The Celts: A Very Short Introduction

By Barry Cunliffe | Go to book overview

Chapter 13
Reinventing the Celts

While the disparate Celtic-speaking communities of the Atlantic seaways may, through the dim memory of shared histories and the reality of similar dialects, have recognized some degree of kinship, at no time did they consider themselves to be a nation nor can we find the slightest hint that they believed themselves to be Celts. For more than 1,000 years, following the collapse of the Roman world in the West, the concept of the Celts real or imagined seems to have passed out of consciousness.

Until the sixteenth century the emergent states of western Europe had been content to accept mythological stories of their origin and distant past – stories linked to the Bible or to the Trojan myth – but with the Renaissance came a desire to create a firmer base for history. Scholars such as John Leland (1503–52) toured the length and breadth of Britain at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries collecting manuscripts and making first-hand observations of antiquities. Elsewhere in Europe other scholars were discovering the writings of Classical authors tucked away in monastic libraries. Tacitus' Agricola had been published in Milan about 1480, while Caesar's Gallic War was made public in Venice in 1511. These and other ancient texts provided an entirely new framework for historians to work on. For the first time ancestors dating back to before the Romans could begin to be glimpsed.

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