Aberystwyth prof takes apart Simon Jenkins book claiming that ‘there were no Celts’
A professor of Welsh and Celtic Studies at Aberystwyth University has written a scathing review of a book by a Guardian columnist claiming that there were no such thing as the Celts.
Simon Jenkins’ book The Celts: A Sceptical History argues that there has never been a distinct people, race or tribe claiming the name of Celtic but rather just “sociable sailors”.
In the book Simon Jenkins argues that a Celtic identity developed because it became politically advantageous for the Welsh, Irish and Scots as a political tool to fight back against English oppression.
But in a review posted in the Times Literary Supplement, Professor Patrick Sims-Williams describes the book’s claims as “ahistorical” and compares parts of it to “Horrible Histories”.
“Jenkins’s grasp of Celtic scholarship is shaky,” he says, noting that the author “exploits prehistory to foreshadow his opinions on modern Britain and Ireland”.
In his review, Prof. Sims-Williams also debunks Jenkins’ claim in the book that there is no evidence of people in Austria/Switzerland speaking anything like Celtic, or that Celtic itself was a derogatory word applied to the people from without.
He is particularly bemused however by Simon Jenkins’ argument that “the generally accepted idea that Saxons brought the English language to England in the fifth and sixth centuries is also a myth”.
He notes of the suggestion that English was spoken in Wales before the Anglo-Saxons arrived: “The fantasy that lowland Britain was always Germanic-speaking is rare outside the darker reaches of the internet.”
Overall he said The Celts: A Sceptical History fell into the category of books likely to “have left readers as confused as the authors themselves” and was “an odd way to tackle a modern non-problem”.
In the book itself, Simon Jenkins argues in the book that reland, Scotland and Wales never “cohered as one entity” and that lumping them together was “distorting and dismissive”.
Indeed, it was the failure of the Welsh, Irish and Scottish to unite, first between themselves and then together, that was partly responsible for England’s domination, he argues.
“By the eleventh century, under Anglo-Saxons, Danes and then Normans, England was among the earliest ‘nationalised’ states in Europe. It was an early ‘union’,” he said.
“Unlike those of England, few of the clans or ‘kingdoms’ of Wales, Scotland and Ireland behaved as if they were members of a collective whole. Their efforts at self-government came constantly to grief, with rulers no sooner succeeding in briefly uniting their peoples than they died in feuds and civil wars.
“Over time, these westerners did combine sufficiently to be recognisably Irish, Scottish and Welsh, with distinctive languages and dialects. What they never did was unite against England. They did not speak a common language or acknowledge one leader.”
He argues that only in the 17th century did a did scholars begin to see the isles as possessing a collective ‘Celtic’ past, largely through the
identification of a common linguistic root.
Simon Jenkins, who is half Welsh and half English, does however note that if the UK is to survive, the English centre must begin to treat the other nations with more respect.
“It must find stability and cohesion by devolving to them ever-greater autonomy through new federal institutions,” he says.
“It has to change its outlook as well as its constitution.”
He does however argue that the people of the separate ‘Celtic’ nations faced oppression and that their own histories should be better taught as part of the UK.
“Britons are taught from birth the story of England, just England,” he said.
“They are taught little or nothing of the ‘others’ – notably the Irish, Scottish and Welsh commonly referred to collectively as the Celts.”
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