New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2009, ISBN: 9780300144857; 492pp.; Price: £30.00
Date accessed: 3 December, 2023
Two books on druids in two years, and by the same author! If I were either of Ronald Hutton’s publishers I’d be biting my nails over this, but let me reassure them both right at the start that Hutton pulls it off, and in style. The two really do complement each other. So what does Blood and Mistletoe have that The Druids: A History (1) does not? It is literally more heavyweight, three and a half times the length of its predecessor, which as Hutton explains was ‘explicitly written for the popular market’ (p. 11). The first book treats its subject thematically, a device that emphasises the variety of different uses to which the druids have been put down the years; Blood and Mistletoe reverts to a more traditional chronological treatment which makes it easier to place these often-contradictory usages in proper historical context. Yet Hambledon will be relieved to note that there are still plenty of choice pieces to be found in the first book alone, for instance the lurid and salacious treatment meted out to druidry by 19th-century fantasists. Author and publisher have done their homework: not only are there really are two markets for books on druids, but book one succeeds in whetting the appetite for book two.
Because druidry appears to deal with matters archaeological, the 20th-century heavyweight tomes on druids were written by archaeologists – T. D. Kendrick in the 1920s, Stuart Piggott in the 1960s – whose principle intention was to debunk and to purge prehistory of error. Piggott in particular had little sympathy for people in the present who, as he saw it, pretended to be druids. His book The Druids, first published in the fateful year of 1968, sought to stem the rising tide of anti-rationalism by describing modern druidry as ‘a compelling magnet for many a psychological misfit and lonely crank’. Much of his book was devoted to disproving the existence of druids in prehistory, and their reappearance at the Renaissance was seen as a slide into confusion, delusion and ultimately unreason.
Hutton does not shirk from dealing with the limited and contradictory evidence for ‘original’ druids but that is not his focus. It is druidry as a historical phenomenon that interests him; he accepts that druids are essentially modern creatures, products of the renewed interest in the classical ancient world that characterised the incipient nation-states of the early modern period. As such they make what Hutton calls ‘a wonderful subject for a student of modernity’ (p. 48), and he brings his formidable scholarship and encyclopaedic knowledge of the early-modern centuries to bear, setting the evolution of druidry in its proper historical context for the first time.
Counter-intuitively, it appears that the druids first make their modern appearance in Germany in the 1490s amongst a group of scholars keen to redeem their prehistory from the taint of barbarism inflicted by Caesar and Tacitus. The druids soon became the adopted ancestors of both France and Scotland, but the English were strangely silent in the 16th century. ‘There are no druids in Shakespeare’, as Hutton points out, suggesting that their popularity amongst England’s enemies then counted against them: ‘Druidry was not just bad, it was foreign’ (pp. 60-1). Hutton’s emphasis in later chapters of necessity shifts away from France and Germany but I found myself curious about the later fate of druidry in these countries: a subject for a follow-up, maybe?
Hutton charts the contradictory ideas on druidry that developed during the 17th century, and the crucial linkage between druids and stone monuments of high antiquity that was first made by John Aubrey in the 1660s. He traces the famous image of the Wicker Man, in which the druids’ unfortunate human sacrifices were incarcerated, to a drawing made for the lawyer Aylett Sammes’ peculiar publication of 1676, Britannia Antiqua Illustrata. The figure bears a striking similarity to Hobbes’ famous frontispiece to Leviathan published twenty-five years earlier, in which a giant made up of human bodies represents the State. To Sammes, druidic power, unlike the fragmented power of little kings and chiefs, was ‘universal over the whole island … their power and interest was infinitely the greater’ and they were led by an annually-elected ‘primate’. Is it possible that Sammes was satirising Hobbes’ very familiar image? Is the Wicker Man Leviathan’s demonic alter-ego?
Hutton is very good on the blossoming of the druidic idea in the late 18th century, a by-blow both of the Romantic movement and of a growing interest in the world BC. By 1790, druids and their purported monuments ‘were virtually everywhere. They loomed out of books, strutted in plays, and peered through shrubbery’ (p. 124). The role of William Stukeley is emphasised but also contextualised: the Church of England druid whose fine drawings of Avebury and Stonehenge have led him to be considered as the forerunner of modern archaeology shares the spotlight with William Borlase, the Cornish antiquary, and John Wood, the builder of Bath, whose druidic speculations underpin the layout of The Circus, the circular range of stately houses he erected on druidic principles in the heart of the city, which Hutton suggests ‘may, in fact, be the first stone temple ever built in the name of Druidry’ (p. 107).
There is a whole chapter on Iolo Morganwg, the Welsh stonemason-polyglot whose pursuit of an adequate foundation-mythology for modern Wales led him to rectify some inexplicable omissions in the Welsh national canon by creating many new texts of his own: his forgeries not only influenced Welsh scholarship for a century but also, through the institution of the Gorsedd, placed druidry at the heart of the Eisteddfod. Iolo’s opus has been comprehensively reviewed by Geraint Jenkins and his colleagues at the University of Aberystwyth, whose first fruits, in the form of a biography (2) is now essential reading, but Hutton has some important new insights to offer, including the convincing suggestion that Unitarianism replaced druidism for Iolo. He is good on what he calls ‘Iolo’s Children’ – the motley collection of wayward scholars and eccentrics who developed Iolo’s ideas in the 19th century: Matthew Arnold, who fanned the flames of Ioloanism as part of his highly influential rehabilitation of the Celts; the angry Chartist William Price, most famous today for cremating the remains of his baby son. (Hutton plausibly derives Price’s rage from his father’s mental collapse, which threw the family into penury; I wonder whether Matthew Arnold’s Celticism might similarly be attributed to a reaction to the ideology of his own father, Thomas Arnold of Rugby fame, as renowned for praising Teutons as his son is for condemning them?).
Hutton deftly demonstrates the importance of new money in the creation of old culture in 19th-century Wales – Augusta Hall (who designed the Welsh national costume) and Charlotte Guest (editor of The Mabinogion) were both married to major ironmasters. He points out that Pontypridd, an important druidic centre in the mid 19th century, not only takes its name from a bridge built in 1756 but was actually known by its English name of Newbridge until the 1860s. I feel that he could perhaps have made more of the appeal of ‘ancient’ culture to the uprooted lower orders in South Wales; it is surely significant that chapel preachers felt so strongly about the druidical utterances of Myfyr Morganwg on Pontypridd Common that their flocks were urged to buy his books and burn them.
The nonconformists of South Wales were not the only Christians to feel that druidry posed a threat. The Oxford Movement evangelist Frederick William Faber apparently felt that the populace was in danger of forsaking Christianity and reverting ‘to Druid rite once more’, but Hutton convincingly shows that both were swept away by post-Darwinian prehistory: ‘Druids had been too completely absorbed into the old, biblically based, model of the ancient past … Noah’s Flood and the Druids had to go out together, as part of the process of reformation, evangelism and conversion’ (p. 304).
Hutton also demonstrates how the Freemasonic rituals of what he calls ‘fraternal Druidry’ were able to function as ‘an alternative form of spirituality, which could exist within Christianity but was not part of it’ (p. 217). He has much new information to offer on fraternal druidry in general, the druids of the Friendly Societies and Ancient Orders that flourished in the 19th century. Except that, as he shows, the most famous group of all, the Ancient Order of Druids, was not originally a Friendly Society at all, but a convivial drinking-club whose lack of any ‘redeeming touch of utility’ engendered a major split in 1831, an event which Hutton puts masterfully into the context of the contemporary transformation of the British political system.
Hutton writes with style and wit. The verbose Romantic poet Richard Polwhele, saved from druidic nostalgia by a timely cherub, simultaneously lost control of his verse and was thereby ‘cleansed of sin and scansion’ (p. 203). Another druid-stigmatiser, Michael Wodhull, ‘is probably unique in accusing them, along with most of the usual vices, of halitosis’ (his druids were ‘subtle priests with venomed breath’: pp. 199-200). Sidney Sedgwick’s Daughter of the Druids, required to participate in the ritual roasting of their sacrifices, is ‘despite her unpromising relatives and job description … really a nice girl’ (p. 336).
The text sparkles with observations such as these that lighten the density of his scholarship without diminishing it; and also defy the reader to take any contemporary pronouncement too seriously. For, in spite of 500 years of scholarly debate about druids and their role in prehistoric society, no consensus has ever been reached. Druidry remains a conceptual clothes-horse, bedecked with the ideas and aspirations of people from all parts of the political and religious spectrum, keen to ground their agendas in the soil of high antiquity. Druidry is fundamentally elusive; that’s why it’s proven so useful.
This means that this book is first and foremost a history of scholarship: Hutton himself suggests that it could have readily been called ‘Thinking with Druids’ (p. 419). It is the story, affectionately but insightfully told, of the historians and others who made and re-made druidry to their own measure, some well-known but many less so, previously peering but dimly through the historical shrubbery, now brought convincingly into the limelight. I was particularly taken with his portrayal of the deist John Toland and his ‘firework display of ideas’, and the summary on page 84 of the distinction between Toland and his orthodox counterpart Henry Rowlands is a little tour de force, demonstrating how Toland ‘blundered onto the right path out of a maze, while others, like Rowlands, chose the wrong one on equally rational grounds’.
Shambolic Aubrey, arrogant Toland ... this catalogue of antiquarians could have been dry as dust but is enlivened by the understanding and the sympathy that this historian feels for his predecessors. His harshest words are reserved for Iolo Morganwg, who he sees as having ‘sabotaged’ Welsh history by having ‘substituted an imagined early Wales of his own … In doing so, he had at once betrayed his friends and his country’ (p. 164). This is strong language, the understandable wrath of a scholar whose own work depends upon the sanctity of the original text. But from the point of view of the ‘ordinary literate Welsh people’ that Hutton sees Iolo as having bamboozled, was there really so much difference between Iolo and the hundreds of other writers whose arbitrary scholarship, so convincingly chronicled in this book, was equally available to them? Iolo gave the Welsh a sense of nationhood and dignity at a time when apologists for all the incipient nations of Europe were doing much the same thing. There was little succour for the literate Welsh in the anti-druidic pronouncements of Oxford dons such as Algernon Herbert, or for that matter the musings of more prominent English historians such as Charles Kingsley or Edward Freeman, who sought to minimise pre-Saxon influence in the English national narratives they were creating. Were the Welsh so wrong to prefer the Iolo-fostered culture of the Eisteddfod? Whose interest does ‘pure history’ serve, and does it exist anyway? Blood and Mistletoe meticulously records five centuries of contradictory and self-serving speculation, most of it now rejected. It is an object lesson in how much history is the plaything of the historians, and just how wrong they can be.
Beautifully written, lucidly argued, carefully illustrated, comprehensive. A scholarly delight, and thoroughly recommended.
- Ronald Hutton, The Druids: A History (London, 2008).Back to (1)
- A Rattleskull Genius: The Many Faces of Iolo Morganwg, ed. G. H. Jenkins (Cardiff, 2005).Back to (2)
It may seem absurdly hypersensitive and self-indulgent to make any reply to a review as erudite, interesting and complimentary as that by Dr Stout. I am, however, going to take the opportunity to debate one point with him, not because I necessarily disagree – at the least, I think his view a valid one – but because to do so draws attention both to a major and controversial historical character and to an important issue in the writing of history. The character is Iolo Morganwg, and the issue the use of moral judgement by historians.
For the first hundred years after his death, Iolo himself was generally regarded as a rather lovable eccentric. His collections of apparent historical documents were made the basis for the dominant picture of early Welsh history and mythology, and for the Gorsedd of Bards, the council which runs the great national cultural institution, the Eisteddfod, and provides its ceremonies. Then his documents were proved beyond doubt to have been his own forgeries, and he became reviled as a scoundrel. Only recently has his reputation begun to be salvaged, largely because of the efforts of Geraint Jenkins’s splendid team of scholars at Aberystwyth, so that he is now viewed by many as an original genius who contributed significantly to the creation of the modern Welsh cultural identity. One solid consequence of this shift has been the unveiling of a public monument to Iolo, by the Welsh Minister for Heritage, in June this year.
I was present on that occasion, with huge pleasure, and thoroughly endorse the new recognition of the role played by this impecunious stonemason, in the face of enormous social, political and religious disadvantages, in the making of modern Wales. Was there, however, as Dr Stout argues, really not much difference between Iolo and the general run of authors on ancient Britain at his time, whose scholarship was equally arbitrary and much less helpful to the Welsh? Here I think that there are two issues that do make a real difference. The first is that the other authors attempted, with whatever degrees of prejudice, bigotry or dementia, to work from what they sincerely supposed to be actual historical and anthropological data. Iolo, finding that the latter did not serve his own political purpose, invented evidence that did. He was of course not alone in doing this – in the generation just before his own, Macpherson and Chatterton had both done so to serve the purposes of Scottish and English nationalism respectively – but his forgeries were more original, more extensive, and (above all) more successful in forming a general view of history. In terms of scholarship, confidence trickery is a moral crime; in wider human society it has since ancient times been a legal one. The second issue concerns what did not get recognised because of Iolo’s deceptions. He was an important member of a team that had set about the praiseworthy and hugely important task of editing and publishing the major surviving works of medieval Welsh literature. This was intended to provide modern Wales with access to its own literary heritage: one which, by the standards of any nation, contains works of world class quality. Iolo chose to substitute his own forgeries, increasingly, for the genuine medieval texts, so that some of the best of the latter remained unpublished when the money ran out; including those which were to be gathered half a century later as The Mabinogion. In part this was because Iolo genuinely believed that his own writings contained better moral messages for the modern Welsh, which would shape a finer nation and win the respect of other peoples. It was also, however, the result of his own pride, ambition, and jealousy. This second aspect of his cheating in particular arouses my disquiet: that he was not merely providing the world with a false notion of his nation’s past, but keeping it cut off from a real one. It would be hard to imagine an activity more inimical to everything that the professional writing of history is supposed to be about, but also to what historians in general (from Thucydides) have been supposed to do, and indeed to the way in which human beings are expected to treat each other.
I therefore censure Iolo’s behaviour in the strongest possible terms, while making plain my admiration for his courage, his daring and his undoubtedly high and consistent political ideals, which included a host of causes which modern liberalism has continued to hold dear. I also enjoy, with so many others, the colour and symbolic power of the Gorsedd rites, and recognise fully the value of them as a modern creation. My overall verdict on him is that he has more or less equal claims to be regarded now as both a hero and a villain. What I think beyond denial is that he is one of the major characters in the formation of the identities of the British peoples, and that few others illustrate as well the complexity of forming rounded historical judgements, even in the face of good evidence and apparently clear-cut issues.