Beyond the fringe

Although the word “Celtoscepticism”, contrasting with “Celtomania”, first appeared in print in 1998, sceptical books about “the Celts” were around long before that. A few, such as Malcolm Chapman’s The Celts: The construction of a myth (1992), were salutary, still a tonic to read. Others have left readers as confused as the authors themselves. This sceptical history falls into the latter category. Pursuing “a debunking of the idea of ​​a Celtic people in any shape or form”, Simon Jenkins claims that “There was no such tribe, country, culture or language”, and that metropolitan generalizations about “the Celtic fringe” need dispelling. Really? In my experience people in England don’t think of the “Celtic fringe” from one day to the next. The peoples of that “fringe”, asymmetrically, think about England quite a lot, but are too aware of regional divergences to lump themselves together as Celtic – any more than the English think of themselves as Germanic, as they did in the eighth century, when the Anglo-Saxon missions to Germany were under way.

If debunking the ancient Celts is an odd way to tackle a modern non-problem, it is also ahistorical. Julius Caesar met Gauls who “called themselves Celtae”, and the Latin poet Martial described himself as a Celtiberian. In Caesar’s Gaul and in Martial’s part of Iberia, there are ancient inscriptions and place names in languages ​​cognate with Irish and Welsh. This is one good reason for calling the latter “Celtic” languages. Jenkins himself refers to “Celtic-speaking” people, while simultaneously claiming that there was no such language! There is no evidence for Jenkins’s old chestnut that keltoi is a Greek word meaning “little more than ‘aliens’” – or “wogs”, as Chapman put it.

Jenkins’s grasp of Celtic scholarship is shaky. No scholar ever claimed, as he does, that there is “no evidence of people in Austria/Switzerland speaking anything like Celtic”. Hundreds of personal names on inscriptions from the Roman period show that they did: “Nertomarus” on a second-century AD inscription from Carnuntum in Austria is obviously the same as medieval Irish nertmar“great strength”, Welsh nerthfawr. Scholarly arguments are rather about whether the language spread from that region (as people used to think) or to it, from somewhere else. A fashionable theory has Celtic evolving from Indo-European on the Atlantic seaboard and spreading eastwards. This depends on a false decipherment of some inscriptions in the Algarve and a misinterpretation of the distribution of ancient Celtic place names. Jenkins rightly hints that this “Celtic from the West” theory is already discredited, but he won’t let it go; it fits in with his odd notion that the Celtic languages ​​are only native to the west of Britain. The latest theory, which he could have read online in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal in 2020, is that the language spread to Britain from France c.1000 BC. In December 2021 this theory received unexpected support in Naturewhere David Reich and colleagues produced ancient DNA evidence for substantial migrations across the Channel between 1000 BC and 875 BC, “creating a plausible vector for the spread of early Celtic languages ​​into Britain”.

For Jenkins, the generally accepted idea that Saxons brought the English language to England in the fifth and sixth centuries is also a myth: “The ‘Welsh’ never occupied eastern England and were never evicted from it.” Instead, he claims, proto-English was already spoken in eastern England when the Romans arrived, foreshadowing the “prosperous modern federalism” that he wishes to see restored. He would even like to imagine that in South Wales under the Roman occupation, Old English was spoken “at home”. Why stop there? Because his South Walian informant “described north Wales as ‘Taliban country’”?

The fantasy that lowland Britain was always Germanic-speaking is rare outside the darker reaches of the internet. The fact that English place and river names are common in the east, where post-Roman Celtic inscriptions are conversely absent, in no way corroborates it. Instead, it is consonant with what Jenkins rejects as the “myth” of Saxon population replacement. In support he cites the “demolition of the theory of a mass Saxon incursion” by “Cambridge University’s Susan Oosthuizen” in 2019. He might have contrasted the same university’s Rory Naismith, who made a plausible case in 2021 for a degree of ethnic cleansing and , in David Dumville’s phrase, “cultural”. The only hint in these studies that eastern England had an indigenous Germanic language is Oosthuizen’s citation of a paper from 2011 that offered some speculative interpretations of a few pre-Roman coin legends in East Anglia, eg ECEN as Old English æcen, “oaken”. This is the sole “evidence” for Jenkins’ tired conclusion that the modern division between Britain’s eastern and western halves “may or may not be embedded in the prehistoric origins of the British people”.

As that quotation suggests, he exploits prehistory to foreshadow his opinions on modern Britain and Ireland. These include “London’s custodianship of its oldest empire”, Irish spelling (“prime minister was pronounced teesoc [sic!] but spelled taoiseach”), the Conservatives as “the party of England” and the role of the “so-called ‘national’ first ministers” during the pandemic. Between prehistory and the present, readers trudge through 1600 years of history, jollied along by touches of 1066 and all that – “Scotland changes its mind, again” – and Horrible Histories: “the Gododdin at Catterick were so drunk that they could hardly hold their swords”, while the Earl of Kildare was hanged and drawn, but not quartered “in view of his pardon”.

Patrick Sims-Williams is Emeritus Professor of Celtic Studies at Aberystwyth University. His most recent book is The Book of Llandaf as a Historical Source2019

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