No documents? Could be protohistoric

Bayeux, Normandy

What does that mean to you?

William the Conqueror? The tapestry? A giant cathedral? The D-Day landings? Cider?

Well, it also means something else. Something that few people know about.

University of Bayeux, 400AD

In Bayeux, the big news is given to the Romans (baths! statues! signposts!), various bishops (such as Gerbold, whose legend includes sailing from Britain, flowers springing wherever he walked, a golden ring and a fish), the medieval city (castle! the cathedral!), stunning architecture, and so on right up to the 1944 D-Day landings. Then we fast forward to shopping, animations and restaurants.

Potted histories of Bayeux speculate about Celtic huts down by the River Aure which flows through Bayeux. It all sounds unpleasingly muddy and backward.

But an antidote is close at hand.

Graham Robb in his 2013 book The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe gives the lowdown on what was a thoroughly sophisticated Celtic civilisation in Gaul.

He mentions aspects of Celtic life in what is now Normandy, such as the place of learning at Bayeux and the long-distance communication system at Douvres-le-Délivrande.

And it shows that it pays to have a closer look at the Roman roads of the region. We think they’re Roman because the Romans re-paved them for continuing use.

But not all Roman roads are Roman.

The sheer speed of the Roman conquest of Gaul was owed partly to the benefits of an excellent Iron Age road system which the Romans exploited to the full. In Calvados, the Chemin Haussé (literally, the High Way) is a contender as pre-Roman road, not least because a key section respects the solstice alignments discussed by Robb. It is astonishing to consider property boundaries that continue to respect the High Way today are based on a landscape feature many thousands of years old.

But those Romans get all the good press. And being regarded as expert road-builders is a major example. It’s one of the perks of being the conquering civilisation.

And Gerbold? Well, his legend bears all the hallmarks of a story about a Celtic sun-god.