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The best books on The Celts

recommended by Simon Young

The Celtic Revolution by Simon Young

The Celtic Revolution
by Simon Young

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Writer and Dark Age historian delves into five books on Celtic history, and talks about the challenge of separating history from legend. One priority for any Dark Age historian, he says, is "to avoid these awful bogs"

The Celtic Revolution by Simon Young

The Celtic Revolution
by Simon Young

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When I think of the Celts, I think of Scotland and Ireland. But that’s not entirely accurate, is it?

That’s right. One of the things I argue in my book is that we can talk about a Celtic civilisation in early history, pre-history, antiquity. Even in the Middle Ages there was a Celtic civilisation to talk of. However, when you actually get to the modern Irish and Scots, they are, if you like, the descendants of that Celtic civilisation. But, in fact, the very idea that they are Celtic is a fairly recent one, dating back to the 18th century.

From around the fifth century AD to the 18th century, no one had any idea that, for example, the Welsh and the Irish had anything in common. No one would have thought to class them together as part of the same civilisation.

You’ve written your most recent book to prove the existence of the Celts. Why was there a question mark over this?

Well, for the last 20 years many different people have tried to argue that the Celts had never existed. One of the things I’ve done in this book is try to demonstrate that there really was a Celtic civilisation in the early centuries BC and that we can trace that civilisation through several centuries in Ireland and Britain especially.

What ties the Celtic people together?

Well, the ancient Celts were tied together by a common group of languages; we have evidence of common mythical heroes, a common religion, and there is also evidence of a common sense of identity, which is perhaps the most important. They thought of themselves as a people apart.

I see. So what sort of time period are we dealing with – some time between the Romans and the 10th and 11th centuries, isn’t it?

By the time you get to the 10th and 11th centuries things are falling apart, in the sense that it’s difficult to talk about the Celtic civilisation. About a third of my book covers this period, but I try to make clear that by this point we’re dealing with fossils of Celtic civilisation – I especially concentrate on the legends that have come down from the Iron Ages, an earlier period of Celtic history.

The first book you’ve recommended, Barry Cunliffe’s The Celts: A Very Short Introduction, is a very brief introductory text for what seems to be a very broad topic. How does he bring it all together?

The thing about Barry Cunliffe is that he’s written so many books on the Celts, and he’s clearly sweated a lot over these books. My impression with this book … my hypothesis is that he wrote it on a wet weekend and didn’t think too much about it. And I think it comes out so much better as a result. It’s just his reflections, his musings, and it’s a really fun read.

There must be quite a few colourful characters in Celtic folklore – and Celtic history as well.

That’s right. We have various interesting war leaders – Boudicca in Britain for example, just after the Roman conquest – and some of the figures I dredge up in the early part of my book are these Celtic tribal leaders from beyond the Alps that came crashing down to the Mediterranean in the early centuries BC.

One of the fascinating things is that it’s very difficult for us to separate legend from history – we’re really honestly not sure with the early figures whether they’re real or not, whether they’re heroes from Celtic mythology or real historical individuals.

It’s interesting that one of the early Celtic heroes was called Brennos, and he turns up about 15 centuries later in Welsh folklore – his name is Bran, which means raven, from which we get the legend of the ravens at the Tower of London.

Boudicca is one of the few we can be sure about. Her name meant ‘victory’, a fairly common name, and she’s very well attested. But it looks as if legend and history did merge in her biography. So even if she existed, we can’t be absolutely sure how much of what’s written about her is true.

Could you give us a synopsis of Boudicca’s story?

Britain was conquered by the Romans in 43AD, and the first generation of Roman rule proves very onerous on the tribal Celtic societies of Britain. Boudicca is the great hope that the British Celts will be able to drive the Romans out of the island, and in 61AD this extraordinary civil war sets off in the Fens and in East Anglia, basically destroying everything Roman in sight.

There are very, very vivid archaeological records, where we’ve found statues that have been decapitated by the tribal Celts. The tribal Celts were always very interested in what we call ‘the cult of the head’ – not only did they decapitate people but, in their anger against the Romans, they also decapitated statues.

Then, of course, we have just levels and levels of burning in Eastern and South-Eastern cities across England, especially London; if you’re on the north bank of London and you dig down far enough you will coming to the burning from the time of Boudicca, where basically the city was set alight.

In the early 20th century, two boys went fishing in a river in Suffolk and actually fished up the head – a bronze head – of the Emperor Claudius, which would have come from the Temple of Claudius, near Colchester. This was one of these heads which had been decapitated by the Celtic warriors, and you can imagine these two boys’ faces when they found this great bronze head on the end of their hook.

I was interested to hear what you were saying about the crossover between history and legend – this must have been quite a problem for the author of the next book you’ve recommended, Michael Wood’s In Search of the Dark Ages. How do you research a book about the Dark Ages?

Well, this is the immortal problem. One of the greatest living Celticists is Professor Patrick Sims-Williams at Aberystwyth, and he says something that goes around and around in my head when I’m trying to write these books – that it is impossible to write a decent narrative without littering the page with ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’. This is always the difficulty.

One of the splendours of Michael Wood’s book is that he just concentrates on six or seven individuals from the Dark Ages, of whom we know something, and he concentrates on them. So he gets around the problem by standing on the few places in the bog of Dark Age history where he’s not sucked down, and I think that’s one of the challenges for any Dark Age historian – particularly a popular historian – to avoid these awful marshes and bogs.

He starts with Boudicca, which is a bit naughty because she’s not even really in the Dark Ages, and he moves all the way through to King Ethelstan in the 10th century, on the way discussing King Arthur. That’s perhaps the one dodgy part of that book, although he does it with style and panache. It’s just so difficult to say anything about Arthur and keep your feet on the ground.

How does Tom Green deal with this in his book Concepts of Arthur?

What Tom Green argues is that Arthur actually never existed. He argues that all the legends we have about Arthur demonstrate that what we have here is essentially an Iron Age god. Some people over the years have suggested this in passing, but Tom Green is the first person to make a really strong stand-up case.

Personally I disagree with him, but he does it with such style that even if you disagree with his final conclusion, the journey is extremely interesting and very revealing about the way that Arthur was seen by the British Celts in the Middle Ages.

So what’s the problem? Don’t they know who he was and where he was?

Well, they’ve tied him down to about four or five different people. In the appendix of my book I look at the characters that are sometimes wheeled on as possible candidates. We have, for example, a Roman Arthur – Arturius – who lived in the second century in Northern Britain, the commander of a group of Persian cavalry.

We have an Irish Arthur who lived in the Hebrides in the seventh century. And then we have what’s sometimes called the warlord Arthur, who would have been fighting somewhere in the British lowlands – perhaps Bath or Bristol – in the fifth or sixth centuries.

I think it’s a demonstration of just how colossal our ignorance is, that we’re limited to hopping round these two or three figures. Of course, as soon as you’ve got two or three figures in the Dark Ages, it means you’ve got literally tens of figures who we don’t know anything about, who could equally be candidates for the Arthurian legend.

Arthur’s back in fashion in Britain – there’s a new television series, Merlin.

I haven’t seen it, I’m afraid – living in Italy I’m spared these things!

Merlin as a character is very interesting. He arrives in the Arthurian legend not in the Celtic lands themselves. He was later ‘welded’ on to Arthur by English and Continental writers. We actually have no evidence that Merlin and Arthur were associated. But he was an authentic Celtic hero, called ‘Mervyn’, but this was too close to the French word ‘merde’ and so the French cunningly changed the spelling of his name to make him a little more polite.

I’m fascinated by your next choice, The Trials of Arthur: The Life and Times of a Modern-Day King.

This book is absolutely wonderful. It describes the adventures of Arthur Pendragon, a chap who lives near Winchester.

I’ve come across him in various guises over the years. He’s one of these people who are not only very colourful, but very active. One moment he’s campaigning against the new carpark in Winchester city centre, the next he’s climbing up trees to protect a stretch of ancient British countryside from road development. So he’s a fascinating but also a very active person and the book is a really great read.

He believes himself to be the reincarnation of King Arthur, and this book is co-written – what’s essentially a ghost writer tries to bring this up on a couple of occasions, but Arthur of course just rushes over this. As far as he is concerned he’s just the reincarnation of King Arthur and that’s it.

Finally, Life of St Columba translated by Richard Sharpe.

I put this on the list because I think when people are interested in the Celts and the early Middle Ages, what a lot of people are unaware of is that there are four or five beautiful books that came down from the Dark Ages, still very interesting to read today. Perhaps the very best of these books is this one, Life of Columba by Adomnan .

Columba lived in the sixth century, an Irish saint who ended up on Iona in the Hebrides in a monastery there. And Richard Sharpe has translated this seventh-century text, written a century after Columba’s death, from Latin into English, and he’s done it with enormous style. The end of the book has copious notes as well for the curious reader.

If people are really keen on this subject, the best thing they can do is find a book like this that tells it as it was, very much in the voice and language of those times. It’s to Richard Sharpe’s great credit that he’s managed to pull off a translation that’s very simple to read – you can sit down with it and read it in an afternoon, and it takes you all the way back to the very heart of the Dark Ages.

I wonder if you could tell me a bit about Iona? Why would Columba have chosen to set up a great abbey in the middle of the ocean?

Well, the Irish had been familiar for many years with the idea that the early Christian fathers, the Desert Fathers as we call them, in Syria and Egypt, had gone out into the desert to look for God. So they found themselves here in Ireland desperately looking for wildernesses, but really Ireland doesn’t have any deserts. So they came up with two solutions: one solution was to find little bits of wilderness on the tops of mountains and many Gaelic names in Ireland to this day are called disirts, referring to these attempts by early Christian hermits to turn these boglands into deserts where they could pray to God.

The other thing they’d do was to go out in boats and look for deserted islands, and they did this in the most extraordinary fashion. In some cases they were actually dragged out into the ocean, blown by the wind, and they would interpret the wind as God’s will telling them where they should land. So it’s very probable that Columba simply stumbled upon Iona. In any case, it was a depopulated island that he could give over to himself and his monks for the service of God.

I hadn’t really thought of the Celts as being a Christian people. I’ve always thought of them as pagans – have I got it completely wrong?

Well, one of the interesting things is that when the Celts became Christian – in the early centuries AD – they brought over a lot of their pagan beliefs into their Christian beliefs. For example, the Life of Columba refers to several pagan Celtic customs that had actually been absorbed into mainstream Celtic Christianity.

We can use the phrase ‘Celtic Christianity’ to refer to the churches in the fourth to the seventh century. We sometimes refer to the ‘Celtic Mediterranean’, the Irish Sea, with Irish saints and British saints going backwards and forwards with their very distinctive form of Christianity.

For example, they had a very unusual tonsure; they had a kind of skinhead haircut at the back and a Tintin tuft at the front. And they also practised various other customs. When you’re looking at Dark Age Christianity, if you ever come across a strange custom the chances are it’s one that the Celts have introduced.

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Simon Young

Simon Young is the author of four books and his writing has appeared in History Today, the Spectator, and the Guardian. He combines a commitment to serious history, especially that of the medieval Celts, with a desire to communicate Dark Age history to the general public. He lives in Florence.

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Simon Young

Simon Young is the author of four books and his writing has appeared in History Today, the Spectator, and the Guardian. He combines a commitment to serious history, especially that of the medieval Celts, with a desire to communicate Dark Age history to the general public. He lives in Florence.