Know your interlace! a diatribe against Celtic branding

Faulty Gaelic at an O'Neills Irish Pub (tm)

Faulty Gaelic at an O'Neills Irish Pub (tm)

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…

Screen capture of a websearch for 'Celtic font' images

Screen capture of a websearch for 'Celtic font' images

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

Half-page of uncial from a seventh-century Frankish manuscript of Gregory of Tours's Histories, Leiden UB MS BPL 21, fol. 2v

Half-page of uncial script from the earliest copy of Gregory of Tours's Historiae Francorum, the seventh century Leiden UB MS BPL 21, fol. 2v; the passage, fittingly, describes the addition of letters to the alphabet by King Chilperic (V.54), information provided by David Ganz in comments

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.

Screen capture of a websearch for 'Celtic interlace' images

Screen capture of a websearch for 'Celtic interlace' images

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:

Pair of gold torcs of about 400 B C. from a hoard found at Erstfeld, Swiss Alps

Pair of gold torcs of about 400 B C. from a hoard found at Erstfeld, Swiss Alps

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:

Angel on a tomb under interlace-decorated canopy, from the Pericope of Henry II

Angel on a tomb under interlace-decorated canopy, from the Pericope of Henry II

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.

Window grille from unknown Cordoban building, 980X990

Window grille from unknown Cordoban building, 980X990

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.

'Unceltic technagram', by Dale for Omnia Opera

'Unceltic technagram', by Dale for Omnia Opera


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.

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24 responses to “Know your interlace! a diatribe against Celtic branding

  1. It is really rather gloriously pedantic, though.

  2. The terrible thing about database work is it means that one’s pedantry becomes professionally essential. Here, you see the effects on the impressionable psyche…

    Also, Professor Mulhberger kindly left a comment which for some reason WordPress thought was spam, and I only noticed this after I’d hit the `delete all spam’ button because I haven’t had coffee yet, so I apologise to him and if he cares to repost I will take more care this time, sorry. I really wish WordPress had a whitelist as well as a blacklist function…

  3. Yep …yay for database work, which I will be doing most of the week!

  4. Yeah, me too. Though not, thankfully, outside my job for once…

  5. As a famous Anglo-Saxonist is supposed to have said:

    “…just a small point of pedantry, or, as I like to call it ‘scholarship.'”

  6. The thing is of course that here I’m trying to relax categories, not tighten them, but it somehow still counts as pedantry… I think I do prefer the Anglo-Saxonist’s response. Glad to see you here, Professor.

  7. Just to show that interlace branding has now spread beyond the Celts, check out the New Mercia housing development logo. Whether this is really an advance in modern medievalism, I leave to the observer. I should note, however, that Offa founded a church in Hitchin, so there is some Mercian connection, even if Anglo-Saxon buildings weren’t generally known for their designer kitchens(‘so where would you like your cauldron placed?’)

  8. Thank you so much for writing this – I have been saying for ages that so-called “Celtic knotwork” was used by loads of other cultures. I wasn’t aware that uncials were generic, but it makes sense.

  9. Glad to have informed someone, it makes the whole rant look much less gratuitous. Magistra, unless they’re sunken-floored designer kitchens I’m going to have to be unimpressed by that, as I’m sure you hoped…

  10. ‘sunken-floored designer kitchens’ !?

    -you just saved my day with words (again!)

  11. Grubenküchen! You know it makes (no) sense!

  12. I know people who have been saying this for years, but it appears that the power of myth remains supreme (sigh).

    Nevertheless, well-informed mythbusting is always welcome.

  13. I’d be surprised if you couldn’t find some good Muslim examples of interlace — given their love of geometric things in art.

  14. Something very wrong with your Leiden manuscript caption: those are uncials not half uncials (from the Leiden leaf of the earliest surviivng fragment of Gregory of Touurs, the passage describing the letters added to the alphabet by Guy Halsall’s pal king Chilperic. (Historiae V 54)

  15. G.P. Franck-Weiby

    O’Neill’s inscription is a modernized round half-uncial, incorporating more deliberate archaeisms (e.g. the script delta D, and the curved stem of the T) than, say, Edward Johnston’s modernized half uncial (developed for calligraphers circa 1906, based on the Book of Durham). However, what modern scribes know as ‘Irish half-uncial’ is a later (i.e. later than Kell’s, or Durham) degenerate half-uncial (i.e. different pen form, appropriate for semi-formal writing, as opposed to the severe formality of sacred text).

    Presumably because of geographical isolation, it survived Alcuin’s reform of the early 9th century – long enough to become the model for a typeface used in Ireland for printing books 16th – 19th century. Possibly that was an archaeism, in the same class as the 15th century Italian typefounders ‘ripping off’ 9th century ‘Carlovingian’ hand for their miniscules (er, ‘lower case’).

    I’m not inclined to condemn that as some kind of exploitative archaeism any more than German books being printed in fraktur fonts until the mid-20th century. They weren’t exploiting their past as much as that they just didn’t get around to changing for a long time.

    As for the universality of knotwork, congratulations! You just made the same point that George Bain did sixty years ago. Knotwork appears in practically all cultures that use textiles. Sooner or later, everybody who twists fibers notices the cool patterns that occur naturally, and which – with all the endless practice of making clothing the hard way – occur with a pleasing mathematical regularity that reflects an essential survival technology as part of the cosmic order, expressing the essence of the spinner’s being.

    Of course, George Bain’s Celtic Art, the methods of construction, is probably an excellent exhibit for the prosecution of commercializing ‘Celtic’ art (you can blame the Dover Reprints for much of the New Age infatuation with ‘Celtic’ knotwork design). But then that’s an old Scottish tradition, as when 18th century Scottish woolen mills assigned mostly imaginary ‘clan’ identities to tartan patterns that were originally just recorded and ordered by number.

    Evil colonialism or just plain old rotten human nature – it can still be fun to rant about. :-)

  16. Thankyou for all that, I think: I hope concerned persons will follow up your references. Quite a lot survived the reforms of the Carolingian Renaissance, of course, Alcuin’s or whoever else’s, but it’s interesting that if as you say O’Neills put archaicisms back in I was quite wrong about their having sanitised the half-uncial for legibility. I guess that was the 1906 work…

  17. As an Artist:
    Your point that interlace spans many cultures, times and locations is expressed clearly and without dispute (certainly by me!)
    There are however forms and flavours to the basic method which *can* be narrowed down to more specific peoples, places and periods. Artistic styles are more definite, and thus may end up being a kind of ‘branding’, especially to the casual observer. Norse versus ‘Irish’ designs of the 800’s being a good example.
    The term ‘Celtic’ may be more at the root of the problem you discuss, rather than popular culture claims of interlace being the sole product of the historic peoples resident in the British Isles. What the heck is a ‘Celt’ anyway? In popular culture, ancient Swiss bronze work, historic Irish illumination, traditional Scottish embroidery, recent stage pounding chest greased dancers – and heavily beer sodden football louts : all are seen as ‘Celtic’.
    As my gang of (‘Celtic’ inspired) artists in An Droichead are constantly saying : “Thats NOT Celtic!”

  18. Just learning calligraphy. Had already experienced some disgust at inauthentic, commercial “resources” for lettering styles. After reading this, I will certainly pay more attention to which examples I follow, as well as consistency in time period and region. Thank you.

  19. Pingback: Seminary LXV: pagans, shamans, teenage vampires and John Blair « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  20. Pingback: Because if that’s Gothic this must be Roman | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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