Review: Elizabeth Boyle, ‘Closing the Book on Celtic’.

Having donned a ridiculously fluffy hood and finally graduated from Cambridge, I thought I had escaped the clutches of ASNaC (a friendly acronym for my degree in ‘Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic’) for good. Less than three weeks after strolling down the steps of the Senate House, however, I found myself staring at something of a distinctly Celtic flavour. It felt strange seeing Elizabeth Boyle’s name on the front page of History Today (August 2012), right next to the oh-so-familiar image of a medieval manuscript. Despite the stirrings of the inner Germanicist inside me rearing its head in rebellion, I felt compelled to read on. I’m glad that I did.

In a tight, well written article entitled Closing the Book on Celtic, Elizabeth Boyle addresses some of the problems facing the historian of ‘British’ (which she clearly distinguishes from ‘English’) history; namely that nationalistic tendencies in Celtic-speaking countries serve to segregate the discipline (i.e. Welsh studied in Wales, Irish studied in Ireland) rather than unite it. As is sometimes the case with other ASNaC subject areas, Celtic scholarship is hampered by politics — both ‘academic’ and ‘real world’. Elizabeth fears that research into British history will not only be divided amongst, but limited to, those who are native speakers of a Celtic language. Elizabeth makes the point that recent requirements to study Old Irish at the National University of Ireland in Galway involved speaking Modern Irish to a level bordering on fluency, whilst the Chair of Celtic at Edinburgh remained unfilled due to local political – as opposed to academic – concerns. These are just two examples of the problems nationalistic tendencies present to the non-native scholar. If I thought ASNaC dead and buried, Elizabeth’s article proved me wrong: the subject area is very much alive, full of debate and, thanks to scholars like Elizabeth, engaging with ‘real world’ concerns directly affecting our areas of study.

It is great to see the problems of Celtic scholarship being given a voice within such a popular, widely-read magazine as History Today. We all know that in the ASNaC world, scholarly politics has a tendency to remain internalised within a niche academic circle. Yet Elizabeth’s article appears side-by-side with reviews ranging from Chinese urban life to the American Civil War. With such a broad readership in mind, it is hoped that the danger facing the study of a history dependent on minority languages such as Welsh, Irish, Gaelic and Brittonic – especially when they are moving towards segregation and are subject to political and nationalistic tendencies – will be more generally realised in a bid that the gateway to Celtic studies remains open. Moving in the right direction are the Universities of Toronto and Bonn which have, in the past few days, advertised jobs with a much broader and international conception of what ‘Celtic Studies’ means; yet, sadly, these Universities remain outside of Celtic-speaking countries.

Elizabeth’s article proves that a nation’s past does play an important role in both its present and its politics, and asks that the general reader be aware of current concerns faced by the scholar of British history. Heavens, if a Germanicist sitting at home in her wellies reading History Today with a cup of tea can be abreast current Celtic scholarly concerns, anyone can.

Elizabeth’s article, Closing the Book on Celtic, is available: History Today Vol. 62, Issue 8 (August, 2012).

About nenna

if i was a bird i'd be a magpie
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