Romanticism and the rise of nationalism - Druids: A Very Short Introduction - Barry W. Cunliffe

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

Chapter 8. Romanticism and the rise of nationalism

In the two centuries or so from c. 1550 to 1750, the Celts and the Druids, seen through the eyes of Greek and Roman writers, were discovered, repackaged as players in the long march of the true Patriarchal Religion, and provided with a landscape of megaliths within which to enact their engaging rituals. To make them even more real to their growing band of admirers, they were visualized as venerable old men, gentle in their rural simplicity. It was an image totally appropriate to the age that created it. And yet it failed, completely, to satisfy. What was missing was the thread of continuity which linked the past to the present: nor was there a literary texture in which to embed the now-familiar image. Not to be outdone, the Romantics of the late 18th century used their hyperactive imaginations to fill these uncomfortable gaps.

Celtomania was now in the air. The Breton priest Paul-Yves Pezron had published his highly influential L’Antiquité de la Nation et la Langue des Celts in 1703, and this was followed by the first volume of Edward Lhuyd’s Archaeologia Britannica in 1707. The two books introduced to the French and the British the attractive concept that they were the direct descendants of the prehistoric Celts and that Celtic cultures survived in the remoter parts of the west - in Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, the Isle of Man, Scotland, and Ireland - where the different dialects of the ancient Celtic language were still spoken in everyday life. Here, then, were the regions where a Celtic literary tradition could be expected to survive and where, just perhaps, some remnant of druidism might have lingered on.

From these early beginnings, enthusiasm for the ‘Celtic heritage’ grew to become wildly popular. By the late 18th century, Celtic literature was being ‘discovered’, or invented, while by the end of the 19th century, the ‘Celtic personality’ had become a worthy subject for lively debate. Celtomania continues today, though usually in a highly commercialized guise redolent of the times.

In France, in particular, the passion for things Celtic grew unabated, fed by a succession of books like Simon Pelloutier’s Histoire des Celtes (1740), La Tour-d’Auvergn’s Origines Gauloises (1796), and Jacques Cambray’s Monuments Celtiques (1805). All dealt enthusiastically with Druids, Cambray introducing the idea that the megalithic monuments of Carnac were related to the practice of druidic astronomy. In Britain, this was the period when scholarly activity began to focus on the production of county histories, in the early chapters of which Celts and Druids featured large.

Reviewing the phenomenon of Celtomania at the beginning of the 20th century, the French archaeologist Salomon Reinach (1858-1932) characterized, with barely hidden irony, the whole exuberant episode:

The Celts are the oldest people in the world; their language is preserved practically intact in Bas-Breton; they were profound philosophers whose inspired doctrines have been handed down by the Welsh Bardic Schools, dolmens are their altars where their priests the Druids offered human sacrifice; stone alignments were their astronomical observatories.

In this wild enthusiasm for everything ‘Celtic’, lively imagination continued to transform the concept of the Druid. To understand what was happening, it is best to consider the Celtic regions separately.

In England, one of the most creative imaginations to become enthused with the Druids was the poet William Blake (1757-1827). In his Prophetic Books, written between 1797 and 1804, he developed the idea that the Holy Land was in fact Britain, and Jerusalem was located not far from Primrose Hill in London. It was in Britain that Patriarchal Religion began, and thus ‘All Things Begin and End in Albion’s Ancient Druid Rocky Shore’. Whether he actually believed his own mystic ramblings it is difficult to say: he was at least prepared to admit that his work was ‘Visionary or Imaginative’.

Other poets revelled in druidic themes. A Scottish minister, the Reverend John Ogilvie, indulged himself in a poem of dubious quality, The Fane of the Druids, in which a chief Druid, attended by virgins, officiates beneath an oak tree set in a stone circle (a fane). Here is the archetypal image:

Though time with silver locks adorn’d his head
Erect his gesture yet, and firm his tread …
His seemly beard, to grace his form bestow’d
Descending decent, on his bosom flow’d;
His robe of purest white, though rudely join’d
Yet showed an emblem of the purest mind.

The Druids were now so much a part of English folk culture that the desire to own a Druid temple caught the imagination of the elite. Field Marshal Henry Seymour Conway, on his retirement as Governor of Jersey, was given a megalithic structure by the grateful islanders. This he transported to his Berkshire home and in 1788 set it up as a Druid circle at the appropriately named Temple Combe, where it is still extant. Others, not lucky enough to have a genuine megalith with which to amuse themselves, constructed monuments from local materials. A replica of Stonehenge was built by William Danby (1752-1833) at Swinton Hall, Ilton, Yorkshire, while the Bishop of Bath and Wells, George Henry Law, constructed a roofed structure, somewhat in Gothic mode, at Banwell in about 1820, as a place where he could contemplate the triumph of Christianity over paganism encouraged by the engraved verse:

Here where once Druids trod in times of yore
And stain’d their altars with a victim’s gore
Here now the Christian ransomed from above
Adores a God of mercy and of love.

A desire for more active involvement encouraged others to invent druidical societies. One of the earliest was, appropriately, the Druidical Society of Anglesey, which was set up in 1772 under the authority of an archdruid. It was essentially a charitable organization whose members distinguished themselves by wearing smart blue uniforms enlivened by buttons embossed with Druids’ heads. In 1781, another organization, the Ancient Order of Druids, was inaugurated in London. It functioned largely as a Friendly Society for the benefit of its members and after a fission in 1839 it continued (and still continues) to survive.

In England, where successive waves of invaders had broken the thread of continuity with the Celtic past, there was little recourse but to invent things anew, but in the more remote parts of the north and west enthusiasts could seek for direct living links with distant ancestors.

In Wales, they found a bardic tradition still just alive. From at least as early as the 12th century, poets and musicians serving the elite were organized through a court authority whose function it was to maintain standards by means of periodic competitions known as eisteddfodau. The eisteddfod provided an occasion for the largely migrant performers to gather in one place to hear each other, to compete, and to be awarded licences to perform by the presiding court. By the 16th century, poets and bards were fast disappearing from the households of the Anglicized Welsh aristocracy but still the tradition of the eisteddfod was kept up, if only in a haphazard manner.

In 1568, Queen Elizabeth I used the occasion of an eisteddfod held in Flintshire as a way to control the increasing number of vagrants now roaming the countryside. To distinguish the genuine performers, her decree encouraged them to attend so that ‘all and every Person or Persons that intend to maintain their living by name or Colour of Minstrels, Rythmers or Bards … shall … shew their learning thereby’. Thereafter the fortunes of the eisteddfodfluctuated. In 1620, a meeting held in Glamorgan attracted only four people, but in the 18th century growing interest in the Celts began to boost attendances. Further support came in the 1780s, when two recently formed London societies for Welsh expatriates, the Cymmrodorion and the Gwyneddigion, began to offer literary prizes.

One of the members of the Gwyneddigion was Edward Wilson, a London stonemason who preferred to be known by his bardic name Iolo Morganwg. In 1790, he attended the eisteddfod held at St Asaph as one of the participating bards, convincing himself that the bards were descended from the Druids and that the eisteddfod was in essence a druidic ceremony. Not content with the symbolism of the event, he decided to invent what he considered to be more appropriate rituals. The story is taken up by the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1792, reporting on a gathering that had taken place on 23 September:

This being the day on which the autumnal equinox occurred, some Welsh Bards, resident in London, assembled in congress on Primrose Hill, according to ancient usage … The wonted ceremonies were observed. A circle of stones formed, in the middle of which was the Maen Gorsedd or altar, on which a naked sword being placed, all the Bards assisted to sheath it.

The entire procedure was concocted in Iolo’s hyperactive imagination.

It is quite likely that the nonsenses indulged in on Primrose Hill would have died out had it not been for the opportunity Iolo took to implant his Gorsedd confection onto the unsuspecting eisteddfod held at Carmarthen in 1819. The Bishop of St David’s, who was presiding, was evidently embarrassed and ‘wished the Bard to dispense with some of the initiatory forms’, but Iolo triumphed by sheer force of personality. The venerable tradition of the eisteddfod has been saddled with Iolo’s druidic fabrications ever since.

Iolo claimed that the ancient bardic tradition had survived in his native Glamorganshire unbroken from the time of the Druids and that he had discovered texts and poems to prove this. Moreover, he also claimed to have been admitted a bard ‘in the Ancient manner: a custom still retained in Glamorgan but, I believe, in no other part of Wales’. The texts and poems seem to have been another figment of his imagination.

It may have been that Iolo was basing some of his assertions on a series of poems collected by the Reverend Evan Evans and published in a popular book, Specimens of the Poetry of the Ancient Welsh Bards (1746). Some of the poems, Evans argued, could be ascribed to a 6th-century poet, Taliesin, and contained the secret lore of the Druids, though he admitted to the obscurity of the texts and the difficulty of translating them. Iolo seized on this work, claiming, in his Poems, Lyric and Pastoral (1794), that the poems of Taliesin contained a complete system of druidism and that this was supported by a 16th-century manuscript which presented 20 ‘Druidic Ordonnances’. The document, like so much of Iolo’s ‘evidence’, simply did not exist. Thus the work of serious scholars like Evans, who set out to collect genuine works of traditional literature, was diminished by attempts to interpret their findings within the Romantic parameters indulged in at the time. Worse were the imaginings and inventions of Iolo, whose self-fulfilling forgeries perverted scholarship for generations to come. In the genuine remnants of the bardic tradition surviving in Wales in the 18th century there is nothing to offer a link to a druidic past.

Celts and Druids continued to dominate Welsh literary studies well into the 19th century, with books like Edward Davies’s Celtic Researches (1804) and The Mythology and Rites of the British Druids (1809), both heavily influenced by the fictions of Iolo. The publication of collections of Welsh stories, first written down in the 11th or 12th centuries, under the title of the Mabinogi, by Lady Charlotte Guest (1838, 1840, 1849), added little to the debate. But the foundation of the Cambrian Society in 1845 offered a new start. Welsh scholarship could now look ahead to the time when the realities of archaeological evidence could begin to create a new narrative replacing the fanciful speculations of the past. Yet at the annual ceremony of the eisteddfod, the ghost of Iolo must be smiling contentedly to see his spurious inventions dignified by tradition.

The Scots were not to be left out of the rush to discover a Celtic tradition alive and well in the ballads and stories told in the Scottish countryside. In 1760, their hopes were rewarded with the publication of Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language, compiled by an enthusiastic Scot, James Macpherson (1736-96). The book was an immediate success. The public appetite was insatiable, and Macpherson responded with two more offerings, Fingal in 1762 and Temora in 1763, based, he claimed, on two 5th-century manuscripts written by a Gaelic bard called Ossian. Needless to say, the manuscripts were never produced and were no doubt a fiction. The best that can be said is that Macpherson may have come across some documents of the 16th century and used these, together with other poetic fragments, to create a saga worthy of national aspirations. ‘Ossian’, as it became known, was an instant success throughout Europe and was used as an example of the free Celtic spirit to inspire the various freedom movements which were stirring in the early decades of the 19th century. But not all approved of it. Horace Walpole thought it boring; Walter Scott was more outspoken, describing it as ‘an absolute tissue of forgeries … absolutely drivelling’. Nowadays Macpherson is seen as a man of his time - an enthusiast whose creative energies completely overshadowed his academic integrity. In a later book, History of Great Britain, published in 1773, the Druids inevitably featured large within the context of his earlier imaginative fiction.

Macpherson was creating his vision of a rich Celtic tradition for his native Highlanders at a time of dramatic social and economic change, when, following the suppression of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, the clan system was being disbanded, setting in train the Highland Clearances and mass movements of population from the land. A desire to find deep roots is an understandable response to social turmoil.

In Brittany, too, society was facing far-reaching changes. The remote Armorican peninsula, linked by the ocean to other regions of Atlantic Europe, had always differed in culture and outlook from the rest of France. From the viewpoint of Paris, it was backward, deeply religious, and in many parts strongly royalist. When the Revolution came in the 1790s, the Bretons rose up against it, inspired both by their abhorrence of the Jacobin ‘cult of reason’ which threatened their religion, and by their rejection of the centralizing power of Paris, which they saw as a challenge to their cultural identity. The open rebellion of the Breton insurgency - the Chouans - against the Revolutionary forces ensured that the country was severely treated - they were, in the eyes of the centre, counter-revolutionary barbarians.

With the restoration of the Bourbons, following the defeat of Napoleon, French society looked afresh at Brittany and saw something quite different. Here were noble savages - Celts - with roots going back deep into time, living in a landscape of monuments inherited from their prehistoric past and steeped in a culture redolent of their Celticity. If the monuments of Carnac were druidic temples, then the living Bretons were their direct descendants and their language, customs, and curious dress were precious survivals from the time when the Druids walked the land. As one writer said of Brittany in 1845: ‘It is there that the descendants of the Celts have maintained a dress and a physiognomy which are but druidism in disguise.’

In this new atmosphere of intellectual excitement, a young Breton aristocrat, Vicomte Hersart de La Villemarqué (1815-95), began roaming the countryside collecting ballads and poems which he edited and in 1838 published as Barzaz-Breiz (Songs of Brittany) - a book which was immediately proclaimed to be a revelation of the Celtic spirit of Brittany. It set a trend for other collectors who by the end of the century had amassed a huge archive of Breton folklore and traditions.

La Villemarqué was an enthusiastic Celtophile, and in 1838 visited Wales to attend the eisteddfod in Abergavenny where he was admitted as a bard. Brimming with excitement, he wrote home to his father: ‘I am a bard now, truly a bard! a “titled bard!” and I have been received according to the ancient rituals of the 5th and 6th centuries, handed down to our time.’ He made use of his trip to Britain to visit Oxford to consult Welsh manuscripts, and he naturally could not resist a trip to Stonehenge which, at the time, was still regarded to be a Druid temple.

In 1867, La Villemarqué was instrumental in setting up the first Interceltic Congress held at Saint-Brieuc on the northern coast of Brittany and attended by delegates from all the Celtic-speaking countries. By now, some 30 years after the publication of Barzaz-Breiz, much more was known of traditional ballads of Brittany and some commentators were beginning to question the authenticity of La Villemarqué’s work. Matters came to a head with a devastating critique published by R. F. Le Men to coincide with the Congress in which he taunted, ‘Play the bard, play the arch-bard or even the Druid, but do not attempt to falsify history with your inventions.’ It looked rather as though La Villemarqué had followed in the footsteps of Iolo Morganwg and James Macpherson by inventing what he had hoped to find. There matters rested for nearly a hundred years until, in the 1960s, his original notebooks were found showing just how much he had been able to glean from the peasants he had interviewed in the 1830s. The doubts expressed by his critics probably arose because by the time a second generation of collectors had taken to the field, many of the old ballad singers had died and their songs with them. The discovery of the notebooks has gone some way to reinstate La Villemarqué’s reputation.

With the coming of the railway to Brittany, this once remote corner of France - sought out by those wishing to immerse themselves in ‘la vie sauvage’ - became easily accessible to tourists from Paris and visitors from Britain alike who were delighted to find aged storytellers still at work in the tradition of the bards and young women dancing round menhirs in thinly disguised fertility rituals. They could even buy a postcard of the ‘Archdruid of Ménez-Hom’ - a crabbed old man complete with sickle standing on a megalithic tomb, eyeing an innocent young girl who sits meekly nearby - the Druid-as-wished-for to titillate the tourist!

In Ireland, the rediscovery of the Celtic past took a different trajectory, not least because of the decimation of the population caused by the famine of the 1840s which destroyed much of the rich traditional culture of the island. In 1852, the antiquarian Sir William Wilde wrote: ‘The old forms and customs … are becoming obliterated; the festivals are unobserved and the rustic festivities neglected or forgotten.’ Yet 50 years later, Lady Gregory was surprised by the splendour of the traditional tales told to her by the poor of Galway which she recorded in her Poets and Dreamers (1903). The year before she had produced her free translation of the stories of the Ulster Cycle in Cuchulain of Muirthemne, bringing to a wide audience the epic of the Táin with its echoes of a lost Celtic world peopled by heroes and by Druids like the manipulative Cathbad and Finnegas the Bard.


14. ‘The Archdruid of Ménez-Hom’. A postcard of the early 20th century, popular among tourists to Brittany, perpetuating the belief that druidism survived into recent Breton folk culture


15. The tradition of the storyteller, as here depicted in Emile Eugène Fauconnier’s painting of 1908, continued well into the 20th century in Brittany. Some would see this as the last genuine link with a past in which a skilled group communicated oral traditions

Stories of Celtic heroes fighting for their freedoms flowing into romantic visions of the mystical Celt ‘capable of profound feelings, and of an adorable delicacy in his religious instincts’ (Ernest Renan), provided inspiration for those fighting for the survival of their traditional cultures in Brittany, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. The ‘Celtic spirit’ stood in defiance of the centralizing imperatives of London and Paris - but the Druid was hardly to be seen. He was now relegated to the shadows, a relic of a past no longer acceptable in the creation of national identities.