This one’s been building for a while, this has. Can you spare a moment for a rant? I’ll put it behind a cut, both because it is vituperative and also because it contains a good many images and may be a beggar to load. Right, good. “Celtic” branding. You see above a key example, but you know That Font from a hundred places, don’t you? Honestly, try a Google search for « Celtic font » and you’ll see…
Oh, the heritage! Oh, the misty-eyed tinge of Oirish antiquity! NO. Those are half-uncials and they date back to Roman times. I will grant you that as available now as Celtic Hand Font or whatever it is where you find it it tends to have what a palaeographer would call “Insular symptoms”, implying quaintly that to be written by people from Britain (be they Irish, Scots, Pictish, Brittonic tending to Welsh, or, dare we say it, English, since all their hands looked quite similar) was a kind of disease that a proper script would ideally remain free of. But it’s a Classical script and it was brought here by Roman missionaries and those who followed them and to Ireland by the Romano-British and so on. Here, for your comparison, is some Frankish stuff imitating a Classical manuscript. And you can see where both share an ancestor and how the modern letter-forms have been borrowed, with a few alterations towards a more modern typeface where the fact that half-uncial used what we now think of as capital letters as its standard version might throw off the consumer.1
In fact I could get theoretical about this what with how much of my current reading involves colonialism, and that in the widest sense, so aggressive appropriation not just of natural resources but of cultural capital too.2 So the Irish get justly incensed (click through the O’Neill’s pic above to see) about O’Neills marketing Irishness as if it were a font and a particular brand of stout that can be placed anywhere in the world without context, and you could certainly see that as a kind of colonialism. But as far as the font goes, who colonised whom here? The Romans, by exporting their culture aggressively to the British Isles? Christianity’s earliest writers, by appropriating the Classical scripts that they’d learnt to write with for their new message with its new book form? Or is it in fact the reverse, the recipients colonising Roman and Christian culture and populating it with their variations on the theme? Or, is it the modern world colonising the Middle Ages by stealin ur fonts fer our advertizin? Is in fact medievalism just an extended episode of cross-temporal colonialism using temporalization as a kind of Wellsian engine to dislocate the blockage between the now and the then and raid the then for its cultural capital and antiquites, to be repurposed in the present? (I have said before now that I could write the postmodern schtick if I didn’t hate it so much.) Well, no it isn’t. I think the colonial metaphor breaks quite badly when you try and apply it over time and not over space, not least because the enterprise doesn’t affect the original ‘subject’ population but the present-day one who are also living out of that past. How many colonised societies does it take to break a metaphor? I’ll stop now.
But, the same thing with interlace, which is actually what made me start to write this. This is a rant that others have also had but I have pictures to support it. Look, basically every society in Western Europe from the Iron Age onwards liked designs that twine motives into each other. The biggest obvious exception is the Romans and Greeks, which is why it’s become ‘barbarian’ art, and thus been pushed out to people’s mental margins where, I’m sorry to say, the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh have lived in the last few centuries, both feeling marginalised themselves and regarded as such by the English as they inflated themselves to overlordship of a quarter of the world. This, then, you could call colonialism, and there’s an argument to be had about how far that’s what English rule of the other three Great British countries represented. But not here.3 For now let’s stick to the interlace. Look, here is some actual Celtic interlace, La Têne period that is, not in any way Irish, Welsh or Scottish but ‘actually done by people for whom there is not another term than “Celts”‘ Celtic:
Now here is a section from the Book of Kells, which would be defiantly and marvellously Irish Celtic were it not part of a stylistic continuum that also includes the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Codex Amiatinus:
This next piece is from Salian Germany, in the reign of Henry II, and is what we would usually call Franco-Saxon, neither of these words with which the adjective Celtic is much concerned. Check out the capital of this temple-like tomb:
And I know there must be more of that but I can’t find a good example on the web. Lastly, almost, this example is from a Muslim-period church in Córdoba, which just goes to show you that the idea of tangling ornament around itself is firstly really cool (see how the star in the middle is made out of the repetition of a gap in the pattern?) but also therefore the sort of notion that might occur in really quite a lot of cultures.
And yes, it is the case that Celtic elements occur in the culture of all the areas I’ve mentioned, albeit a few hundred to a thousand years or more before the examples I’ve given. But I don’t think the Cordoban architects were remembering Ibero-Celtic motives, you know, I really don’t. And they sure as heck wouldn’t have felt any kinship and familiarity on looking at the door of a modern O’Neills. So on the general subject of selling things to susceptible would-be mystics or new age flower children under the brand “Celtic”, or even attempting to draw new interlace that somehow avoids being Celtic, as below, can I say, please please stop. It’s just interlace, it belongs to anyone, and although the art historians might distinguish one sort from another, people selling you Celtic interlace are not selling you the Middle Ages, they’re selling you the last five hundred years of turning Wales, Scotland and Ireland into novelty marginalia to the great English adventure at the expense of a far wider European relevance.
1. If you want more on this the thing to try and get hold of is Michelle Brown‘s A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 (London 1990, 2nd edn. 1994, repr. 1999), which is full of quality illustrations that really show you the differences, but there are some good pages here that will do for a start.
2. The reading I mean is Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia 2008), which you can find Eileen Joy lauding on In the Medieval Middle here. As you might guess from the extract there I’m not taking to it quite as strongly, but I think the mistake was made not by the author, but by the publishers in sending a review copy to an early medievalists’ journal, as it’s not really about the Middle Ages at all.
3. Here Davis is actually quite illuminating, esp. pp. 56-59, though essentially reporting others’ work (in particular here Aidan Clarke, The Old English in Ireland, 1625-42 (Dublin 2000)), which she cites in the notes but is missing from the bibliography.