Philip Mitchell Freeman

title.none: Maier, The Celts (Philip Mitchell Freeman )

identifier.other: baj9928.0402.020 04.02.20

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Philip Mitchell Freeman , Washington University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Maier, Bernhard. Windle, Kevin, trans. The Celts: A History from Earliest Times to Present. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. Pp. ix, 310. ISBN: $23.00 0-268-02361-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.02.20

Maier, Bernhard. Windle, Kevin, trans. The Celts: A History from Earliest Times to Present. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. Pp. ix, 310. ISBN: $23.00 0-268-02361-1.

Reviewed by:

Philip Mitchell Freeman
Washington University

Covering the entire range of Celtic history from the Bronze Age to contemporary Scottish poetry in just over 250 pages is no easy task, but Bernhard Maier does an admirable job in his recent book. This latest survey of the perennially popular subject of the Celts is an English translation by Kevin Windle of Maier's 2000 German edition. What sets Maier's work apart from recent introductions to Celtic culture is the sweeping expanse of time covered. Similar works usually focus on the ancient continental Celts of Greco-Roman times or the medieval inhabitants of Britain and Ireland. But Maier's volume encompasses the entire range of Celtic culture--and therein lies both the strength and weakness of the book.

The work is divided into three sections covering the ancient period, the Middle Ages, and the post-Reformation era. The second section will be of greatest interest to medievalists, but anyone with a serious interest in the Celts will want to read the entire book. Maier begins with a short introduction to the term "Celtic" and its relation to the current scholarly and popular controversy of just who the Celts were and are. As Maier notes, the Greeks and Romans called the natives of northwest Europe "Celts" somewhat indiscriminately, though I believe with more precision than the author credits them. As he also points out, the ancient Irish and Britons were never known as Celts by the classical world, but their language and culture had clear relations to their continental cousins. Maier then surveys the beginnings of Celtic history in the archaeological evidence of Hallstatt and La Tene cultures of central Europe, followed by a discussion of the classical writers on the Celts. The archaeological sections in particular are a clear and fascinating account for non- specialists of a complex and ever-changing subject. The lack of accompanying illustrations or photographs, however, will be frustrating for readers who have never taken a course on Celtic art. Maier then ties together the archaeological with literary evidence, pointing out the necessity of always keeping the classical authors in context.

The second part of the book covering the medieval period begins with a brief survey of the British Isles before Christianity, then moves in subsequent chapters to Ireland from St. Patrick through the Normans, early Scotland, Wales during the Middle Ages, and finally Brittany. Maier pays special attention to linguistic evidence, but doesn't neglect historical or literary contributions. Anyone wondering why early Ireland was called "the Sacred Isle" or how Arthurian stories spread from Wales to the rest of Europe will find the answer here. The inclusion of the Bretons, even briefly, in such a work is a refreshing change. The rich history of these Celtic-speaking inhabitants of northwest France is often omitted from similar surveys.

The third section covering Elizabethan times to the present begins with the decline of native Irish, Scottish, and Breton culture contrasted with the relative prosperity of the Welsh tradition. Of special interest is Maier's discussion of antiquarianism and the creation by modern enthusiasts of a largely imaginary and vividly romantic Celtic past. The current emphasis on modern nationalism in its various forms throughout the Celtic-speaking lands rounds out the book. A extensive and up-to-date bibliography of scholarly works on the Celts is alone worth the modest price of the paperback edition.

Maier's short survey of the Celts is just that--a brief and sweeping look at three thousand years of Celtic culture. Anyone looking here for a detailed discussion of Galatian mercenaries in Hellenistic Egypt, the rise of medieval Scottish kingship, or the history of Irish-language radio will be disappointed, but they would be approaching the book with the wrong goals. Maier's work is intended simply as an accessible introduction to an enormous topic. Students will profit from the book as a solid survey, while scholars can use it to fill in the gaps in their own expertise and as a stepping stone to more detailed discussions. However it is used, it is a welcome and much-needed volume.