An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

June 14, 2017

Parker, ed. The Harp and the Constitution

Parker, Joanne, ed. The Harp and the Constitution: Myths of Celtic and Gothic Origin. Leiden: Brill, 2016.

Reviewed by Máire Johnson (

This interesting collection of essays from a variety of specialists, including scholars of literature, history, and archaeology, dives into the intriguing and timely discussion of concepts of identity primarily in Britain, France, and Spain in the last three hundred years. It is divided into two parts; Part One provides five essays focused largely on the usages of the concept of 'Gothic' identity and symbolism, while Part Two offers six essays that highlight the notion of the 'Celtic', both in Britain and on the continent. It is followed by a select bibliography. 

Increasingly the political and cultural tendency of modern society has been toward ethnic, regional, and cultural distinction, nearly always in reaction to significant events such as war, radical terrorism, or economic struggle. These papers add to the mounting body of study that demonstrates the fluidities of the resulting concepts of identity. Though the collection focuses on the uses of the Gothic and Celtic, the observations made by these scholars nevertheless (sometimes explicitly) throw into question not only the ways in which ideas of ethnicity or nationality are fundamentally adaptive and opportunistic—i.e., they seize upon the prevailing political or cultural climate to promote a specific image that then shifts as events warrant or compel—but also how frequently these ideas are based on incomplete, even inaccurate assumptions. At the same time, regardless of how faulty these arguments may be, their persistence indicates very real and complex processes operating within and promoting them; study of these processes, therefore, repays us with an expanded understanding of the milieus in which they were developed.

From Joanne Parker's introduction to the final essay by John Collis, The Harp and the Constitution highlights the critical component of opposition inherent in the terminology of Celt and Goth beginning in the ancient and early medieval periods, when the peoples labeled by these names were seen as tribal identities distinct from and often as enemies of the Roman Empire in works like those of Caesar, Tacitus, or Jordanes. The authors show how this opposition was then seized upon in the early modern and modern periods to build paradigms of regional, ethnic, or national identity. The resistance of the historical Celts and Goths to expanding Roman hegemony subsequently became the model for all northern European nations who wanted to define themselves as (among other things) non-Catholic, non-Mediterranean/Greco-Roman, innocent of the corruption of the indolent Mediterranean/Catholic world, and possessed of traits like battle bravery and "strong moral fibre" (2). In exploring these types of national identity formation, The Harp and the Constitution also reveals the ever-shifting tensions and alliances in Great Britain in the last three hundred or so years, as well as underlining parallel processes on the continent.

Joep Leerssen, for example, launches Part One and the main body of the book with an assessment of the classical and medieval descriptions of both the Celts and the Goths that underlie modern European notions of self-identification, not only for Britain but also for regions like Belgium and France. These national identities, Leerssen shows, not only fully adopt the concept that non-Roman tribes of the classical era embodied the primal, the untrammeled, and the uncontaminated, in direct opposition to the laziness, luxury, and general moral laxity of the Mediterranean, but also weave those traits to their current realities. The Celt and the Goth then become "the narrative template" of indigenous peoples "manfully resisting foreign encroachment and hegemony," whether that encroachment was the Roman Empire, as in Tacitus, the Catholic papacy (to Protestants), or the Protestant Reformation (to Catholics) (17). Leerssen calls this habit of looking to the presumed tribal ancestry of a nation to discover modern national traits (like virtus, independence, liberty, and defense against foreign rule) "democratic primitivism," and considers it the root of the cultural self-definition for much of northern Europe (19). Ultimately, Leerssen observes, the adoption of either "Celt" or "Goth" depends entirely upon cultural, political, and social trends of the moment; the usage of either identifier thus reflects the shifts in a region's idealized self-definition. Leerssen's even-handed, thoughtful analysis lays a strong and important foundation not only for the essays of Part One, which section it begins, but also for the collection as a whole.

Nick Groom continues this elucidation of modern identity-formation based on concepts of opposition drawn from the "Gothic." Groom discusses, for example, the ways in which the Goths were used to promote political union between Scotland and England on the basis of a presumed shared "Gothic" ancestry and the alleged superiority of the "Gothick Constitution" (32). This constitution comprised the jury trial, the protection of freedom, and the resistance to absolutism, which here became equated with papal encroachment into the Protestant world of post-Reformation Britain. Robert DeMaria, Jr., turns to Samuel Johnson's accidental participation in the Gothic movement in his History of the English Language and Dictionary of the English Language. Though Johnson usually focused on classical antecedents for the English language and identity, he also used British nationalism, concepts of the English language and people as having north-European origins, and the view of northern European traits as superseding the contributions of southern ones to the language and culture of Britain to express his own political concerns. Tom Duggett, on the other hand, examines William Wordsworth's promotion of the so-called "Madras system" of public education in early nineteenth-century Britain through the vehicle of Gothic Romance. To Wordsworth, the "Madras system" aligned the pedagogy of Britain's children with "progressive Gothic politics" like the "redemption of the ancient constitution in Britain" and the furthering of Anglicanism. Joanne Parker finishes out Part One by revealing the forces that fed popular views of the "Gothic" King Alfred (and the Celtic King Arthur, though differently) as a national icon capable of modeling the best handling of nineteenth-century issues from a safe remove. These forces included greater public access to primary sources due to increased antiquarian activity, patriotic pride in British expansionism and its resultant desire to find the "real" native culture of Britain, the promotion of concepts of the Middle Ages as a pure age in opposition to a "callous industrial age," and the rise of Romanticism as a reaction against the classicism of Augustan literature.

The six essays of Part Two shift attention from the Gothic to the Celtic; as with the analyses of Part One the theme of identity formed in opposition predominates. The mythologies and histories of the Celtic peoples, both real and imagined, have been made the same kinds of tools in forming national identities as the Goths, and often for the same reasons. Just as antiquarian interest had led to the nineteenth-century dominance of the "Gothic" Alfred over the Celtic Arthur, so also antiquarianism contributed to a resurgent emphasis on the importance of the Druids in the eighteenth century, as examined by Ronald Hutton. The Druids were particularly attractive, Hutton shows, because classical writers respected them more than they did the Germanic tribes, and British self-definition in the 1700s still looked in part to the Mediterranean for inspiration. Tim Fulford carries the discussion of the Druids into the nineteenth century. Fulford's essay reveals that William Wordsworth and Robert Southey each viewed England's Lake District stone rings—which they presumed to be Druidic ritual sites and therefore Celtic—as reminders that the England of their day needed to revivify an idealized past in which the "Celtic" played a significant role; their literary Druids, as had both the Gothic Alfred and the Celtic Arthur, thus confronted contemporary problems such as modernization, industrialization, commercialization, and colonialism.

Dafydd Moore demonstrates that Richard Hole's main poetic inspiration for Arthur; or the Northern Enchantment was the Ossianic poems of James MacPherson. Hole valued these "Celtic" works in no small part because they provided material for a national epic that was not based on Homer (147). Because Hole wrote during a period when British self-definition primarily turned toward the Germanic, his vision of Britishness was not widely embraced; Arthur would, however, become a significant element in Tennyson's Idylls of the King almost a hundred years later. In a similar illustration of persistence, Amy Hale shows how depictions of the Archangel Michael as the protector of the Celtic Britons by groups like the British Israelites laid a strong Celtic layer in the foundations of British identity that is quite alive today, as is, in some quarters, the view of Michael as a national saint to and redeemer of the British people.

Both Part Two's assessment of the Celtic and the volume as a whole wrap up with two essays that provide continental parallels to the process of national identity development in Britain, echoing the chapter by Joep Leerssen at the beginning of Part One. Juan Miguel Zarandona's discussion of Galician literary giants, Eduardo Pondal and Ramón Cabanillas, shows how they drew upon Ossianic poetry, Roman texts, ancient archaeology, and medieval Irish and continental records to produce a specifically Celtic Galician literary culture that still remains a potent concept in the twenty-first century—despite the reality that the Galician region appears to have been only a relatively minor center of Celtic tribal activity. Much the way erroneous views of the Druids have been appropriated to form a British identity, so also the Celts have been adopted as symbols of Galician independence and resistance, first to Rome, then to the Visigoths, then to Islamic rule, and finally to Spain itself. Similarly, just as the historical realities of figures like King Arthur or King Alfred do not always impact their persistence in British culture, so also historicity is not relevant to the vibrancy of the Celtic Galician literary world.

Finally, John Collis examines the Celtic Gauls as a substrate for French self-definition. Archaeology, toponymy, and textual evidence here intertwine with political culture in the search for the presumed Gallic ancestry of modern France. Just as the Galician region of Spain sought Celtic roots as a paradigm of difference from other polities, including Spain itself, so also French scholars and politicians used the Celtic Gauls as symbols of a French resistance to internal and external threats. The national hero of France became Vercingetorix, the Gaul famed for leading the Gallic confederation against Julius Caesar's expansionism, and the three main sites associated with Vercingetorix—Bibracte, where Vercingetorix was chosen as the battle commander; Gergovia, where he defeated Julius Caesar; and Alesia, where he was captured and the Gallic confederation fell to Rome—were refigured as focal points of French identity, archaeological excavation, and preservation. The intensity of this attention, Collis shows, has been highest during periods of particular political ferment, such as during the Vichy regime or under the rule of Napoléon III, but the attitudes that resulted are still taught in French schools.

There are a few minor errors throughout. Page 14, note 2, reads "The standard works remains;" this should either be "The standard work remains" or "The standard works remain." The s/z spelling of "Gothicise" is inconsistent on page 58. There are some missing commas or hyphens here or there, and a few missing words (such as "the" lacking from p. 114, line 24 [should read "with the least"]). "Is" on p. 151, line 20 should be "it" and "Voraigne" on p. 176 line 22 and note 2 should be "Voragine." Similarly "prophesies" on p. 177, line 17 should be "prophecies," "Bretons," p. 193 line 4 of text quite possibly should be "Britons," and "aware of it", p. 199, line 8, should be "aware of them" (the Celtic roots).  There are a couple of missing Irish fadas, as in the word Gabhála, p. 192, line 15 and Túatha, p. 192, line 23. The comma on p. 177, line 1 after "St" should more properly be a period. Capitalization is occasionally inconsistent, and some spaces need to be inserted, as on p. 175, line 14, between "Celtic" and "spiritualities," and on p. 177, note 4, between "Secundeis" and "1508." None of these issues, however, in any way detract from the arguments or conclusions of the volume's papers.

This collection is multi-disciplinary and thoughtful, and its discussions are particularly pertinent in today's political and social climate. These eleven essays reveal that many concepts of identity and nationalism are based on faulty or incomplete data, and that they readily change as cultural mores shift. None of these facts, however, deflate the importance or upend the persistence of the resulting assumptions; instead, their adoption into a nation's self-definition makes them all but impervious to challenge. Indeed, as Leerssen writes in this volume, "what matters in this type of discourse and rhetoric is . . . the moral exemplar," which depends almost entirely upon the prevailing political, social, and cultural environment (24–5). Observing the patterns of identity formation in Britain, France, or Spain in the last three hundred years further suggests templates for similar contemporary and future patterns; this volume of essays thus offers an excellent place to begin.

Máire Johnson, Emporia State University