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Who Were the 'Celts'?

An Ancient Briton from the 1st century BC. He is usually referred to as a Celt, a word that would have meant nothing to him
*Ancient Briton

By the tenth century the 'Celts' had ceased to exist as a completely separate people. Instead they had fragmented into small groups sharing a similar cultural background. It is difficult to guess where the 'Celts' left off and where the British peoples started, which is possibly a more accurate term. It's interesting to note that the name 'Celt' is derived from the word 'Keltoi' a people who the Greeks ran into around 500-400BC. Their term for these people was 'Galatai'. The Romans used the words 'Celtae', 'Galli' and 'Galatae'. Ephorus a Greek writer accorded them as being one of the four great barbarian tribes. The next time we hear of the term 'Celt' was in the 1750's used by gentlemen historians. Ever since we have used it as a general term along with all the political baggage that goes with it as a 'free-thinking' people who were down-trodden by the Romans etc.

It is quite likely that Celtic tribes such as they were had by and large little grasp of who 'they' were, being far more concerned with their identity on a local basis. The numbers of tribes and sub-tribes in Britain were vast, even the Romans chose to lump them into convenient lots such as the 'Catuvellauni', 'Votadini' etc; terms that possibly only loosely resemble their original names. Broadly speaking the main Celtic peoples were the Irish, the Welsh (or Cymri as they call themselves) and the post-Pictish Scots who would have looked much like the chap on the left in the1st century BC. The word Welsh is derived from the Saxon word 'waelas' meaning 'foreigner' or 'slave' and was applied to all the native British. Despite a long history as separate peoples it seems the only place that retained a truly 'Celtic' lifestyle was Ireland. In Wales and Scotland the native 'Celts' seem to have emulated the invaders who had settled their lands (Norse in Scotland, Saxon and Norse in Wales), both in social structure and dress. Prior to the Saxon 'invasions', the Celtic peoples of Britain had over 400 years learnt to appreciate the benefits of being Roman Citizens, even though your average Roman out of Rome would have recoiled in horror at the less than palatial conditions in Britain. But the point here is that the slightly more varied people of Britain post the Roman evacuation of troops, were calling themselves Romans of Britain, soon to be shortened to just British, not 'Celts free of the Roman Yoke'. The Romans had indeed brought the peoples of Britain great wealth and opportunity by connecting them to a greater Europe. The country was transformed.

(In some recent correspondence, a visitor to our website has injected some debate which should be aired at this point. He states: "I like your website however, I want to point out an error. While you are somewhat correct that Celtic languages became marginalized, there were plenty of Gaelic speakers in southern Scotland and in the Hebrides, and where this was not so was in areas where the Picts held dominance. Even in north western England there were plenty of Picts and probably settlements of Irish raiders who were the real enemies of the Britons at the beginning of the Saxon incursion. Now, if one wants to include Pictish as a Celtic language that is a matter of debate, but surely Pictish was a widespread tongue that deserves mention. Even Gildas and Bede talk about Pictish as being a separate language in two completely different eras." I thank Mike Erbertz for this contribution.)

The arrival of the Saxons was not necessarily the calamity that Bede would have you believe. Recent DNA analysis is suggesting that a very small layer of Saxon society overlaid British blood lines. No doubt, there were some people who saw red over this for many years, and it goes without saying that it didn't go entirely smoothly. It's a shame, but this puts the stories of Arthur in rather a poor light.

It seems that in Wales and Scotland the only dress differences any contemporary chroniclers thought worthy of note were the use of some Gaelic (not Pictish) style fabrics, and a less common use of shoes and armour by the 'Celtic' peoples, particularly the Welsh which may be more due to their relative poverty.

The 'Celtic' peoples lived mainly in the marginal zones of Britain with poorer resources. That's not to say that they never lived inland, but made the most of the best land there was, such as along the river banks, coastal zones etc. The hills in Wales for example were to a greater extent still covered with a great deal of forest, and made for restricted travel and more hazardous circumstances for your livestock.

A 10th century monk from St. David's in Pembrokeshire, Wales
*Welsh Monk

The exception to this are the Irish, who were fortunate to have the whole isle to themselves by and large, but then Ireland was for example iron poor. As a result the mainland 'Celts' would generally find life somewhat more precarious, and many of their belongings would have been considered 'provincial' or even 'old-fashioned' by the neighbouring English and Vikings. And when the opportunity to acquire Viking or Saxon goods that were better than they were able to produce, they did so very readily.

The Atlantic seaboard of Britain and France enabled these peoples to communicate quite well by boat, which has kept a certain cohesiveness of language and culture which still remains today. As a people, they had been Christian for a long, long time, a sacred repository of Christianity issuing missionaries to many areas of northern Europe and were responsible for the rapid conversion of pagans to Christianity. But whilst this pious activity is true, they were not averse to 'borrowing' each others bulls which often lead to legendary disputes. There is good reason to suppose that even the great earthwork of Offa's Dyke was constructed not just to keep the Welsh out of England, but to prevent them from returning with cattle that they had neglected to pay for.


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