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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces part of
Celtic Britain

by Nora K. Chadwick

published by Frederick A. Praeger
New York

The text and engravings are in the public domain.

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Chapter I

p17 Introduction

The sources for the history of Celtic Britain are as varied as the historical geography of the island itself. They are found not only in our libraries, but under the earth and all over its surface. They are eloquent in its stone and earthen ramparts and hill-forts, its great hill-top cities and more modest cliff castles, its shore defences, its long walls of turf and stone and its well-defined ancient roads. They speak to us eloquently in numerous inscriptions on stone from the Firth of Forth to the extreme peninsulas of Wales and Cornwall, the earliest articulate messages of our ancestors; and the messages have come down to us from several centuries and from very different social classes and political conditions. This present book is one of a series in which special emphasis is laid on Archaeology, the new science which even in our own lifetime, within the span of a single generation, has added many centuries, even millennia, to our history. We are fortunate in the possession of a wealth of archaeological material which is now coming to light through the most up-to-date scientific techniques to elucidate the Britain of the ancient world.

The wealth and variety of our written sources is even greater, and again they have come to us from several centuries, and from the Continent, and from Ireland, as well as from our own country, and so, naturally, in a variety of languages. We have contemporary notices in Latin chronicles and letters and what are virtually daily press reports by the panegyric poets of Gaul. Only a little later are the Irish and Welsh entries in their chronicles, chiefly in Latin, but partly in Irish, the earliest Irish entries being often derived from contemporary poems, which are sometimes quoted; and though the compilation of none of the Irish annals in their present form was earlier than the seventh p18century, they are derived in part from oral tradition carefully preserved by a strictly regulated professional class. For the peoples of Britain between the departure of the Romans and the establishment of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms such oral traditions, mostly written down several centuries later, are our principal source of information.

To speak of these records and traditions of our early history as 'sources' is to do them less than justice. They are in fact, whether contemporary Latin records or even vernacular traditions, of the greatest possible interest in their own right, for in their form and style they reflect the varied phases of the civilisation and the social classes of the people who have placed them on record; the Roman officials, or the native Irish or British ecclesiastics working in an unfamiliar Latin medium; the heroic poets by their allusions in panegyrics and elegies to persons and events of whom we have no other memorials; the genealogists, who, by their knowledge of the archives — whether written or oral — of the leading families of the period, have bequeathed to us the material which might form a small Debrett of the early aristocracy who ruled Britain, first under the Romans, and later when the Romans had passed like a dream in the night.

It will not be possible in the small space at our disposal to refer to more than a few of these sources, but the reader will find it helpful to consult the brief List of Primary Authorities for the period, and the editions most readily accessible, which is given on pp167 f. below.

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Page updated: 24 Apr 08