Blood and Mistletoe

Ronald Hutton. Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. Yale University Press, 2009.
The Druids in this massive, scholarly book (or rather the vast bulk of it) are not the putative Iron Age religious specialists themselves, for as the first chapter demonstrates, of them little is known, and what sources there are tend to be highly contentious. The chief source is Julius Caesar, and relying on him for historical information may be as risky as relying on accounts by Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin for accurate historical information.

Rather this book is a detailed account of the mountains of speculation and reconstruction forged out of those scraps of information, and the image of the Druid in British culture from Tudor times onward. It goes without saying that these accounts and images will always tell us much more the times in which they were written, than in any actual prehistory. Hutton traces these changing images, both positive and negative, and their relationship to changing religious and national concerns.

Perhaps the chief theme of much of this book is the fabrication of history and the heavy use of myth, speculation, imagination and wishful thinking in the absence of real evidence, and of the many, often rather strange, characters involved in all of this. Some like the fraudster and political and religious radical Edward Williams 'Iolo Morganwg' were to have a significant impact on both Welsh and general British culture. Others such as Dr William Price had an impact on more limited aspects of life -his attempt to cremate his son led to the clarification of the law to allow for cremation in England.

These various pseudo histories led to the formation of several latter day Druid organisations, many starting as, or becoming, friendly societies. Much more on the fringes was the Universal Bond, which was founded by a man who went by the name of George Watson Reid (later MacGregor Reid), whose life, even the small portion of it which was not completely the product of his own extremely vivid imagination, reads like a novel: Scottish trade union activist, Populist candidate for the US House of Representatives, alternative medical practitioner, and founder of a group which roamed across the religious landscape with bewildering changes of direction. It was this group in its Druid incarnation, and its successor organisations which become most prominent as the Druids at Stonehenge, during which time they gradually mutated from being the radicals of the early 20th century, to the epitome of English respectability in contrast to many of the other groups who wished celebrate the solstice at Stonehenge, or at least use it as an opportunity for drunken revels.

This is a massive and comprehensive history, and barring the discovery of dramatic new source material is unlikely to be supplanted in the near future. While portions are likely to be of interest mainly to specialist historians, there is much of general interest, and the text is free of the sort of jargon that often mars academic texts. -- Peter Rogerson.

No comments: