I don't believe that the term 'Celt' used today has much relation to the way
it is used by antiquarians, historians and pre-historians in discussing Iron
Age Europe. When I was in my teens (in the seventies), I wanted to know more
about the connections between Ireland, Scotland and Wales. I had some vague
idea that the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Britain were involved in this too,
but I was not sure how. The main thing I could see was that they were not
English and had had wars or the like with England at some points in history.
We were only taught Anglo-Centric 'British' history at school and so I
browsed the shelves of 'Paperback Parade' and came across a book called 'The
Celts'. It was Nora Chadwick's work and I was completely befuddled by it.
What did some lake in Switzerland have to do with the reason that I felt
more camaraderie with Scotland and Ireland than with England? It did not
explain to me why Breton onion sellers were supposed to speak a language
similar to Welsh, or why there were so many 'Welsh' place-names in Cornwall.
I had given up on it and only in the past ten years have I returned to the
subject. I realised, this time, that I had to separate Celts in the modern
sense from the 'Celts' of Nora Chadwick's early chapters of her book.
Indeed, Dark Age and Medieval Celts needed separate considerations too.
I still find this difficult to do, but I am far from being alone in this. I
was shocked at some of the responses to Simon James (you know, all the
'ethnic genocide stuff') - for me it was a real eye-opener. I was no longer
certain what 'Celtic' was supposed to mean. However, if it was to be used
at all, I became more and more certain that it belonged to the world of
linguistics. Yes, I was in a way referring to the problem that 'Celtic' is
used in different academic disciplines. It is often used in several, or all
of them, in the same discussions. Do we really need to use the term in all
the cases we have? What is wrong with Halstaat and La Tene *instead* of
Celtic when referring to art and style? The term seems to me to me all
things to different people. Archaeology seems to be one of the first fields
to question this and is being marginalised because of this. I am with you on
the rest of the things you say on art. Although I do not agree that it
legitimizes the term for all so called Celtic Art. The knotwork of the early
Medieval period seems to owe more to Germanic influences and to Rome. This
is why I understand what you mean about the need for classification etc, but
on this occasion the wrong term has been used (or rather abused ) - it does
not clarify at all as far as I am concerned. The Welsh (in general, or the
academic establishment) are somewhat reluctant to examoine the question of
Celticity, I believe, as it is taken as questioning national identity and
ethnicity. That the ideas seem to come from east of Offa's Dyke may add to
the suspicion, but I hope that will change. I went to a lecture by Miranda
Green last year. The subject was religion in Roman Britain and she did not
use the word 'Celt' once. She didn't need to. It was refreshing change. :)
Thanks for the post, Ray.
From: CELTIC-L - The Celtic Culture List.
[mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Raimund Karl
Sent: 12 April 2006 09:39
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: AW: British?
> I wasn't ignoring your post, but some of it went over my head and I had
> to get the dictionary out and think about it.
No problem. I'm sorry if my post was a bit complicated, but I tend to get
carried away occasionally...
> However, back to the Iron Age. I may be a little out of my depth here,
> but I still have trouble accepting a couple of the points you made in
> response to my posts. I do not see that 'Celtic' being a well established
> term means that it is a good, valid and useful term.
It does not necessarily mean that it is. However, I think it is, for a whole
bunch of reasons. Actually, the only real problem I see with it is that it
has been misused and misunderstood by some (but by no means by all) as
purely an ethnic term, and as an ethnic term, it is only useful in a very
limited context (i.e. in Antiquity, in what was then Gaul - including some
parts of southern Germany, Switzerland and northern Italy - as a term in
Greek ethnography, and possibly one of ethnic self-identification in that
area and period). The term, however, has many other meanings, which are not
devalued by this single problem, particularly as the same applies for any
other even remotely similar term (try to define "Roman", and see whether
that doesn't cause very similar problems).
> Long standing problems do not cease to be problems with time.
What kind of long-standing problems are you referring to? The problem that
17th-21st century populations in Britain, Ireland, France and Spain have
chosen this term as a ethnic self-identifier and misused it in nationalist
narratives? Now, if that were the case, we would equally have to abandon the
terms English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, German, French, Italian, Spanish etc.
All of them have been misused in nationalist narratives.
Or are you referring to the problem that the term Celtic is used in several
academic disciplines (archaeology, history, linguistics, literature, art
history, musicology, biology etc.), with somewhat different (but partially
overlapping) meanings in each of these? If that were the case, we would
again have to again abandon all the above mentioned other examples, too,
because they are used in similar contexts, with similarly overlapping, but
somewhat different meanings.
> What makes Celtic art, Celtic art? Because it was produced by people
No, Celtic art is made by the definition that some kinds of observable
artistic styles with some characteristic elements are called "Celtic art" by
us today. We call, for instance, the decorative art of the socalled La Tène
culture "Celtic art", because it is clearly distinguishable from any other
particular art style, and some art historians and archaeologists, over a
hundred years ago, have chosen to call this particular art "Celtic".
Whatever the reasons of these art historians and archaeologists were, they
coined a term.
As you can't "wrongly" coin a term, as any coining of a term is an act of
(mostly arbitrary) association of some class of thing with a word which
seems to fit it for the person making the association (like, coining the
term "Rock'n Roll" for a certain style of music, or the word "computer" for
an electronic mathematical calculation device, or "pointilism" for a certain
style of art), "Celtic art" is called "Celtic art" because some scholars
chose to do so, and because it since has become an established technical
term for this specific art style. Argueing that "Celtic art" isn't "Celtic"
because it may not have been made by "Celts", or because we cannot clearly
define who these "Celts" were or are, is a bit like argueing that
"pointilism" isn't "pointilism" because it has been made by humans, not by
"points", and we cannot clearly define characteristics for artists who made
it, other than they were producing "pointisist" paintings.
> Who are the Celts? Do we partly define them by their art and other
Yes, part of the definition of what or who "the Celts" are is by way of art
and other material culture.
The "Celts" are an example of a socalled "inclusive additive polythetic
definition" of a class: There are certain features that have been defined as
"Celtic", like some certain art styles, some languages, some archaeological
features, some kinds of literature, some kinds of music, etc. Some of these
features "overlap" in either or both space and time: For instance, we find
"Celtic" languages in Iron Age Gaul and Iron Age Britain, we also find
"Celtic" art there, we find other elements of "Celtic" material culture
(e.g. carnyges, specific kinds of weaponry, etc.) there, we find some
"Celtic" socio-religious functions there (druids, bards, brogoriges), and a
couple of other things. At the same time, in Galatia in Asia Minor, we find
"Celtic" languages, some "Celtic" socio-religious functions (e.g.
brogoriges, but not druids or bards), but hardly any "Celtic" art or
material culture. In yet other areas at the same time, like in southern
Poland, we find "Celtic" art and material culture, but don't find any
evidence for "Celtic" languages spoken there, or "Celtic" socio-religious
functions. If we now chance our temporal focus to the present, we find
several communities, e.g. in Irland, Wales, Scotland, Man, Brittany and
Cornwall, where people speak "Celtic" languages, but they neither have those
"Celtic" socio-religious functions that we could find in some times and
areas in antiquity, nor any of the material culture of that time, and only
some very remote connections in the decorative art. Yet, all those areas,
and the populations inhabiting them, have at least one (and frequently
several) characteristic that has been defined as "Celtic". As such, the
populations who have this feature can justly be called "Celts", because we
have defined the term "Celt" as "someone who has an observable
characteristic classified as being called Celtic". This is actually the
definition used by most scholars (except for those who are obsessed with
Note that this is an inclusive, not an exclusive definition. According to
it, you can be a "Celt" and a "Roman", a "German" etc. all at the same time,
because the definition is based on observable characteristics of a person or
thing, not on essentialist ideas that if you "are a Celts", you "cannot be a
German" or "a Roman", because you are "a Celt" and that necessarily excludes
membership in any other similarly defined group. As a matter of fact,
according to this definition, I can consider myself a "Celt", because I
usually wear a replica blue La Tène glass bracelet. Blue La Tène glass
bracelets are "Celtic" material culture, and as someone using "Celtic"
material culture, I am a "Celt". Of course, I write in English, so I am
English as well, and currently am in my home town of Vienna, Austria, so am
Austrian, too (in two ways, by birth and by currently being on holiday
> We do not know for sure about the languages of Iron Age Britain,
Well, we know pretty sure what languages were spoken in Britain in about a
century before the Roman conquest, give or take a little. We know that at
the time of the Roman conquest, everyone in Britain, except possibly for the
far north, seems to have spoken Celtic languages, at least according to what
textual evidence we have in the epigraphic and historical record. We have
less evidence for earlier periods, but there is limited evidence provided by
the names in early historical records, which, for Britain, go back at least
to the 4th cent. BC, which also indicate Celtic languages already having
been spoken there.
This of course does not mean that everyone in the British Isles spoke a
Celtic language during all of the Iron Age, but we know that at least some
people did, and we have no positive evidence for any other languages
whatsoever. And I don't claim that everyone in the British Iron AGe
necessarily must have been a speaker of Celtic languages and thus "a Celt" -
to prove my point, that there were "linguistic Celts" in Britain in the Iron
Age, it is completely sufficient that a significant number of "linguistic
Celts" were in Britain in the Iron Age, and that this is the case is proven
beyong any reasonable doubt. Thus - and that is where we were coming from -
it is for the Celto-Sceptics to prove that "there were no Celts in the
British Iron Age", and to do so, they first must prove that no one in the
British Iron Age spoke a Celtic language. Which of course they can't. Which
is why they don't even bother to try.
> even if it was a language belonging to the 'Celtic' linguistic family,
> we have no evidence how the language arrived, or when it began to be
So what? That is all irrelevant. Celtic languages are well attested in Late
Iron Age Britain. Regardless of when and how they have come there (or if
they originated there anyway), the fact remains that they are well attested
in Late Iron Age Britain and as such it cannot be reasonably denied that at
least "linguistic Celts" existed in Iron Age Britain.
> It seems increasingly likely to me, that the language of LPRIA Britain
> had a longer pedigree than has been thought.
That seems to be the case. Whether Celtic languages were already spoken in
Britian in the Bronze Age or whether they only arrived (or originated) in
the Iron Age cannot be answered with any degree of certainty, but that they
were there as soon as the Late Iron Age cannot be denied either.
> If the definition of a Celt is one who speaks a Celtic language then it
> would be difficult to prove that there were no Celts in Britain.
That is exactly the point. Which is why the Celto-Sceptics have framed their
argument entirely in terms of ethnicity, see Simon James' argument on this
in "The Atlantic Celts". He argues that the only valid definition for past
peoples is their own ethnic self-identification, and that there can't have
been an over-arching "Celtic" ethnic identity in the Iron Age (an argument
with which one may agree or not). Thus, he concludes, there were no "Celts"
in the British Iron Age. But this, of course, requires to accept the basic
assumption, that ONLY ethnic self-identification is a valid classificatory
feature. This, in my opinion, is utter rubbish, because we have no idea as
to how British Iron Age populations constructed their ethnicity, nor at what
scale their ethnicity can have been constructed, nor whether that
self-identification was "Celtic" or not, because we have no evidence either
way, and because there is simply no reason why we should privilege
self-identification over all other classificatory possibilities (whether
self- or outsider-defined).
> However, is that definition not a little over-simplistic? Are all speakers
> of Teutonic languages Teutons?
Well, that depends on what you are looking for. I don't think anyone has a
problem with accepting that there are "Arabs" - which is a term used for all
speakers of Arabic languages - or that there are "Slavs" - which is a term
used for all speakers of Slavic languages. Of course, for historical
reasons, the speakers of Germanic languages are not all called Germans
today, nor are the speakers of all Romance languages called Romans. But
these are purely historical reasons, because there were never several
competing imperial powers speaking Slavic, Arabic or Celtic languages, while
there were several competing imperial powers speaking Germanic languages,
and several speaking Romance languages.
And is this overly simplistic? Well, again, overly simplistic for what
purpose? Isn't the term "art" overly simplistic, as it contains so
fundamentally different things like music and sculpture? Isn't the term
"fruits" overly simplistic, as it contains so fundamentally different things
like apples and oranges? Or, to stick with terms more similar to "Celtic",
isn't the term "Austrian" too simplistic, as it contains so fundamentally
different things like Germans, Slovenes, Croats, Hungarians, Czechs,
Moravians, Hindu, Turks, Bosnians, Bantu, Pakistani, Christians, Muslims,
Jehova's Witnesses, Buddhists, Chinese, Japanese, Brasilians, University
Professors, Craftsmen, artists, tennis players, alps, rivers, horses, cakes,
sausages, cheese, wine, forests, absolutist monarchy, republican democracy
etc. ad infintum?
Whether a term is overly simplistic or not depends on the context in which
it is used. Of course, the term "Celtic" is a rather fuzzy, generalising
term, which does not give us much detailed information. Using the term
"Celtic" does not necessarily tell us much, other than that something or
someone is considered to be part of the broad class "Celtic" for some
reason. As such, to make more detailed assessments, it is necessary to use
more detailed terms. Thus, e.g., there is a sub-class of the Celtic language
family called "insular Celtic", which in turn is made up of a Goidelic and a
Brythonic group, which in turn contains the Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic
and Welsh, Cornish and Breton sub-groups respectively. Similarly, we can
create archaelogical classes, sub-classes, groups, sub-groups, and within
these types, variants, etc., down to the level of the individual item or
feature. The individual item or feature will in some regards always be
unique, and thus, if it is classified in any way, unique detail will be lost
in the process.
But classification, and with it simplification, is a necessary feature of
communication: all useless detail has to be lost for successful
communication, because if it is not, the information that the sender wants
to transport is lost in an endless stream of detail, and the receiver will
never be able to use the sent information.
As such, calling all speakers of Celtic languages "Celts", and all users of
certain kinds of material culture "Celts" (even if not every speaker of a
Celtic language uses Celtic matieral culture and vice versa), serves a
purpose in certain contexts. For instance, if you want to contrast the
totality of the Central, North-Western European later Iron Age populations
with those of the ("Classical") European Mediterranean zone, which of course
is an over-simplification, but, in some contexts, can be very useful. And
there are plenty other contexts as well, where this is useful. Which is why
I think we should keep the term Celtic in use.
All the best,
Mag.Dr. Raimund KARL FSA(Scot) MIFA
University of Wales Bangor, Dept. of History and Welsh History
Ogwen Building, Siliwen Road, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2DG
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