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History of Burgundy


Celtic Goddess Sequana, Burgundy, France
Goddess Sequana

France was known as Gallia by the Romans, and its people as Galli. The Greeks knew them as Keltoi – which is where we get 'Celts' from. In fact, they probably didn't think of themselves as anything other than belonging to a tribe.

Gaul was a vast area stretching from the Alps to the Pyrenees, and taking in all of modern-day France, Belgium, Luxembourg and most of Switzerland. The peoples were the result of continuous migration. There were a bewildering number of ethic groupings. The world outside the tribal boundaries was shaped by travellers' tales and traders – and by encounters with other tribes – hostile and peaceful.

The Celts originated in Gaul – and in particular from a region that included present-day Burgundy, Switzerland and Austria. From about 1200BC until the Roman conquest in 52BC, Gaul was the centre of an evolving Celtic civilisation that spread outwards to Turkey, Italy, the Iberian peninsula, Britain, the low countries and through eastern Europe.

It would be wrong to suggest that there was an homogenous people called 'Celts'. There was no common Celtic language. They would not have known that they were part of a progressive civilization, nor seen any compatibility or similarity between tribes from opposite ends of Europe. They didn't have expansionist ambitions to conquer neighbouring lands in order to create a Celtic empire, and until the Romans invaded they seldom fought together with other tribes against a common foe. The profound influence that the Celts were to exert came through trade and gradual assimilation.

artists and craftsmen

Merchants travelled far and wide taking with them not only their wares, but also their skills, beliefs, knowledge, customs and fashions. These were adopted and absorbed by other indigenous populations because they were superior to their own, and represented cultural advance. The

Celts didn't write anything down – therefore everything that we know about them comes from ancient classical writings and archaeology.

They were outstanding farmers and stockmen and lived in farmsteads and villages – they rode and used horses and invented a reaping machine which was later adopted by the Romans. They retreated to hill-top strongholds – oppida – when danger threatened. But it is their mining, metal-working and carpentry skills and their imaginative ingenuity for which the Celts are remembered. This not only gave them a practical edge on other civilization when it came to weaponry, shields, tools and agricultural implements, but also established them as the western world's creative artists and craftsmen. They excelled at jewellery-making, fine art and precious metalcraft. This industry became the basis of their foreign trade and wealth-generation. When they were not in batttle, the men wore woven woollen, plaid trousers. Julius Caesar called them 'trousered long-haireds' because they grew moustaches and kept their hair longer than the Romans.


Socially, their organisation within the tribe had evolved through necessity and was competitive and hierarchical. There were warrior chiefs and a warrior class. Their women commanded respect and had a strong influence on public matters. They fought beside their husbands, and could be of very high status in their own right. The chief also had a band of personal followers, the Romans called them 'clients', who owed him allegiance in return for giving them his protection.

Exhibits from Bibracte, Burgundy, France
Etruscan wine jars

This picture of the Celts as a stong, productive and artistically driven civilization, listening to their long-haired bards make music in the twilight, enjoying plentiful food, fine Italian wine and wearing beautiful woven garments and golden torcs around their necks, has a Middle Earth/New Age feel about it. But the Celts were not gentle, peace-loving people. Far from it. Classical authors frequently refer to them as quarrelsome and headstrong.

In addition to their metal-working skills they are best remembered for their warlike dispositions and how both men and women went into battle wearing little but woad. They decapitated their foes, prizing their heads as trophies. They fought as mercenaries, and they also raided neighbouring tribes. Their favourite spoils of war were prisoners – men, women and children which they enslaved either for their own purpose or for trading with the Etruscans for wine – of which they were very, very fond. Again according to ancient writers the ideal Celtic physical type was tall, muscular and blond. There is evidence to suggest they dyed their hair with limewash. As well as looking outrageous when they went into battle, they also struck fear into the hearts of their enemies by the sheer noise they made. They used terrifying war cries and blew loudly on their famous trumbets before charging into battle in their two-wheeled chariots. In 225BC Polybius writes that there was "such a tumult of sound that it seemed that not only the trumpets and the soldiers but all the country around had got a voice and caught up the cry." They were know to practice human sacrifice – and possibly cannibalism. The Museum of Celtic Civilization, Bibracte tells the story.

There was no single Celtic language, and no written evidence left behind by the Celts. It is assumed therefore that they conducted their business, created their stories and poetry and religious ceremonies in the oral tradition. In Burgundy the numerous gods associated with the sacred places of the Celts – mostly wells, springs and rivers were subsumed by Roman deities after the conquest. In particular the Roman god Mercury had many parallels and local names. Christianity in its turn appropriated these gods and the sites became consecrated and re-named, dedicated to Christian saints. The Source of the Seine, Les Fontaines Salées and the are examples.

Marilyn Floyde