3. Who Are the Celts?
Who are the Celts? This, it turns out, is a surprisingly difficult question to answer-mostly because the term "Celt" has acquired a variety of meanings today, not all of them compatible. Some of them are either too vague to be useful, or are based on incorrect assumptions. This doesn't mean that there isn't, in fact, a perfectly objective and useful definition of the word "Celt," but we will first have to unravel it from the many other meanings people have given to the word over time.
The word "Celt" first appeared in Greek writing of the sixth century BCE, when the Greeks were establishing many new settlements in the western half of the Mediterranean and opening trade contacts with the people who lived to the north of that area. They originally made a distinction between the people they called Keltoi and those they called Galatai, but later considered the two terms to be synonymous. The Romans picked up the former term and Latinised it as Celtae, but they more often spoke of the people as Galli, or "Gauls." During the Middle Ages and Renaissance the term "Celtic" was still used occasionally in a geographic sense, denoting people or things from Western Europe in general and from France in particular.
Then, around the year 1700, Edward Lhuyd, a Welsh scholar working in Oxford, discovered that, as far as one could tell from personal and place names, the language spoken by the people who had been called Celts in Classical antiquity was closely related to his own native Welsh language. He also found that five other modern languages-Irish, Scots Gaelic, Breton, Cornish and Manx-shared in this relationship. He decided to use the term "Celtic" to describe this particular group of languages, both ancient and modern. This is the definition of "Celtic" that all Celtic scholars use to this day. "Celtic" comprises a specific family of languages, the communities that have spoken them through history, and the cultural traditions that have been passed down through the medium of those languages.
However, several political and cultural developments during the nineteenth century obscured this original definition. The rise of nationalism led to a search for "national" characteristics that were innate in a people and had always tied them to a particular territory. This in turn led to a fascination with the notion of "race" as an explanation for the way such characteristics were inherited. The rise of colonialism, which sought to justify itself with the argument that colonised peoples were naturally "inferior" and in need of guidance, seized on racialism---the belief that people who share certain physical traits like skin or hair colour also share the same moral and intellectual traits---as a "scientific" basis for racial distinction. Nationalism and racialism became a part of popular culture, often leading to an inappropriate perception of linguistic and cultural categories as racial categories. Thus the six Celtic nations, which had been called "Celtic" because of the language which served as the basis for their national culture, were now thought to have certain distinguishing characteristics because they were composed of racially distinct people called "Celts." This is why so many people today think of themselves as "Celts by blood." Tracing their ancestry back to one of the six Celtic countries gives them a self-sufficient Celtic identity, which they assume includes a genetically inherited personality type. Unfortunately, there's no such thing as a Celtic "race," or a distinct genetic profile that could be called "Celtic." Celtic languages and culture were adopted, and sometimes abandoned later, by many genetically diverse communities across Europe at various times. Their Celtic identity wasn't based on anything they had inherited physically.
Another definition of "Celtic"-which developed out of the racial definition-is the "spiritual" one which insists that "Celtic" refers to a "philosophy", a "view of life", which need not be tied to the traditions of any specific language-community. This philosophy often relates to stereotypes, created by the dominant culture, that are usually included among the racial characteristics attributed to the Celts: that they're dreamy, imaginative, mystical, creative, impractical, undisciplined (because of their great love of freedom), and so on in that vein. This is really a matter of the dominant culture adopting a Romantic view of a minority culture and projecting its own hopes and desires onto it. The Celts are then seen as a counterculture within the dominant culture rather than as an autonomous cultural tradition in their own right. But this kind of "spiritual" definition is hard to apply to Celtic reality. Celtic-speaking communities include people who are hard-headed, pragmatic, and rationalistic, yet nevertheless function very well within the context of Celtic culture. The traits that define their "Celticness" are to be found at a much deeper level than any easily defined philosophy, and have to do with the cultural consciousness that is sustained by the language they speak.
The only hard definition we're left with, then, is the original linguistic one. Celtic communities are communities where Celtic languages are spoken. Celtic culture is what is passed down within those communities. Celts are people who are members of such communities or have close ties to them. Tracing one's ancestry to a Celtic community may give one a very powerful motivation to identify with and learn about Celtic culture, but it won't provide one with an automatic understanding of that culture.
Celtic languages are the medium of Celtic tradition, and the key that gives access to it. Celtic languages and culture are themselves descended from an older Indo-European tradition, which is ancestral to most of the linguistic and cultural traditions of Europe, Iran and India. There still isn't complete agreement among scholars about where and when the original Indo-Europeans lived, but most of the evidence points to the area between the Black and Caspian Seas between 5000 and 4000 BCE. Their economy was based primarily on herding, and their society was dominated by a horse-riding warrior class, whence the importance of the horse in their culture as a symbol of sovereignty and leadership. Among the important features of their belief system that we can reconstruct are a trifunctional model of society, with a hierarchy of complementary castes--- religious/juridical, warrior, and merchant/farmer castes---each with its own internal rules of conduct. Two pantheons of deities conflicted. One was associated with the sky-realm, representing order and culture, the other with the watery Underworld, chaos and fertility. In addition, a a nurturing goddesses was linked to specific territories and often associated with rivers. All these elements remained a part of the Celtic heritage when the Celts first began to differentiate themselves from other Indo-Europeans as a distinct ethnic group, probably around 1200 BCE.
The Origin of the Celts: Late Bronze Age (ca.1100-800 BCE "Urnfields")
The Indo-Europeans appear to have entered Europe in several different movements, but one culture that came to dominate central and eastern Europe after 3000 BCE is almost certainly the one from which sprang the main Indo-European groups known in later European history. This is sometimes called the Battle-Axe Culture, from the weapons found in its gravesites, as well as the Corded Ware Culture, from its distinctive style of pottery. In the course of the Bronze Age this culture began to split up into separate regional cultures. One of them developed in central Europe, in an area roughly coinciding with southern Germany. It is now clear that this marks the first appearance of the Celts as a distinct ethnic entity. This is when their language we call Old Celtic differentiated itself from related Indo-European dialects, creating a new linguistic and cultural community.
As far as one can tell from the archaeological record, these early Celts remained typical Indo-Europeans. They gave a great importance to their warriors and revered the horse along with other symbols that later Celtic tradition would associate with the sacred king-the political leader who also fulfilled a religious duty by linking his people with the goddess of the Land. At this time they abandoned their original funerary practices of burial under raised mounds of earth and adopted cremation, placing the ashes of their dead in urns that were buried together in cemeteries. Because of this characteristic feature, archaeologists usually refer to this period of Celtic prehistory as the "Urnfield Culture".
Around the twelfth century BCE major political upheavals among the urban cultures of the Mediterranean completely upset the traditional patterns of travel and trade in the Western world. Although most of the trade was between the Mediterranean peoples themselves, there was always a demand for products of northern Europe- amber, furs, slaves, wild animals-and especially for some necessary ingredients of Bronze Age technology, such as tin, which were hard to come by except on the Atlantic seaboard. The Celts quickly took the opportunity to control most of the north-south trade in Europe. They established trading settlements across what would eventually become Gaul, seeking to establish reliable trade routes to the metal-rich areas along the coast of the Atlantic. Those areas had long been inhabited by a distinctive and powerful, and probably non-Indo-European, "Atlantic" culture, which has left us impressive monuments like Newgrange, Avebury, and Carnac. This culture occupied Ireland, the Armorican peninsula in present-day Brittany, and Britain with all its islands north to Orkney and Shetland. Through trade alliances, partial colonisation, and intermarriage, the Celts managed to implant their language and cultural identity in this region, probably around 900 BCE. The form of Celtic that evolved in the "Atlantic" area was almost certainly Goidelic, the ancestor of the modern Gaelic languages, but over the next thousand years other forms of Celtic came to predominate in much of the region, with Goidelic surviving only in Ireland.
It was also in the Late Bronze Age that the Celts began to settle in Spain. Celtiberian, the language that evolved in their community, was written in the curious system, part-alphabet, part-syllabary, used by neighbouring non-Indo-European Iberians. Around the same time, Celtic colonies were established in northernmost Italy, just south of the Alps. Their language, now known as Lepontic, was written in an alphabet they borrowed from the Etruscans. These Lepontic-speaking Celts, whom archaeologists refer to as the "Golasecca culture," became an important trade link between the Celtic heartland in central Europe and the Mediterranean markets further south.
The Early Iron Age (800-450 BCE - "Halstatt")
Around 800 BCE a new group of Indo-European peoples began to enter eastern Europe from the ancient Indo-European heartland of the Pontic-Caspian steppe. Greeks called them the Cimmerians and, a few centuries later, the Thracians. Like their ancestors, they were herdsmen with a "horse culture." A need for swift mobility across wide open spaces had led them to place a strong emphasis on the care and training of horses. The Celts of the upper Danube entered into alliances with these peoples and absorbed their cavalry techniques. At about the same time iron technology reached them, also from the east. Armed with iron weapons and a sophisticated cavalry, the Celts from the area between the Rhine and the Danube enjoyed an overwhelming military superiority over the peoples to the west of them and easily established their control over the important trade routes between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. A new aristocracy began to rule central and western Europe, building impressive forts on hilltops from which they imposed their power on scattered herding and farming communities.
In the year 600 BCE the Phocaean Greeks, always on the lookout for new markets in the western Mediterranean, founded the city of Massalia, present-day Marseille, on the coast of southern Gaul near the mouth of the Rhône. This provided a wonderful opportunity for the Celtic merchant-princes: the Rhône and its tributary rivers afforded easy passage from the Mediterranean into the Celtic heartland. The fruitful trade that developed as a result of this made them immensely rich and allowed them to live in a style of dazzling opulence. Princely lineages confirmed their political power by lavishing gifts on their vassals and retainers at feasts where prestige items obtained through Mediterranean trade were ostentatiously displayed. A vivid glimpse of this world of wealth and glamour can be obtained through the princely graves dating from this period, when cremation was being gradually abandoned, at least by aristocrats, in favour of burial in a chamber under a tumulus, surrounded by items that had belonged to the deceased in life. The objects found in the graves illustrate the beauty and brilliance the Celtic merchant-princes cultivated in their daily lives, as well as their ability to obtain goods from as far away as China. It may well be that descriptions of the splendour of royal courts in later Celtic literature reflect a distant memory of this colourful era. Archaeologists refer to this period in Celtic development as "Halstatt", after an Austrian site that built its wealth on the production of rock salt-another important item in European trade.
The Later Iron Age (450 BCE-ca. 80 CE - "La Tène")
Archaeologists refer to the Late Iron Age as the "La Tène" period, after a site on the lake of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, where a large number of weapons and ornaments had been thrown into the water, apparently as a religious offering.
Around 450 BCE a major upheaval took place in the Celtic heartland. The main centres of princely power were violently destroyed. Since the Celts left no written records from this time we can't know for certain what happened, but it seems likely that the old, established aristocratic lineages were overthrown by other lineages who wanted access to the same profitable trade-routes. The centre of political and economic power in the Celtic world shifted a little to the north and west, to the area between the Marne and the Moselle, with a secondary centre in Bohemia to the east. In a way, the Celts had been destabilised by their very success. Increased availability of resources had led to a serious overpopulation of the Celtic heartland, forcing large numbers of people to seek homes beyond traditional Celtic borders. Sometimes entire tribal groups migrated in this fashion. A prestigious and wealthy chieftain would surround himself with clients (ambacti) who swore fealty to him and accompanied him on his military expeditions in exchange for glory and plunder. In some cases they would settle down in a new territory. In others, they would remain landless mercenaries, serving the political interests of non-Celtic Mediterranean peoples. The latter situation may represent the origin of what mediaeval Irish literature calls fiana, unsettled warrior-fraternities surviving by hunting, plunder and mercenary engagements, independent of most of the institutions of mainstream Celtic society.
All these population movements resulted in a huge territorial expansion of the Celtic world. A combination of groups from the Rhineland and Bohemia took over virtually all of Italy north of Tuscany, so that the region came to be called Cisalpine Gaul. In 390 BCE they entered into conflicts with the Romans, and even succeeded in sacking the city of Rome, an outrage the Romans never forgot. New arrivals from Gaul settled in northern Spain. To the east, groups hiving off from the Bohemian homeland established settlements in the Balkans, all the way across the Danubian plain to the Black Sea coast, and even beyond that to what is now Ukraine, while their northernmost advance led them to what is now southern Poland. One such group raided Greece in the early third century BCE, and then alternately cooperated with or threatened the local communities until King Nicomedes of Bithynia gave them a territory in Asia Minor where they could settle permanently. This became Galatia, the area of Anatolia around present-day Ankara. Celtic mercenaries played a conspicuous role in many conflicts of the region. Some even became auxiliaries of the Ptolemies in Egypt.
Despite the volatile political atmosphere, this was a period of increased self-confidence, cultural enrichment and creativity for the Celts. Celtic artists came under the influence of many different models from different cultures, yet they synthesised all these influences into a unique, instantly recognisable style of their own-a vocabulary of fluid geometric forms we have come to see as fundamental to the tradition of Celtic art. From the new wealth of symbolic motifs in this art, some of it traceable to Eastern models, one can deduce that it was also a time of intellectual and religious ferment, with new theological and ritual concepts coming to enhance or replace older forms. This is when we first begin to hear of the druids as a class of philosophers, ritualists and juridical experts with enormous social prestige and power, educated in schools and organised in a network that transcended the narrow tribal boundaries of the Celtic world. Although they are only mentioned in relation to Gaul and Britain where they reputedly had their origin and the greatest concentration of their power, they may have extended their influence over other Celtic areas as well. No doubt such an institution did a lot to promote religious speculation and debate and must have given rise to a great wealth of new mythological and ritual forms which we, unfortunately, cannot know in detail, since the druids never used writing to record their teachings, relying instead on the traditional exercise of memory.
By the middle of the third century BCE the Romans, vividly remembering their humiliation in 390 BCE, began to grow more and more uneasy about their Celtic neighbours in Italy, whom they saw as a powerful, culturally alien people that could not be trusted. Between 225 and 123 BCE Roman military campaigns, often under the pretense of defending important Greek trading centres from supposed Celtic threats, succeeded in breaking Celtic political control over all of Spain, Cisalpine Gaul and the southern third of Transalpine Gaul (Gallia Narbonensis). Despite fierce opposition, all these areas were placed under Roman administration. Celtic institutions were replaced by Roman institutions.
By the turn of the first century BCE, Rome had become an overwhelming political presence in western Europe. Even those Celtic tribes that remained independent found their economic life shaped by Roman decisions. The southernmost tribes of Free Gaul-the Aruerni and Aedui, for instance-abandoned their monarchical system of government, the "sacred king" model, in favour of rule by magistrates elected for a single term (uergobreti). Some scholars have seen this as yielding to Roman pressure. Republican Rome wanted to ensure that its trading parters had a political culture similar to its own, making them "safe" and predictable, and so encouraged an institution that was more or less based on the Roman concept of the consulate. This seems corroborated by the fact that rebellions against Roman rule often involved attempts to restore traditional monarchy. Around this time the same Gallic tribes began to concentrate their political and economic life in large walled towns (oppida).
Population shifts in northern Europe, probably in response to climatic changes, caused a large number of Germanic-speaking peoples to migrate into traditionally Celtic lands. This, of course, resulted in further conflict and instability. In 58 BCE Julius Caesar took advantage of the situation by providing military aid to some Celtic tribes against others, eventually using his presence on the field to establish Roman rule over the entirety of Gaul despite the powerful last-minute rebellion mounted against him by the Aruernian prince Vercingetorix. Despite some later ineffective rebellions, Roman control over Gaul was completely secure by 50 BCE, and many Gallic leaders had been persuaded to accept it.
Julius Caesar invaded Britain during his Gallic campaign, but failed to conquer it. This was accomplished a century later (43-51 CE), under the reign of the emperor Claudius. Since the druids, through their intertribal network, provided a sophisticated ideological resource for continuing to oppose Roman rule, it was in the interest of the Roman government to eliminate them, and the conquest of Britain, where the druids' most prestigious training centres were, gave them the opportunity to do so. In 60 CE Suetonius Paulinus, the military governor of Britain, destroyed the great druid centre on Mona (present-day Anglesey) and massacred the druids there. This effectively put an end to druid influence throughout most of the Celtic world, and removed one of the main obstacles to complete Romanisation.
By the end of the first century CE, Ireland alone of all Celtic lands remained outside Roman control, although the Irish traded with the Romans and were certainly in frequent contact with the Roman world. Nevertheless, because of its marginal position, Irish tradition remained somewhat conservative and the druidic institution survived there, as did the "sacred king" model of territorial rule.
The Celts Under Roman Rule (50 BCE-450 CE)
The imposition of Roman rule on most of the Celtic world fundamentally transformed Celtic society. Although Celtic languages appear to have survived on the Continent for several centuries in rural areas and among the most conservative aristocratic families, Latin was the only medium of public discourse. The prestige and influence of the druids was gone, and native leaders could gain power only through dealing with Roman institutions. However, some aspects of Celtic tradition were able to remain in place despite Romanisation. The Romans recognised the integrity of the old tribal territories and made them a part of the new administrative system, so that local populations retained their original tribal identities. Many of the modern French provinces still reflect these tribal divisions: Poitou for the Pictaui, Saintonge for the Santones, Limousin for the Lemouices, Auvergne for the Aruerni, and so on.
Also, some historians have suggested that the Roman shift from Republic to Empire may actually have made many Celts more comfortable with Roman rule, since it produced something broadly comparable with the more traditional "sacred king" model of political organisation. Certainly the Emperor Augustus seems to have been catering to such a feeling when he formally assumed the sovereignty of Gaul in 18 BCE.
In the religious domain, the Romans tended to identify local deities with similar figures in the Graeco-Roman pantheon. We call this the interpretatio Romana. Conquered populations were then encouraged to worship their traditional gods as aspects of Roman deities such as Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva, mixing their native attributes with the more widespread Classical ones. Older Celtic places of worship became the sites of Roman-style temples containing representations of the gods in their new guises, complete with written dedications giving both their original Celtic names and their assumed Roman identities. Since native written records of Celtic religion from pre-Roman times are extremely rare, the heritage of the interpretatio Romana is, ironically, a treasure-trove for those interested in getting concrete information on the Celtic gods and their worship. Archaeological investigation of temple sites from all over the Celtic areas of mainland Europe and Britain suggests that native patterns of religious practice were maintained there despite a veneer of Romanisation.
The same applied to the general patterns of rural life. While the Romans spread their urban network north into Gaul and Britain, bringing with it a style of life that was new to the Celts, many of the same goods continued to be produced as before in the countryside, using similar methods, with little disruption of community organisation. The delightful representational sculptures, mostly from the third century CE, found in the city of Trier, the tribal capital of the Treueri, depict a people essentially Celtic in their material culture. Celtic products and fashions not only held their own, but even spread to other parts of the Empire, and many Celtic words were borrowed into spoken Latin.
In the course of the fifth century the Western Roman Empire collapsed under the weight of its economic and political problems. Its institutions, including its ability to defend itself, broke down, its vassal peoples revolted, and the Germanic tribes that had been held at bay east of the Rhine became free to invade and take over. What remained of Celtic identity on the Continent was unable to survive the death-throes of Roman society during this period.
In Ireland and Britain, however, Celtic-speaking communities continued to thrive. While the southeast of Britain had been heavily Romanised, around the middle of the fifth century the first wave of Angles (English) crossed the North Sea and established themselves on the island, putting an end to the Roman institutions and the culture they had sustained. This gave Celtic culture an opportunity to re-assert itself, and for chieftains from the non-Romanised north of Britain to take advantage of the political vacuum and establish their control over the south. They were unable to stop the English onslaught, but eventually the westward movement of the invaders slowed when it reached the banks of the Severn and the Tamar, leaving what lay beyond to the Celts.
Early Christian Celtdom (ca. 400-1150)
By the time the Western Empire collapsed, Christianity had become its dominant religion. The Church was organised on a hierarchical diocesan model that was closely patterned after the secular Roman administrative system, drawing its resources almost entirely from urban centres. Little effort had been made to Christianise the countryside so, when the cities-and all the institutions of Roman government-fell apart, the Church was left with little in the way of a power base. The new Germanic overlords were either heretical Christians with no great incentive to help the Roman hierarchy, or non- Christians who had to be converted from scratch and whose every whim had to be entertained in order to ensure their continued cooperation. In this weakened state the Roman Church simply didn't have the means to coordinate its policies effectively, nor to enforce a conformity of belief and practice throughout its vast jurisdiction. So non-Romanised Celtic areas like Ireland and northern Britain were free to absorb Christianity gradually through the scattered efforts of individual missionaries who had no secular arm to back them up and no invading army to impose the new religion by force. This meant that Celtic communities had the time to adapt Christianity to their own culture and to devise native Christian institutions that were better suited to their tradition.
Originally the Roman Church had established a diocesan system similar to the one that already existed on the Continent. However, this met with a lukewarm reception in the Celtic world, where there were no cities that could serve as clearly-defined diocesan centres. What caught the imagination of the Celts instead was the concept of monasticism, which had spread into the Christian world from Egypt. The idea of a group of monks who lived as the extended family of an abbot, their adoptive father, on land that was granted to them by a territorial chieftain made perfect sense in the context of Celtic social tradition. Monastic asceticism was also a heroic ideal that appealed to the aristocratic warrior-caste. Although the history of Celtic monasticism is quite complex, it seems to have developed from two main sources:
· Poorly-documented but certainly authentic early contacts with the East, probably Egypt and Syria, and
· The communities founded by St Martin of Tours, the great missionary-monk of fourth century Gaul. In the latter part of the fifth century a group of very active communities in South Wales served as the inspiration for most of the important early monastic foundations in Ireland.
During the sixth century the Irish monastic movement flourished to an extraordinary extent, becoming in many ways the creative vanguard of Celtic culture. The custom of peregrinatio pro Deo---exile for the sake of God---led many enthusiastic missionaries to travel far from their native lands and establish new monasteries throughout the Celtic world and beyond. Abbots were revered as spiritual masters who decided their own norms of conduct and their own styles of worship within their communities. This emphasis on autonomy prevented any single set of standards from establishing itself throughout the Celtic Christian world, which remained astonishingly diverse.
Celtic Christian leaders were, naturally, not at all in favour of encouraging the survival of pre-Christian beliefs and practices, and occasionally denounced them publicly. This, however, had little effect on the general population, which continued those practices that were relevant to the agricultural cycle, sometimes converting deities into saints to make them more acceptable to Christian authorities.
More problematic was the relation of the Church to the druidic/bardic institution, which had provided Celtic culture with its intellectual and historical resources, especially knowledge of the mythological precedents on which the social and legal traditions of the Celtic world were based. Since Christianisation had not come with foreign invasion and the imposition of alien social and cultural norms, Celtic society was still dependent on native institutions with clear pre-Christian roots. Stories like that of St Colm Cille of Iona defending bardic privileges at the assembly of Druim Ceat ca. 580 suggest that, after some initial conflict, an accommodation was sought between the Christian and pre- Christian cultural authorities.
In Ireland the druidic institution survived in the guise of filid (seers, i.e., poets), senchaide (loremasters) and brithemon (brehons, judges), who set about transmitting the essential lore of the culture while re-composing and re-organising it to avoid clashes with Christian belief and practice. The great body of consistent, authoritative lore that served as the justification for all laws and customs was "updated" to make it operative in a Christian world. One of the fruits of this search for a new source of tradition was the Lebor Gabála Érenn which harmonised several native mythological traditions with the historical framework of the Bible while eliminating all explicit mention of the worship of deities or other non-Christian beliefs.
Writing about old traditions was made possible by the legacy of Christianity. Since it was a religion founded on a sacred text, it encouraged literacy. At first Latin was the sole medium for writing, and literature in the Celtic vernaculars continued to be passed down orally in the traditional way, but gradually the Latin writing system was adapted to the native languages as well. By the eighth and ninth centuries, literacy in the Celtic languages had become commonplace.
Despite the loss of vast territories to the English, some new Celtic communities appeared during this period. Colonists from Britain had begun settling on the Armorican peninsula of Gaul by the third century CE, but in the aftermath of the English invasion they were joined by such huge numbers of refugees that the ethnic composition of the population was significantly altered. The region was re-named Brittany, reflecting the British origin of its inhabitants. At the other end of the Celtic world, territorial disputes in northeastern Ireland during the fifth century led to an Irish settlement in northern Britain, establishing the kingdom of Dál Riada in what is now Argyll. By the ninth century this Gaelic kingdom had merged with the native kingdom of the Picts to create a new entity, Scotland.
It was from the Columban monastery of Iona, itself a part of the nascent Scottish Gaelic community, that a highly successful missionary movement was sent in the direction of the English kingdom of Northumbria, implanting Celtic ideas of Christian community in northern England. One of its fruits was Lindisfarne, a mixed Irish-English monastery which seems to have been the starting-point for the brilliant tradition of Celtic manuscript illumination, a new vocabulary of Oriental interlace and developed La Tène geometric patterns which art historians refer to as the "Hiberno-Saxon" style, the style that most people first think of whenever "Celtic art" is mentioned. This style spread throughout the Celtic world, especially in monasteries of the Columban lineage, eventually producing masterpieces like the Book of Kells, and becoming adapted to other media including stone sculpture.
By the end of the sixth century Celtic missionaries on peregrinatio had begun to found monasteries on the Continent, where they helped confirm the population's allegiance to Christianity and provided much-needed assistance to the weakened and often incompetent Roman Church outposts in Gaul and Germany. Yet even as the Roman hierarchy welcomed these new auxiliaries, it was made uneasy by their noncomformist practices. Because of the lack of regular communication between Rome and the Celtic world from ca. 450 to ca. 600, many of the important developments in Roman practice, such as the change in the method of calculating the date of Easter, and the standardisation of the Roman rite (the Celts used the Gallican rite), never reached Celtic Christian communities. When regular links were re-established, most Celtic Christian leaders, unimpressed by what they saw of the Roman clergy and jealous of their autonomy, refused to change their traditional practices in favour of Roman standards.
This led to continual clashes between Celtic-trained and Roman-trained churchmen, although Celtic Christians never banded together in a self-organised "Celtic Church" that opposed Roman jurisdiction. Roman authorities won the compliance of individual Celtic communities piecemeal, over a period of several centuries. One major turning-point in the process was the Synod of Whitby in 664, when the English kingdom of Northumbria abandoned the Celtic practices it had received and replaced them with Roman practices. This led many other communities, especially the prestigious monasteries of the Columban lineage, to follow suit.
However, it didn't lead to an immediate decline of the unique creative spirit in Celtic Christian tradition. The greatest masterpieces of Celtic Christian art and Old Irish poetry, with its unusual appreciation of unspoiled nature, were produced long after Whitby. During the eighth and ninth centuries a movement called the Célí Dé, meaning Companions of God, reacted against what they perceived as the "worldliness" of Roman practices by restoring the contemplative asceticism of earlier centuries. What really contributed to the weakening of the Celtic monastic tradition were the Viking raids which, starting at the end of the eighth century, plundered the monasteries and destroyed their libraries. With the eclipse of the monasteries the Roman Church could successfully re-assert the importance of the diocesan model it had been backing all along.
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Roman Church made sweeping changes in its structure and practices, introducing clerical celibacy and a more powerful central role for the Pope, that resulted in an institution more like the Catholic Church of modern times. It took several centuries for all of these changes to take root everywhere in the Celtic world. One of the methods chosen to implement the changes was the creation of new monastic orders like the Cistercians who were committed to the spirit of the new Church. Once these orders established monasteries headed by non-Celtic abbots in Celtic lands, and non-native prelates were placed in key administrative positions everywhere, native Celtic practices lost all support in high places. In 1152 the Synod of Kells officially abolished all native idiosyncracies in the Irish liturgy. The takeover of Celtic religious institutions by mostly Anglo-Norman prelates prepared the ground for the political takeover of most Celtic lands by Anglo-Norman feudal lords.
The Celts Under Feudalism (1150-ca. 1500)
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Anglo-Norman feudal lords took control of most of Ireland and Wales with the Church's blessing. Feudal norms of land use and social hierarchy largely replaced the small tribal monarchies that had been the norm in the Celtic world. Native Celtic lineages that had kept their hold on power had to find a niche within the new order of feudalism. Even in Scotland and Brittany, which remained independent countries under native rulers, social institutions inspired by international feudalism gradually gained in influence, marginalising the native Celtic heritage.
Yet the feudal lords, even though they fiercely repressed all political or religious dissent, weren't cultural imperialists. Many of them learned Celtic languages, and appreciated native literary traditions. The representatives of the trained bardic orders-the filid in Ireland, the beirdd or prydyddion in Wales-received their patronage and composed praise-poems in their honour. Praise-poetry in the Celtic world wasn't mere flattery and stroking of aristocratic egos. Since the bards derived their power from the Otherworld and served as the mouthpieces of the deities of sovereignty, they legitimised his rule by publicly praising a ruler. Thus by transferring their allegiance to the new overlords they smoothed the transition of Celtic communities into the new social realities of feudal Europe and adapted those realities to Celtic tradition.
Although not all of them were drawn to their subjects' culture, many Anglo-Norman aristocrats found themselves "going native"-using Celtic tongues as their primary languages, and even resorting to native Celtic jurisprudence rather than feudal law for the settling of legal cases. This caused enough concern in England that in 1366 the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed, forbidding Anglo-Norman settlers from following Irish customs. They were, however, were largely ignored. The Gaelicisation of the newcomers continued unabated.
During this period there was a major literary flowering of all the Celtic languages. Aristocratic lineages, both native and foreign, became fascinated by ancient traditions that enhanced the prestige of their families or of the territories they ruled, and were willing to give generous salaries to anyone who could turn up such evidence. Since the monasteries had lost their special connection with Celtic culture, it was a new class of literary families, professionally trained to research and collate manuscript sources, that took on the role of passing down the traditional lore. Much old lore was reprocessed in new forms, both in verse and in prose. Most of the manuscript collections that serve as the source for our knowledge of older Celtic literature were written down during this period, although some of the texts they contain are actually much more ancient.
Some of this literary creativity had a major impact outside the Celtic world. Around the eleventh century Breton poets and storytellers began to appear as entertainers in French-speaking feudal courts on the Continent, regaling their audiences with adaptations of Celtic mythological tales. Most of these stories were centred on the figure of Arthur, possibly a historical war leader from fifth-century Britain but later revered by British Celts as an ideal sacred king who was expected to return from the dead to be a saviour of his people. Numerous pre-Christian mythic patterns related to sacred kingship had become attached to his lore, which had developed in part as a political message of hope for a dispossessed people. While non-Celtic audiences didn't resonate to the political message, they were fascinated by the mythology. Soon new re-tellings and elaborations of this material began to appear in French and German, and later in English. The "Matter of Britain", as this lore was called, came to be an essential part of general European culture, and made the reading public throughout Europe familiar with symbols and themes from Celtic tradition-even if these came to be used in the service of completely different cultural and spiritual agendas.
Meanwhile, the peasantry of Celtic lands continued to practice their traditional rituals to ensure the success of the agricultural cycle. A balance had been struck between the sequences of the Christian and pre-Christian calendars, so that the major ritual occasions of both could coincide without conflict, and pre-Christian practices could find legitimacy by becoming relevant to Christian feasts. The result was a pre-Christian ritual ideology overlaid with Christian iconography. Nevertheless, it made possible a real continuity in Celtic religious culture.
The Celts Under the Modern States (ca.1500-Present)
By the end of the fifthteenth century, the spectacular rise of an urban middle class that owed its success to emergent capitalism had made the feudal system cumbersome and outdated. In its place came the concept of the modern centralised state, served by a bureaucratised administration that directly affected the lives of all citizens. The emphasis on centralisation and control led to an ideal of prescribed uniformity for the entire population within a state's borders. All the inhabitants should follow the same religion, speak the same language and have the same culture, share the same sense of historical identity as a nation, and so on. This meant that ethnic minorities were denied the right to their cultural autonomy, and were often actively persecuted as threats to the unity of the nation. Since no Celtic community was allowed to form a modern state (Brittany lost its sovereignty in 1532, Scotland in 1707), all the Celts found themselves under the rule of English- or French-oriented political elites. Native elites that resisted this complete loss of autonomy were either massacred or driven into exile, turning the remaining Celtic areas into purely peasant communities. Without the patronage of cultured aristocrats, the native literary class---what remained of the bards---found itself deprived of both an audience and financial support, and dwindled rapidly. By the late 1700s, literacy in any Celtic language had become rare except in Wales, where the translation of the Bible into Welsh and the prevalence of noncomformist Welsh-speaking chapel communities helped keep the language alive at all levels of use until the twentieth century. Increasingly centralised and influential educational systems depreciated the Celtic languages and the cultural heritage that came with them, while emphasising the social importance of identifying with the majority culture.
Economic developments put Celtic communities under even greater stress. The industrial revolution in the nineteenth century shifted the centres of economic activity to urban areas and drove marginal rural areas into deep poverty. As in most colonial situations, Celtic farmers worked to provide foreign landlords with exportable goods and were left with a limited range of products for their own sustenance. In Ireland small farmers were expected to survive on potatoes, so that when a blight killed most of the potato crop in the 1840's a terrible famine ensued, leading to the death of a million people and massive emigration, mostly to America. Elsewhere, less dramatic crises, such as the expropriation of small farmers to make room for large-scale agribusiness projects, resulted in an equally serious drain on Celtic populations. Scattered across the world, the vast majority of these emigrants wound up in culturally alien cities where they abandoned most of their Celtic heritage and assimilated into the majority culture. While there still are Gaelic-speakers in Nova Scotia and Welsh speakers in Patagonia, they are no more than a tiny remnant within a largely acculturated population. In the Celtic countries themselves, there was a sharp reduction of the territories where Celtic languages and culture were dominant. In the aftermath of the Famine many Irish families avoided passing on the use of Irish to their children in order to make sure they identified with English language and culture. By the turn of the nineteenth century Cornish had ceased to be a community language, and the same fate befell Manx in the twentieth century, although today, thanks to a heroic revival effort, both languages again have native speakers.
However, even as economic and political circumstances caused native Celtic communities to decline, international scholarship began to take an interest in Celtic culture. The contents of mediaeval Irish and Welsh manuscripts were studied and published by people like Eoghan O'Curry, Whitley Stokes and Lady Charlotte Guest. J. F. Campbell and Alexander Carmichael researched ancient native traditions still surviving in the Scottish Highlands. François Luzel (Fañch an Uhel) did the same in Brittany.
Translations of this material gave the general reading public a sense that there was something exciting and valuable about Celtic heritage. It also restored a measure of self-respect to Celtic communities themselves, making some people have second thoughts about assimilating completely into the English or French-speaking worlds. In the latter half of the nineteenth century this translated into organised movements that sought to restore the languages in areas that had abandoned their use and to win back the political freedom of Celtic nations. One of the most notable of these institutions was the Gaelic League, created in 1893 to win Irish people back to their native culture through a program of lectures and language classes. Douglas Hyde, the League's founder and mastermind, saw this as a cultural project with long-term political goals. It would gradually "de-Anglicise" Ireland to the point that the cultural separation would lead inexorably to a political separation. But the movement for political separation gathered momentum more quickly than Hyde had anticipated, leading to independence for twenty-six of the thirty-two counties of Ireland without a real transition back to the native culture.
Nevertheless, the struggle of Celtic communities to reassert their autonomy and preserve their culture has continued unabated throughout this past century. Since, of the six Celtic nations, only Ireland has achieved even partial independence, all face a certain amount of resistance from centralised government agencies that either ignore their culture or are actively hostile to it. Yet the past thirty years have seen some erosion in modern states' anti-pluralist ideology, allowing more and more of a presence for the Celtic languages in education, publishing and the media. Periodicals appear regularly in all six languages, and all are represented in the mass media of their countries to varying degrees.