Britain BC

by Suw on September 14, 2003

This evening I watched an interesting documentary by Dr Francis Pryor called Britain BC. I think it aired first earlier in the year, but due to the fact that I rarely watch TV, I missed it. Anyway, Pryor takes look at Britain before the Romans invaded and examines the assumptions and misconceptions commonly held about our ancestors.

There haven’t been that many treatments of our native ancestors that could in any way be called ?good?, and this is the first decent one I’ve seen since S4C’s Y Celtiadd (The Celts) a couple of years ago. Simon Schama, whom I otherwise love, conveniently skips over pre-Roman history in his A History of Britain, (the ?a? is very important there, for it is in no way ?the? history of Britain), and usually ignores the Welsh completely unless he's really forced to take notice, for example, when Edward I starts messing about with them, or Henry Tudor takes the throne.

That aside, the first of this two-parter was fascinating, with theories and information that I’d not come across before. One such theory was the idea that farming was developed in the UK independently from the continent and that this development resulted in a unique farming system not seen elsewhere. Possibly this is no great news to the more historically informed than I, but it was interesting to see him refute the idea of ?the farming revolution?.

Pryor works hard with this documentary to debunk myths about the ancient Britons, particularly those that have persisted since Roman times. According to many historians, the Romans gave us roads, civilisation, a better standard of living, laws and stability. Pryor argues persuasively that we had all that before they even turned up.

But precisely because of this attempt to put the Roman contribution into context and perspective, I was disappointed by the last ten minutes or so of the programme, where the old Roman propaganda about druids was trotted out again as if it were truth. This idea that druids were priests that did nothing but sacrifice humans and partake in dubious religious rituals is partly Roman propaganda, partly the construct of Iolo Morgannwg, the 18th century Welsh fraudster who reinvented the Eisteddfod.

Morgannwg’s real name was Edward Williams and he was fascinated by the concept of druidry and the bardic tradition. Morgannwg was a romantic, though, and reality wasn’t anywhere near as interesting as he wished it to be, so he mixed and matched and created his own version of the druidic/bardic myth. He was intent on recreating the Eisteddfodau, (bardic competitions), and forged documents linking the ancient druids with modern bards, thus creating a pedigree for his new Eisteddfod.

I never know whether to hate Morgannwg for his deceits, or admire him for managing to get a bunch of otherwise mature adults to prance about in bedsheets whilst waving swords about and shouting ?heddwch!? (peace) a lot. Usually, I have to admit, I dislike the twisted version of the druidic tradition he created, because it has coloured modern perceptions of this historically real group of people.

The ancient Britons had an oral tradition – they didn’t often write things down and so there is little first hand evidence about the druids. We have what the Romans tell us, which is coloured by their own beliefs that the British were a bunch of savage barbarians, and much of it was propaganda designed to meet political ends. The worth of a victory is only equal to the worth of the vanquished, so it was in their interests to portray the ancient Britons as noble savages.

We also have a little evidence from what later Christian monks wrote down, but these stories are not only sanitised and often Christianised, but they’re centuries late. Only remnants of druidic beliefs and practices remain, buried deep in the literature, and it’s a difficult task to put together a meaningful pictures of what druids really did.

The overwhelming imagery of druids prancing round in white gowns, lopping off twigs of mistletoe in the full moonlight is essentially a modern invention. It is much more realistic to say that druids were not only the religious heads of the ancient Britons, but they were also scholars, teachers, judges and diplomats. They were mathematicians, astronomers and philosophers. They were held in high regard and by the time they’d finished their training they were walking encyclopedia.

It was a shame, therefore, that Pryor did not spend any time in this programme separating out the myth of the ancient druids from what we actually know of them. Maybe in the second programme he will. I’ll have to wait and see.

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Cal September 15, 2003 at 9:11 am

You know what they say, history is written by the victors. And unfortunately most people prefer interesting myth to “boring” truth.

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Suw September 15, 2003 at 10:43 am

You're so right. I often come across people who have a totally distorted view of the 'celts'. Sometimes I wonder where these people get their information from, and then I realise that they probably don't.

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