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Issue 41, September 1999

The Atlantic Celts: Ancient people or modern invention?

By Simon James, 1999, British Museum Press, 6.99
Reviewed by Geoff Jones

THE ANCIENT CELTS are in fashion at the moment. They even have a unit of the national curriculum to themselves. The generally accepted story is that they were a warrior race who spread across Europe around 500BC, eastwards and southwards to modern Italy, Greece and Turkey, and north and west to the British Isles.

Arriving here around 300BC, they ethnically cleansed the previous inhabitants (though this tends to be downplayed), co-existed with the Romans, and were finally driven west by new invaders to what are now Wales, Scotland and Ireland, where the remains of Celtic culture still survive. There is a picture of a typical Celtic warrior - flowing hair, lots of gold jewellery, long sword - Conan the Barbarian with a lot more style.

Simon James' new book, based on modern archaeological evidence, exposes much of this as myth. There is no evidence for any massive invasion, only for a patchy immigration of small numbers and the taking up of 'Celtic' technology and art forms by the already existing people of the islands. Furthermore, he suggests that the idea of a Europe-wide 'Celtic' cultural entity or 'nation' was merely an invention of 18th century historians and linguists. (In fact, the very word 'Celt' used to describe the iron-age peoples of Europe, only dates from the 18th century). But his short book raises many important questions, especially on the issues of 'culture' and 'nationality', in the light of the modern surge in 'nationalisms'.

James starts by discussing how to define 'nationality' and rejects traditional definitions based on genetics, linguistic similarity, or some more general 'culture'. He concludes that the only definition which holds water is one based on an individual's conscious awareness - if someone considers themselves Welsh, then they are part of the Welsh nation, regardless of their ethnic or 'cultural' background.

  Following from this, he considers what would be the consciousness of the iron-age peoples of the British Isles. This consciousness would, of course, be based on their social existence. Small family groups living by primitive agriculture, would have little except 'short range' contacts - with the next village, possibly with the odd travelling salesman or local specialist like a smith, miller or herbalist. They would be very unlikely to have any 'long range' consciousness of being part of a 'Celtic culture'.

When technological developments in agriculture enabled the production of surpluses for trading, there would be the development of a new 'warrior' class, which might be formed from foreign invaders, but much more likely of local 'strong men' picking up the most advanced technology in swords, spears etc from local or even overseas contacts and living by appropriating the surplus. Members of this class would aim to weld together the family units in 'their own' area to form their own petty kingdom. In James' phrase 'Kings created peoples, not peoples kings'. These 'Kings' would of course be interested only in the success of their own kingdom, and hardly have any consciousness of any greater 'Celtic solidarity'. A brief view of the history of mediaeval Wales gives a highly depressing demonstration of the process, with Welsh princes doing deals with the English, or with Normans, in order to further the aggrandisement of their own petty 'kingdom' against neighbouring 'kings'. And as far as any wider 'Celtic solidarity' was concerned, an Irishman and a Welshman meeting on a forest track would be extremely unlikely to cry 'Hail fellow Celt!', but much more likely to try to cut each others heads off.

With regard to the development of wider 'national consciousness', James is more tentative. He suggests that this comes about as a result of a major outside threat. In the case of England, for example, the invasion of the Vikings demonstrated the relative similarity of different petty 'English kingdoms' such as Wessex and Mercia, in the face of hostile invaders with a completely different language, religion and traditions.

  James' final theme is the reason for the invention of the idea of 'Celticism' in the 18th and 19th centuries, primarily by scholars in Wales and Scotland. He describes it in terms of a reaction against the all-conquering power of youthful English capitalism, especially when the name 'Britain' was appropriated and, in James' words, 'non-English identities faced potential cultural oblivion through assimilation and submergence into a common Britishness which was overwhelmingly English in character'. Obviously, in a short book he cannot go into much detail about the nature of this reaction, its class composition and its specific form. These questions have been discussed in much more detail by other writers, particularly in the case of Wales by Gwyn Alf Williams.

James' book is a short one and many of the ideas he puts forward are not at all as far from accepted academic wisdom as might be expected from the publicity it has received. But it can be highly recommended as a healthy antidote to the windy rhetoric on 'Celtic culture' which comes from some quarters and a useful contribution to the discussion of what constitutes a 'nation'.

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