1994-08-10: History of the Celtic People

The History of the Celtic People (1934)

by Henri Hubert (1872-1927)

This is a 1993 paperback edition containing the original two volumes called The Rise of the Celts  and The Greatness and Decline of the Celts. It is a scholarly work, with many bibliographic footnotes and some explanatory notes. However, most of the references are to quite old books in French, so I have no chance to follow them. The book was apparently written with the assumption that its readers knew European geography; it uses place names freely, and has few maps. The few that are provided are poorly reproduced, often nearly illegible.

Hubert’s concern is to show the legacy of the Celts down to modern France. The bulk of the second volume is concerned with the movements of Celtic peoples, and their eventual settlement in Gaul, where they persisted throughout Roman and Frankish conquest, naming the landscape and imposing their tribal and family boundaries, and their usage, on the land.

The first volume has some of the cultural threads that went into the various stages of La Tene culture, but he seems to assume that his readers already know a great deal about the archeology. He takes great pains with linguistic evidence, but less with artifacts.

The last chapter of the second volume is about the sociology of the Celts, and more interesting to me. Unfortunately it is thin, and of course the evidence is also thin.

He does give an interesting picture of the Druidic classes in Ireland. These were evidently in three classes: the top were the Druids proper, with religious functions (sacrifices, augury). Next were the fili, the judges and world-keepers. A chief among them had to know 350 stories, 250 long and 100 short. Some of these were prose, and subject to variation according to need and circumstance. The rest were verse, formulaic. The fili used the stories as precedents or leading cases in making judgements of legal cases. The lowest class was the bardi, poets and musicians who composed new poems and songs for occasions or to praise the noblemen who supported them. They traveled about, somewhat like troubadors or minstrels, and spread the news of local goings-on among the entire country.

The Druids had the highest prestige and privileges, and there was jealousy or competition between them and the fili. During the period when Christianity was first introduced into Ireland (very murky, but probably 200 years before Patrick, i.e., third century CE), the Druids must have been naturally resistant. The fili on the other hand, may have used the conflict to their advantage, siding with the Christians. This allowed them to extend their influence, and persist as the Druids waned. Later, the descendants of the fili wrote down the traditional stories that were being neglected, often with a Christian gloss to them. Many of the saints’ lives contain fragments of earlier legends, and some saints (e.g., St. Brigid) are thinly disguised gods and goddesses.

The book is long (600+ pages) and tedious in parts, but the first volume and the last chapter are interesting enough.

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