This is a brazen political polemic whose aim appears to be against further separation of the constituent nations from the UK. While the author argues that “decentralization pays off,” he chose an area as his battleground that he could have studied more closely.
Simon Jenkins has rightly been called a “master of provocation”. I applauded much of his work over the years in a spirit of camaraderie, as we were both born in the same year, entered journalism at the same time, and wrote political commentary.
He had a distinguished career as editor of The Times and now writes a column for the Guardian. I got into leftist journalism, but also went back to higher education, taking degrees in Celtic studies, which, accepting the message of his book, Jenkins says shouldn’t exist.
The title is misleading as it is not a book for Celtic scholars and no one would turn to it to learn anything objective (even skeptical) about the Celtic speaking peoples, their languages, cultures and their story. It’s the English idea of the term “Celtic” that allows myth makers to find something they can debunk,
Celtic simply describes peoples who speak, or were known to speak, a language classified as one of the Indo-European dialects that were once spoken across Europe, even as far east as central Europe. ‘Anatolia, and which now survives in these islands and in Brittany. . From the 5th century BC. J.-C., the Celtic languages are identified in some texts, inscriptions and toponyms.
Jenkins chooses to follow a group of mid-twentieth-century archaeologists who attempted to obfuscate Celtic existence, claiming they could not even be identified by language. The ‘scholars’ assiduously called the linguistic ‘Celtic period’ before AD 43 the ‘Iron Age’. I remember the late Professor Barry Raftery opening a seminar with the question “Do you speak Iron-Age?” He later served as Associate Professor of Celtic Archeology at UCD.
Undeterred by numerous early linguistic evidence, Celtic inscriptions on stones and metal plates, names on Celtic coinage from the 4th century BC, place names, words used in Greek and Latin texts, all of this has been dismissed as the Iron Age.
One argument claimed that, as the Celts largely referred 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 appellant” (In their language they are called Celts, in our language Gauls.)
Ignored is the evidence, even from classical times, of Livy, for example, showing that the various Celtic worlds remained in communication with each other.
In trying to situate this book, I would describe it as the product of an erudite English journalist, steeped in his own culture (and rightly so), expressing his personal views on modern aspects of political decentralization in the UK and apparently lest it go further.
It is curious that he uses the Celts as a mythological political scapegoat. It’s more of a modern English political vision than anything of cultural significance, as the title might infer.
Where I come closest to feeling like I might be happy to sit in the bar with the author and have a chat is in his epilogue to Celtic myths, most of which I’m afraid , were invented by English authors from the 17th century.
The author deplores myths. Napoleon Bonaparte once said “what is history if not an agreed myth?” Jenkins criticizes his friend, the late Jan Morris, for his comments on Welsh myths. He does not recognize that the conqueror always writes history and therefore agrees with the myths he finds acceptable to him.
To be able to agree on a historical myth, one must be in a position of strength. For example, Jenkins apparently laments the “myth” that the Saxons invaded and conquered the Celts in Britain c. AD 410 driving them west. This does not correspond to his myth.
One wonders what is Jenkins’ explanation of how the Germanic speaking tribes managed to gain control of much of Britain from the Celtic speaking tribes that inhabited it, and this within a few centuries .
The irrefutable evidence of invasion, slaughter, forced migration and assimilation by the Anglo-Saxons is simply met with the usual denial. When the evidence is too strong, such as the account of Gildas (De Excidio Britanniae) of what was happening during his lifetime, it is dismissed as “blatant propaganda”. Unfortunately, Putin’s Russia is repeating this historic experience. “Don’t bother justifying it; just deny it. I’m surprised that Jenkins takes this line based on his past polemics.
A particular weakness in the book attempts to discount the Celtic language family, then developing from the common Indo-European assumption. The author seems to argue that several unrelated Celtic languages have just appeared. Accepting Hittite as the first surviving branch of an Indo-European literature in the 19th-14th centuries BC means that Indo-European dialects, including Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic, Iranian, etc., were developing earlier than even linguists have given credit for.
Professor Myles Dillon (d. 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 that doesn’t seem to fit Jenkins’ thesis.
One can nitpick so many Celtic academic points. But we must not forget that this is a work of political opinions, not to be considered as a serious historical study apart from political propaganda. I can’t help wondering why, given the author’s words, the literature of the many pan-Celtic movements, ancient and modern, is almost conspicuous by its absence.
The author should surely have made some relevant remarks on Les Celts au XIX Siècle by Charles de Gaulle (1864). He was the “general’s” uncle, who was a Breton-speaking poet.
Guess I was looking for something more worthy of Jenkins status. I fear that his vaunted “aphoristic verve” is sorely lacking in this work.