HSTAM 276 A: Celtic Civilizations of the European Middle Ages

Spring 2021
TTh 8:30am - 10:20am / * *
Section Type:
Syllabus Description (from Canvas):


Celtic Civilizations, Spring 2021

Have you ever wondered about bards, druids and pagan religion, Celtic mythology, "Celtic monasticism," heroic literatures and what happens to them in the Christian era, beautifully ornamented Gospel books like the Book of Kells, and the conquest of the Celtic nations of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland by the English?  Have you ever wanted to compose and perform a satire against your teacher or competing discussion sections?  If so, this is the class for you!  Celtic studies is a field bedeviled with paradoxes.  On the one hand, Ireland alone preserves the richest vernacular literature extant from anywhere in western Europe before the twelfth century:  volumes and volumes of narrative tales and poetry, annals, law tracts, saints’ lives, and genealogies that run to 13,000 names and counting.  On the other, its history and culture, along with that of Wales, Scotland, and Brittany remains a virtual unknown to the vast majority of medievalists. Usually Ireland appears in standard medieval textbooks (if at all) principally as the “savior” of a western civilization in which it is then, bizarrely, imagined as having never subsequently participated.  Wales and Scotland have fared even worse in textbook accounts, showing up only briefly—and then only in order to be vanquished (or ultimately not, in the case of Scotland) by the English.  

This class seeks to redress that imbalance by focusing entirely on the history and culture of the Celtic-speaking peoples of Europe from the Iron Age to the coming of the Normans to Ireland, Wales, and Scotland in the twelfth century.  There are two principal themes to this course:  identity and tradition.  By “identity” is meant “Celtic” identity--the notion that the peoples and cultures we will study this term display common characteristics that one can legitimately term “Celtic.”  As we will see, this is a more complicated subject than it might at first appear.  The “Celtic” peoples we will study this term were widespread throughout the ancient and medieval worlds, a fact that in itself suggests regional variation and the possibility of differential change over time.  Moreover, these peoples did not exist in isolation but, rather, lived side by side with the literate cultures of the ancient and Christian worlds.  Distinguishing what is “Celtic” from what is not can be a difficult proposition indeed.  Related to the issue of “identity” is that of “tradition”:  how traditions are transmitted and how they change over time in response to changing perceptions and priorities.  It is a common assumption that Celtic-speaking peoples were both capable of and interested in transmitting “traditional” beliefs unchanged throughout the centuries.  However, for many of these peoples, the past served primarily as a means by which to talk about the present, a fact that makes it difficult to talk about “tradition” as though it were always and everywhere an immutable constant.  A large part of our efforts this quarter will thus be devoted to understanding the construction of tradition rather than its verbatim transmission over time.

NOTE:  This course is approved  for both VLPA and I&S credit.

ATTENTION ENROLLED STUDENTS:  you will find all documents pertaining to this course AND all Power Points of lectures under Files/Folder/Document Name.  Zoom links and recordings of lectures will be found under Zoom/Cloud Recordings/Date.  

Readings:  One of the interesting aspects of the Celtic cultures of the middle ages is that their intellectuals reserved writing primarily for texts that we would today regard as primarily literary rather than historical or administrative in nature.  Consequently, the readings for this class will consist mainly of myths, poetry, and the stories of saints.  Seven books are required for this class:

The Celtic Heroic Age, ed. John Koch with John Carey (this book is out of print, but should be available in used copies.  I have a preference for the 4th edition, but the 2nd or 3rd edition can be made to work also).

The Tain, transl. Thomas Kinsella

The Mabinogion, transl. Sioned Davies

Adamnan of Iona, The Life of Columba, transl. Richard Sharpe

The Journey through Wales and the Description of Wales, transl. Lewis Thorpe

The Romance of Arthur, ed. James J. Wilhelm

Course mechanics and assignments

The class will consist of two hours of lecture (plus occasional discussion, breakout group work) on Tuesday and Thursday; this will all be done via Zoom, and while I very much hope that students choose to attend synchronously, the lectures will be recorded.  Students will also attend a discussion section led by a TA on Friday in which they will get to weigh in on the readings for that week.   Because Zoom does not record breakout discussion groups, section will not be recorded and must be attended synchronously.

The written assignments consist of two micro-essays, each of which has a formal formal draft that will be reviewed in class by other students.  In addition, students will complete five paragraphs on the readings that will be graded on the basis of whether they were completed rather than on content.  There will be one final exam, also conducted via Zoom.

Percentages for each assignment:

First micro-essay:                                                     25% 

Second micro-essay:                                               25%

Final exam:                                                               25%

Participation in section and lecture:                      15%

Reader reflection paragraphs:                             10%

ATTENTION ENROLLED STUDENTS:  you will find all documents pertaining to this course AND all Power Points of lectures under Files/Folder/Document Name.  Zoom links and recordings of lectures will be found under Zoom/Cloud Recordings/Date.  


Catalog Description:
Introduction to the history and pseudo-history of medieval Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Gaul. Topics include "Celtic" religion, mythology, social institutions, nationalism, and the relationship between history and myth. Particular attention to how historians "do" history in the absence of straightforward historical sources.
GE Requirements Met:
Social Sciences (SSc)
Arts and Humanities (A&H)
Last updated:
April 18, 2024 - 6:40 pm