Who populated Great Britain and Ireland before the Romans arrived? In unison we all chorus: the Celts. Is that really so? The Romans did not call the natives by that name. Julius Caesar referred to them simply as Britons. There is no record of what these Britons called themselves. Only in the early eighteenth century did scholars begin to write of ancient Celtic migrations to these islands, from east and south.
Michael A. Morse has expanded his University of Chicago doctoral dissertation into a meticulous exploration of how, from that erroneous assumption, we have come to hold our present firm views as to who were the Celts and whence they came.
Morse dismantles idees fixes. He shows that ideas about the Celts evolved and changed in unexpected ways. Each generation had its own definition of the Celts and favoured a particular method of studying them. During these formative 200 years, 'The Celts' was the name given to a series of quite different, imagined ancient peoples. Today, the very notion of Celtic heritage is fraught with controversy. The concept is invoked politically, spiritually and romantically. ‘A growing number of scholars ... dismiss the very idea of “Celtic” Britain as a modern and fallacious invention.’
Celtic scholarship in Britain first centred on the study of languages. The Celts were mainly defined as a linguistic group. From the 1840s to the end of the nineteenth century, the study of material remains eclipsed linguistics as the prime source of new definitions of the Celts. Archaeology became the discipline in which the modern, popular understanding of the Celts emerged.
This exceptionally well researched book is a trail-blazing, scholarly examination of intellectual history, of how misconceptions and caricatures arose; who was responsible, and who changed our understanding of the Celts? Why is the debate now so bitter, so extreme? Morse neglects nothing. From Geoffrey of Monmouth and Edward Lhuyd onwards, each linguist, antiquary, literary forger (e.g. James Macpherson, Iolo Morganwg), archaeologist, and ethnologist, whose investigations and imagination contributed to creating our modern concepts of 'Celt' and 'Celticism' is examined in insightful detail.
'Part One: Languages' highlights the gradual process of 'romancing the Druids'. 'Part Two: Material Remain' is engrossing on Celtic monuments, Celtic skulls, Celtic art, and the birth of archaeology. The 23 plates are splendid, illuminating the text. An appendix of brief biographical notes on some of the researchers ‘who “brought” the Celts to Britain’; an extensive list of secondary sources; and a competent index enhance the formidable academic merit of this accessible, lucid, and fascinating demystification of 'our Celtic forebears' - who may never have existed!
H. G. A. Hughes
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