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Review: The Celtic Revolution, by Simon Young

The Celtic Revolution: In Search of 2000 Forgotten Years that Changed Our World

MANY in Scotland like to think of themselves as being “Celtic” without necessarily having a coherent idea of what that means. Cambridge historian Simon Young’s the Celtic Revolution has little or nothing to tell us about the Scottish Gaels, nor indeed anything about “the Celts” into modern times other than that from the Middle Ages they retreated into insignificance in the pan-European story. In short, Young is not interested in mysticism, revivalism or the elevation of history’s losers.

The result is a clear-sighted view, supported by burgeoning linguistic scholarship and archeological evidence, of who the ancient Celts and their Dark Age successors were. They may not have been empire-builders but they inhabited much of Europe and, the author asserts emphatically, they matter, “as the Greeks or Romans, the Etruscans or Carthaginians matter”.

To the novice Celticist there are plenty of juicy surprises along the way: the Iron Age Celts wore trousers but had a less refined penchant for human sacrifice and would often flay and boil the heads of captured enemies before turning them into candle-holders; in the early centuries BC, Celtic tribes sacked Rome, had successful military campaigns in Macedonia and Greece, and for a time terrorised modern-day Turkey, where they established a kingdom, Galatia; and the Dark Age Christian Celts of Ireland, into all sorts of self-harm and abnegation, originated the practice of lying out on beds with naked girls in order to “test themselves”.

The ancient Celts are often lumped in with the other “barbarians” in antiquity and it is true that they do not conform to the traditional yardsticks of civilisation: they were illiterate, they were nomadic, and they glorified invasions and conflict where southern European writers of the time agonised over whether their wars were “just”. Yet what is clear is that, in the Iron Ages, tribes who spoke Celtic tongues, shared the same style of possessions and art and had broadly similar spiritual traditions, covered enormous swathes of Europe, from Britain and Ireland to Gaul, the Iberian Peninsula, Austria, Switzerland, and parts of Germany and the Lowlands.

In 500BC they appear in Italy; in 390BC we have the first recorded military campaign involving the Senone tribe, who sacked the Etruscan city of Chiusi before going on to humble Rome. Celtic warbands then spread eastward along the Danube corridor into the Balkans, Bulgaria, Transylvania, even reaching Ukraine and Kazakhstan. In 280BC, mere decades after the death of Alexander the Great, they routed the Macedonians, then sacked Thermopylae in Greece before being stopped at Delphi.

A century or so later the Romans arrived in Asia Minor to crush the Galatians and so began the Celtic retreat. Harried out of southern Europe they were pushed towards extinction until, by 500AD, they existed only in Britain, Ireland and Brittany. What Young cogently argues, however, is that the Celts’ military successes paved the way for Rome’s ultimate domination by weakening other states and kingdoms in the region; and having shown that they changed the course of European history once, he turns to the Dark Age Celts of Ireland to prove that they did so again by helping to preserve “the universal faith” after the fall of the Christian Empire.

This episode is well-rehearsed, but it is worth reminding ourselves the extent to which Christianity teetered on the brink in Europe as the Goths, Franks and Vandals overran it and other parts of Christendom fell to Islam. To the early Irish monks, exile was another form of self-flagellation, and when they left their homeland it was to set up monasteries and exist in Godly solitude. Within a generation of arriving in Iona in 563AD, however, Collum Cille (Columba) was the most feted holy man in the British Isles. In France, Columbanus – before he angered the local king Theuderich by refusing to bless his royal bastards and had to leave – was similiarly revered, and, slightly later, Aidan Christianised much of Anglo-Saxon England. Young shows that these men did not so much alter Christianity – Celtic Christianity was later subsumed within Roman Christianity – but preserved it, injecting the faith with a zealous intellectual energy at a crucial moment.

The third part of Young’s book is given over to an explanation of how the Celts – posthumously – begat the secular, modern western mindset. Once Arthurian legend -which for the Dark Age British-Celts told of a messiah-like figure who would, some day, restore their lands – was altered out of all recognition by the courts of Europe, giving rise to the cults of chivalry and Courtly Love, the feudal aristocracies emerged with a code and a non-Christian language of their own, which in turn, Young hypothesizes, enshrined the early modern idea of separating Church and State. It’s speculative, perhaps fanciful, stuff, but in the context of a book that so painstakingly sifts fact from fiction, reality from myth, Young earns the right to so indulge.

This review appeared in the Sunday Herald