Mar 14, 2008

Confessions Of A Romano-Celt?

As a Welshman and a student of Welsh history I am in the habit of raising a glass or two on significant dates in the Welsh calendar. In order to facilitate my predeliction I am in the process of developing an easy reference for celebrants of the Cymric heritage on these pages at The concept of 'significant dates' is interpreted very liberally both in order to fill the available spaces and of course to maximise excuses for revelry.

I am endebted to the memory of Arthur Machen for one such recent opportunity. He was born on March 3rd 1863. Anyone not acquainted with the works of Arthur Machen should seek to remedy that deficiency immediately. There are a number of relevant links on this calendar page. He wrote several masterpieces of Gothic whimsy outstanding amongst which is "The Three Impostors" (1895). He is regarded as the 'missing link' between M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft by many afficianados of the genre. He is also the author of "The Hill Of Dreams" a semi-autobiographical novella which is by turns one of the most sublime, profound and hilarious products of late Victorian literature. Additionally his work offers fascinating insights into the social mores and customs of provincial life in late 19th century Gwent.

When I was an undergraduate, many decades ago, I had the pleasure and privilege to be tutored by the late great Gwyn A. Williams author of "When Was Wales", one of the definitive works on the subject of Welsh history and national identity. He was fond of referring to the present day inhabitants of Wales as "Romano-Celts", suggesting perhaps that the Welsh are in some way the beleaguered remnants of the once mighty Roman empire. Certainly pockets of something resembling Late Roman civilization may have lingered for a few centuries in places like Caerwent and Caerleon but for the most part I remained sceptical. It seems doubtful that the Roman influence penetrated the Welsh hinterland extensively and may only really have been significant in the immediate environs of the legionary forts and civitas capitals. Most of Wales' modern day inhabitants, in the South at least, are descendants of the English, Scots and Irish immigrants who came looking for work during the 'coal rush' from the 1850's onwards. It seemed fanciful to imagine that anything of Romano-Celtic vintage could have survived into the modern age.

Then I came across this fascinating passage in a volume by Machen:-

"When I was a boy, which is a good many years ago, there was a very queer celebration on New Year's Day in the little Monmouthshire town where I was born, Caerleon-on-Usk. The town children—village children would be nearer the mark since the population of the place amounted to a thousand souls or thereabouts—got the biggest and bravest and gayest apple they could find in the loft, deep in the dry bracken. They put bits of gold leaf upon it. They stuck raisins into it. They inserted into the apple little sprigs of box, and then they delicately slit the ends of hazel nuts, and so worked that the nuts appeared to grow from the ends of the box-leaves, to be the disproportionate fruit of these small trees. At last, three bits of stick were fixed into the base of the apple, tripod-wise; and so it was borne round from house to house; and the children got cakes and sweets, and—those were wild days, remember—small cups of ale. And nobody knew what it was all about.

And here is the strangeness of it. Caerleon means the fort of the legions, and for about three hundred years the Second Augustan Legion was quartered there, and made a tiny Rome of the place, with amphitheatre, baths, temples, and everything necessary for the comfort of a Roman-Briton. And the Legion brought over the custom of the strena (French, ├ętrennes) the New Year's gift of good omen. The apple, with its gold leaf, raisins and nuts, meant: 'good crops and wealth in the New Year.' It is the Latin poet, Martial, I think, who alludes to the custom. He was an ungrateful fellow; somebody sent him a gold cup as a New Year's gift, and he said that the gold of the cup was so thin that it would have done very well to put on the festive apple of the day.
Well, I suppose the Second Augustan was recalled somewhere about a.d. 400. The Saxon came to Caerleon, and after him the Dane, and then the Norman, and then the modern spirit, the worst enemy of all, and still, up to fifty years ago, the Caerleon children kept New Year's Day, as if the Legionaries were yet in garrison. And I suppose that Caerleon was the only place south of the Tweed where people took any festal notice at all of the first day in the year. For it is not an old English festival at all. It is distinctly Latin in origin."

So, it appears that in one small corner of Wales an ancient Roman tradition survived until the late 19th century...nearly 1600 years! A small thing, granted, but nevertheless perhaps I should raise a glass to Gwyn Williams on September 30th ( his birthdate) this year.

( The above quote is from "Why New Year?" anthologised in "Dog And Duck" by Arthur Machen. The complete text can be found on Project Gutenberg Here.)

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