What did the Celts do for us anyway? That’s what Simon Young is considering in his book The Celtic Revolution: In Search of Two Thousand Forgotten Years That Changed the World.
The nature of Celtic culture has been under much scrutiny in recent years. Some commentators have suggested that the Celts never existed at all. Others have pointed out that there is little similarity between parts of the world that are deemed Celtic today and the Celtic Europe of antiquity. The notion that there has been a reinvention of Celticness in the last couple of centuries is well-attested.
So, Young’s thesis that the Celts dominated western Europe for the best part of 2,000 years, and that they made a hugely underrated contribution to western culture, is probably going to cause vexation in some quarters.
The author covers a lot of ground, from the early invasions of the Mediterranean world by Celtic warbands, through to what he calls the “fossilised Celtic legends” of the Arthurian pantheon and their influence on the medieval period, long after the ancient Celts had ceased to be.
Young is particularly diverting on the subject of the Irish Celtic monkly diaspora across Europe of the early medieval period. He describes in delightful detail what led these monks to seek out havens in what they saw as the Desert of Dark Age Europe. He argues, quite convincingly, that their actions helped to cement the place of Christianity on the continent when it was under considerable threat, thus shaping the way Europe developed thereafter.
This is a good read, far from dry and refreshingly contentious.
Dr David Musgrove is the editor of BBC History Magazine