categories remained operative, it should occasion little surprise that the
works of Ossian made a profound impact in Germany and Scandinavia.
Ossian provided for the peoples of northern Europe an ancient epic, a cast
of heroes and an iconography to rival those of the classical antiquity of the
Mediterranean.â€”Â Ossian was acknowledged as the northern Homer. In
Germany, the cult of Ossian fuelled the rise of a nationalist conscious-
ness. Not only was Herder, the intellectual father of nationalism, an
Ossianic enthusiast, so was the poetic champion of ancient Germanic
martial valour, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724â€“1803). Klopstockâ€™s
gloriWcation of the ancient German hero Hermann, or Arminius, was
accomplished between 1764 and 1774 under the spell of Ossian. Indeed,
Klopstock considered Macphersonâ€™s ancient Caledonians to be a Ger-
manic people.â€”Ã€ Similarly, in Scandinavia Ossian inspired the composi-
tion of patriotic Gothic history and the rise of national romanticisms.â€”Ãƒ
Knight, a native of Africa, pursuer in the action at his instance; against John Wedderburn
of Ballandean, Esq., defenderâ€™ (1775), p. 21: â€˜The Celtic tribes who inhabited Scotland,
probably possessed the same laws and customs which prevailed among the aborigines of
James Grant, Essays on the origin of society (London, 1785), pp. 126â€“9; Grant, Thoughts on
the origin and descent of the Gael (Edinburgh, 1814), pp. 21â€“2, 336â€“7, 346â€“53.
John Smith, Galic antiquities (Edinburgh, 1780), p. 110 n.
J. L. Greenway, â€˜The gateway to innocence: Ossian and the Nordic bard as mythâ€™, in
H. E. Pagliaro (ed.), Studies in eighteenth-century culture, vol. IV (Madison, WI, 1975),
P. Van Tieghem, Ossian et lâ€™ossianisme dans la litterature europeenne au XVIIe siecle
Â´ Â´ `
(Groningen, 1920), pp. 33, 41; T. J. Beck, Northern antiquities in French learning and
literature (1755â€“1855) (New York, 1934), pp. 10â€“11, 114â€“17; H. Gaskill, â€˜Herder,
Ossian and the Celticâ€™, in Brown, Celticism.
204 Points of contact
The Scottish antiquarian debate over the origins and identity of the
Picts recapitulates some of the same confusions and cross-appropriations
found in the Ossian phenomenon. In Scotland the Picts, a Brythonic
people, were mistakenly adopted as a Gothic people by a great many
eighteenth-century commentators, in part because of a few stray refer-
ences in Tacitus and Bede.â€”Ã• The prominent English cleric and scholar
Edward StillingXeet believed that the Picts had migrated to Scotland
from the Cimbric Chersonesus.â€”Å’ Sir Robert Sibbald described the Picts
as â€˜Scano-Gothsâ€™.â€”Å“ John Macpherson was sceptical of any direct link,
preferring an interpretation of Pictish origins which dwelt on their migra-
tion from Gaul via south Britain rather than on any conjectured North
Sea crossing, but the weight of evidence pushed him towards agnosticism:
â€˜It evidently appears to any one acquainted with the early history of the
Germans and Caledonians, that the point of customs and national man-
ners, is much more striking than between the Caledonians and Britons.
This seems greatly to favour the opinion of Tacitus, and the tradition
preserved by Bede. But it must be confessed, that nothing decisive can be
said on this head.â€™â€”â€“ In the late eighteenth century, John Pinkerton used
the Gothic associations of the Picts as the foundation for a full-blown
Scottish Teutonism. Absurdly, Pinkerton celebrated the (Celtic) Picts as
a libertarian and industrious Teutonic people â€“ the ancestors of the
successful Lowlanders of modern Scotland.â€”â€” In the great Pictish debate
which ensued, scholars such as George Chalmers and the Northumbrian
Joseph Ritson established the case that the Picts were Brythonic Celts.
Nevertheless, Pinkerton had his supporters and some inXuence on the
emergence in nineteenth-century Scotland of a racist ideology celebrating
the common Teutonic origins of Britainâ€™s core English and Lowland
Scots nations.â€¦Â»Â» By a delicious irony, this version of Teutonic racialism
took its rise from a confused appropriation by Gothicists of a shadowy
â€”Ãƒ Van Tieghem, Ossian et lâ€™ossianisme, pp. 41â€“2; J. Simpson, â€˜Some eighteenth-century
intellectual contacts between Scotland and Scandinaviaâ€™, in G. G. Simpson (ed.), Scot-
land and Scandinavia 800â€“1800 (Edinburgh, 1990), p. 127.
â€”Ã• Tacitus, Agricola, in Tacitus, On Britain and Germany (trans. H. Mattingly, Har-
mondsworth, 1948), ch. 11; Bede, A history of the English church and people (trans.
L. Sherley-Price, Harmondsworth, 1955), ch. 1.
â€”Å’ StillingXeet, Origines Britannicae, pp. 245â€“8.
â€”Å“ Sibbald, Introductio ad historiam rerum a Romanis gestarum, pp. 37â€“42.
â€”â€“ John Macpherson, Critical dissertations, p. 168.
â€”â€” John Pinkerton, An enquiry into the history of Scotland (with Pinkerton, A dissertation on the
origin and progress of the Scythians or Goths (1787); 1789: 2 vols., Edinburgh, 1814).
â€¦Â»Â» C. Kidd, â€˜Teutonist ethnology and Scottish nationalist inhibition, 1780â€“1880â€™, SHR 74
(1995), esp. 51â€“5; B. H. Bronson, Joseph Ritson, scholar-at-arms (2 vols., Berkeley, CA,
1938), I, pp. 200â€“14.
Constructing the pre-romantic Celt 205
Druidism played an important role in the divorce of the Celt from the
septentrional concept, but only in the long run. The Druids were valued,
as we have seen in earlier chapters, as â€˜sacred bardsâ€™ who transmitted the
prisca theologia of the patriarchs to the ancient Britons, thus preparing the
way for the easy and early reception of Christianity in England.â€¦Â»â€¦ Though
some antiquaries continued throughout the eighteenth century to cel-
ebrate the Druids as patriotic proto-Protestants, an alternative thesis of
Druid priestcraft and tyranny emerged in the late seventeenth century.
The negative stereotype of Druid priestcraft and sacriWce made an inXu-
ential appearance in Aylette Sammesâ€™s Britannia antiqua illustrata (1676),
with its vivid imagery of the sacriWcial wicker man (though Theophilus
Galeâ€™s Court of the Gentiles (1669â€“70) had already manifested some
concern about human sacriWce and a powerful priestly hierarchy).â€¦Â»Â
Promoters of deism and natural religion, most notably John Toland in his
History of the Druids (1726), projected on to the Druids the evils they
detected in the corrupt mystery religions upheld by the priesthoods of
Rome and Canterbury.â€¦Â»Ã€ At a lower level of intensity, orthodox Anglican
and presbyterian clerics denounced Druidism for its resemblance to
Romish corruptions and clericalist pretensions. Some antiquaries cap-
tured the ambivalence of the Druid legacy, noting both the original truths
of Druid religion and the beneWts of Druid wisdom in legislation, while
tracing a sorry story of subsequent corruption and tyranny. Rowlands
described both how the patriarchal religion had been brought to British
shores in ancient times, and how â€˜soon after [it] became, as well here as in
other countries, abominably corrupted, and perverted into the grossest
heathenish Wctions and barbaritiesâ€™. Yet, despite the immolations, human
sacriWces and â€˜diabolical magicâ€™ of the Druids, they remained staunch
upholders of monotheism.â€¦Â»Ãƒ
Henceforth, the pre-Christian religion of the ancient Britons proved an
arena of contention and ambiguity. Were the Druids sacred bards and
philosophers or juggling magicians and power-hungry prelates? Were
their sacred oak groves and stone circles the simple cathedrals of an
uncorrupted patriarchal religion or the sacriWcial temples of an illiberal
priesthood? Should the Druids be praised for their legislative wisdom or
â€¦Â»â€¦ See above, ch. 3.
â€¦Â»Â Sammes, Britannia antiqua illustrata; Theophilus Gale, The court of the Gentiles (2 vols.,
Oxford, 1669â€“70), II, pp. 79â€“81.
â€¦Â»Ã€ R. Huddleston (ed.), A new edition of Tolandâ€™s history of the Druids (Montrose, 1814);
J. Mee, Dangerous enthusiasm: William Blake and the culture of radicalism in the 1790s
(Oxford, 1992), p. 94.
â€¦Â»Ãƒ Rowlands, Mona antiqua restaurata, pp. 45, 140. For the persistence of such views, see
S. Piggott, Ancient Britons and the antiquarian imagination (London, 1989), p. 149.
206 Points of contact
denounced for their gross usurpation of lay oYces? To some Protestant
scholars, the Druids practised the tyranny, superstition and encroach-
ments upon the temporal sphere later perfected in the Roman Catholic
Church. The tory historian Thomas Carte faced criticism for building a
clericalist interpretation of English history upon the ancient precedent of
Druidic involvement in the civil administration of the Britons. Squire, his
whig opponent, detected suggestions of Cardinal Bellarmineâ€™s outrage-
ous claims for the powers of the papacy in Carteâ€™s depiction of a quasi-
papal Arch-Druid and of Druid involvement both as magistrates and
legislators in the civil administration of the Celts.â€¦Â»Ã• The new legend of
Druid priestcraft did not accord with the values of an Erastian Anglican
Robert Henry, a Scots presbyterian minister and author of a multi-
volume History of Great Britain (1771â€“93), upheld the notion that
Druidism had been of patriarchal derivation. â€˜Knowledge of the true
God, and of the most essential principles of religionâ€™, had descended to
the Celts from Gomer, the eldest son of Japhet. However, the Celts had
squandered this legacy. As the Druids became established as a powerful
priestly caste they had resorted to the standard stratagem of priestcraft,
the maintenance of a double doctrine. Initiates into the Druid order were
indoctrinated into a secret esoteric religion which included truths about
such matters as the immortality of the soul, while to the ignorant laity the
order collectively propagated an inferior public theology composed of â€˜a
thousand mythological fablesâ€™. Not only did the Druids engross power
and privilege to their order and indulge in barbarous sacriWces, but they
corrupted the beliefs of their Xocks, allowing God to be worshipped by
the vulgar as a plurality of diVerent divinities, including the sun, moon
Smollett produced a mixed account of Druidism. The Druids had
dominated the legislature, confounded civil and religious jurisdictions
and, in the person of the chief Druid, engrossed an unlimited power in
religious matters. Nevertheless, they had upheld monotheism, albeit
alongside Pythagorean metempsychosis, and they had contributed to the
impartial administration of justice.â€¦Â»Å“ Despite some equivocation about
the intellectual achievements of the Druids, there was a general consen-
sus among historians that they had been guilty of a high-handed theoc-
â€¦Â»Ã• [Samuel Squire?], Remarks upon Mr. Carteâ€™s specimen of his â€˜General history of Englandâ€™
(London, 1748), pp. 13, 19â€“20, 31.
â€¦Â»Å’ Robert Henry, The history of Great Britain (6 vols., London, 1771â€“93), I, pp. 92, 102â€“4,
113. See also William Maitland, The history and antiquities of Scotland (London, 1757),
â€¦Â»Å“ Smollett, Complete history of England, I, pp. 9â€“17.
Constructing the pre-romantic Celt 207
Besides Druid priestcraft, other untoward elements were creeping into
the picture. Pelloutier, for example, drew attention to the vices of the
Celts. Their famed libertarianism was but the obverse side of Celtic
manners, which were strongly characterised by indolence â€“ la paresse â€“
and a susceptibility to drink â€“ lâ€™yvrognerie.â€¦Â»â€” The Celts had also lacked a
high culture, commercial ways and material civilisation. The long-term
decline of immemorialism undermined the notion of the shared political
customs of Briton and Saxon. Oliver Goldsmith saw no similarity be-
tween the basic customs and political institutions of the Britons â€“ govern-
ed by â€˜despoticâ€™ monarchies â€“ and the libertarian Germans.â€¦â€¦Â» However,
these criticisms and contrasts did not amount to a systematic assault on
the notion of Celticâ€“German aYnities. For example, Rowlands did not
attempt to disaggregate the pagan religions of Celt and Goth. He argued,
for instance, that many Druids had Xed to Scandinavia after the Roman
invasion, which in turn explained â€˜the congruityâ€™ of the Runic religion
with Druidism. Were not the Druids similar to â€˜the Schaldry of Icelandâ€™?
The Icelandic Edda had â€˜a very considerable coherenceâ€™ with Druidism,
and their altars resembled Druid cromlechs.â€¦â€¦â€¦
Cluverian ethnology truly hit the intellectual buVers with Thomas
Percyâ€™s Northern antiquities (1770), an English edition of Paul-Henri
Malletâ€™s Introduction a lâ€™histoire de Dannemarc (1755â€“6). Percy subverted
the very text he was editing. Indeed, he reWned Malletâ€™s work by replacing
its ethnological scheme with the Wrst serious attempt to break up the
indiscriminate septentrional yoking of Celt and German. Percy felt ob-
liged to puncture â€˜an opinion that has been a great source of mistake and
confusion to many learned writers of the ancient history of Europe, viz.,
that of the ancient Gauls and Germans, the Britons and Saxons, to have
been all originally one and the same people; thus confounding the an-
tiquities of the Gothic and Celtic nationsâ€™.â€¦â€¦Â Percy spelt out the fact that
ancient Britain, Germany, Scandinavia and Gaul had not been â€˜inhabited
by the descendants of one single raceâ€™.â€¦â€¦Ã€ Nor had the Celts and Germans
been closely related peoples who shared similar ethnic characteristics.
Reacting to the stubborn hold of Cluverian ethnography, Percy was
obliged to hammer home the message â€˜that these were ab origine two
distinct people, very unlike in their manners, customs, religion and
lawsâ€™.â€¦â€¦Ãƒ Percy had no truck with the familiar correspondence between
Celtic and Gothic liberties:
â€¦Â»â€“ Oliver Goldsmith, The history of England (4 vols., London, 1771), I, pp. 6â€“7; Maitland,
History and antiquities of Scotland, p. 51.
â€¦Â»â€” Pelloutier, Histoire des Celtes, pp. 556â€“73. â€¦â€¦Â» Goldsmith, History, I, p. 47.
â€¦â€¦â€¦ Rowlands, Mona antiqua restaurata, pp. 110â€“11.
â€¦â€¦Â Percy, â€˜Translatorâ€™s prefaceâ€™, p. ii. â€¦â€¦Ã€ Ibid., p. iv. â€¦â€¦Ãƒ Ibid.
208 Points of contact
They diVered no less in their institutions and laws. The Celtic nations do not
appear to have had that equal plan of liberty, which was the peculiar honour of all
the Gothic tribes, and which they carried them, and planted wherever they
formed settlements: On the contrary, in Gaul, all the freedom and power chieXy
centred among the Druids and the chiefmen, whom Caesar calls equites, or
knights: But the inferior people were little better than in a state of slavery; whereas
the meanest German was independent and free.â€¦â€¦Ã•
Percy had begun to shake the ethnological foundations upon which the
polyethnicist version of English ancient constitutionalism rested. This
traditional framework relied upon a basic similarity or aYnity between
Anglo-Saxon and ancient British manners, values and institutions.
The priestly order of Druids constituted another major diVerence
which Percy detected between the Celts and the Germans â€˜that peculiar
hierarchy or sacred college among the Celts . . . has nothing to resemble it
among any of the Gothic or Teutonic nationsâ€™.â€¦â€¦Å’ Although there had
been priests among the Goths, these had been less obtrusive than the
Druids who had, according to Percy, interfered in the civil as well as the
religious governance of the Celts. Moreover, whereas the Celts had
subscribed to bizarre doctrines of metempsychosis, Percy perceived in the
Edda of the northern nations a solid unsuperstitious civil religion with a
proto-Christian doctrine of future rewards and punishments, including â€˜a
Wxed Elyzium, and a Hell, where the valiant and just were rewarded; and
where the cowardly and wicked suVered punishmentâ€™.â€¦â€¦Å“ In Percyâ€™s work
one can already see the familiar lineaments of the nineteenth-century
stereotype of the superstitious mystical priest-ridden Celt.
In general, Percy criticised the practice of confounding the â€˜traits . . .
found in every savage nation upon earthâ€™. Instead, he stressed diVerences
between the Celts and Germans, not the â€˜general resemblancesâ€™ which
might lead the unwary ethnographer to posit a direct connection, for
example, between such disparate peoples as the ancient Britons and the
North American Cherokee, both of whom happened to put war paint on
Percy was not alone in his Wndings. In 1754 Johann SchoepXinâ€™s
treatise Vindiciae Celticae had demonstrated the radical diVerences be-
tween the Celtic and Germanic languages.â€¦â€¦â€” The correspondence of
Thomas Gray with the dramatist William Mason, whose ancient British
tragedy Caractacus would appear in 1759, is also indicative of a sea-
change in attitudes to the Celtic past. Gray rebuked Mason for failing to
distinguish between Celts and Germans,â€¦Â Â» though he conceded how
â€¦â€¦Ã• Ibid., pp. xiiâ€“xiii. â€¦â€¦Å’ Ibid., p. xiii. â€¦â€¦Å“ Ibid., p. xvi. â€¦â€¦â€“ Ibid., p. x.
â€¦â€¦â€” Droixhe, La linguistique, p. 141.
â€¦Â Â» Gray to Mason, 13 January 1758, in Correspondence of Thomas Gray, II, pp. 550â€“1;
E. D. Snyder, The Celtic revival in English literature 1760â€“1800 (Cambridge, MA, 1923),
p. 54 n.
Constructing the pre-romantic Celt 209
easily one could be misled by the errors of the Cluverian school. Not only
did Gray think Mallet â€˜but a very small scholar, except in the erudition of
the Gothsâ€™, he also marked Pelloutierâ€™s card: â€˜an idle man of some
learning, that would make all the world Celts, whether they will or noâ€™.â€¦Â â€¦
Percy and Gray were unusual in their sensitivity to the gulf between
Celtic and Gothic antiquities. In eighteenth-century Britain the Gothic
and Celtic pasts constituted â€˜two aspects of one fashionable nostalgiaâ€™.â€¦Â Â