Tag Archives: Gaul

Leave the Celts Alone.

Fictional Characters.

After a brief search on Google, or even here on the gamut of blogs and articles provided by WordPress, of the words ‘Celt’ or ‘Celtic’, the casual internet patron might be left with thoughts of a deeply mystical people, ancient and arcane spirituality and wisdom, or of gruesome barbarian warriors shrouding their mind. They would also most likely come across links to Irish, neo-pagan, or alternative Christian sites promoting the peculiar enlightenment of the Celts. One may find Celtic litanies, Celtic incantations, pagan prayers to be uttered at Celtic festivals (particularly popular at Halloween), Celtic jewelery, books on Celtic spiritualism, wistful Irish music, or even, if you are lucky, a bizarre reconstruction of a fight between a Celt and a Persian Immortal to discover who is ‘deadliest’. I admit, the immediate hits on Google for ‘the Celts’ provides the user with a list of useful and reasonable sources, but the myth of the Celt persists.

Who were the Celts?

Therein lies the rub, the task. It’s rather hard to say exactly, but one thing that should be taken for granted, but isn’t, is that the Irish, the Welsh, and the Scots aren’t. Of the many populations which have inhabited Britain and Ireland in the last few millennia none of them were, to use a modern term, ethnic Celts. Consequently, anyone who tries to sell you anything with ‘Celtic’ and ‘Ireland’ in the title is inherently wrong, unless it’s an academic work, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

And that Moment is Now.

Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum

Image via Wikipedia

The confusion relating to the term ‘Celt’ is down to 17th/18th century linguists, helped by modern willful ignorance. There were a people whom the Greeks and Romans called the Celts inhabiting Spain, France, and Central Europe back in the days when Greek education was the envy of the world. Whether or not these people were Celts is even up for debate; it’s one thing when Herodotus in the 5th century BCE refers to Celts, it’s a whole other thing when Caesar talks about them four hundred and fifty odd years later. Of course Caesar tells us that the people he’s conquering for their own good call themselves Celts, but we really only have his word for that, and he had an agenda, but some of them at least were probably the same people Herodotus was also writing about. But did they call themselves Celts?

Hellene? It’s all Greek to me…

The Romans called the Greeks ‘Greek’, a mistake that we’ve inherited,  but that’s not what the Greeks called themselves; in their minds there were Hellenes. The first group of Hellenes the Romans met were a tribe called the Graecians, and so they baptised an entire people with the name of one small contingent. So the people who Herodotus and Caesar called ‘Celts’ may only have been a small tribe of people, they might not have thought of themselves as Celts, they may have had no ethnic unity or consciousness whatsoever, unlike the Greeks and the Romans, aside from knowing that they were not Greek or Roman. These ‘Celts’ did share a common culture and language group (the individual languages may not have been readily intelligible to one-another, just as a modern Irish speaker would not immediately grasp modern Welsh), but they were not a nation as we now understand the term. This culture and language was shared by the peoples in the archipelago just off the north coast of Gaul, but they were not Celts.

Confused yet?

From the Ireland to Germany, Spain to Turkey, lived a people who spoke languages with a common ancestor. When this common ancestor was proposed it made sense, to the 17th/18th century mind steeped in Classical learning, to call this ancient language ‘Celtic’. It was hardly the best term to choose, but we’re stuck with it. And that is how, very simply, the Irish, Welsh, and Scots became Celtic. It’s just a term, a very specific term in linguistics.  Latin and its descendants (French, Spanish, Romanian, etc.) are Italic languages, but that doesn’t mean that the people of Chile, Madagascar, Macau, or Vietnam are Italian. The term ‘Celtic’ is used in a very specific fashion in an academic context, there are books and articles on Celtic Theology, Celtic Sources, etc., on the bookshelves of many a university library, but in the shops on the high-street the term is almost ritually abused for the sake of money. You can buy Celtic Wisdom for £5, learn Celtic Secrets for less than a tenner, or get your own Celtic Spiritual Guide half price! There is nothing Celtic in these wastes of ink. Similarly there is very little about neo-paganism which is Celtic, mostly because the Celtic-speaking peoples of Europe didn’t write much down, so these neo-druids and wiccans are literally making stuff up, which is no different from any other religion in all fairness. And there never was a Celtic Christianity, and the Celts did not save Britain.

Celtic Fluff.

The term ‘Celt’ has become a fluffy word that spiritualists, and cunning marketing, frequently slap on a product to make it sell, from trinkets to soap. This seems to be a consequence of the increasing lack of faith in established religions, and the belief that the older, ‘more spiritual’ ideas were somehow better, in tune with nature, or some other vague allusion. The Gauls dug massive mines all over France in search of precious metals, which made them vastly wealthy, and ultimately financed Caesar’s coup. The peoples of Ireland and Britain traded with anyone and everyone they could, such that, for example,  rare lapis lazuli from Afghanistan found its way to Ireland where it was made into ink for the illustration of religious texts. These people were just like us, consumers, but without the benefit of an alternative paradigm to faith. And, if the ancient Irish are anything to judge by, they were deeply practical, legalistic, and wonderfully secular for their time. This is not the ‘Celt’ that is promoted nowadays; we are confronted with a delusion invented by the 18th century Romantic Movement, an ephemeral fantasy cobbled together by misguided nationalism and often beautiful, but not necessarily true, literature and poetry.

Be wary of Greeks bearing gifts, and be suspicious of anyone who uses the term ‘Celt’, unless they offer the immediate qualification of ‘linguistically speaking’. And stop calling the Irish, Welsh, and Scots ‘Celts’, or start calling the English and Americans ‘Germans’. Either way, leave the Celts alone.

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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.

Vive la Franks

Regime Change

A bunch of rowdy German football hooligans decided to move to Paris one day. Thus began the history of France. Previously it had been known as ‘Gaul’ and was ruled by the Romans, who never did anything for anyone except provide sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, public health, and peace. A bunch of people called the Salian Franks, who were jealous of all the things Rome hadn’t done for anyone, decided to move into Gaul and rename it Francia, and hope no-one noticed because, in fairness, it was the done thing at the time. The Vandals, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths were all having a go at ruling someone else’s empire, so the Franks thought it was only fair that they should too. At first, under a fella by the name of Childeric I (not that he called himself that, he couldn’t have known that another Childeric would come along two hundred years later) the Salian Franks were somewhat under the rule of Rome, and fought the Visigoths alongside Roman armies. But then Odoacer put an end to the Empire, so the Franks were basically free to do whatever they wanted. Which is exactly what Clovis did.

Clovis, King of Franks

What did Clovis do next? He kicked arse.Clovis The French have a long and proud history of kicking arse and not giving a damn, and it was probably Clovis who started this. Assuming the throne after his father died, he started fighting with pretty much everyone he could. Under Frankish law the king was only entitled to an equal share in the booty of conquest as his men were. Being king, Clovis thought he deserved more, and said as much at Soissons after a certain battle when he desired a ewer of singular craftsmanship. A soldier stood up and said every man should have a share, and smashed it to bits. Clovis did nothing at the time, but later, at a mustering of the men, singled out the offending soldier for inspection. He seized the man’s axe, and threw it to the ground, declaring it to be dirty. As the man knelt to retrieve the weapon Clovis drew his, and clove the man’s head in two. After that no-one dared debate the concept of ‘fair share’ with Clovis, even as he went about taking other people’s lands and kingdoms. He killed kings and their relatives, sometimes by his own hand, until he had conquered the majority of Gaul. He even killed much of his own family to avoid rebellion and claimants to the throne. Near the end of his life he held a great assembly, and cried out how terrible it was to be old, alone, and have no relatives, not because he wanted to welcome them in a warm embrace of familial affection, but introduce them to the cold embrace of death by axe. Having built himself a nice empire his family spent the next few hundred years tearing it apart, going insane and being far too young to run things. This allowed for many families to rise, and fall, rapidly in a short time, as was the case of the next great dynasty of what was now called Francia, or Frankland.

Rise of the Carolingians

Charlemagne was the crowning glory of a generation or more of one family’s attempts to become the rulers of Francia.Charlemagne This family, known as the Carolingians, were the Mayors of the Palace, essentially the Prime Ministers, of the Merovingian kings. Charles, the Hammer, Martel, one of France’s earliest recorded rappers, went about conquering people, and demanding tribute from them, under the authority of the king. His greatest victory was when he defeated an invading Muslim army at Tours, driving them back behind the Pyrenees, where they stayed until the Spanish decided they wanted to have Spain back. The Franks tended to prefer the idea of a warrior-king as opposed to a sit-at-home-and-send-others-to-die king. Though he ruled as king for a time he was never actually called a king, possibly because the Merovingian name still held a certain amount of power. His son, Pippin the Short, did not care for the fact that he had to answer to a man who had no real power, only prestige. He sent a letter to the Pope, and then called an election. Pippin was thus elected king, the first of the very successful Carolingian dynasty to rule Francia, not just in practice but in name. He finished driving the Saracens out of Gaul, annexed Aquitaine, made the Lombards do what the Pope told them to, and then died. He left two sons as heirs. One wasn’t king for long and didn’t really do much. This was Carloman I. The other was one of the most celebrated kings of the Middle Ages, if not all time, who ruled over most of Europe, and wielded a level of power unseen since the Roman emperors, inspired an explosion of learning and gave us the writing system we use today. This was the aptly named Imperatur Augustus Charles I The Great, Charlemagne.

Three Kings

Charlemagne had several sons, but only one was appointed to succeed him, Louis the Pious, which was handy. Louis had lots of sons and this created many problems for him later in life. Louis decided that his eldest son, Lothar, would become emperor and that his other two sons, Peppin and Louis (the German) would become kings of bits of France and Germany, under the overall rule of their brother. They would not be allowed to go to war or organise family picnics without the consent of Lothar. Then Louis (the Pious) went and had another son and made a mess of the whole deal. The lands and privileges of the first 3 sons were diminished in favour of Charles, the new young prince. Soon they were all at war. Louis was emperor, then Lothar, then Louis again. Then Louis died, so Lothar, the other Louis, and Charles divided the land between them, leaving Peppin to twiddle his thumbs. Lothar felt he should be in charge and attacked Charles, but lost, and then Louis attacked Charles, but lost. New lines were drawn, dividing the empire in three parts, which had repercussions which still affect the world today. The Empire was cut up permanently for the first time in four generations, since Charles Martel took power. This created the kingdoms of France, Germany and Italy. While there had been kingdoms of Italy before, ‘France’ and ‘Germany’ were totally new ideas which would be fought over for the next thousand years. It all began with three brothers who couldn’t agree where to draw the lines between their kingdoms.

Monks, Fonts, and Music

The Carolingians, while killing and conquering everything they could, and fighting amongst themselves, also stimulated intellectual culture in Europe. Latin was standardised so that people from all over the empire, while speaking different languages, could all understand one another. Writing was also standardised in Europe. Before then every monastery, school, palace, and town had their style of writing, with contractions and symbols that were often incomprehensible to anyone else. Not unlike text-speak written in Chinglish. Charles the Great decided he was sick of all that and made everyone write the same way; everyone made all the letters the same way (which was a strange concept at the time!), joined them the same way, had spaces between words, everything became neat and tidy. Carolingian minisculeAnd what did all this look like? This. You are reading it. Seriously. The way we write today, the shape of the letters, the spacing, punctuation, was all made up back then. It’s changed and developed since then, but basically, you write how the Carolingians did. They even invented musical notation, all those lines and dots that describe sounds. So, what did the Carolingians do? They created the way we write, the way we write music, deeply influenced Western Christian doctrine, invented France and Germany, and were one of the very few empires to rule and unite vast swathes of Europe for more than 20 minutes.