There have been three occasions in history when the Celts emerged from their homelands and changed European civilisation. The first saw Celtic warriors blaze through Europe, northern Africa and parts of Asia, in the early centuries B.C., drawing in the ethnic borders of these areas. The second involved, in the early Middle Ages, scores of Celtic monks – Irish for the most part – travelling in Italy, France and Germany, monks who were crucial in moulding medieval Christianity. The third, c. 1000-1300 A.D. was, finally, when Breton and Welsh bards, also travelling in foreign lands, made Celtic legends – Arthur, Lancelot, Tristan… – an international literary currency.
The importance and effects of these three “invasions” can be seen in many features of modern life – for example, certain peculiarities of French syntax, the act of Confession in the Catholic Church… But they are also also there in the very fault-lines of our history. So the ancient Celts helped create the Roman Empire. Emigrant Celtic monks tipped the balance in favour of European Christianity in the Dark Ages, when pagan invaders seemed about to destroy the Church. And the arrival of Arthurian and kindred legends on the continent has been credited with ‘the birth of the individual’ in the twelfth century.
Typically we look at the Celts’ ‘mystery’ and ‘marginality’. But by concentrating instead on their talent for projecting themselves we see this people when they are at their most visible and most interesting. A narrative is possible, instead of the usual series of contrite mays, mights and maybes. And every invasion is sown with entertaining culture-clash stories as the Celts come hard up against realities other than their own: a proud Celtic chief shows a disgusted Greek visitor his collection of decapitated heads; Celtic monks sell wisdom in a Belgian fish market; while a crowd of medieval Bretons stone French tourists who have the temerity to suggest that king Arthur was a mere fairytale.
These three episodes, though covering different centuries and varying subject matter, will dovetail together to give a sense of Celtic history from the earliest times to the high Middle Ages. And together they will also make the case that the Celt played an important and yet overlooked part in our history.
Simon Young graduated from Clare College with a starred first in 1995 winning the Chadwick Prize for Celtic Studies and the Green Prize ‘for learning’. Over the next seven years he worked and lived in several European countries including France, Ireland and Spain. Articles, book reviews and columns by him, for the most part dealing with the Dark Ages, have appeared in publications ranging from History Today to Fortean Times and from the Spectator to the Guardian; he has also had work included in several academic journals such as Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies and the Irish pe...
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