England against the Celtic fringe: a study in cultural stereotypes
By W.R. Jones
Journal of World History / Cahiers d’Histoire Mondiale, Vol. 13 (1971)
Synopsis: The clash of cultures has often been portrayed historically as the struggle of ‘civilization’ with ‘barbarism’. Such a characterization of their relationship was immensely satisfying to advocates of the dominant life-style, who thereby assured themselves of their own superiority and of the desirability of the conquest or conversion of their rivals. To the Norman and Angevin, the medieval Celt was the true barbarian. This article examines English perceptions of Celts during the High Middle Ages.
Introduction: Medieval England was bounded on the North and East by three Celtic societies which had, in some respects, preserved relatively unchanged their archaic cultures of the early Iron Age. Resembling each other, the cultures of the Irish, the Scots, and the Welsh were qualitatively different from that of the English, and these differences were evident as late as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Frederic W. Maitland was probably the first modern historian to apply the term, “Celtic Fringe”, to these peples, who never experienced, in the usual sense of the words, a “middle ages” and who as late as Francis Bacon’s day were thought to be distinguished by the primitivism and archaism of their cultures.
From the time of the Norman Conquest forward these tribal, pastoral, politically decentralized, and economically marginal societies of oat-and barley-growing, meat-eating, and milk-drinking cattle-raiders stood in marked contrast with the agrarian, feudalized, town-and village-dwelling, politically consolidated, and more affluent society of wheat-growing and wine-drinking Englishmen. Nestled in their mountain hideaways, where they had been shoved by Norman conquerors and English colonists, the highland Celtic world looked down angrily on the settled and more orderly society of the lowlands, which repaid Celtic belligerency with contempt and derision.