Tag Archives: Britain

Permeable Parameters


I learned, just the other day, that for archaeologists ‘the present’ began in 1950. Which is a very odd idea, considering how we usually think of the ‘present’ being now, now, now (not then), now (you get the idea), and 1950 as the past. The reasoning behind this is that, since radio-carbon dating is rather important to the field, such a method of dating is useless after 1950 because of the amount of radiation we have ejected into the atmosphere through nuclear testing and accidents. It would be as if we could somehow calculate the age of the posts in a wooden house from the specific type of water contained within, only to turn around and find out someone went and threw them in a lake. Not very helpful. So, the past ends, and the present begins for archaeology in 1950. Which makes me wonder…

When Did It Begin?

History, as an academic field, has a quality which is often overlooked; it has a beginning. Strange as it may seem, the History of Ireland began on a specific year, as did the History of Britain, some of the Americas, all Australia, and large swathes of Asia and Africa. The other swathes of Africa and Asia, and big chunks of Europe and America are harder to define historically for reasons that I am about to tell you very soon, possibly in the present, though it may be history when you read it… Anyway, moving on.

The "Tusculum portrait", possibly th...

Julius Caesar, brought History to Gaul and Britain, got stabbed for his troubles (Image via Wikipedia)

So, the History of Ireland began in 431AD, when Prosper of Aquitaine reported that a certain Palladius was dispatched by the papacy to Ireland.  The History of Britain began around 55BC when Julius Caesar invaded, but it didn’t take, and they had to start again in 43AD; it was a real success, and soon the British were wandering all over the world introducing History (and Flags) to everyone they met, whether they liked it or not. The beginning of the History of Rome, or Egypt, or any such ancient empire, is slightly more difficult to pinpoint. Why is this? Well, for something to be History it must first be written text, and it must be authenticated, verified, and rigorously investigated. ‘Things’ are material, and material is archaeology, and archaeology goes way farther back in time than History, but History relies on the written word, on documents, manuscripts, letters, books. By this very simple fact the History of a nation can have a beginning, the moment someone mentions somewhere in a letter our interest is piqued, the second we find an alternative view the heart begins to race, and when we find controversy, dissent, disagreement in texts, oh how the angry ink does flow!

Prosper of Aquitaine was not the first to write of Ireland, but he was the first to give us a name, a date, and an event that could be corroborated: the dispatch of a bishop from Rome. With Christianity came writing, and with writing came the recording of events, of history. The History of Rome begins with murky myths, hyperbolic propaganda, and, well, lies, so we have to be very careful. In fact when dealing with Romans, if History has taught us nothing else, it would be very wise to be cautious and suspicious. While the History of Central and South America was recorded by such peoples as the Maya and Inca, North American History began with Columbus, simply by virtue of the fact that the Native Americans didn’t write anything down. Hopefully some of you are sitting there shocked, how can this be true? Well, it isn’t completely true; oral history is a valuable resource, but it is highly prone to alteration so it is often judged very harshly. We who have lived in a culture that has worshipped the written word for millennia sometimes forget that our earliest histories are oral, that our nations’ foundations are often hidden in myth. Which is where archaeology comes in; history, literature, and archaeology working in harmony create a far more vibrant image of the past than any could alone.


The Book Of Durrow (Image via Wikipedia)

But then you might wonder, how can we trust these ancient writers and chroniclers? Caesar was a propagandist, the Crusaders believed in angelic manifestations, and the British love Marmite, how can we rely on any of them to give us an honest account of history? The answer is quite simple: we don’t. This is a crucial fact, this is what divides breathless myth-hunting Scotsmen from real historians: we don’t actually believe a source until we have thoroughly investigated it.  Some historians have spent their entire lives working on specific texts or individuals, let alone periods of history. Manuscripts are poured over, analysed for every little scrap of information; we can garner an astonishing amount of data from what the words were written on and with, in what script and style, how the language is used and constructed, from the mistakes and omissions, and that’s before we even bother to read the text! You’d be surprised how much you can tell from a manuscript from the way the letters are formed, let alone the texture of the page. Just looking at the image above, an expert could immediately tell that the script is Insular, most likely from a wealthy Irish or Irish-influenced monastery, sometime in the 7th century just from the way it is written (it also helps that this book is rather well-known, sadly it’s rather difficult to find images of the more fun obscure texts, but if I could find them online they wouldn’t be obscure). Real historians, when faced with a difficulty or conundrum, don’t resort to aliens or Templar Knights (unless of course you are investigating the Crusades) to provide a quick and easy solution; no, they go back to the text, they start again, and again, and examine more texts, and yet more again. And then they die of old age.

History, or Historical?

Where then does history end and the present begin? I study the early medieval period, so anything after 1100 seems terrifically new to me, in some respects (Printed books? Lame. Manuscripts are what all the cool kids examine!), but I enjoy reading about pretty much any historical period, so at this point (and things may change later) I am at a bit of a loss as to say where history ends. A historian I know once declared to me that anyone who studies the 20th Century isn’t a historian, they are just a news-reporter who’s running a bit late. I thought him a bit harsh, but it made me wonder, is the Second World War history? It must be, right? It happened ages ago, before either I or my father was born. My grandparents lived through it, so I am only one generation removed from the most destructive and violent conflict in history. But at the same time, there are still quite a few people living who either fought in, or lived through, the war; if there is somebody still living who remembers the events first hand, is it history? And we are still living through its consequences, but then aren’t we living with the consequences of all of history? Iraq and Libya have both lost their dictators in narrow sewers, discovered them, and then executed them in my lifetime, but I don’t think that I am living in history. The terrorist attacks on London or the US don’t feel like history to me, they are part of my life, but only in a minute fashion; they hold a far greater and lamentable grasp on the lives of so many others. Even the first Iraq war, or the Falklands, hardly seems like history, they only just happened. But they may be historical. Could that be a way to skip around the issue? These are historical events, we are living through historical moments in time, which will become history once everyone who has witnessed them is dead.

Does History begin with the written word, and end when the last survivor of a specific event dies? Or does it begin with the first witness, and end when the consequences of an act have passed? Or from the earliest memory to roughly a week ago? What you may consider as History is (or indeed, was) somebody else’s life, their present, their memories. And for me, that is what makes the study of History so fascinating; it’s not the examination of dry facts, of mulling over great battles, it’s the recreation of a life. In my work, I get to read the private letters and thoughts of people who died over a thousand years ago, I try to tease out what facts I can to see how they lived and died, what they hoped and worked for. I work with comparably little information when you consider the tsunami of sources available to a historian of the Modern Period (newspapers, diaries, letters, government documents, written accounts, news broadcasts, films, radio, novels, comics, art, laws, the list go on…). It may be easier for them, but I, at least, expect more of them.

History is a tremendous puzzle, especially the further back you go, which is what makes it so bloody interesting. So I don’t really care when it ends, only that it doesn’t. And if you don’t find the investigation of the past at the very least interesting, there is something very, very wrong with your world perspective.

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.” – Oscar Wilde

(The quote is somewhat tangential to the essay, but the man is not wrong)


How did the Celts save Britain? Time travel?

A New Chronology.

A BBC documentary called “How the Celts saved Britain” has clearly made a bold and divisive claim in the title alone. One might not even need to watch the actual programme itself as the title by itself should shock one to their very core; it advances a radical revision of how we perceive history. It proposes that Britain was saved from a dark age, after the departure of the Roman legions in the 5th century AD, by the Celts. A group of people first identified by the Greeks asBack to the Future living in southern Germany in the 6th century BC somehow managed to build a time-machine with Iron-Age technology with the express purpose of traveling one thousand years into the future to save Britain, which for them did not yet exist. We might yet hear of Welsh-named Sarmatians defending Hadrian’s Wall, or of Huns saving the French Revolution from the Royalists if time-travel was so freely available in the ancient world.

Once the documentary begins, however, such radical notions are themselves shattered as it becomes clear that the presenter is in fact referring to the Irish, and how it was they who ‘saved’ Britain. Right. How many times must this be said? The Irish are not, nor were they ever, Celts. They never called themselves Celts, or thought of themselves as being Celts, and neither did anyone else until the 18th century. They spoke a Celtic language, but just because Brazilians and Senegalese speak a Latin language doesn’t make them Romans. To repeat, the Irish were not, and ardently continue not to be in face of overwhelming ignorance, Celts. (For a more detailed argument, see ‘Celtic Christianity and the Cult of Nonsense’).

Terms of Obscurity.

The BBC describes the programme as  a “Provocative two-part documentary in which Dan Snow blows the lid on the traditional Anglo-centric view of history and reveals how the Irish saved Britain from cultural oblivion during the Dark Ages.” Which is fair enough, and, even though most academics have known this for decades, the general public is in need of enlightenment. So why the subtle switching of words? Why does the programme not announce itself as ‘How the Irish saved Britain’? Why are the Irish pasted over as Celts? Might it be that the documentary was too provocative, that the English people couldn’t handle the idea that their neighbour, former colony, source of cheap labour, people whose culture they tried to annihilate,  could actually have been better than them at some stage? From where does this fear of the Irish appear? More realistically, none of these notions are probably correct. ‘Celt’ is a sexy term these days; in a world which has grown drunk on spiritualism, pseudo-druidism, and other such puzzling ideologies which proclaim Celtic provenance, one might imagine that slapping ‘Celt’ into the title of a programme virtually guarantees high ratings. So the Irish are rebranded as Celts, a shtick which has earned the nation quiet a few tourist dollars in recent years.

Even the Britons suffer in this tale of woe, a tale which muddles history somewhat. It might be thought that the ‘Celts’ saved all the inhabitants from Land’s End to the Shetland Islands, but Britain in the 7th century consisted only of what would become England and Wales, so in ‘saving Britain’ the Irish contribution to the conversion of the Picts and the foundation of Scotland is completely ignored. And even then, the Welsh, who called themselves British, didn’t need saving, they were already well versed in Latin learning, having been part of the Roman Empire. So the people of whom the programme is really talking about were the inhabitants of what we know as England, who were pagan invaders from mainland Europe. It might then be argued that a more accurate title for the documentary might be ‘How the Ancient Irish preserved Latin learning and re-introduced it to England after the Anglo-Saxon invasion, and from there, into Europe’. Admittedly it is less catchy, but more accurate.

How stupid are you?

Aside from various historical and conceptual inaccuracies in the documentary, which may be tolerably forgiven due to the vast time-periods under discussiSaint Patrickon, and the desire to simplify complex ideas (an arrogance of TV documentaries believing the public to be incapable of elaborate musings), there are several grossly fallacious statements made about Saint Patrick and the conversion of the Irish. Firstly, contrary to what is espoused in the programme, there were already Christians in Ireland, so many in fact that the Pope dispatched a bishop to administer to them long before Patrick appeared on the scene. Secondly, there was no High-King of Tara in this period, so Patrick could not have converted him. Thirdly, the use of hagiography as historical fact is blindingly deficient.

But the one that wins the prize for “most stupid ‘fact’ ever proclaimed in a documentary” is that Patrick was so successful in converting the Irish due to the fact that they were a spiritual people who venerated the sun, and Patrick simply convinced them to worship the Son. … And the presenter agrees with this revelation as offered by a Catholic priest. … This is utterly ridiculous. Not only is it grotesque to suggest that the Irish were swayed from a sophisticated polytheism layered with revenge and sex to a Jewish death cult by the simple replacing of a ‘u’ with an ‘o’, but it beggars belief to imply that they would comprehend such wordplay. They didn’t speak English. No one did. It hadn’t been invented yet. The ignorance embedded in such a thought is mind-numbing. Slapping a cat in an effort to assuage your fears of an impending financial apocalypse makes more sense. The Irish spoke Irish, and Patrick spoke Latin and probably learned Irish during his enslavement, and you can’t turn grian (‘sun’ in Irish) into filius (‘son’ in Latin) by any stretch of the imagination. How was such a comment allowed to air; did the presenter not see through the fallacy, or the researchers, editor, or numerous other people involved in the production? That such a statement was uttered is bad enough, but that nobody bothered to say “hang on, that’s just daft” is astonishing…

Yes there should be more documentaries professing the tremendous contribution the Irish made to Great Britain and the Continent, and, equally, vice versa. The ancient and medieval Irish did not exist in a vacuum, and neither did anyone else. The quality of the research, and of the contributors, must be improved, otherwise the popular perception of the history of these islands will be distorted beyond all reason, and the factual history will be lost. And someone should be employed to slap cretins who make profoundly ignorant comments, and those who nod along acceptingly, believing themselves to be great impartors of knowledge, should be reminded that they are there to question the veracity of such statements, possibly also with a slap.