Yes, there is New Medieval Celtic Literature

Thanks to a newly discovered medieval Cornish manuscript fragment the amount of Medieval Cornish literature has increased by about twenty percent. The fragment was discovered among the papers of the recently deceased Celticist, J. E. Caerwyn Williams, whose papers were donated to the National Library of Wales.

The manuscript, NLW MS 23849D, consists of ten pairs of leaves (20 folios), foliated, 7, [8, 9], 10-13, 16-19, 22-9. As you can see, there are a number of missing pages. It is written in a secretary hand of the mid sixteenth century, by a professional scribe, copying an earlier manuscript which he refers to as containing five torn leaves. It contains two previously unknown Middle Cornish plays, one, about the life of Saint Kea, a Celtic saint favored in Cornwall and in Brittany, and whose life is described in medieval Breton texts. The second play is possibly even more important, since it is Arthurian in nature, derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannice (Books ix.15; x.1-13; xi.1-2). It refers to King Arthur’s quarrel with the fictive Roman emperor, Lucius Hiberius, about British tribute to Rome. It ends with Arthur’s victory and the emperor’s death in battle, and it also alludes to the clandestine relationship of Arthur’s nephew, Modred, with Queen Guenevere (yes, that is one of the Arthurian variants). I am not aware of any other extant medieval play about Arthur, so this is a Big Deal. Neither text is complete, and both are currently being edited by Graham C. G. Thomas and published by the National Library of Wales where he is a Senior Assistant Archivist in the Department of Manuscripts.

Even if you aren’t a medievalist or Celticist, this really is a piece of good news. There isn’t a lot of medieval Cornish literature left; much of it was destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. The last native speaker of Cornish died in the late eighteenth century. There are currently several different forms of Cornish that have been carefully reconstructed as part of a language revival, but no native speakers in the usual sense. Of the extant medieval literature, there are two short pieces, one of them a poem on the Passion, the Pascon Agan Arluth, another a fragment on the back of a charter, offers a somewhat sardonic view of marriage and is the earliest known extant Cornish. The bulk of extant medieval Cornish literature is in the form of miracle and mystery plays from the fifteenth century, specifically a play about the Cornish saint, Saint Meriasek in Peniarth MS. 105. L 430, and parts of a mystery cycle, the Cornish Ordinalia, MS. Bodleian 791. The manuscript contains plays on the Creation, Passion of Christ and Resurrection, in Cornish verse, with Latin stage directions and diagrams. There are also bits of Middle English in the plays, typically in the lines of the devils and other villains.

Roman and Celtic Olfactory History

I’m working on my diss, and I notice that one of my citations lacks the publication date. I borrowed the book from a friend, and returned it long ago, so I decide to use Amazon to check the data. In the process I discover that there are, I kid you not, scratch and sniff history texts for kids. Like Roman Aromas, of which the publisher says:

Young readers will learn that smells have played a powerful role in our history with these often funny tours back in time

When the Romans arrived in Britain they soon showed the rampaging Celts the way to perfumed perfection. Poor old Celts–with their oils, and baths, and drains those Romans really got up their noses. Sample the splendors of the public baths and a fabulous feast, or suffer with the soldiers in the frozen latrines on Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. You won’t forget those Roman Aromas in a hurry.

There are others in the Smelly Old History series.

Speaking of Roman history, and things Celtic, Julius Caesar, invader of England and less than kind to the Celts, has his own Bloggus Caesari.

Vellum beats Silicon

Back in 1986, as a celebration of the 900th anniversary of the Domesday book, the census ordered by William the Bastard (that’s William the Conqueror to Sasenachs), Britain spent millions to compile text, images and, maps, audio and video recordings, as a snap shot of Britain, and stored them on laser discs as part of the Domesday Book project.

They created discs that are almost unreadable today, not because of laser rot, but because of obsolete equipment. The irony of this, as the article points out, is that the medieval manuscript is quite readable today, if you know the language and the script. There’s even an expensive archive-quality facsimile, not to mention the Bayeux tapestry.

At my old job I used to hoard working but old hardware—I knew where to get access to an old IBM Display writer, old 5 1/2 inch floppy disc drives, I had an SE under my desk to help faculty with old 3 1/2 inch Mac 800 and 400K disks, and my spouse and I have carefully archived docs and installers for a variety of old programs with proprietary data formats, not to mention things like Syquest and DAT drives.

There’s a sick irony in that cuneiform and manuscripts are more durable than digital media. But digital decay and technical obsolescence are real problems, problems we’ve known about for years.

A Circle of Stones

According to AP, by way of Yahoo, Professor Judith S. Young, Department of Astronomy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has built a sun circle, a celestial computer along the lines of Stonehenge, or Avebury. I’ve taken pains to point out elsewhere that Stonehenge, like Avebury, or the passage tomb at Brugh Na Boine (that’s Newgrange, Ireland to you), wasn’t built by the Celts (its earliest stage predates their arrival in Britain by over a thousand years) but Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments are too deeply entrenched with things druidic and Celtic in the popular imagination to ever be disassociated.

Stonehenge looms large in our imaginations—even though Averbury—the largest such circle in Europe, is physically much larger, and Woodhenge, one of several circles at Stanton Drew, is older. Folklore names Stonehenge the “Giants Dance,” and credits Merlin as the chief architect, but those myths are comparatively recent. The circle has had a surprisingly small role in British myth, given its age and magnitude. The passage tomb at Brugh Na Boine, constructed to mark the solstice, plays a much larger role in Irish myth, and is featured in several of the tales that preface the Táin.

Galations: The Biblical Celts

Yes, that’s right, Galatia in Turkey. Those people in Paul’s New Testament Epistle to the Galations were Celts, from Gaul. These Continental Celts eventually arrived in Macedonia in 279 B.E., where they gathered under a tribal leader named Brennus. They intended to raid the rich temple of Delphi. Like their insular brethren, these Gauls were independent of thought, and the host split into two groups, one, under Brennus, marching south on Delphi: the other group, under Leonorius and Luterius, turned eastward and pillaged Thrace. They were joined by the small remnants of the army of Brennus, who was repulsed by the Greeks, and killed himself in despair. In 278 B.C.E., 20,000 Gauls, under Leonorius, Luterius, and fifteen other chieftains, crossed over to Asia Minor, in two divisions. The two groups joined, and hired out as mercenaries to Nicomedes I, King of Bithynia, to defeat his younger brother. Nicomedes rewarded them with land in the heart of Asia Minor, now known as Galatia. You’ll notice their territory includes the section of Turkey formerly known as Phrygia.

The Galations frequently worked as mercenaries in subsequent years, and were hired by Pompey in 64 B.C.E. Rome pretty much absorbed them politically after that; the Galatians’ last king, Amyntas, fought at Actium, 31 B.C.E., on the side of Mark Antony but at the last he supported Augustus. After the death of Amyntas, Augustus proclaimed the land of the exported Gauls the Roman province of Galatia. About 75 years later St. Paul wrote his Epistle the Galatians. If you want the gory details, you can read the Catholic Encyclopedia.

The Gordian Project is a series of excavations at Gordian, in the Phyria region of Galatia. Gordian is the city associated with King Midas. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology is one of the participants in thse excavations. Recently, an article in Archaeology magazine suggested that Celtic descendent of the Gaulish settlers, were, in good Celtic traditions, engaging in human sacrifice. I’m not all that persuaded by the article, it’s a little too full of unsupported assertions, but as yet I’ve not seen anything in the academic press.

Celtic Tribal Maps

I’ve noticed several sites with maps of Celtic tribes’ locations, like this one of the Celtic tribes of Britain, or this, tribes of Britain and the Continent, or even the tribes of Wales. There are also some specialized maps, like this one, of the Celtic Tribes and Caesar’s Campaigns in Gaul (58-50 BC) . If you look at the area the Celts covered, from Ireland all the way to Egypt, it’s less surprising that Galatia is Celtic.