law, religion, and governance. Although she left the convent and renounced her vows to pursue a more worldly career in collaboration with her brother, she was still known as Sister Fidelma. She married an Angle, Brother Eadulf, and bore a child.
Kings in 7th century Ireland were selected by a quasi- democratic process. When a king (or queen) died, there would be a designated heir already in place. A conclave of at least three generations of the ruling family would crown the designated heir and select from within the family a new designated heir based on the fitness of that person to rule. It could be a woman.
Through Sister Fidelma’s adventures, we discover a great deal that was different about Celtic religion and culture, especially the role of women and an egalitarian view of the world. Nuns and monks lived in co-houses under the joint rule of an abbot and an abbess, in which monks and nuns could marry and raise their children in the faith. There was no attempt to wipe out the old religion; many of its beliefs and practices were retained and integrated into their Christian faith. It was a faith deeply grounded in the earth, a practice that some segments of modern Christianity have somewhat belatedly embraced.
Women in that culture could choose to marry or not, divorce, and own property. They could enter a trial marriage for a year, as Sister Fidelma did, after which they made it permanent or parted ways without penalty, free to remarry or remain single . While misogyny flourished in areas of Western Europe under Roman rule and /or influence, Ireland was never part of the Holy Roman Empire, too far away to be subjected to patriarchy until much later.
I have always celebrated my Scotch-Irish great grandmother Alice Munger Stewart, who marched for women’s suffrage in the early 20th century It is heartening to learn from Peter Tremayne and Sister Fidelma how deep in my DNA runs the belief that women are fully human, competent, and equal, and deserve to be treated accordingly. I defied my mother’s expectation that I could become a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary, and became an academic economist instead.
I was fortunate to come of age in the time of the women’s movement in this country, led by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and countless others. I was blessed with a feminist husband who told me early in our marriage that he did not want a wife who lived vicariously through him. I assured him that such an arrangement was fine with me. We raised three feminist daughters who in turn raised our four granddaughters to be all that they can be.
I wish the same for women everywhere striving to reassert their full humanity and their right to be treated as equals.