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23.08.11 Rodway et al. (eds.), Celts, Gaels, and Britons

23.08.11 Rodway et al. (eds.), Celts, Gaels, and Britons


It is no exaggeration to say that Professor Patrick Sims-Williams stands among the leading Celtic scholars of his generation. Sims-Williams has produced a truly outstanding oeuvre of scholarship and is the author of dozens of journal articles, books chapters, critical editions and several major monographs including Religion and Literature in Western England, 600-800 (Cambridge, 1990) and Irish Influence on Medieval Welsh Literature (Oxford, 2011). He is also the founder of the journal Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies (Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies since 1993) and continues to serve as the periodical’s editor-in-chief. His scholarship and research interests have engaged with the length and breadth of Celtic studies, encompassing literature, history, and archaeology and embracing the entirety of the pre-modern and early medieval Celtic world (from the Celtic regions of Britain and Ireland to Brittany and Iberia). This collection of essays, produced by leading experts in a variety of fields, is a fitting tribute to such a scholar.

The introduction is offered in both Welsh and English and directs the reader to some of Sims-Williams' crowning achievements; the remainder of the book contains eighteen essays, structured around three main sections. The first of these deals with the continental Celtic languages. In chapter 1, Simon Rodway (with the assistance of Barry J. Lewis) probes the idea of pre-modern Celticity in more detail. The question as to whether the Irish and Welsh conceived of themselves as members of a greater Celtic ethnic group has troubled scholars for centuries. The debate on this controversial topic is surveyed, and examination of the writings of the ninth-century scholar, Prudentius of Troyes (d. 861) illustrates the sheer levels of difficulties in arriving at any form of conclusion, particularly when one factors in the continental Celtic dimension. Chapter 2 moves southwards to the world of the Iberian Peninsula: in a painstaking reconstruction, Javier de Hoz investigates inscriptions contained on bronze tablets. The chapter offers a window into scholarship on Celtiberia but also sheds some light on agricultural practice and livestock management in the world of late Antiquity there. The next contribution takes the reader east across the Mediterranean and into the world of the Danubian Basin. In what amounts to another impressively detailed chapter, Alexander Falileyev examines the placenames of Pannonia and considers what they reveal about the presence of Celtic languages (namely Gaulish) in the region.

The second section considers texts that were produced within the so-called Irish Sea World (the collective term used to describe the land and seascape that embraced Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Man, and Scotland’s western Atlantic littoral). In chapter 4, Liam Breatnach provides an edition of a previously unpublished text on kingship and the five Fifths of Ireland. The chapter surveys some of the evidence and scholarship on the historic ancient divisions of Ireland before supplying the edition and offering some interesting conclusions on the evolving hierarchy of kingship in early medieval Ireland. Máire Herbert examines the life of St Ailbe. This text survives primarily in later medieval manuscripts, yet it was most likely produced in the pre-Viking period. Herbert demonstrates that a careful reconstruction of the text’s provenance can offer fascinating insights into the evolving relationship between the Churches of Ireland and Britain in the early Middle Ages. Máire Ní Mhaonaigh’s chapter explores a similar theme. Using a series of case studies, Ní Mhaonaigh’s chapter investigates the evidence for Irish influence upon medieval Norse literature and helps extend coverage within the volume into the wider North Atlantic world.

The third and final section, the largest by far, examines the literature and linguistics of the Brittonic languages. Special emphasis is placed upon the corpus of Welsh literature (though parallels are drawn with Irish, Breton, and Cornish throughout most of the remaining contributions). In chapter 7, Jenny Rowland explores the early history of the Welsh bards. Traditionally, it was assumed that Welsh culture remained conservatively “Welsh” throughout the Roman and post-Roman period: Rowland’s essay challenges this notion and argues that scholars should be more mindful of acculturative and integrative processes in these earlier periods. In a relatively short chapter, William Mahon revisits the poem “Echrys Ynys” and argues that the four female figures that earned the poet’s disdain should be read as supernatural “death-messengers,” not concubines as was previously understood. Bleddyn Owen Huws’ chapter, written in Welsh, explores the evidence for early modern Welsh humanism. Long has it been assumed that the Welsh bards displayed little interest in the latest European intellectual trends that emerged from the Renaissance: this chapter presents the view that not all Welsh poets were so conservative. The next two chapters focus on linguistic reconstruction. Peter Schrijver’s contribution examines the proto-Celtic consonant *st while Stefan Schumacher investigates the proto-Celtic diphthong *au. Both chapters offer new readings on what is constantly evolving (and incredibly complex) linguistic discourse.

Oliver Padel’s chapter deals with the neglected topic of Old Cornish. As the author points out, there has been no general survey of Old Cornish since 1953. This chapter addresses this shortcoming and provides a detailed list and discussion of pertinent sources. Chapter 13, by Thomas Charles-Edwards investigates the grammars of Welsh bards and their instructions on the use and inclusion of syllables. Paul Russell’s contribution also deals with Welsh material. It considers the development of Welsh orthography from the early thirteenth century onwards, paying close attention to the changing forms of the letters “u,” “v,” and “w” and how practice varied between northern and southern Wales. Focusing primarily on legal texts, David Willis investigates the development of realis (“if it is,”, “if it was”) in Medieval Welsh. While the author acknowledges that this is a preliminary study, it holds great potential for exploring the development of regional dialects in pre-modern Wales. Richard Glyn Roberts follows this grammatical theme and explores the role of the worddim in Welsh comparative clauses. Erich Poppe’s chapter returns to the Buchedd Beuno, the Middle Welsh life of St Beuno (a text which was edited and published by the honorand in 2018). Buchedd Beuno is of particular interest as it is a translation of a lost Vita Santic Beunoi. Poppe considers what an examination of this source reveals about the practices and strategies of translating Latin texts in Welsh during the Middle Ages. The final chapter by Dafydd Johnston explores the poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym and his use of the frequently misunderstood adjective hoyw. The chapter points to the vibrancy of Welsh intellectual life in the later Middle Ages, the fact the Welsh nobility and literati were bi- and possibly tri-lingual, and argues for the influence of French and English upon Welsh poetry in this period.

Overall, this volume should attract a relatively wide readership. Naturally, this book is primarily aimed at Celticists: literary scholars and linguists will find a great deal of food for thought in this festschrift. However, the volume will also be of interest to historians and archaeologists. Likewise, it will appeal to scholars working on late Antiquity as well as those whose research interests deal with the medieval and early modern periods. One possible criticism is the complete lack of an index. This volume contains a wealth of information, and the scholarship is incredibly rich: an index would help readers navigate and access the material more easily. Nevertheless, this is a very minor point and should not detract from what is a truly excellent collection.