“The Celts” and the Victorian Hangover

160328WandsworthNo, this is not a post about how ladies and gentlemen of the nineteenth century recovered after too many pints of Guinness. Rather, it is about how nineteenth-century ideas about culture and identity have held on so tenaciously in popular history that even now, over a century later, we still have to struggle against them when trying to talk about peoples of the past. One of the subjects that often brings up these outdated ideas is “the Celts.”

Searching for the Celts

Here’s how the Victorian version of history goes. Between 500 and 400 BCE, a new group of people known as the Keltoi to the Greeks or the Gauls to the Romans, whom we call the Celts, emerged in the area of southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. From this homeland, they expanded explosively outwards in all directions led by aggressive warrior princes who fought from two-wheeled chariots with long iron swords. They raided Italy and Greece but were prevented from conquering those regions by the armies of the Greeks and Romans. In the west and north, however, the native peoples were far less sophisticated and could not resist the invaders. The Celts conquered France and Belgium, northern Spain, and the British Isles until at the western shores of Ireland their expansion was finally halted by the Atlantic Ocean.

The nineteenth-century model. Map by Erik Jensen

These Celts brought their own language and culture into these lands, including a distinctive artistic style (named La Tène by modern scholars in honor of the site in Switzerland where its characteristics were first identified), advanced metalworking skills, and a religious culture centered on the worship of trees and other plants—especially mistletoe—presided over by druids.

The previous occupants of these lands were either slaughtered or driven into remote territories where isolated pockets held on in secret, to be only vaguely remembered in legends of the Celtic conquerors as dark, diminutive fairies.

The problems with the traditional narrative

This nineteenth-century version of history depends on several untenable assumptions.

Culture equals genetics

Nineteenth-century scholars generally assumed that social and material culture corresponded with genetic relationships: a person who spoke a Celtic language and used objects of La Tène-style metalwork must have been a Celt and must have been genetically related to other people who spoke the same language and used the same types of objects. The historical and archaeological evidence for the spread of particular cultural practices was therefore evidence of the spread of a genetically distinct people.

This assumption was not made in a vacuum. It had long underlain the agendas of Europe’s colonial empires. Europeans who found the cultures of American, African, and Asian peoples wanting could confidently conclude that the peoples who produced those cultures were uncivilized and deserved only to be displaced or subjugated by superior Europeans. The equation of culture with genetics gained further impetus from the romantic movement that swept across Europe in the nineteenth century. Scholars, poets, and artists seeking a glorious ancient past for their people assumed that a “pure” cultural history representing the “real” origins of their people could be recovered from the distant past. Remnants of oral tradition were collected (the Brothers Grimm in Germany, Elias Lönnrot in Finland), or invented (Macpherson in Scotland, Longfellow in America, later Tolkien in England) to provide a basis for the building of a national consciousness.

Cultural change means population replacement

160328headIf culture is bound to a genetic lineage, then a change in material culture must indicate a change of population. European imperialism seemed to offer the only viable models: a “superior” culture either invades and conquers an “inferior” culture whose population is exterminated, expelled, or reduced to a state of subservience, or else the new culture immigrates en masse with such numbers that the native culture is swamped and ceases to exist. The disappearance of an earlier style of material culture was considered proof of the disappearance of the previous population. When people in Britain stopped burying their dead with beaker-shaped pottery vessels, that could only mean that the Beaker People had been wiped out, driven away, or simply overwhelmed by a new people.

This assumption flowed from the previous and also meant that sweeping claims could be made about historical migrations, conquests, and cultural changes without relying on any written sources. Romanticism’s search for national origins could thus reach beyond the scanty written record and into the vast stretches of prehistory that were just coming to light in the nineteenth century as archaeology developed as a discipline. Just as poets and linguists had sought out the remnants of oral tradition, archaeologists and relic-hunters were seeking even more profound sources for their peoples in graves and ruins.

Ancient people were as obsessed with cultural purity as nineteenth-century Europeans were

The belief in a coherent “Celtic” civilization assumed that these “Celts” were either unable or unwilling to adopt any foreign ideas. It assumed, in effect, that the ancient “Celts” were as emotionally attached to the idea of being Celts as those who claimed them as ancestors were to being the descendants of Celts.

This assumption was a necessary corollary of the search for pure ancient ethnic identities. The only way those identities could have remained pure was if ancient ethnic groups policed the boundaries of their cultural identity with the fervor of nineteenth-century romantic nationalists. If ancient peoples had not preserved their pure original identity, then the romantic project to recover those identities was futile.

Of course, there has never been total agreement in scholarship about anything. We can find nineteenth-century scholars who rejected these assumptions and the conclusions based on them. Mainstream scholarship, however, generally agreed that this was how history worked and supported the search for pure national origins.

Finding an Atlantic past

The conflation of culture and genetics and the theories of pure ancient ethnicities persisted through the early twentieth century, but lost credibility after the middle of the century for some obvious reasons. Modern scholarship on the origins and development of ancient societies no longer embraces the assumptions made in the nineteenth century. Here is how mainstream history today sees the “Celts.”

The Atlantic cultural zone. Map by Erik Jensen
The Atlantic cultural zone. Map by Erik Jensen

Over a period of several thousand years from the late neolithic to the early iron age, the Atlantic coast of Europe, from Portugal to the Orkney Islands, was connected by trade routes and inter-communal ties. A wide range of technologies and cultural practices—including a set of related languages, boat-building techniques, megalithic construction, and the technologies for mining and working the metal deposits that are common in the region—gradually diffused through these lines of communication. By the middle of the first millennium BCE, local societies all along the Atlantic seaboard, though far from identical, shared some broadly similar material and social cultures.

The areas of increasing contact between the Atlantic and Mediterranean zones
The areas of increasing contact between the Atlantic and Mediterranean zones. Map by Erik Jensen

Around 500 BCE, two areas at the inland edges of this Atlantic zone saw accelerating cultural changes. One area was in northern central Iberia, where the headwaters of the Atlantic rivers Duero and Tajo come close to those of the Mediterranean Ebro. The other was in central western Europe where the sources of the Atlantic Rhine, Seine, and Loire are close to the Mediterranean Rhone and the Black Sea Danube. These regions were well placed to become centers for trade between the Atlantic zone of Europe, which had rich deposits of copper, tin, iron, silver, and gold, and the Mediterranean world where there was an increasing demand for metals in the cities of the Etruscans, Romans, Carthaginians, Greeks, and others. The local rulers who were able to dominate these trade routes began to ostentatiously display their wealth and supported artists who developed new styles taking inspiration both from Atlantic traditions and Mediterranean imports.

The new opportunities for wealth and status offered by these trade routes, however, were destabilizing. The larger, relatively stable power bases of the early trade barons were broken up as upstart warrior leaders competed for a share of the bounty. The need to sustain loyal followings of warriors drove some of these leaders on expeditions of raiding and trade farther afield. Small warrior bands spread out along the established trade routes raiding, trading, taking mercenary service, or setting themselves up as local rulers and collecting tribute. Some of the artisans who had developed advanced metalworking skills and the distinctive La Tène artistic style went along on these journeys and their techniques and styles continued to spread along the old routes of trade and communication that united Atlantic Europe until by 100 CE, local variations on the style were being made by artists from Iberia to Ireland.

There was no great Celtic invasion of northwestern Europe. There wasn’t even a people we could call “Celts” as an ethnic or cultural unit. There was a diverse Atlantic-zone population who shared some cultural features. The distinctive “Celtic” culture with its La Tène art, metalwork, long swords and chariots was the result of a productive friction between elements of this Atlantic culture with a variety of cultural influences from the Mediterranean. Elements of this “Celtic” culture were then diffused through the Atlantic networks and adapted by local societies to serve their own needs, but there was no coherent group of people traveling across Europe displacing the previous inhabitants.

This doesn’t mean that everyone just stayed put and only things and ideas moved. Ideas and trade goods don’t travel unless people carry them, and people moved around Europe a lot. Traders traveled from market to market. Agricultural laborers followed the seasonal work. Fishers and whalers tracked the migrations of their prey. Itinerant skilled crafters went where there was demand for their trades. Powerful families made marriage alliances or sent their children to be fostered by useful neighbors. Young warriors went looking for a chief’s retinue to join. Raiders looked for vulnerable populations to ransack or extort for profit. Refugees from war and internal strife went looking for new homes. There was plenty of movement in ancient Europe, but it wasn’t a single group conquering and eliminating entire populations.

Thoughts for writers

I was inspired to write about this topic by a recent article in the Washington Post which wrote about the excavation of ancient remains in Ireland which show no trace of a mass migration from central Europe as though this is a shocking discovery that “could forever change what we know about the Irish.” In fact, remains that show no mass migration from central Europe to Ireland are exactly what we expect and confirm what we’ve known for decades about the Irish. As a scholar who works in this field and cares about history, it is disheartening to see even a respectable paper like the Washington Post still blinkered by the myths of nineteenth-century romanticism. We are still living through the Victorian hangover.

I’ve written before about how false narratives about history can linger on in the scholarship long after the original theories that created them have been debunked, and how this means that paying attention to revisions and staying up to date on the scholarship is essential. The false narrative about the Celtic invasion of western Europe was discarded from academic scholarship decades ago, but it still thrives in popular history.

The thing about academic scholarship, though, is: it’s written by and for academics. It really isn’t fair to expect people who aren’t experts in the field to be able to keep up with changes in expert opinion. Popular history serves a vital purpose, to make history accessible to people who have an interest and passion for it but don’t want to spend seven years in grad school and learn half a dozen languages just to get the facts straight. If academics like me want the world to understand our research better, it’s up to us to make our work accessible.

So my thoughts for today really go to my fellow academic historians. If we want better popular history, we should be the ones to write it. We can’t complain about writers (of fiction, news, or anything else) not doing their research if we’re not doing our part to make our research available and accessible to them. What good does our work do, in the end, if it’s only for our fellow academics?

Images: Wandsworth shield boss, photograph by Johnbod via Wikimedia (currently British Museum; iron age; bronze). Head of a hero, detail of photograph by CeStu via Wikimedia (Mšecké Žehrovice near Slaný, Czech Republic; iron age; stone).

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.


5 thoughts on ““The Celts” and the Victorian Hangover

  1. Carol Lois Haywood March 28, 2016 / 15:29

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, for restoring my almost-lost sense of reality about the nature of the “Celtic!” Reading internet posts and blogs that do not have this post-Victorian grip on the truth as known began to fog my thinking. What is actually known about it is so much more complex and fascinating than the myth.


    • Erik March 28, 2016 / 15:40

      Pleased to be of use. History is often a good deal more interesting than the myths that have been made out of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Carol Lois Haywood March 29, 2016 / 17:29

        That has been my experience too, Erik. I love complexity. I think myth-tellers love simple.


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