I am, in terms of academic training, a Medievalist, and a Celticist. Since things Celtic have continued to remain exceedingly popular, including Celtic Neo Paganism, I frequently see Neo Pagan Celtic publications offered up as accurate, scholarly, historical “truth.” Most recently I read two books by John Matthews, both about the Welsh über bard Taliesin. You can see my reviews here and here. Reading these books, and writing the reviews, was an extraordinarily frustrating experience for me. Matthews is self-described as a “Celtic Scholar,” and reviews on the web and the blurbs on his books proclaim him as such, yet I see little evidence of true scholarship.
I don’t mean this rant as a vicious attack of John Matthews, but he and Caitlin Matthews appear to be the best of the popular Neo Pagan authors, and worth the time. (For the opposite extreme of Neo Pagan scholarship, look to Douglas Monroe.) It’s frustrating to see what is, frankly, shoddy scholarship—especially when I consider that Neo Pagan authors engaged in true scholarship could make a genuine contribution to Celtic Studies. Their religious experience with ritual, for instance, could have genuine practical applications in a scholarly context. Here’s what I’d like to see Neo Pagan authors writing about medieval Celtic texts and ancient Celtic practices do:
- In order to understand the texts we have from the Continental Celts, the Irish, and the Welsh, Neo Pagan scholars must acquire the requisite linguistic skills. They need at least Latin, Old and Middle Welsh, Old Irish, and, given the Neo Pagan interest in ritual, they should also cultivate a solid background in Greek and Indo-European linguistics to enable them to deal with the Continental Celtic languages. In terms of contemporary scholarship, French is mandatory, and German is desirable, especially for Continental Celtic.
- They should use authoritative sources, both secondary, and primary, including the standard scholarly dictionaries (Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru or GPC for Welsh, and the Royal Irish Academy’s The Dictionary of the Irish Language or DIL for Old and Middle Irish, Dineen’s for later “classical” Irish).
- Instead of relying primarily on secondary sources and “retellings”, they should use primary sources, including modern facsimiles of manuscripts or digital images of manuscripts. They should avoid the known spurious work of Iolo Morganwg, the romantic inventions of Robert Graves, and use with caution the work of nineteenth century scholars. If necessary, they should translate texts themselves, and cross check assiduously. If they use translations, they should check the source to determine accuracy, and check with other qualified scholars. They should consult standard editions, with scholarly apparatus, such as those typically published by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies or the University of Wales Press, or other respected publishers and journals.
- They should not rely on works by authors who were discredited years ago, and contemporary Neo Pagan authors who lack scholarly attributes and the Celtic languages. A potentially interesting argument is ruined when it relies on poor and inaccurate sources.
- They should not project contemporary spiritual assumptions onto texts from the past. The “Celts” didn’t have a “pantheon,” the Irish, the Welsh and the other speakers of Celtic languages were not homogenized into a single “Celtic” whole, and they certainly did not think of the “Lord” and “Lady,” or “The Goddess” in the ways used by modern Neo Pagans, and practioners of Wicca. Keep in mind that if we look at the Celts from the very earliest eras, and the Celts of the late Middle Ages, we are looking at peoples of several very different language groups and geographic areas, separated by well over a thousand years.
- They should avoid constant self-referential citations to their own works unless they really are the best source.
- They should give credit to those who have gone before, even if they come to the same resolution or conclusion independently.
- They should participate in the Celtic scholarly community. Attend conferences, join scholarly organizations like CSANA, participate in scholarly mailing lists, read the journals and be aware of the scholarly bibliography for a topic.
- If they use illustrations, maps, or charts, they should provide complete citations (that means provenance, source, owners, creator, etc. ) for the illustrations, and get permission from the rights holders to reprint those they did not create or own the rights to.
- They shouldn’t create and publish “encyclopedias” and “readers” based on antiquated no longer respected journal articles from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries just because they’re public domain and “cheap.” Often, the articles really aren’t public domain, and even more often, they are ludicrously awful. Remember that those authors didn’t have access to historic dictionaries (the GPC only began in 1921 and just published the last section in 2002, the DIL was finished in 1976) and they lacked modern facsimiles and editions. Moreover, those authors were often laboring under “Aryan” delusions, or influenced by Nazi propaganda and or pet theories that have been debunked by modern archaeology and access to texts that were not availaable to scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.