The Beautiful Forgery

Ever heard of the “Romantic Movement”? It didn’t have anything to do with bringing home roses and chocolates for the missus; indeed it didn’t have anything to do with what we think of as “romance” at all. Wikipedia says that it was “an artistic and intellectual movement that originated in late 18th century Western Europe”. It was partly “a revolt against aristocratic, social, and political norms of the Enlightenment period”, but it was also (and more importantly) “a reaction against the rationalization of nature”.

There were two major scientific advances that led to the birth of the movement:

The first was medical science (and science in general), in that it seemed that scientists of the day were creeping ever closer to discovering the true “essence” of life. Whatever you want to call it – Life Force, Primal Essence, you name it – it seemed as if scientists of the day were mere inches from figuring out what that thing was and the Romantics feared that all manner of Bad Things would happen once Pandora’s Box was opened. One of the most famous pieces of Romantic literature – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – deals with this question directly: a “mad scientist” type figures out how to harness the power of life and uses his skills to create a monster. You probably know the rest of the story. In any case, Mary Shelley’s fear is hardly unknown to us. In fact, such fear may be even more prevalent today than it was two hundred years ago. It seems that medical science – with its DNA and stem cell research – might again be on the cusp of “harnessing life”. And it scares people now just as much as it did then.

The other scientific advance that kicked off the Romantic Movement was the Industrial Revolution. For centuries, people made things with their hands. But suddenly, factories were popping up all over Europe, factories that could do the work of thousands of people using machines that didn’t require wages or sleep. People had a real fear of technology – much like people in the 1960s and 1970s that feared that computers would take over their jobs. In fact, the fear of technology was so great that a political movement took root in England that went from factory to factory smashing up the machines. The movement made such an impression that to this day “Luddite” is a pejorative term for someone that has a (real or imagined) fear of technology.

Now, the astute reader might have noticed something interesting about the two causes of the Romantic Movement, and that is that both medical science and the Industrial Revolution didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t like Europeans knew nothing about medical science and one day suddenly knew (what they thought was) everything they needed to know about the human body. And factories didn’t pop up all over England, France and Germany overnight, either. Just as say, AIDS research has moved at a snail’s pace to us in the 21st century, so too did medical and industrial science in the late 18th century in Europe. Some specific event in particular must have happened to kick off the Romantic Movement.

That thing was the publication in 1762 of Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, together with Several Other Poems composed by Ossian, the Son of Fingal, translated from the Gaelic Language, by the Scotsman James Macpherson. Ossian was a third-century Celt who belonged to an ancient tribe of warrior-kings. He was the son of Fingal, who himself was the son of Cumhal (leader of the fianna) and Muirne, daughter of the Druid Tadg mac Nuadat who lived on the hill of Almu in County Kildare. Fingal was left in the care of Muirme’s sister and a warrior woman named Liath Luachra. Both women mentored Fingal, in much the same manner that Merlin mentored King Arthur. An epic series of events follows in the book, and the tales captured the imagination of every thinker in Europe.

Only there was one problem: the poems were an elaborate forgery. Macpherson had simply traveled around Scotland collecting ancient Celtic legends and tales. Had he simply collected these and published a book of them… well, that would be one thing. But Macpherson decided instead to weave the tales all together and claim that Ossian had, in fact, existed… which is something else entirely. Almost immediately, controversy erupted in England and Ireland, with the English claiming that they were straight-up forgeries, and the Irish claiming that the tales were “stolen” from their mythology. Although the authenticity debate raged for some time (even into the 20th century!), that didn’t keep those who would become Romantics from eagerly accepting the stories as an authentic history of man in his more “noble state”. Even Thomas Jefferson was hoodwinked – the future President of the United States once called Ossian “the greatest poet that ever existed!”

So one of the greatest movements in political, social, artistic and musical history was kicked off… by a forgery!

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