On Furphies: what we really don’t know about the Celts

Earlier this year, my friend the Australian sff novelist and historian Gillian Polack taught me a new word: furphy. A furphy is one of those historical facts that ‘everyone knows to be true’ but which are, in fact, fiction. We all know some of them; indeed, we made hold one or more of them dear, building on it part of our national, regional, cultural and ethnic identities. Furphies matter to us and they help us relate to ourselves, our surroundings and our pasts. As a historian – which I am, by training, they are fascinating, in terms of what they tell us about what we want to believe, about how we try to understand and about how our appreciation of the past is intimately and inextricably bound up with our present. We cannot see the past alone: inevitably we see it through the lens of current culture and expectations. All we can vary is the degree to which we are aware of this. Furphies balance on this edge of present-sense-of-self and understanding of the past. When we look back, whether we realise it or not, we look at ourselves.

I’m an insular Celticist, which means that I study the Celtic and Gaelic speaking peoples of the British Isles. I work on the period c. 400 to c. 1300 C.E. Up until about thirty years ago, this was something of an academic back-water, at least as far as the wider public was concerned. School history – even in Wales, Scotland and Ireland – tended to give fairly little time to the early mediaeval period. Novelists and the writers of popular histories tended not to write about it: the sources can be hard to find and harder to use (and many of them are not available in translation, or not fully available), and academic books on the field could be hard to track down in the pre-internet age. There were a handful of writers who turned to ‘the dark ages’ for inspiration: Evangeline Walton, Lloyd Alexander, Patricia Finney, and, of course, J R R Tolkien. But with the exception of Tolkien they were not super-sellers and Tolkien transformed most of what he took from Celtic and Gaelic sources quite considerably. Collections of myths and legends aimed at children tended not to include many tales from Wales or Ireland (or from pre-1200 Scotland). Colleagues in university departments – and speakers on tv and radio tended to refer to us as ‘the Celtic fringe’. A great deal of excellent work was being done on early mediaeval Wales, Scotland and Ireland and had been since the early nineteenth century. But it was not widely known and was often seen as being of interest only to those who were Irish or Welsh or Scottish. Within Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Brittany, it was also closely allied to the movements to preserve and protect languages, with nationalist interests, and with resistance to over 600 years of colonialism by an external culture which had proscribed and demonised native practices and traditions. Within diaspora populations and especially the large Irish- and Scottish-American communities descended from emigrants from the Gaelic speaking countries, the interest was and remains tightly linked to the creation of specific identities and cultural norms by a new community surrounded by strangers with different practices and expectations. History, story, tradition, language, culture are cornerstones of how we understand ourselves and when we look back, we like to feel comfortable with what we see.

Nationalist historians and antiquaries in Wales, Ireland and Scotland had been exploring and re-discovering their own pasts since the sixteenth century, but the antiquarian movement and the idea of the ‘Celtic twilight’ took off during the nineteenth century. Much of what ‘everyone knows’ about ‘Celts’ still has its roots in that. The idea of the ‘Celts’ as a single people began with the ancient Greeks, who labelled foreigners who looked similar to their eyes ‘Keltoi’, and the Romans continued this practice. But the modern understanding of the ‘Celts’: that romantic, nature-loving warrior people with their Europe-spanning territories, their woad and chariots, druids and priestesses, is the child of the nineteenth century antiquaries and their studies. It is also the origin, sadly, of many furphies (the idea that the ‘Celts’ were a single people and culture is one of these and one subject to increasing academic erosion – see the works of Simon James, John Hines and Francis Pryor, among others). The antiquaries studied all the old manuscripts they could find, but they did not discriminate amongst them, treating sources written in the 17th century and sources first written in the 6th as of equal value and accepting the contents of what they read, sometimes, with little discrimination or criticism. Faced with a dominant external power which banned the public use of native languages and denigrated native histories and stories, these antiquaries understandably sought to find evidence that placed their ancestors in the best possible light – civilised, highly sophisticated and advanced in ways that looked good in contemporary eyes. One of my favourite furphies – that the ‘Celtic’ druids in Britain were effectively Christian before the Romans, let alone the Anglo-Saxons – arose from this activity. (According to the12th century writer William of Malmesbury, a church had been established by disciples of Christ at Glastonbury in Somerset within only a few years of the Crucifixion. This story was probably a 12th century fabrication, created by the church of Glastonbury as part of its campaign to attract royal patronage, but early Welsh antiquaries seized on it as an indication of the greatness of their ancestors in terms their contemporaries would understand.)

This furphy has long gone, dismissed by a combination of the more analytical approach to historical sources that arose during the later nineteenth century, and the decline of Christianity in many western societies. But it has been replaced by another furphy, in modern dress: the nature-loving, goddess-worshipping, ecologically minded druid, the model of a responsible pagan. It travels with its sister, the furphy of the gender-equal, liberated, kickass Celtic women. While the old ‘Christian druid’ furphy makes me smile, this pair have been known to make me want to scream and throw things. They have been around for a while, here and there – the goddess-worship is a product of Fraserian-style romantic readings of myths and stories, for instance. But they entered the sff mainstream with the publication of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s 1982 novel The Mists of Avalon.

I’m fond of MoA: it’s a good read. But it’s not history, and Bradley did not set out to write it as history. She wanted to write something based on Bellini’s 1831 opera Norma, about a pagan Gaulish priestess who falls in love with a Roman official. Norma is a romantic melodrama, meant to entertain and move, not to inform, and with no historical basis. Bradley took the idea of the love affair and transposed it into an Arthurian story. (Arthur is yet another furphy. Ask me about it at a convention some time.) She did some research for the book, but she was not a historian, and she selected material that made for an exciting plot (she also seems to have relied mostly on popular books which were not necessarily based on reliable primary sources). One of the key elements in MoA is the character of Morgaine, an appealing, independent hero who is a member of an order of priestesses. It was a very, very successful book. It became important to many readers, particularly female readers. It spoke to ideas that were very current in many western cultures: the move towards the emancipation of women; the debate over women’s control over their fertility; the search for non-Christian spiritualities and, particular in the US, the continuing suspicion of Catholicism. It was a book about 20th century concerns for 20th century readers, not an account of any 5th or 6th century reality. But it has become a millstone around the neck of the history of the Celtic speaking peoples, because so many modern readers want it to be true.

Most of these readers are not native Celts (though some are). I suspect rather more of them are descendants of diaspora Celts, seeking confirmation like the early antiquaries that their ancestors were satisfactory by modern moral standards. Even more are simply drawn to the world Bradley imagined. They want to believe in it. They want to be descended from it. Now, the idea of the liberated female ‘Celt’ was not invented by Bradley: she’s a creation partly of Fraserian pseudo-anthropology, partly of popular writers like the French antiquary Jean Markale and partly of the modern pagan movement. ‘Celts’ are very popular in some strands of modern paganism and many practitioners, understandably, want their exemplars to live up to modern ideals. Writers have combed through any source that may be deemed to be in any way ‘Celtic’ and pulled out any and every reference to women in a positive light, and then presented these together as a demonstration that the ‘Celts’ practised gender equality. These writers, like the early antiquaries, don’t discriminate between the sources. They often use 6th century material from one place alongside 12th century material from another place and 17th century material from a third and treat them all as equal. They don’t look at who compiled or composed these materials, and where and why. They don’t question what those materials meant within the contexts that produced them. And they ignore all the material that speaks contrary to the desired picture.

This may be satisfying but it is not history. Gaul in the first century B.C.E. is not the same as eighth century Ireland or twelfth century Wales. A source written by an outsider who is describing something that was told to him second- or third-hand and observed by another outsider who may well not have fully understood what he saw is not the same as a source written by a native eye-witness. All sources have their own writer-bias, to do with place and class and gender and time. The bulk of primary source material that we possess from the Celtic and Gaelic speaking countries in the early middle ages does not support the idea that women in those cultures were equal to men. Rather the opposite: as with many other mediaeval European cultures, women in early Wales, Scotland and Ireland seem to have been subordinate to men. They could not own land (unlike Anglo-Saxon women), they could not bear witness in court, they could not transmit a right to inherit land or power. In both Wales and Ireland – two rather different countries with cultures that were not identical – women remained lifelong minors in legal terms, along with most of the population. Legal adulthood was restricted to mature, land-owning men who were heads of their kin-group. Early Ireland was a hierarchical culture. (We know less about the status of non-landholders in early Wales, but 12th century evidence suggests they were unfree and had been so since before the arrival at least of the Normans and probably for a long time before that.) Ireland was a pre-monetary country: the units of value were cattle and slave girls. Both countries were made up of a patchwork of small kingdoms: in neither is there any historical record of women rulers. Women of power in legends and stories are otherworldly: either they serve to advance the male hero’s path, through training him, sleeping with him or giving him items of power, or they become antagonists, dangerous and damaging figures he must expose and overthrow. An independent woman is a worrying thing to be controlled or exploited.

The usual explanation for this put forward by those who cling to this furphy is to ascribe it to the arrival of Christianity. This view sees figures like Medb in Ireland and Arianrhod in Wales as survivals of a pre-Christian feminist society, demonised and stripped of their power by Christian propaganda. The same argument is applied to the law codes and the banchomarbae mentioned in an early Irish legal source, the kinship poem. The banchomarbae is a female-heir: a woman who inherited family land in certain circumstances. This raises the possibility of land-owning women, but two points need to be made. Firstly, the woman-heir could only inherit in a very narrowly defined circumstance, in which all male members of a fairly widely defined kinship group were dead (all the descendants of a common great-grandfather). This is likely to be rare, especially in a culture which did not insist on legitimacy for a man to inherit and which practised polygamy. Secondly, Irish law schematizes and seeks to provide answers for all sorts of possibilities and degrees of event. While the occasional female heir may have existed, the likelihood is that control of the land was exercised by her husband on her behalf and that considerable efforts were made to find a male heir, any male heir. Far from a survival of feminist practice, the banchomarbae seems to have been a product of a legal tradition that liked to classify and cover all possibilities, however unlikely or rare. The teasing out of ‘pagan’ survivals in written sources is tendentious and is often performed highly selectively. And in Ireland, at least, our evidence suggests that as Christianity spread, it adapted to the local cultures rather than vice versa. In this context, it is worth mentioning that one of the earliest surviving Irish law codes is Cain Adomnan, first promulgated at the end of the 7th century, and concerned with women. It does not set out rules for controlling them: rather it is concerned to make men improve the treatment of widows and orphans, and not to abandon, dispossess or enslave them. That such a law was necessary suggests that native practice did not respect the rights of such women. The bulk of our source materials from soi-disant Celtic cultures suggests that women were subordinate and had long been so.

Perhaps the strongest objection, however, to the notion that ‘Celtic’ cultures were not uniquely feminist until the arrival of Christianity, however, is that such women – assuming for a moment they existed – ceased to exist once their peoples accepted the new religion. The early missionaries were few in number and often did not speak much of the local language. Why did the liberated kick-ass women not just drive them out, once their misogyny became clear? Why didn’t the ‘Celtic’ men, used to such women, react with bafflement or distaste to the idea of oppressing them. The idea that Christianity destroyed Celtic feminism is deeply sexist: to work, it requires the women to be weak enough to allow their rights to be taken away by outsiders. And it also assumes that men will automatically want to oppress women and will seize any chance presented to do so. The feminist ‘Celtic’ woman is a modern furphy, built on wish-fulfilment and selective thinking. She makes for an interesting character in fiction, but she has no place in history.

PS For those who are interested in my views on Boudicca and Cartismandua, see http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2012/08/the-myths-of-avalon.html

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  1. 1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin)

    This furphy even crops up in the Island of the Sea of Time novels, even as Stirling demolishes a furphy about what early Mesoamerica tribes were like.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    I have to say I like the term “furphy.” :-) Any notion of what the etymology might be?

    It’s ironic that I should be reading this right after a friend demolished another furphy in the opposite direction. I had no idea that in Heian-period Japan, men usually moved into their wives’ households, because the women controlled the property. Undoubtedly women have gotten the short end of the stick in most places and times — and controlling property is not the same as being the social, legal, economic, and political equals of men — but there are exceptions to our assumed rules.

  3. 3. Mary

    Hearing people confidently ascribe meaning to a fairy tale often reminds me of the Victorians who cheerfully described any fairy tale at all as a solar myth — a belief that probably was put down by the wise guy who solemnly explained that Napoleon Bonaparte by a solar myth by the same standards of evidence– or attributed plot twists to Stone Age conditions.

  4. 4. Gillian Polack

    I wondered when I saw the title…then I read your opening: thank you!

    ‘Furphy’ is named after a particular person. Water barrels (metal – or the ones I’ve seen are metal) made by one John Furphy were a 19th century and early 20th century water cooler, where people chatted and exchanged ‘known facts.’ Wikipedia said it was Aussie troops who congregated, but I heard it as rural Australians (from an Australian in rural Victoria who had one), so there’s the possibility of furphy even in the definition of the word.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Mary — entertainingly enough, we once did an exercise in one of my grad school folklore classes where we were each given an old nineteenth-century theory (like solar mythology) and asked to explain why the text in front of us clearly demonstrated the concepts of our theory. We all had the same text, of course, so it was simultaneously proving solar mythology AND a bunch of other things. :-D

    (But I stand by my assertion at the time that boy howdy is Buffy the Vampire Slayer a solar myth. Summers! Sunnydale! Blonde hair! Vampires destroyed by sunlight!)

  6. 6. Kari Sperring

    :-)
    That’s rather wonderful. Thank you!

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