Tag Archives: History

Evaluating a Website…

Pleasant Surprise turns to Ire (I’m sure there’s a word in German for this).

WordPress has a fun little feature which tells you when some other site has offered a link to your own. Usually this Endeavour finds itself attached to atheist, religious, or history blogs and sites, which is to be expected. I was quite pleased to discover that a Community College in Hawai’i, an official educational institution, offered a link to my rantings (mahalo, bra). Sure, it was hidden under ‘Questionable’ in a panel discussing sources of information (bottom of the page), but I laughed, and admitted that, as an academic source, some of my opinions, my telescoping of history into fun bite-sized entries, may indeed be questionable. I thought to myself, ‘Fair enough’, and was quite pleased that I had even been mentioned. Until…

“The company of fools may first make us smile, but in the end we always feel melancholy.”

I was curious as to what this College deemed a ‘Good’ resource in comparison to me. They offer a link to New Advent (I want you to pause for a moment and think of something that really annoys you – chalk on a blackboard, cutlery on a plate, the high-pitched hollow laugh of a vacant mind – something that is pretty much the exact opposite of what you define as ‘good’ – vegan food, burgundy (red is the colour of sex, not burgundy!), Creationism, homeopathy). So. Yeah. New Advent… Oh dear. This website is based on the Catholic Encyclopedia, which, on the one hand, is not a terrible idea because such an organisation would have a lot information that could be usefully organised in such fashion. Sadly the edition used is from 1913. It’s nearly a hundred years old, it’s from a biased source, and somehow this is considered a better source than this Frivolous Endeavour, which at least does refer to recent research and attempts to be (relatively) unbiased.

Bridget (given name)

Just because there's a picture doesn't mean it's real (Image via Wikipedia)

Just For Example.

An except from the New Advent entry for Saint Brigid:

“Born in 451 or 452 of princely ancestors at Faughart, near Dundalk, County Louth; d. 1 February, 525, at Kildare. Refusing many good offers of marriage, she became a nun and received the veil from St. Macaille. With seven other virgins she settled for a time at the foot of Croghan Hill, but removed thence to Druin Criadh, in the plains of Magh Life, where under a large oak tree she erected her subsequently famous Convent of Cill-Dara, that is, “the church of the oak” (now Kildare), in the present county of that name. It is exceedingly difficult to reconcile the statements of St. Brigid’s biographers, but the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Lives of the saint are at one in assigning her a slave mother in the court of her father Dubhthach, and Irish chieftain of Leinster. ”

Well, the first major issue with this is simple. There probably was no Saint Brigid. It isn’t known when she was born or died, and the stories about her are just that, stories. Everything quoted above is a fiction. New Advent almost redeems itself by stating “Viewing the biography of St. Brigid from a critical standpoint we must allow a large margin for the vivid Celtic imagination and the glosses of medieval writers”, which is a fairly reasonable statement, but it is immediately followed by  “still the personality of the founder of Kildare stands out clearly, and we can with tolerable accuracy trace the leading events in her life”. I’m sorry, but no we can’t. But it doesn’t stop there.

Icon of Saint Patrick

Let’s take a quick look at the entry on Saint Patrick;  actually take my word for it that it’s mostly nonsense and let’s skip to the end of it, to the section entitled “Writings of Saint Patrick”. They present us with series of seven writings attributed to Patrick, which the editors reckon are genuine. Sadly all but two of these works have been dismissed as genuine writings of Patrick, leaving only the “Confessio” and the “Epistola ad Coroticum”. And that’s about it. Unless it comes from these two short works, any story or theory on Patrick is based on his Lives, which are not factual accounts of his life but the literary invention of two Irish monks for political purposes. It’s propaganda from a long forgotten conflict.

Where the problem lies…

The thing is, New Advent is based on an outdated source, a book that is a hundred years old for crying out loud. The editors accepted hagiography as factual accounts of the lives of saints. They also accepted religious documents without critical analysis. It was written by and for the Catholic Church, and contains substantial bias: “The sources of Mohammed’s biography are numerous, but on the whole untrustworthy, being crowded with fictitious details, legends, and stories. None of his biographies were compiled during his lifetime, and the earliest was written a century and a half after his death”, yeah, and the accounts of Jesus are stellar pieces of biographical research. This is not a ‘Good’ source, it’s not even a half decent one. The standards of research and the manners in which manuscript evidence is examined have radically changed, for the better, since 1913, rendering such a source as New Advent redundant. There’s a reason the Britannica Encyclopedia from 1911 isn’t still in circulation, the world has moved on. And while I may write brief accounts of historical events, hoping to elucidate and reveal where myth ends and fact begins, in a humorous (at least I think they are) and egregious fashion, at least they are based on recent research, and I am open to change.

5-0: Five Questions, and they score Zero.

Following the scheme laid out by the Hawai’ian college, I would strongly recommend that they do better research on what they offer for research.

1.What is the credibility and background of the Author or Organization?

The Catholic Church of the turn of the 20th century, need we say more.

2.Has the website been updated recently? Does it have up to date/current information?

No, it hasn’t, it’s a copy of a text written in 1913. And the uploader hasn’t offered any critical analysis of the work.

3.What is the purpose or objective of the writing

Reinforcing Catholic education and values. So, in a nutshell, lies (in fairness, I may be being a little harsh here. Then again, I may not).

4.Who is the author writting [sic.] to?

God? The world? Someone who probably died in one of the two World Wars that happened soon after the book was written? The immediate audience of the book is dead by now…

5.Is there a bias or slant?

It’s the Catholic Encyclopedia, I’m confident that no bias would ever enter into such a venerable organisation. And it’s from the time where the European Empires ruled over the vast majority of the Earth’s peoples, when racial theory was a popular notion, and most people didn’t have the right to vote. Slant? Bias? Nay, I say! Perish the thought!

I like what they are trying to do – attempting to teach students how discern between sources, what’s good, what isn’t – but, wow, really? New Advent? Really?

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Permeable Parameters

QI

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.

BookDurrow

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)

Search Terms.

Keeping track.

WordPress has this fun little feature which tells me what search terms are used to arrive at my frivolous endeavours. The majority of them make sense, but there are some oddities, some of which are stupid, others disturbing. In the last month Worpress recorded two vaguely racist searches, “anglo saxons in Missouri”  and “anglo saxon and proud” which amuse me all the more because the people who use this phrase tend not to realise how little the Anglo-Saxons contributed to the genetic make-up of the people of the British Isles. In fact the genetics of an Irishman from the extreme west, which never saw an Anglo-Saxon, are almost identical to the point of statistical irrelevance to a woman from York. Even culturally the English owe more to the French, via the Normans, than they do to the Anglo-Saxons. And besides, being proud of your genetic heritage is nonsense, if anything genetic research has proved how little difference there is between individuals humans. So stop it, stop being racist, stop suggesting that your ancestry is superior, stop being an idiot.

And now to more amusing things…

I’m not really sure what people are looking for when they type these – “adam & eve first people on earth”, “what did adam look like”,  “jezus born [sic]”,  “the tree ate by adam and eve”, “jesus birthday photo/portrait”, but at least they are looking for answers, I suppose. The short answers are, in order, no they weren’t; Adam didn’t look like anything, he probably didn’t exist; I assume you mean Jesus, and he may have been born, but not to a virgin, or the daughter of a virgin; even if they did exist, how could they eat a tree, I think you mean the fruit from the tree of knowledge, which isn’t real either; and there is no picture or portrait of Jesus because (a) cameras weren’t invented until about a millennium later (moron), and (b) nobody knows what he looked like anyway, he certainly wasn’t the guy in all the pictures we see in churches, he probably looked a lot more like a Palestinian than a BeeGee…

To be perfectly blunt, most of the characters in the Bible are just that, characters. Adam and Eve, Noah, and all the earlier fantasy folk did not exist, even the Catholic Church accepts this. Abraham and Moses may have existed, and David definitely did, but all have been greatly aggrandised to the point of caricature. Jesus, a charismatic faith-healer who wandered around annoying the establishment, probably existed, but Paul, the real inventor of Christianity certainly existed. If you sincerely believe in the talking snake, fitting all the animals in the world onto one boat, a huge movement of people that nobody else noticed, and the writings of men who were very imaginative if not delusional, seek help, soon.

Bad History.

There are some wonderfully odd entries concerning historical matters, and the Merovingians appear to be particularly popular, with such gems as “merovingian atlantis”, which is an odd opposition of terms since one had nothing to do with the other (aside from the simple fact that there was no Atlantis), and, this is brilliant, “what are merovingians, really”. Clearly someone has become exasperated with all the pseudo-historical nonsense concerning the early rulers of the Franks, which is what they were, really. The ruling family of a bunch of Germans (ironically) who settled in Roman Gaul. No magic, no Atlantis, no conspiracies.

Of course we find the odd historically inaccurate searches, such as “visigoths and roundheads”. The Visigoths began bothering the Romans in the 3rd century, and were running  Spain by the 6th, while the Roundheads were the Parliamentarians of the English Civil War in the 17th century. That’s over a thousand years, most of France, and a narrow stretch of water apart. What could possibly connect the two? Coming in at a close second we have “the huns,the vikings, and visigoths who tear down rome”.  Neither the Huns, nor the Vikings ever sacked Rome, the city, though the Visigoths did. In relation to the larger empire, the Visigoths and the Huns did create instability which contributed to the fall of the empire in the west, but it could hardly be said that they tore it down. The Vikings had nothing to do with Rome, unless you count the sack of 1084 perpetrated by the Viking/French hybrid Normans. The city of Rome was sacked by Gauls, Vandals, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths, the last of who ended imperial power in the west.

This is a strange one, “scottish face hair”… I think it’s called a beard, and yes, sometimes the Scots grow beards.

And, inevitably, I am afflicted with the blatantly stupid search; “fomenko atlantis troy”, which translates roughly as “what does this deranged mathematician who is swiftly losing what credibility that he had think about a fantasy and a true event?”. To be ignored.

Questions and Answers.

I’m guessing the following are lazy students looking for answers. Don’t get me wrong, the internet can be a valuable tool for research, but typing in the essay/exam question hoping for an answer, that’s just indolence of the lowest order. But, just for fun, here are the answers.

“discuss what is meant by salus populi suprema est lex”  In brief, keep the people healthy and the everything will be fine. US Republicans, and others, who think universal free healthcare is bad idea take note. It also has to do with the bee laws, pregnant women, and legal murder, but I’ll let you figure that out for yourself.

“did the celts call themselves celts?” No, thought Caesar said that they did, but we can’t really trust him… Or can we? He may have misinformed us to fulfill Roman stereotypes, but also, since nobody could really contradict him, he could be telling the truth. Ah, ’tis a delicate puzzle.

“what medieval viking basically rose from nothing to becoming a duke” I really don’t know. There were a few Viking earls, but dukes, I’m not so sure. The closest is Rollo, the first Duke of Normandy, who was a viking, but  he didn’t rise from ‘basically nothing’, he was of the nobility. Though, in a sense, we all rose from nothing, a handful of cells which developed music, art, assault rifles, and gelato.

“the 100 years war basic history” It was one hundred years long, and you want a basic history? Actually, that’s a challenge I might take, I’ll get back to you on that.

“explain the causes of world war one”, “what are reasons of second world war” The Germans got a bit uppity, and then the British, French, Russians, and, at the last minute, Americans, gave them a good thrashing. Why did they get uppity? Hunger for land, power, prestige, and the fact that they kept putting megalomaniacs in charge.

“where do you think western art would be today if the byzantines hadn’t continued to support the arts in society” Impossible to know. I don’t really like these ‘what if?’ questions, far too many different factors to consider.

“what was the major factors for european to leap forward from the middle ages overatking the other great civilisation at the time” Luck, lack of space, war, greed, trade, politics… The list goes on. I’m guessing ‘the other great civilisation’ is China, and I really hope this isn’t a reflection of the new (stupid) theory that the East (China) and West (Europe) have been in some kind of cultural war for the last two thousand years. One factor in Europe’s great leap was a sudden shift towards introversion in China, but it wasn’t as if anyone knew what was going on at the time, they couldn’t have planned or foreseen the consequences of their actions. Also, the grammar of this question is terrible.

“french revolution including its legacy and contribution to the world” The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, one of the greatest scenes in cinema, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, the invention of the bistro, French cinema, the bikini, Napoleon and his complex… The list goes on…

Religiosity.

Finally we come to the truly strange, religion. Let’s start with a fun one; “moral worthiness and chances to go to heaven” and “that your good conducts will be rewarded and your soul will ascend to heaven”. You have no chance of getting to heaven, it doesn’t exist. Your good conduct shouldn’t require a reward, don’t be so feeble-minded. Pick a better set of rules to live by than those written down by a bunch of desert nomads and faith-healers.

“issues trying to comprehend the afterlife” Well there isn’t one, so there should be no issue. Unless the statement is philosophical, as, in a similar fashion, I try to understand why people believe in an afterlife. I imagine it is born of the fear of death, or the facile desire for reward or guarantee.

“do not associate with immoral people” Generally speaking, yes, that is a good rule to live by. Don’t associate with rapists and paedophiles, also known as priests and clergy. Don’t associate with people who base their moral code on the rantings of men who speak to their imaginary friend. Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll are all groovy so long as everyone agrees and nobody gets hurt.

There are more, but I have grown tired of caring. Except for one more, that seems really popular, and is worthy of a longer rant. I’ll get to it later, but for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this small selection of the strange and irrational things people type to get here.

The Celts. For Real.

English: Vector version of a design from the B...

English: Vector version of a design from the Book of Kells, fol. 29r. Traced outlines in black and white representing three intertwined dogs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neo-Pagans are not Celts.

Since I’ve ranted about who the Celts weren’t, I thought I should say who they actually were. The term ‘Celt’ has been abused for quite a long time now; people buy Celtic music, wear Celtic designs, and imagine themselves as part of a great Celtic identity. This is twisted into odd forms of nationalism, neo-paganism, and Christianity. It might seem vaguely ironic that the term is used by both pagans and Christians, but the reality is that they are both wrong, so what’s the difference?

The Term is the Thing…

I must be quite clear on this point, and you must pay attention, as this is crucial; we are speaking here of terminology. Detach the word ‘Celt’ from any image or concept it might arouse in you mind; words are used to denote concepts, and sometimes those words are misused. This misuse might lead to one word being used to describe many individual and separate physical things and abstract concepts. It may be that no connection between these discrete and individual things exists, except for that word. While certain groups of people who specialise in the field of studying these things might grasp this fact, in popular culture the separate identities of these things are muddled and mixed because only one word is used. This mess is compounded by fashion, arbitrary notions of nationalism, and, sometimes, outright deceit. But just because something is popular does not mean that it is true (just look at that whole ‘god’ phenomenon; I mean, seriously, are we not over that yet?).

If you want a very basic example of this, look at Goths. A few hundred years ago the Goths were a migratory nation wandering around the Roman Empire generally taking things over. Nowadays ‘Goth’ refers to a non-violent post-punk subculture which is more likely to feel oppressed than go oppress other sub-cultures. ‘Gothic’ also denotes a type of architecture that has nothing to do with either the Goths (had swords) or the Goths (have ipods). The term is also applied to a type of literature, which may have influenced the Goths (tend to have piercings), but not the Goths (tended to pierce people), and may have itself drawn some inspiration from Gothic architecture. So, here we have a term that describes a certain style of writing, a certain style of building, and a certain style of fashion, none of which are really connected to the original meaning of the term which denoted a bunch of folk from northern Europe who moved to sunnier climates.

Now that we are clear on that…

There are, essentially, four things the term ‘Celt’ is attached to –

1. A historical ethnic group.

2. A family of languages.

3. Archaeological material (well, not really; I get to this in a moment).

4. A bunch of fanciful modern nonsense about faeries, druids, new-age Christian hokum, spirituality, and an economic bubble.

Let’s all agree to ignore 4. So, what are these three Celtic things, and how are they all ‘Celtic’  but not about the Celts? The problem lies with 17th and 18th century scholars (many of the world’s problems are the fault of these guys). These people were working in the dark, fumbling around with artifacts, languages, and cultures, attaching names that made sense at the time, but no longer do. All they had to work with were the histories handed down by propagandists, politicians, and priests (hardly the most trustworthy of folk), and the things they dug up, and had to make some sense out of it all. Certain elements of this process were easy; the ancient Romans and Greek were very helpful in leaving tons and tons of things in the ground and in books to be found by these scholars. Sadly, these scholars believed everything the Romans and Greeks wrote in these books. So when it was said that there were a people called the Celts, and that they were barbarians, it was believed. Almost everyone in Europe who was not Roman or Greek was labelled a Celt, because it was easier to think of great empires and cultures in opposition, civilisation in contrast to barbarity, bad guys versus good guys, us against them. Utter nonsense, of course, but that’s basically the way it was thought of for centuries.

So, history, archaeology, and culture were all muddled up by these scholars, creating a new version of the myth of the Celt (Caesar got there first in many respects, but more on that later). Then, in the 19th century, simply because academics love making things far more complicated than necessary, philologists decided to name a group of languages, which until then didn’t really have much in common with the ‘Celts’ of the historians or archaeologists, Celtic. To make matters worse, around this period racism was becoming tremendously popular, and nationalism was really taking off. Nations had to invent identities, foundation myths, reasons for why you are not one of us. Utter nonsense again, of course, but people are stupid. Certain peoples looked back and picked the bits of history they like; the anti-monarchical French liked to identify themselves as Gauls, ‘Celts’ who had resisted the imperial ambitions of a certain Roman; the English liked the idea of being made up of various peoples who had kicked the crap out of the Britons, ‘Celts’ who had been conquered by Romans, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, and Normans; and the Irish, being not-English, began to identify themselves as ‘Celts’, something which the neighbours agreed with as they had a fondness for kicking the crap out of Celts. Did the Celts of France, Britain, and Ireland have anything in common? No. And yes… It’s complicated.

Language timothy, language.

Latin survives today as Portuguese, Romanian, French, Spanish, Occitan, Catalan, and the various Italian dialects mostly because the Romans were very, very good at killing some people, and educating those who were left. Sadly, a great number of these people spoke various forms of what is called ‘Celtic’. They didn’t call it Celtic, and they might not even have realised that their languages were related; a Portuguese person might have rather a hard time understanding a Romanian, though technically they are speaking very similar languages. The various peoples of Gaul who spoke Celtic languages might not have immediately understood one another, but they would have definitely had a hard time comprehending the Irish, or the Galatians (who lived in central modern Turkey), even though they were all speaking ‘Celtic’ languages. Not that Caesar cared when he was conquering Gaul; all that mattered to him was that they didn’t speak Latin and they had lots of gold, which he wanted. Keep an eye on this Caesar fella, a lot of the problem is in many ways his fault.

Scholars in the 19th century, when confronted with a bunch of languages, which were clearly related, found in a vast region stretching from Anatolia, central Europe, northern Italy, France, Iberia, and the British Isles looked in the works of ancient writers to see if they could find some great empire or culture to explain this phenomenon. They took a liking to the ‘Celts’ and the name stuck; these languages became known as Celtic, divided into Insular and Continental branches, the latter of which became extinct, though the former survives as Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton.

A family tree of languages. Click to blow your mind… (Image via Wikipedia)

Are these languages Celtic? Yes, in a very specific linguistic sense meaning that there is a language family which scholars use the term ‘Celtic’ to identify. Were the people who spoke these languages, and those who still do, Celts? No. They may, at best, be called Celtic-speakers, which would be like calling Americans German-speakers (see how often you can get away with saying that to an American before irk turns to anger). The Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and Breton speak Celtic languages but are not Celts.

Celtic_sword_and_scabbard_circa_60_BCE.

Pointy stabby thing, also known as ‘sword’ (Image via Wikipedia).

Swords, Scabbards, and other Stuff.

As before, there was a time when anything non-Roman from the Stone Age on was synonymous with ‘Celtic’, but the limits of that term were eventually reduced to the Iron Age, an then into two specific periods, La Tène and Hallstatt. The folk of La Tène persuasion are customarily associated with the Celts of Caesar. The use of Celtic languages far exceeded the territories encompassed by these cultures, which may have included non-Celtic speaking populations. We might suppose that, as there was a certain unity of material culture and language in central Europe, these people were Celts, but ‘Celtic’ Ireland and Britain possess little in the way of this material culture, but are the only places where the language survives. Even the Celtic-speaking peoples of Iberia, the cleverly named Celtiberians (I bet it took months to come up with that), were hardly touched by the La Tène culture. And let’s not get into the difficulties thrown up by the Celtic-speaking Galatians of Anatolia. Can we tie artifacts and remains to languages, and make them both Celtic, essentially inventing a people with a shared ethnic, linguistic, and material identity? Well, yes, if you ignore the facts, which is what people generally seem to do.

There are more Roman archaeological artifacts found in Ireland than ‘Celtic’, which would, with seriously flawed logic, suggest that the Irish were in fact Romans. Which would be an impressive feat, since the Romans never invaded Ireland. So,  what is commonly referred to as ‘Celtic’ in an archaeological sense is really two separate material cultures, neither of which are in any serious way connected to ‘Celtic’ languages, or the modern ‘Celtic’ nations, aside from the use of fancy interlacing to entice shoppers to buy ‘authentic’ Celtic merchandise. We must then conclude that archaeology cannot tell us who the Celts were, only that there were a bunch of people hanging out in Central Europe who made things in a certain distinctive way before the Romans came along and ruined the party. But at least it gets us closer than language does.

Julius Caesar, bane of Gauls and historians (image via Wikipedia)

A Tapestry of Lies.

As for historical Celts? Well. This is where the fun really begins. Celts appear first in the writings of the Ancient Greeks, who wrote that the ‘Keltoi’ lived up around the Danube, northern Italy, and also in southern France. Which seems to map onto the La Tène scheme of things. Caesar gives the most information on these Celts, which is not surprising as he had an excellent research opportunity,  getting up close and personal with the Gauls, what with his conquering, killing, and enslaving campaign. That kind of thing won votes back in Rome, and he was aiming for the big leagues. It’s a pity that he was a politician and a soldier, as his views of the Gauls are heavily laden with stereotypes which had been around for centuries. He is the only person to refer to certain ‘Celtic’ practices, such as the Wicker Man, and so we cannot know if they are true. Caesar was keen to point out, though, that the Gauls were  semi-civilised, unlike the utterly barbaric Germans, but at least Teutonic trains run on time. All references to Celtic culture and religion are based on Graeco-Roman stereotypes, and, as far as I know, no mention is made of Celtic art in their literature. So, in modern terms, Caesar was a racist, and only saw what he wanted to see. To be fair, he was a clever guy, so let’s give him the benefit of doubt, and say that he was telling the Romans back home what they wanted to hear. But, essentially, he was like an Englishman going to America, writing home about the barbarous customs and foods (creationism and cheese in a can) he found there, while ignoring their contribution to world culture and science (jazz and the moon landings).

I suppose we could say that at least Caesar confirms that the people of Gaul called themselves Celts, until we recall that the Romans didn’t care what any named themselves; they called the Greeks Greek! The Greeks called (and still call) themselves Hellenes, since the place where they come from is called Helles. See how that works? Amazing, simple, apt. Like the Romans gave a damn. Uncultured sheep-herders living on the tops of hills near a swamp, the Romans re-baptised the entire Hellenic people after the first ones they met, the Graeci. Imagine if on meeting an American for the first time you asked for their surname, and from that point onwards referred to all Americans by that name. One of the first Americans I ever met was a Mr. Hickey, which would make all Americans Hicks, or Hickeans. In any event, when Caesar says that the Gauls called themselves Celts, he may have just been quoting the Greeks, because nobody back in Rome really cared what the Gauls called themselves, so long as they made good slaves or stayed dead. So they may have been Celts, maybe. But they were not seen to be the same as the people of Aquitaine or northern France, or even Iberia, or Britain. Caesar only describes a small portion of the people we would expect to be called Celts as Celtic. It’s almost like he was making it up…

Interestingly, Caesar didn’t call the people of Britain Celts, but Belgians (of a sort). And throughout the Middle Ages none of the surviving ‘Celtic’ peoples of the British Isles called themselves Celts, or had any notion that they had a shared heritage, other than the fact that they were extremely fond of killing each other. Historically speaking, the ‘Celts’ of the British Isles weren’t labelled as Celts until much much more recently.

So. There you have it.

What have we learned? The ‘Celts’, as they are commonly understood, never existed, and while certain aspects of the linguistic, archaeological, and historical notions of a Celt overlap, they do not provide us with who or what a Celt really was. A person from a La Tène influenced region of central Gaul who spoke a Celtic language may tick all the boxes of what is needed to be a Celt, but this would exclude so many others, making the whole notion invalid.

So, in conclusion, I must apologise. I said at the beginning I was going to tell you who the Celts really were, and I haven’t. But it’s not my fault, nobody can. And anyone who says otherwise has either discovered something revolutionary, and should be published in a book, or is a nutter, and should be hit with one.

Integrity in Conflict, or, You Meet the Most Interesting People at Conferences…

The Opening Teaser.

So. I was at this conference on medieval stuff, and, afterwards at the pub, my friends and I happened to start talking to this white-haired fellow. I mentioned that the finger-food at the conference lunch had been rather good, far superior to any such nibbles found at events that I had previously attended. The man before us casually noted that the food offered by the German Ambassador to Ireland did not achieve such delicious heights. Off he goes for a pint, leaving me and my friends rather puzzled as to who our suddenly esteemed guest might be.

The plot thickens…

Upon his return, me being me, I quite bluntly asked, how on earth did he manage to get to meet the German Ambassador? He replied that he organised a small event, to which he invited the Ambassador, and in return he was granted access to the halcyon inner-chambers of international relations. We had to know; what had he organised that attracted the attention of the Teutonic plenipotentiary. It turned out that our new friend had researched a rather interesting event, and organised a memorial for it.

German U-boat U-25.

Image via Wikipedia

The opposite of Peace.

Not long after that great butchering of men known as the Second World War began, a German U-boat caught sight of a Greek ship carrying iron-ore to the UK. Identifying it as a legitimate target, the captain of the U-boat informed the Greeks that he was going to sink their ship, gave them time to abandon, and then blew the vessel to smithereens.  Some of the Greek sailors fell in to the grasp of the sea, so the captain of U35, being a decent human-being, gathered them up.  A spotter-plane launched from Land’s End forced him to order the ship to dive. Now he was stuck with a bunch of Greek soldiers his claustrophobic domain. What ever was he to do with them?

To The Kingdom They Go.

Off they head to Ireland, where they drop the Greek sailors off at Ventry Bay, to the great surprise of the locals, who alert the police. By the time the illustrious officials, owners of inconceivable boxes of ever decreasing dimensions, arrived on their bicycles, all that they could do was watch as the U35 sailed away into the Atlantic. The Greeks were cared for in Ireland, and eventually made their way home. The German captain, in return for his good deed, was demoted by his less than noble superiors.

Unforeseen Plot Twist.

Some time later, Lord Mountbatten was sailing about the North Atlantic when he came upon a U-boat, and dropped some depth-charges to encourage it to the surface so he could have a chat with it occupants. Rising to the surface, the men abandoned their ship, and the captain, being the captain, was the last to leave. After a brief dip in the ocean, they climbed up a rope onto the British ship; the German captain couldn’t hold the rope as his hands were by this time crippled by the cold, since he had allowed his men to ascend before him and had to be hauled out of the water. Carried off to England, they were imprisoned in the Tower of London. The officers were a bit miffed that they were being treated as rank and file (war has rules, strangely), but their guards did not care. They demanded to see a Naval officer, and one eventually appeared. He said that he would take their grievances to his superior. And he did. It just so happened that his superior was Lord Mountbatten, who remembered the German captain that he had plucked from the sea. He sent a limousine to collect them from their prison, convey them to the fanciest restaurant in town for some decent food, and return them to prison. The guards, having seen this treatment, recognised that these were important men, or at the very least were clever enough to grasp the simple fact that to irk one of the most senior officers in the British military would not have been the wisest of career choices, treated the German officers with all due deference. Sometime later the war ended and the Germans were let go home.

Meanwhile, in the 21st Century…

There we sat listening to this remarkable story. The man who was telling it remembered the Greeks, but was not there on the day of their arrival, though his father was. The local community decided to memorialise the occurrence, and he invited representatives of Germany, Greece, and Ireland to attend. Our new friend managed to track down descendants of the Greek sailors, and they came to the unveiling. Sometime after that, the German Ambassador proffered second-rate finger-food. Later this remarkable man told us of the time he was in Moscow during the meeting of the Supreme Soviet, where he got to chatting with one of the representatives…

Some of the story can be found here, but it really is all in the telling. In a pub. By the man who did all the work. And who, with humility, didn’t seem to think that his efforts were extraordinary, but simply appropriate.