Friday, September 7, 2007

Book Review: The Celtic Realms by Myles Dillon and Nora Chadwick

This book is a scholarly account of the history and culture of the Celts, from the earliest archeological evidence in the Iron-age Hallstatt culture circa 800 BCE, To the Norman invasion of Britain under William the Conqueror in 1066. The authors discuss the mysterious origins of the Celts using place-names as a guiding demographic to trace their principle routes of migration and their established settlements. The book then goes on further to discuss the formation, structure and the bodies of independent Celtic kingdoms, of Gaul, Britain, Wales, Brittany, Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and the Isle of Man. Of particular interest is the changing and reforming political and social change which occurred in Britain following the withdrawal of Roman governance C. 4-500 CE. The fifth chapter on Irish secular institutions gives an interesting account of a Gaelic society, its inherited laws, the class based structure, customs and dress, festivals, and the organization of time. All of this is done in comparison with the Welsh system, but interestingly draws many parallels with Indo-European culture, particularly the Vedic and Hindu codes of law.

The 6th chapter outlines the structure and organization of the early modern Celtic kingdoms, providing information on the Pictish tribes and the Dal Riata, Irish incursions and influence in Scotland, the development of the Celtic Welsh and their relations with the Saxons, and overall the influence of the Viking and Nordic raids and settlements throughout the Western Gaelic communities. This period history spans from the 5-6th CE to the late 9th, leading up to the invasion of the Normans at Hastings in 1066. The remaining chapters examine Celtic culture from the perspective of literature, myths, language, religion and art.

I chose this book because I wanted a broad but academic and scholarly account of Celtic history, its formation, structure, people and culture. This volume fulfills all of those criteria, but it was certainly not a ‘casual’ read, indeed it took me several weeks to digest and may properly be used as a reference and source of information rather than leisurely perusal. Both authors are renowned and respected academics, Myles Dillon having been the senior professor at the Dublin Institute, and professor of Celtic studies at Wisconsin, Chicago, and Edinburgh universities. Nora Chadwick is a veteran lecturer at Cambridge University and Newham and Girton Colleges. Celtic Realms is written with an absolutely serious attention to detail, woven together and cross-referenced in the true tradition of Celtic knot-work, and is perhaps the result of several years dedicated study and research. It belongs in the library of any reader with more than a passing interest in Celtic history, and itself provides a student with valuable resources.

What I enjoyed most about this book were the accounts of literature and arts, where the authors bring the voice and actions of the Celtic people to life. The study of any history can be susceptible to a dry and flaky recount, yet Dillon and Chadwick have cleverly avoided such a downslide by depicting the passion, ingenuity, creativity, artistic beauty and linguistic enchantments of individuals who lived so many years ago.

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