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The Celts: A Sceptical History — Celts used as mythological political whipping boys

Simon Jenkins has written not so much a serious historical, cultural or linguistic study as a piece of British political propaganda

The Celts: A Sceptical History
Author: Simon Jenkins
ISBN-13: 978-1788168809
Publisher: Profile Books
Guideline Price: £16.99

This is an unashamed political polemic whose purpose appears to argue against further separation of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom. While the author maintains “devolution bears fruit” he has chosen as his battleground an area he might have researched more closely.

Simon Jenkins has justly been named as “a master of provocation”. I have applauded much of his work over the years in a sense of camaraderie as we were both born in the same year, entered journalism at the same time and wrote political comments.

He had a distinguished career as editor of the Times and now writes a column for the Guardian. I went into left-wing journalism, but also returned to higher education, taking degrees in Celtic studies, which, accepting the message from his book, Jenkins would argue should not exist.

The title is misleading as this is not a book for Celtic scholars nor would anyone turn to it to learn anything objective (even sceptical) about the Celtic-speaking peoples, their languages, cultures and history. It’s the English idea of the term “Celtic’” that allows mythmakers to find something they can debunk,


Celtic simply describes the peoples who speak, or were known to have spoken, a language classified as one of the dialects of Indo-European which were once spoken across Europe, even as far east as central Anatolia, and now survives in these island and Brittany. From the fifth century BC, Celtic languages became identified in a few texts, inscriptions and place names.

Jenkins chooses to follow a group of mid-20th-century archaeologists who tried to obfuscate Celtic existence, claiming they could not even be identified by language. The “scholars” assiduously called the linguistic “Celtic period” pre AD 43, “Iron-Age”. I remember the late Prof Barry Raftery opening a seminar with the question “Parlez-vous Iron-Age?” He was then associate professor of Celtic archaeology at UCD.

Undaunted by numerous early pieces of language evidence, Celtic inscriptions on stones and metal plaques, names on Celtic coinage from the 4th century BC, place names, words used in Greek and Latin texts, these were all dismissed as Iron Age.

Evidence ignored

One argument claimed that, as the Celts did widely refer to themselves as Celts, they could not be Celts. Obviously our Latin was at fault when we quote Gaius Julius Caesar as writing “Qui ipsorum Celtae, nostra Galli appelantur (In their own language they are called Celts, in our tongue Gauls.)

Ignored is the evidence, even from classical times, from Livy, for example, showing that the diverse Celtic world kept in communication with one another.

In trying to place a home for this book, I would describe it as the product of an erudite English journalist, infused by his own culture (and rightly so), expressing his personal opinions on modern aspects of political devolution in the United Kingdom and apparently fearing it will go further.

It is curious that he uses the Celts as a mythological political whipping boy. It is more of a modern English political view than anything culturally meaningful as might be deduced by the title.

Where I come closest to feeling I could happily sit in the bar with the author and have a discussion is in his epilogue about Celtic myths, most of which, I am afraid, were invented by English authors from the 17th century onwards.

The author deplores myths. Napoleon Bonaparte once remarked “what is history but a myth agreed upon?” Jenkins upbraids his friend, the late Jan Morris, for comments about Welsh myths. He fails to acknowledge that the conqueror always writes the history and therefore agrees which myths they find acceptable to them.

To be able to agree an historical myth, one has to be in a position of strength. As example, Jenkins apparently deplores the “myth” that the Saxons invaded and conquered the Celts in Britain c. AD 410 driving them westward. That doesn’t concur with his myth.

Habitual denial

One wonders what Jenkins’s explanation is of how Germanic-speaking tribes managed to take over a large section of Britain from the Celtic-speaking tribes that inhabited it, and within a few centuries.

The irrefutable evidence of invasion, massacre, enforced migration and assimilation by the Anglo-Saxons is simply met with habitual denial. When the evidence is too strong, such as Gildas’s account (De Excidio Britannniae) of what was happening during his lifetime, it is dismissed as “blatant propaganda”. Sadly, Putin’s Russia is repeating this historic experiment. “Don’t bother to justify it; just deny it.” I am surprised Jenkins takes that line based on his past polemics.

A particular weakness in the book is trying to dismiss the Celtic linguistic family, then developing from the hypothesised common Indo-European. The author appears to argue several unrelated Celtic languages just appeared. Accepting Hittite as the earliest surviving branch of an Indo-European literature in the 19th-14th centuries BC, it means the Indo-European dialects, including Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic, Iranian etc, were developing earlier than even linguists have given credit.

Prof Myles Dillon (who died in 1972) used to encourage his students taking Old/Middle Irish to also learn Sanskrit to see the similarities between it and the Celtic languages, with myths, law and culture. But this would not appear to fit Jenkins’s thesis.

One can nitpick so many academic Celtic points. But one must remember this is a work of political opinions, not to be taken as serious historical study outside political propaganda. I can’t help wondering why, in view of what the author is about, the literature of the numerous Pan Celtic movements, ancient and modern, is almost conspicuous by its absence.

The author should surely have had some apposite remarks on Charles de Gaulle’s Les Celtes au XIXe Siècle (1864). This was the uncle of “the general”, who was a Breton language poet.

I supposed I was looking for something more worthy of Jenkins’s status. I am afraid that his much-hailed “aphoristic verve” is sadly lacking in this work.