The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention?

That’s the title of University of Leicester archaeologist Simon James’ book [published in 1999] in which he attempts to separate history from the myth – available on Amazon.  There’s also an introduction to his argument here.

And as Will Crawley notes, Simon James will deliver a free public lecture tonight at 6pm at W5 in the Odyssey Complex – tea and coffee from 5.30pm.   It’s the inaugural lecture in a Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure sponsored ‘Exploring Culture’ series of lectures.

Here’s an extract from Simon James’ analysis online

I suspect that before the Romans came, a person living in Britain or Ireland thought of their first loyalty as being to their family and local clan, then to their tribal confederation, or local kingdom. At least until Rome appeared, and changed the shape of their world forever,I wonder how far they thought of themselves even as British or Irish.

There is no evidence that they thought of themselves as sharing an identity with the Gauls, and I certainly do not believe they called themselves Celts. It may be useful to us today sometimes to think of them as ‘Celtic’ in the loose sense of similar languages and arts, but this level is perhaps not the most useful one for understanding the past. It is too loose, like ‘Germanic’, ‘Latin’, or even ‘European’.

I think it is folly to see all these new perspectives as an ‘English imperialist’ attempt at ‘divide and rule’. It certainly is not intended to be an attack on, for example, Irish, Scots or Welsh identity, or even the desire many people have to express a sense of identity which is ‘living in the British Isles, but certainly not English!’

Rather, it is about being more careful about how we use, and often misuse, what we know, or believe we know, about earlier cultures, whose ‘voices’ in the fragmentary evidence of history can easily be drowned out if we pursue our own emotional or political ends too uncritically.

The roots of the new approach are to be found, I believe, in the post-colonial emphasis on multiculturalism, and the celebration of difference between cultures. This makes it possible to consider the Iron Age peoples of Britain, for instance, not as generic Celts, but as a mosaic of distinct societies, each with their own traditions and histories.

But, as Mick noted in 2007, it’s not really a secret…

And it’s why, in 2006, I was cautioning against comfortable old myths.

And to repeat myself, from a previous post on a similar theme comes this relevant quote from Stephen Fry in 2006

In the end, I suppose history is all about imagination rather than facts. If you cannot imagine yourself wanting to riot against Catholic emancipation, say, or becoming an early Tory and signing up to fight with the Old Pretender, or cheering on Prynne as the theatres are closed and Puritanism holds sway … knowing is not enough. If you cannot feel what our ancestors felt when they cried: ‘Wilkes and Liberty!’ or, indeed, cried: ‘Death to Wilkes!’, if you cannot feel with them, then all you can do is judge them and condemn them, or praise them and over-adulate them.

History is not the story of strangers, aliens from another realm; it is the story of us had we been born a little earlier. History is memory; we have to remember what it is like to be a Roman, or a Jacobite or a Chartist or even – if we dare, and we should dare – a Nazi. History is not abstraction, it is the enemy of abstraction.