The Celts: The Construction of a Myth

Author: Malcolm Chapman

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Published: 1992

ISBN: 0-333-52088-2

Pages: 342, including 2 Appendices, Notes, Bibliography and an Index.


Synopsis: The Celts are commonly considered to be one of the great peoples of Europe, with continuous racial, cultural and linguistic genealogy from the Iron Age to the modern-day “Celtic fringe”. This book shows, in contrast, that the Celts, as they have been known and understood over two thousand years, are simply the “other” of the dominant cultural and political traditions of Europe. It is this continuous “otherness” which lends them apparent continuity and substance. Modern social anthropology, Celtic studies, literary and historical evidence, and the author’s own fieldwork in Brittany and Scotland, are brought together in demonstration of this.


So what should I say about this book? Should I say that it attempted to show that the Celts did not exist? Should I say that devolved into an exercise of “the poor misunderstood English, they had nothing to do with anything that went wrong in Ireland, and Scotland”? Should I say that the author seems to be insisting that Wales is not really a Celtic speaking populace?

I think I am going to stick to what I liked about this book: the first four chapters and the essence of what the author was trying to say rather than the way he said it.

The author approached the subject of the Celts from a social anthropological world view. He discussed how the Celts got their name and from whom, and how that colored everything else that came after. The author points out that the main problem with the Celts is continuity. Did they really have it? Was there really a linguistic continuity? A cultural one? A biological one? Did they call themselves Celts, did they identify one another as such? Should it matter?

I think at the time that this book was written people still assumed that the Celts were one ethnic entity spread across the Atlantic fringe. We know that is not true now and we know that the work Celt refers to a linguistic designation rather than a biological one.

I think the main thing that I got out of this book is that the whole “the Celts ruled a wide swatch of land all over Europe through expansion” is an out dated idea (already knew that from my own readings) and that it was more like a small band of people (maybe warriors, maybe artisans) moved their culture and language where they went and it was adopted by the people (which confirms my own thought process on this issue).

Should one get this book? Honestly, it depends. Are you like me and you want to read what the “there are no Celts” camp is saying out of curiosity? Then go ahead, just maybe get it from the library or borrow it from someone. If you aren’t curious or you are just starting out, skip it for now, and if you get the curiosity later then again borrow it from the library of from someone who has it.


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