Blood and Mistletoe

Jeremy Black enjoys a lively account of four centuries of interest in these ancient priests

bloodandmistletoe-cbce967

Reviewed by: Jeremy Black
Author: Ronald Hutton
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £30

Advertisement

Written with great verve, this is a sparkling account of how the Druids were reinvented over the last four centuries in order to match current needs, interests and fashions. Beginning with a thoughtful chapter on the ‘Raw Material’, which revisits the evidence for Druid behaviour, both archaeological and literary, Hutton, the talented professor of history at Bristol University, then adopts an essentially chronological approach.

As he points out, with the possible exception of a few Welsh poets, nobody in medieval Britain was interested in Druids as they had no obvious part to play in the medieval European imagination. This situation changed with the Renaissance as Classical texts were re-evaluated. Nevertheless, despite interest in Germany, France and Scotland, the Druids suffered relative neglect in Ireland, England and Wales during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The situation was then transformed, with William Stukeley proving a key advocate, and by 1790, Druids “and their presumed monuments were virtually everywhere. They loomed out of books, strutted in plays, and peered through shrubbery”. Druidical themes played a role in architect John Wood’s designs for Georgian Bath, notably in his design for The Circus, while the dramatic poet William Mason’s epic Caractacus (1759) focused directly upon Druids. The latter bridged antiquarianism and the pre-Romantics.

The presentation of Druids lent itself to rugged scenery and stirring emotions, and, by the end of the 18th century, an affection for Druids had become deeply embedded in British poets such as William Cowper. Druidical monuments were erected across England.

Hutton devotes particular attention to Iolo Morganwg (an influential antiquarian and Welsh poet) and the development of a special association between the Druids and the Welsh. Illustrating Hutton’s theme about a location of Druids in the present, Morganwg also claimed the Druids for radical politics and religion. Yet, as Hutton notes, another contemporary interest led to the Druids by 1800 being established as priests of a religion of gloom, gore and horror.

The light of scientific research cast a harsh glow in the late 19th and early 20th century, diminishing the Druids. Hutton is critical of those experts in prehistory responsible for arguing that in practice they were embedded in traditional culture. He then offers a number of instructive readings of the last century, including on Druids and archaeologists. Stonehenge plays a large role, and Hutton is careful in his handling both of the evidence and of responses to it. He argues that specialists in British prehistory have largely broken away from Victorian conceptions, but that those concerned with Iron Age religion have not.

Advertisement

Although I doubt Hutton’s claim that an interest in Druids is an intrinsic aspect of modernity, this is an excellent book, at once accessible and scholarly, and with its central theme, of present evocations of the past, amply demonstrated.