The Celtic World

Course No. 3733
Professor Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D.
The Catholic University of America
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Course No. 3733
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers There is little evidence to support the idea that there was ever a singular, all-encompassing Celtic" civilization-discover what this group was made up of."
  • numbers The Celts had surprising and historic involvements with Hannibal, Spartacus, Henry II, and Richard Lionheart.
  • numbers Gain a fascinating insight into the hierarchical structures, legal systems, and the role of women in the Celtic societies.

Course Overview

When you hear the word “Celtic,” which images come to mind? These days it could easily be Braveheart, kilts, leprechauns, and St. Patrick’s Day. However, since the surge of interest and pride in Celtic identity since the 19th century, much of what we thought we knew about the Celts has been radically transformed. From the warriors who nearly defeated Julius Caesar to Irish saints who took on the traits of Celtic deities, get to know the real Celts.

In The Celtic World, discover the incredible story of the Celtic-speaking peoples, whose art, language, and culture once spread from Ireland to Austria. This series of 24 enlightening lectures explains the traditional historical view of who the Celts were, then contrasts it with brand-new evidence from DNA analysis and archeology that totally changes our perspective on where the Celts came from. European history and culture have been profoundly affected by the Celts, from the myth of King Arthur to the very map of the United Kingdom, where the English confronted the peoples of the “Celtic Fringe.”

With a wealth of historical expertise, Professor Jennifer Paxton, Director of the University Honors Program and Clinical Assistant Professor of History at The Catholic University of America, guides you through each topic related to Celtic history with approachability and ease as you unearth what we once thought it meant—and what it may actually mean—to be Celtic. Professor Paxton’s engaging, often humorous delivery blends perfectly with the facts about the Celts to uncover surprising historical revelations. The ancient Celts are very much alive in the literary and artistic traditions that their descendants have both preserved and very deliberately revived. All facets of Celtic life, past and present, are addressed by Professor Paxton, who demonstrates a masterful knowledge and carefully separates fact from myth at every turn.

Discover the Celts through Their Society

There is actually very little evidence to support the idea that there was ever a singular, all-encompassing “Celtic” civilization. Earlier historical narratives paint a picture of the Celts as a people that migrated (and sometimes conquered) throughout Europe before settling in the British Isles. In fact, as Professor Paxton highlights from the very beginning, the “Celts” of Europe and the “Celts” of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales were likely different groups, connected by aspects of language and culture (and some imaginative scholarship) but not by genetics.

While The Celtic World offers a look at the modern view of Celtic cultures as varied identities rather than a homogeneous group, you will still dive deeply into the history of the peoples most often recognized as Celtic—those who lived in what is now the United Kingdom and Ireland. And even these more familiar groups can offer some unexpected surprises. For example, when the English began to encounter—and try to assimilate—the other peoples of the British Isles and Ireland in the 11th and 12th centuries, many English lawyers and clerics were disturbed that the Celts didn’t practice “primogeniture”—the legal right of the first-born son to inherit his father’s estate. Instead, as Professor Paxton reveals, in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales a much more fluid system of inheritance dominated, one that even included rights for illegitimate sons. Instead of the criminal justice system that focuses on individual culpability that we are familiar with today, Celtic law was based on the kin group, so disputes were settled by the families of the plaintiff and the defendant. Under this system, if your cousin killed someone, the victim’s family simply sued yours for damages, and everyone in your family had to pay a portion of the compensation out of their own pockets! To paraphrase Professor Paxton, it was good incentive to keep your family from causing trouble.

The Celts also expressed themselves in unique ways. Rather than limiting their displays of wealth to big houses, clothing, or servants, wealthy residents of the Celtic Fringe also displayed their affluence by hiring poets to sing songs of praise about them at public events and parties. These poets also, perhaps most importantly, wrote and performed poems satirizing and insulting their employers’ enemies or rivals. The idea behind this medieval trash-talking was that the better the lord’s poet was, the more money he must have in order to meet the high price of these in-demand performers.

Celtic culture had its darker side as well; slavery and indentured servitude permeated the Celtic world. Poverty and dependence were common, much as in other parts of feudal Europe. However, in contrast to forced labor practices, lords and property owners often entered into contracts with peasants that offered them discounted rent payments in exchange for manual labor, service in combat, or participation in their lord’s entourage when he needed to travel through enemy territory.

This glimpse into the social life of the Celts constitutes just one small portion of day-to-day life in The Celtic World. As you trace this rich history with Professor Paxton, you will also explore subjects as varied as women’s rights, artificial islands built into lakes, and why it was insulting to fast on someone’s doorstep.

Discover the Celts through Their Arts

When they weren’t farming, fighting wars, or paying their murderous cousins’ legal fees, the Celts had to do something to pass the time. On the one hand, some of what we know about their earliest days remains limited because they believed that passing down their knowledge orally was highly preferable to the written word, which they saw as lazy. Fortunately for us, a culture of writing did eventually develop and Celtic books came along, bringing a rich tapestry of history, arts, and mythology with them. As you study the Celtic peoples with Professor Paxton, you will discover many aspects of their art, literature, architecture, and more, including:

  • The mythological Book of Invasions, an early Irish “history” involving one-legged, one-armed giants and sorcerers practicing black magic.
  • The surprising origins of King Arthur and Arthurian literature throughout Europe.
  • The intricate, curvilinear Celtic art style that was found on jewelry, armor, pottery, and more.
  • Traditional Celtic instruments like the carnyx—a long, vertically standing war trumpet with moving parts.
  • Celtic dress, from the nudity preferred in battle to the famous plaid tartan.
  • Real-life Celtic figures who inspired fiction much later, such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Braveheart‘s William Wallace.

Professor Paxton lays all these aspects of Celtic culture out with an accessible simplicity, and she shows how, from their influence on Latin to mythology-infused heavy metal, the Celts shine brightly across human history.

Classical “Celts”?

The Celts of classical Europe stood out as northerly neighbors to the Greeks and Romans as far back as 500 B.C. From that time until the English defeated the last Irish chieftains 2,000 years later, the Celtic world bursts with action-packed tales of lands gained and lands lost, triumphs and defeats, ritual practices that defy belief, and more.

The Gauls, who we know presided over much of Central Europe, nearly bested Julius Caesar himself. Professor Paxton gives you a thorough look at this page of history, from Gaulish victories to their leader’s public execution in Rome.

But Celtic culture was flourishing on the fringes of Europe, in Britain and Ireland, and it was continually enriched by outside influences. By looking at the Celts and their interactions with the Vikings—both peaceful and violent—Professor Paxton shows that the Celts happily adopted Viking art motifs and used the silver brought by Viking traders from the Islamic world to transform Irish fashions in jewelry. Vikings also influenced the fighting capabilities of the Irish by introducing them to the battle axe.

Aside from Julius Caesar, the Celts also had surprising and historic involvements with Hannibal, Spartacus, Henry II, and Richard Lionheart. In addition to these landmark European figures, the story of Celtic civilization sprouted in the fringe territories of Brittany, Galicia, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man, each of which you will explore in The Celtic World.

A New History for an Ancient People

By bringing a new historical understanding to long-held beliefs about the Celts, The Celtic Worldwill broaden your idea of what “Celtic” really means. This new perspective will open your eyes to the larger story of European history through the centuries, and with Professor Paxton’s personable and informative guidance, you will learn valuable new information about this vital and storied culture and will be able to further appreciate countless aspects of our modern world that have derived from Celtic influence, from Celtic music and dance, to government, law, and social hierarchies, and even the very shape of contemporary Europe.

Whether you’re interested in the whole of European history or simply want to appreciate your own Celtic heritage, The Celtic World has so much to offer. Come along for a ride through history to discover your inner Celt.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 32 minutes each
  • 1
    Who Are the Celts?
    Professor Paxton begins this lively history course by examining the common preconceptions about Celtic identity—before smashing them to bits. The first lecture paints the initial brushstrokes on the gargantuan canvas of this European culture most widely perceived as Scottish and Irish while promising much more. x
  • 2
    The Celts and the Classical World
    Our earliest written records of the Celts come from Italy, Greece, and Spain, dating as far back as the 6th century B.C. Although scholarly theories about the Celts’ migration throughout Europe conflict, the foundation of our understanding of their origins is laid bare here, peppered with several curious historic anecdotes. x
  • 3
    Celtic Art and Artifacts
    Archaeological studies of Celtic artifacts have woven a rich tapestry of their millennia-old society and its La Tène art style. Learn about war trumpets, gold necklaces, ornate helmets, and other recovered objects from around Europe to build an image of this ever-adapting culture and its connections to the classical world. x
  • 4
    Celtic Languages in the Ancient World
    The discovery of Celtic inscriptions on the western coast of Spain suggests the possible development of a common language along maritime Celtic trade routes, revolutionizing studies of Celtic origins and migration. The long-standing theory of Central European Celtic origins may die out thanks to new linguistic evidence. x
  • 5
    Caesar and the Gauls
    Several centuries of violent combat against Celtic-controlled Gaul made northern Italy and southern France a dangerous neighborhood for the Romans. Hannibal, Gaius Marius, and Spartacus are just some of the famous figures of world history who encounter the Gauls in this lecture centered on Julius Caesar's wars against the Gauls. x
  • 6
    Celtic Religion and the Druids
    Celtic religious beliefs included divination, reincarnation, and human sacrifice. Along with these practices, discover the ancient religious figures known as druids who served as holy men, soothsayers, and even lawyers. Enjoy this insight into the Celtic version of one constant that appears in all civilizations—the sacred. x
  • 7
    Celtic Britain and Roman Britain
    Professor Paxton uses the theory of trade-based migration to first explain the arrival of the Celts influence in Britain before the arrival of the Romans. Then she details the exciting struggle between the Celts and the Romans over Britain, untangling the web of history on the island during the first and second centuries A.D. x
  • 8
    Celts and Picts in Scotland
    With a Romanized southern Britain, what was life like in Scotland? Meet the warring tribes of Picts that ruled North Britain, with the Irish to the west and Angles moving in from the southeast. Highlights include the ancient Pictish tongue and the truth about William “Braveheart” Wallace and all that blue paint. x
  • 9
    Prehistoric Ireland and the Celts
    An early Irish text called The Book of Invasions is the basis for this truly unique look back at the origins of Ireland and its people. In equal parts weird, fascinating, and humorous, this text tells of one-armed pirate giants, descendants of Noah, a tribe of sorcerers, and six full-scale takeovers of Ireland. x
  • 10
    Celtic Britain after Rome
    North and west of what today is England, where the Romans held far less influence, a paradoxical era of both peaceful immigration and rebellion added to the melting pot of Britain in the first millennium A.D. Discover Cornwall, Wales, and parts of Scotland with a quick appearance of one of Britain's noblest legends: King Arthur. x
  • 11
    Brittany and Galicia: Fringe of the Fringe
    See how both France and Spain welcomed immigrants from a rapidly de-Romanizing Britain. Brittany became a thriving Celtic province that maintained its autonomy through the Middle Ages, while Galicia mostly lost its Celtic identity until a revival of interest in modern times. x
  • 12
    Celtic Churches
    The melding of pagan religions and Christianity is a compelling tale. St. Patrick’s legendary priesthood and missionary work are discussed, as is the Christian saint Brigid, who was remolded as a nature deity to impress the recently converted Irish. Learn how Irish monks brought Latin learning back to the European continent and “saved civilization.” x
  • 13
    Celtic Art and Insular Art
    Native Britons copied much of the art style prominent on the continent, complicating the process of defining Celtic art, but Professor Paxton unties this intricate knot. Observe some of Ireland's most breathtaking religious and secular art pieces, from the Book of Kells to the Tara Brooch. x
  • 14
    Medieval Irish Literature
    The early Irish prized literary skill just as much as prowess in warfare, and lords were judged by the quality of poet they could hire. This lecture gives a glimpse into the diverse genres of Irish literature, from epics about mythological heroes to exciting tales designed to warn kings about the dangers of ruling unjustly. x
  • 15
    Celtic Women, Families, and Social Structure
    Irish society treated all disputes as civil suits between families—so if your cousin killed someone, you had to pay some of the damages, which varied with the social status of the victim. Gain a fascinating insight into the hierarchical structure of this period and women’s roles in society as well. x
  • 16
    The Irish Sea World: Celts and Vikings
    By the turn of the first millennium A.D., we find ample evidence of Viking presence in both Ireland and Scotland. From raids to intermarriages, the Celtic-Scandinavian relationship is a stranger-than-fiction love-hate saga any history buff can appreciate. x
  • 17
    English Invasions of Wales and Ireland
    Get a glimpse of the life of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, one of the most influential Welsh rulers, who briefly unified the country 1,000 years ago. Uncover the shocking truth of Henry II's invasion of Ireland and its causes as well as anti-Irish propaganda and the development of cruel stereotypes that influenced English views of the Irish down to the modern period. x
  • 18
    Scotland from Macbeth to Braveheart
    How do Shakespeare and Hollywood stack up against the truth in some of the fictional accounts of Scotland's history? Learn about the historical Macbeth and William Wallace (of Braveheart fame), as well as the famous ruler Robert Bruce, who secured Scottish independence from the invading English. x
  • 19
    Politics and Literature in Wales
    Unveil the turbulent story of English conquest in Wales with this insightful glimpse into Welsh history that includes the unfortunate influence of misplaced loyalty to family that cost the Welsh their sovereignty forever. Then, look at Welsh literature, particularly the wonderful but enigmatic myths of the Mabinogi and the witty poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym. x
  • 20
    The Tudor Conquest of Ireland
    After Henry VIII denounced Catholicism, England tried repeatedly to bring Ireland into its fold. With Catholicism and Protestantism at odds, Irish chieftains were caught in the middle: the English offered land deals in exchange for shedding their Irish culture and heritage. Witness the aftermath when a historic powder keg exploded, with devastating losses on both sides. x
  • 21
    (Re)Discovering the Celts
    Just as the Tudors were conquering Ireland, linguistic studies of the Celtic languages began and a new fascination with the Celts slowly emerged. Witness the resurgence of mythological Celtic tales and the revival of the tartan after it was briefly banned by the British; see how fascination with the druids and Welsh bards created a newly confident Welsh identity. x
  • 22
    The Gaelic Revival in Ireland
    Compared to the fun-loving and historically focused revival of Celtic culture in Scotland and Wales, Ireland's Celtic revival had more of a political edge. Ancient Irish mythology played a surprising role in the growth of Irish nationalism that led to conflict and ultimately to independence from Britain. x
  • 23
    Celtic Music and Dance
    Celtic instruments come to life in this lecture. Take a music lesson and learn about the carnyx, a war trumpet; the bodhrán, a hand drum; and the crwth, a lyre played with a bow. Treat your ears to samples of these and beautiful Irish singing, then watch clips of delightful Celtic dances based on classic traditions. x
  • 24
    The Celts Today
    In the final lecture, end your 2,500-year journey with the Celts by considering the Celtic nations in the 21st century. Bilingualism, modern Celtic pop culture, and renewed nationalist groups pushing for political autonomy are merely the tip of the iceberg in this satisfying conclusion to a truly epic history of culture, politics, and warfare. x

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  • 265-page printed course guidebook
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  • 265-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

Jennifer Paxton

About Your Professor

Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D.
The Catholic University of America
Dr. Jennifer Paxton is Assistant Director of the University Honors Program and Clinical Assistant Professor of History at The Catholic University of America. She was previously a Professorial Lecturer in History at Georgetown University, where she taught for more than a decade. The holder of a doctorate in history from Harvard University, where she has also taught and earned a Certificate of Distinction, Professor Paxton is...
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The Celtic World is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 293.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful course. This was my first experience with The Great Courses. I found The Celtic World excellent. It was well prepared and flowed well from lecture to lecture. For me, it is a perfect way to learn while staying at home. I will be signing up for other courses.
Date published: 2020-11-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A great overview of a complex history. This is a very complete story of the Celtic history. The current theories concerning Celtic origins, movements, fragmentation and influence are explained in a very reader friendly manner. By the end of the story, the reader is introduced to the present day Celtic presence in a very human way.
Date published: 2020-11-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyed it from beginning to end!! So interesting yet also taught with great teaching methods. Every lecture opening with "what we will be learning'" Really appreciated that in knowing what to be listening for in the lecture. And, as my DNA testing shows, I have such high areas of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, it really felt personal.
Date published: 2020-09-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific Presentation Professor Paxton is a superb storyteller with a formidable grasp of her subject matter. Her voice is clear and her delivery excellent, with nary an "um," "er," or stumble, which is refreshing. An astonishing amount of research and scholarship have gone into this course. I enjoy Dr. Paxton's sense of humor and her many anecdotes about colorful historical figures. My only slightly negative comment is that the material, however fascinating, is sometimes overwhelming – too much, too fast. The professor moves quickly from point to point, so it's not always easy to absorb and contemplate one piece of information before another one comes along. But, thankfully, we can always rewind and listen once again to anything we missed. I have one more lecture to go, and I'm sorry I'm nearly at the end of the course. I thoroughly enjoy these lectures and will soon be looking for another one by Dr. Paxton.
Date published: 2020-09-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Celtic World course My wife and I received this course less than a week ago. We have found ourselves doing a Celtic binge nearly every night. This is a very interesting subject for us--my wife is 100% Scots-Irish. I am Danish, British and Western European. Despite my lack of Celtic blood/DNA, I have found that Dr. Paxton's lectures have brought information from my parts of the world, too. I have never heard such comprehensive lectures! We have 2 more courses that we are looking forward to. The courses are far better than the meager offerings of our COVID minimized TV options! Thanks.
Date published: 2020-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Finally a course which covers Ireland Did not realize the wide expanse of Celtic Culture prior to taking this course. Instructor very good at explaining things.
Date published: 2020-08-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Virus free study! I think this is as good as my college courses were, and a lot less expensive. Besides I won't worry about getting "the virus."
Date published: 2020-08-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very thorough and easy to follow. My wife and I bought this course after our trip to Ireland was cancelled due to COVID 19. We hope to reschedule and this course has given us insight into other areas to visit. We love the tidbits on language and terms that continue to this day such as "Welshing on a bet." We also learned how my wife whose ancestors are from Cork obtained Norse in her DNA. Great course and Dr. Jennifer Paxton is very knowledgeable and entertaining.
Date published: 2020-08-18
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