Love a Druid, Hate a Papist
Take, for example, the Druids of ancient Britain, some of ancient Rome's most vividly imagined foes, savant savages, human sacrificers, wild men surrounded by naked women who lived and worked beneath bloodstained trees.
Whether any Roman writer had ever actually seen a Druid, let alone visited their hideous groves, is a matter of much doubt. But when seventeenth century opponents of an English Catholic kingdom wanted to link themselves to the most flamboyant freedom fighters in their past, the English Druids, as fearsomely described by Caesar, Tacitus and Lucan, were friends indeed.
Ideally, of course, classical Druids needed a little cleaning up if they were to become the most repectable possible ancestors of Protestants fighting Stuart despotism.
More medicine perhaps - and fewer massacres.
More contemplation of the spirit - less burning of babies in human-shaped wooden baskets.
A solid political role as representatives of the English people - one that that predated any idea of kingship coming from Rome.
Enter John Selden, 'one of the most learned men of his time' as he is conventionally known.
That kind of title is always domething of a curse - like 'finest mind of his generation' and other paths to doom.
Certainly, Selden's reputation for refined historical and legal scholarship, is not best represented on the Druid issue.
This paragon of Latin, Greek and Hebrew learning - MP and propagandist for parliament - produced 'one of the most blatant apologies for the ancient Druids ever published in early modern Britain', says the historian Ronald Hutton in a new book that will be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS.
Selden's Druids were the wisest, gentlest and far-sighted of folk, sharing the calmest philosophical beliefs with Pythagoras, the Cabbala and other systems that predated the upstart Romans.
They were English spiritual beings.
They were the most Christian pagans to have ever lived - and, if they sometimes dressed up to terrify the Caesars, that was wholly to their credit, indeed to the credit of any decent Englishman.
Two sturdy volumes have recently arrived from Oxford, setting out under greater scrutiny Selden's compendious life and work.
The Druidic defence in Selden's Analecta Anglobritannica is designated by G.J.Toomer of Brown University as 'clever rather than convincing. . . . . .with many juvenile characteristics. . and a jauntily defiant attitude towards the criticism he expects'.
John Milton later began his own consideration of the subject by following Selden quite closely. His first Druids were fellow poet sages who had brought their good English wisdom to Pythagoras and the Persian Magi.
But then he read some Caesar and Tacitus for himself - and began to take a different view of such an immoral crew, 'a barbarous and lunatic rout'.
Hutton's book has only just arrived on my desk but it seems unlikely that Protestants and parliamentarians will be the only culprits.
He will show. I think, how Druids were invented and reinvented for various purposes from the very moment their name appeared in print.