Renaissance and rediscovery - Druids: A Very Short Introduction - Barry W. Cunliffe

Druids: A Very Short Introduction - Barry W. Cunliffe (2010)

Chapter 7. Renaissance and rediscovery

It is a deep-seated need of human societies to understand their origins. Nowadays we can build models of increasing complexity on the basis of DNA studies and archaeological research, but before the 19th century there was little tangible evidence to rely on other than the Bible and a few Classical texts. A medieval chronicler intent on creating a foundation myth had two broad choices, either he could begin with the sons of Noah colonizing the earth in the aftermath of the Flood or he could extend the highly respectable myth of Rome’s origins founded, so Livy believed, by Aeneas fleeing from the flames of Troy. Thus, in France in the 7th century, the Franks were said to be the successors of King Francio who had journeyed west after the fall of Troy. But in another story the founder was Francus, who was descended from Japhet, son of Noah, who colonized Europe after the Flood. Francus, so the story goes, was one of four brothers, the others being Romanus, founder of the Gallo-Romans; Britto, who established the Bretons; and Albanus, the father of the Alamanni. The 9th-century British chronicler Nennius warmed to the story but corrected it, arguing that Britto had in fact founded the Britons. And so the confection grew.

It was the publication of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s great work Historia Regum Britanniae around 1135 that produced the first fully fledged myth of British origins. Geoffrey was a Welsh cleric, probably based in Oxford, who claimed to have had access to a very old Breton manuscript which provided his source material. But there are clear indications that this was not so and that the early ‘history’ was a creation of Geoffrey’s imaginative mind. Geoffrey’s story is simple: the history of Britain begins with Brutus, a Trojan warrior who, around 1170 BC, landed at Totnes and overcame the Giants who were already occupying the island. He went on to found New Troy (London) and was succeeded by his sons, who became the kings of England, Scotland, and Wales. Thereafter the succession of kings, including Lud, Cole, Vortigern, and Arthur, was detailed to link up to the early Saxon king lists, thus providing Britain with a satisfyingly continuous history. Geoffrey had produced a compelling story which achieved great popularity in the medieval world and grew richer and more intricate through many elaborations and accretions. Although by the 17th century doubts were being expressed, Geoffrey’s stories proved to be remarkably resilient and in some quarters were still being repeated as reliable history into the 19th century.

The Biblical model, based on the Old Testament stories of the Flood and its aftermath, provided a strong underpinning for 16th- and 17th-century narrative histories like the Rerum Scoticarum Historia of George Buchanan (1506-82), Britannia Antiqua Illustrata by Aylett Sammes (c. 1636-c. 1679), and Antiquité de la nation et de la langue des Celts by the Breton theologian Paul-Yves Pezron (1639-1706). Pezron’s book, published in French in 1703 and in English in 1706, was particularly influential in the development of ideas about the Celts. He believed that they were descended from Gomer, grandson of Noah, and spread across Europe from the east, eventually settling in Brittany and Wales. His work was widely read and brought the notion of the Celts, as ancestors, to the attention of the world of scholarship.

Antiquarians writing in the 16th century and later had far more source material to use than their medieval predecessors. With the opening up of monastic libraries, the manuscript texts of Classical writers were beginning to become more widely known, and it was from the works of Caesar, Tacitus, and Pliny that knowledge of the Celts (or Gauls) and the Druids came more firmly into the public consciousness. The printing press hastened the dissemination of these works. The Gallic Wars was printed in Latin in 1511, making Caesar’s famous account of Celtic society and his description of druidism widely available to scholars; its publication in English translation in 1604 ensured access to an even greater British readership. By the early decades of the 17th century, all the major texts referring to Druids - Caesar, Tacitus, Pliny, and Ammianus Marcellinus - were in the public domain. The immediate pre-Roman ancestors of the French and British could now be described in all their colourful barbarity, and real personalities with histories could begin to be brought in to enliven the narratives. It is easy to understand how people, tired of unmitigated medieval myths, turned avidly to the new sources. In the warrior Celts, hard-drinking, defiant, and with a love of freedom, they had discovered a worthy ancestor. But the Druids, for all their fascination, were a little more difficult for a Christian intelligentsia to embrace.

Druids as philosophers presented no real difficulty, and it is no surprise that one of the earliest French works on the subject, by Jean Le Fèvre, was entitled Les Fleurs et Antiquitez des Gaules, où il est traité de Anciens Philosophes Gaulois appellez Druides (1532). Their judicial role was also emphasized, as in François Meinhard’s Latin oration ‘The Mistletoe of the Druids as a Symbol of Jurisprudence’ (1615). But there was no escaping the descriptions of human sacrifice and the fact that Druids were pagans. When Aylett Sammes came to write Britannia Antiqua Illustrata (1676), he rather relished the more gory details, choosing to include an image of a wicker man stuffed with writhing humans and about to be set on fire. John Aubrey, writing of the prehistoric inhabitants of Wiltshire in 1659, has no illusions about the past: he describes the ‘shady dismal wood’ and ‘the inhabitants almost as savage as the beasts whose skins are their only raiment’. This accords well with the views of his contemporary - another Wiltshire resident - the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who, in 1651, wrote that the life of primitive man was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

Yet to be acceptable as ancestors, the barbarism had somehow to be mitigated. One way to do this was to present the Celtic past in relation to the anthropological present. The 16th century was a time when lands beyond Europe were beginning to be explored. Magellan’s voyage around the world, 1519-22, had brought to notice a bewildering array of ‘savage’ people, while Raleigh’s expedition to the east coast of America in 1585 focused attention on the Virginian Indians, made the more vivid to European audiences by John White’s superb depictions of the natives and their daily life. Here were ‘noble savages’ living in a ‘Golden Age’. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was later to reflect on these matters in Social Contract (1762), saw this as the natural state of mankind but one which could be perverted by the creation of unnatural laws such as those protecting private property and supporting monogamy. The Celts, then, were people living in a simpler state of existence. Their lifestyle was to be admired, but with a tolerance born of hindsight. They were simple and guileless - men who were ‘not of evil character’, as Strabo had said - and yet ignorance of the Christian god had let their misplaced exuberance for human sacrifice get the better of them. However, the stern Romans had soon persuaded them to turn from their evil ways. Wrapped in this warm patronizing glow, the Celts and their Druids could be made into acceptable forebears.

Yet there were some who were prepared to go further. Concerned by the many interpretations of Christianity that were appearing in the 17th and 18th centuries, and inspired by the laws of nature that scientists were busy discovering, some thinkers, who became known as Deists, put forward the view that there was only one Natural Religion though many variant interpretations. While the Deists were regarded by most churchmen as dangerous free-thinkers to be opposed at all cost, some were prepared to try to bring the confusing questions they had raised into some kind of cohesive narrative. One such was the Reverend Henry Rowlands, vicar of Anglesey, who published Mona Antiqua Restaurata in 1723. Rowlands argued that since the Britons were descended from Gomer, the grandson of Noah, and the Druids were their priests, the Druids must be the direct inheritors of the religion of Abraham. In the Old Testament Jehovah had called for human sacrifice: in this context, the behaviour of the Druids was entirely understandable. In other words, druidism and Christianity were two closely related branches of the same Patriarchal Religion. This view was taken up enthusiastically by William Stukeley, who saw no inconsistency in embracing druidism and Christianity in his wide ecumenical arms. As we will see, his interpretations of Avebury and Stonehenge, when eventually he came to publish them, were heavily bound up in his belief in a unified Patriarchal Religion.


10. Julius Caesar’s famous description of humans being sacrificed by being burned in a wicker framework inspired Aylett Sammes’s famous image, published in 1676, which has excited the public imagination ever since

The medieval chroniclers had taken little notice of the archaeological monuments visible in the countryside, but from the 16th century antiquarians were beginning to develop an interest in the physical remains of the past and to see them as a potential source of evidence. One of the pioneers was John Leland (1503-52), librarian, chaplain, and antiquary to King Henry VIII, who set out on a series of journeys through the English countryside between 1536 and 1542. He died before he could publish his observations, but his copious notes were preserved in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where they were widely consulted and were eventually published as the Itinerary of John Leland by Thomas Hearne between 1710 and 1712. Leland’s dogged determination to seek out antiquities and to record them as primary evidence set standards for others. On one of his trips, Leland visited Stonehenge but had little to say other than to repeat the folk tale, recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth, that the stones had been brought from Ireland by Merlin ‘with remarkable ingenuity and using clever inventions’. Other itinerant antiquarians followed. Inigo Jones (1573-1652) made copious notes and drawings, concluding that the monument was Roman. Others thought it to be Viking, Saxon, or Phoenician, but it was the Wiltshire antiquarian John Aubrey (1626-97) who realized that it must be prehistoric. In 1649, he wrote of the ancient Britons, ‘Their religion is at large described by Caesar. Their priests were Druids. Some of their temples I pretend to have restored, as Avebury, Stonehenge etc.’ It was from this moment that the link between Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments and Druids passed into the popular imagination, and this has remained a belief adhered to by many even today. Aubrey developed the idea into notes for a book to be called Templa Druidum but it was never published. Extracts, however, appeared in the 1695 edition of William Camden’s Britannia edited by Edmund Gibson.

Aubrey’s theory was influential largely, one suspects, because it offered a tangible reality to the increasingly popular theme of Druids. Edward Lhuyd, the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, who was working on his Archaeologia, warmed to the idea, writing of megalithic monuments that ‘… they were Places of Sacrifice and other religious Rites in the Times of Paganism seeing the Druids were our antient heathen Priests’. Another scholar to embrace Aubrey’s views with enthusiasm was John Toland (1670-1722), whose ideas were first published in a series of letters to his patron Lord Molesworth in 1726 and were given wider circulation in a book, Critical History of the Celtic Religion (1740), later to appear under the more appealing title of The History of the Druids. Toland’s contribution to the debate was to integrate the Irish sources which he evidently knew well, but as a dangerous free-thinker his work inspired much hostility.

A more persuasive writer was a Lincolnshire doctor and antiquarian, William Stukeley (1687-1765). He first visited Stonehenge and Avebury in 1719, and for the next five years made regular visits carrying out an impressive programme of fieldwork. His work was accurate and objective, and provided the first detailed survey of both monuments and the cultural landscape in which they were set. His intention was to write a book entitled The History of the Temple of the Ancient Celts, but other activities intervened and he was ordained in 1729, turning his attentions to currently popular theories of Patriarchal Christianity which were being advanced by his fellow antiquarian, the Reverend Henry Rowlands. Rowlands’ antiquarian studies focused on the monuments and history of his native Anglesey and in his book, Mona Antiqua Restaurata (1723), he dwelt with some relish on Tacitus’ famous description of the druidic altars ‘soaked in human blood’. These altars, Rowlands argued, were the megaliths with which the island abounded. Rowlands’ views, published at the time that Stukeley was completing his fieldwork at Stonehenge and Avebury, cannot have failed to have had an impact on Stukeley’s thinking.


11. John Aubrey, the first writer to connect Druids with Stonehenge, in the late 17th century. From J. Britton, Memoirs of John Aubrey (1845)

Eventually, in 1740, Stukeley published Stonehenge, a Temple restor’d to the British Druids and three years later, Abury, a Temple of the British Druids, with Some Others, Described. Building on the earlier work of Aubrey, he had added his own observations of the physical remains, but the volumes, when they appeared, were part of a complex theological debate about the Patriarchal Religion of Abraham and its uninterrupted progression to druidism and Christianity. To suit his ever-more elaborate theories, Stukeley had no problem in moulding his earlier objective observations to make a better fit. What had begun as an antiquarian exercise based on careful topographical observation ended as a fanciful theological tract designed to protect the Church of England against Deist free-thinking. In the process, the Druids had been provided with an architectural context, placed historically within the development of the Church and altogether comfortingly domesticated.


12. A Druid as imagined by Aylett Sammes in a publication of 1676

But what did they actually look like? Aylett Sammes offered a suitable image in his Britannia Antiqua Illustrata (1676). His Druid stands tall, wearing a knee-length tunic and a hooded cloak. He is bare-footed but dignified by a prodigious beard. He carries a staff in his right hand, an open book in his left, and has a flask at his right side. The image fast became an acceptable icon, which both Rowlands and Stukeley independently copied in 1725. Rowlands dispensed with the book and added a branch of oak leaves, preferring to give his Druid sandals. Stukeley also favoured sandals, but his Druid, left hand on chest in pensive mood, sports a beard of less eccentric length and stands beneath an oak tree with an oak grove in the background. The vision of the imagined Druid could easily be mistaken for an Old Testament patriarch. It has provided an enduring model for many later would-be Druids to follow.


13. William Stukeley’s vision of a Druid, no doubt influenced by Sammes, is illustrated in his manuscript The History of the Religion and Temples of the Druids, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford

By the mid-18th century, then, the rediscovered Druid had been positioned carefully within an intellectual context relevant to the time. In both Britain and France, he was an icon of a distant pre-Roman past, easily understood and part of the acceptable pedigree which gave a dignity to the emerging nations. He also offered a frisson of danger - a reminder of the delicate balance between wisdom and savagery. Such a dichotomy played well with the intellectual climate of the time. Classical texts had provided an outline script; 17th- and 18th-century imagination had turned it into a morality play.

All the props were now in place - the stone circles, the sacrificial altars, oak groves, and mistletoe. The Druids could perform as philosophers, bards, teachers, and priests, distanced from the toils of everyday life but always prepared to lead their people against imperialist aggressors when needs required.

It was an engaging creation and one that has persisted.