What is Celtic Studies?

At the heart of Celtic studies lie the Celtic languages. Indeed, “Celtic” is first and foremost a linguistic category, referring to a group of closely related languages within the Indo-European family. “Celtic literatures” comprise the texts written in the Celtic languages, and “Celtic folklore” their oral traditions.

The modern Celtic languages are divided into subgroups. Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic are Goidelic languages; the Brythonic languages are Welsh, Breton and Cornish. None of the Celtic languages once spoken on the European mainland survived into the modern era, but some of them – Gaulish, Lepontic, Celtiberian – are attested in ancient inscriptions. Irish, especially in its earliest form, is of particularly great linguistic interest, At Harvard, the primary focus is on the languages with the most substantial literatures – Irish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and, to a lesser extent, Breton.

The Irish and Welsh literary traditions stretch back to the sixth century, and continue to flourish at the start of the twenty-first. Scottish Gaelic tradition emerges into a literature distinct from Irish only in the late Middle Ages, but has produced a wealth of writing ever since. Students and faculty in this department are interested in literature of every period, but there is particular emphasis on the medieval Celtic literatures.

Oral tradition has always been of vital importance to Celtic-speaking peoples, and from the mid-nineteenth century on collectors were active in recording that tradition. The study of Celtic has always been very much engaged with the study of folklore, a field in which Harvard has a distinguished tradition of research and teaching.

A number of other disciplines are involved in Celtic studies as well. For example, since the literary culture of the medieval Celtic-speaking peoples had a Latin, as well as a vernacular component, scholars sometimes find their research taking them into the realm of “Celtic Latin literature.” The study of manuscripts written in Celtic languages and in Latin by Celtic-speaking scribes also has a vital place in the study of Celtic literatures. So too do the history of the Celtic-speaking peoples and the sources that preserve that history, whether written in Celtic languages, Latin, English, or French. The visual and material culture of the Celtic-speaking countries, too, is an important source for cultural historians and so often comes into research in Celtic studies.