Badger Bob wrote:I've not read Hutton's latest book but did he really dismiss the ancient sources or just say that we can't take them at face value.
A bit of both.
For example, in The Druids, (Chapter 1 - The Patriotic Druids - pp 3-6) he discusses Tacitus' description of the Roman attack on Anglesey. He points out that the components of Tacitus' description (wild tribes, raving women, horrible religious customs) can be seen as part of a narrative of what it means to be Roman as opposed to barbarian. He then cites two classicists, one of whom believes that Tacitus seldom used first-hand evidence, the other of whom sees Tacitus as someone who "employed historical issues to make moral and emotional points"
and emphasises that "we can never know the truth of the actual episodes that he portrays"
. Hutton's conclusion is then that "the actual evidence for druids as heroic champions of native independence, or even for their existence in Britain at all at the time of the Roman conquest, therefore consists of a molehill of completely unreliable material".
In Blood and Mistletoe, the first chapter (The Raw Material) is a more systematic discussion of the range of classical material, the archaeological evidence, and the mediaeval texts. Pages 1 - 23 give a useful summary of the classical sources, discussing their value. His conclusion: "Readers unfamiliar with the ancient sources for Druids, and who were following this discussion comfortably until about the point at which it passed Strabo, may now be completely bewildered by the number of authors presented, and the problems with each. What needs to be clear is that all of them may be correct or all may be wrong. We may be in possession of a relatively large quantity of valuable data, or we may have none at all. Although the information is collectively internally compatible, some of it may be wildly inaccurate and some accurate in the last detail. We have no objective means whatever of consigning any of it to one category or the other."
Now, this position suits Hutton very well, since both of his books concern, not so much the historical Druids themselves, as narratives about the Druids, and the use that later generations have made of such narratives.
But if we are to be this sceptical, most of history before relatively modern times must be equally open to question! And the same sources which he distrusts when they write about Druids describe other features of Celtic culture which can be corroborated (admittedly sketchily at times) from archaeological evidence; for example, deposits of valuables in lakes, or the use of lyres and battle trumpets. Does the fact that these writers (like any writers) had their own culture and their own agenda really invalidate everything they say so completely?
Hutton gives lots of reasons why we should not trust the sources, and should be alert to what kinds of narrative strategy they use, and how we ourselves construct our own narratives around them.
Miranda Green is more concerned to tease out what we can
discover from them; and, to be fair, Hutton has provided a very generous recommendation for the back cover of her book.
Both approaches, I think, are useful; but I wouldn't want to do without the positive side!