Expressions: 1300-1500


Gaelic Literature

The revival of Gaelic power and society in Ireland and Scotland was paralleled by a revival of Gaelic learning. Not only did many of the descendants of the Norman invaders become patrons of Gaelic poets and scholars, some of them even became famous Gaelic poets themselves! Many of the important manuscripts which preserve early Gaelic learning and survive to the present were copied or compiled during this era.

Although the literati are perhaps the best known of the professional learned classes of medieval Gaeldom, the native intelligentsia encompassed other types of positions as well that were rigorous education in Gaelic schools, such as lawyers, musicians and medics. This was the time period when medical knowledge was translated into Gaelic, making Gaelic one of only four languages in medieval Europe (Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Gaelic) in which such learning was available.

One of the most admired medieval Gaelic poets was Gerald Fitzgerald (Gearóid Iarla †1398), the third earl of Desmond (southern Munster) of Anglo-Norman descent. The degree to which he was assimilated into Gaelic culture and tradition is remarkable. According to later local legends, he was the spouse of Áine, the sovereignty goddess of Munster, and he will awaken from his slumber in a cave near Lough Gur and reign again over the province. So popular was his poetry that some of his work was copied into the Scottish manuscript known as the Book of the Dean of Lismore in the early 16th century.


The Gaelicized Anglo-Normans acted as a bridge, in many respects, between the societies of Gaelic Ireland, continental Europe, and England. Their presence in the cultural landscape of Gaeldom helped to expand the repertoire of Gaelic literature and range of themes and styles, albeit adapted by and within a Gaelic milieu. The broad literary tastes of some Anglo-Norman élite are reflected in the late 15th-century inventory of the library of Gearóid Mór Fitzgerald of Kildare, which contained books in Latin, French, Irish and English.

A new (or at least innovative) genre of syllabic poetry, referred to in Gaelic as dánta grádha, emerged in the 14th century which deals primarily with the personal experience of love; sometimes the author idealizes the object of his/her affections, and at other times s/he damns the opposite sex for the bitterness of rejection; both attitudes can alternate within the same poem. Like medieval love poetry from elsewhere in Europe, love is described as a “mortal sickness.” There is great debate about the origins of the genre, but it clearly echoes the amour courtois tradition and appears during an era in which Gaeldom is absorbing many foreign cultural and intellectual influences. One of its earliest datable practitioners was Gearóid Iarla.

Anglo-Norman lords commissioned not only the creation of praise poems to be performed publicly on their behalf, but the compilation of manuscripts in Irish of a variety of materials, including versions of older prose narratives. Some of these tales may have been composed or rewritten not only to entertain the Gaelicized Anglo-Norman audiences but also to help foster their claims of belonging to the wider Gaelic community. They used the term Éireannaigh “Irish people” (relating to the territory of the island of Ireland) rather than Gáidheil “Gael” (relating to blood descent) to allow them to be included amongst the island’s population, especially in those tales portraying conflicts between invaders and natives. This was a subtle and nuanced backpedaling of the Gall vs. Gáidheal opposition of texts relating to Norse conflicts.

Although there was still interest in the tales of the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle enjoyed much more popularity and creative development. By the 15th century, a new genre, the Romantic Tale, began to emerge from a variety of influences. The Romantic Tale depicts the adventures of a human hero and is ornamented with episodes of magic and combat:

There can be no doubt that tales from continental and English sources were known and disseminated by various means in Ireland during this period. The houses of the Anglo-Norman patrons of Gaelic poetry and learning would have been foci of such cultural exchange, providing opportunities for both oral and written transmission and performance of such material.

Franciscan friars also acted as cultural brokers mediating between different languages and traditions in Ireland. Owing allegiance to no single ethnic group, family interests, or language, they travelled widely and propagated texts of all sorts, producing manuscripts containing Irish, Latin and English. In the 15th century, they aspired to increase the religiosity of secular society, translating into Gaelic a number of popular themes elsewhere in Europe, such as the cult of the Virgin Mary, and many apocryphal tales claiming to explain symbols, stories or characters in Christian history.

To enhance the spiritual life of all of the population, élite and non-élite, Franciscans expressed their religious ideas in a range of literary forms, from oral folklore to written literature. Unlike the previous antagonisms between Gaelic literati and the church, some Franciscans fostered connections with the bardic order. At least one poet, Pilib Ó hÚiginn (†1487) was an Observant friar who produced professional syllabic poetry with religious themes. In fact, many poets claimed to compose a “tithe” of their poetic output as payment to God and the church.

Class Discussion

The poem “Filidh Éireann go haointeach” is the only surviving poem describing a gathering of poets from all over the Gaelic world. How does the poem extol the reputation and virtues of William O’Kelly as a Gaelic leader in connection with this event? How does the poem represent the functions and geographical distribution of the learned classes? How does the poem draw attention to the literacy of these professionals as well as recognize their role as caretakers of the legendary history of Gaeldom?


The patronage of the Lords of the Isles was crucial in maintaining the expenses of bardic training and practice in Scotland, as well as that of other learned classes: among the professionals in their employ were MacMhuirich poets, MacMhuirich (“Morrison”) lawyers, MacDhubhShìdh (“MacDuffie”) archivists, MacBheatha (“Beaton”) medical doctors, and MacGilleSheanaich harpers. Horizontal movement between high status professions was common; members of the MacMhuirich dynasty, for example, also became doctors and clergymen. The Lordship’s support enabled Gaelic culture to flourish, an era recalled later as Linn an Àigh “The Golden Age.”

Several other Gaelic magnates followed the lead of the Clan Donald in importing and employing talented filidh from Ireland: MacEòghain (“MacEwan”) poets seem to have worked for the MacDugalls of Dunolly in the early part of the fifteenth century before transferring to the employ of the Campbells, for whom they worked into the mid-seventeenth century; Ó Muirgheasáin poets appear to be working for the Macleans of Duart by the beginning of the sixteenth century but shifted to working for the MacLeods of Harris and Dunvegan by the early seventeenth century; there were also MacMharcuis filidh in Kintyre and Antrim but the exact nature of their activity and patronage is still unclear.

Literary innovations from Ireland were quickly and easily transmitted to Scotland, even though they were sometimes reinterpreted in a Scottish context. Women as well as men composed poetry of the dánta grádha genre, some of it very bawdy. The Fenian cycle was as popular in Scotland as it was in Ireland; tales about the Fian were relocated to Scottish sites and new song-poems were composed about Fenian adventures throughout the Highlands as far east as Glenshee.

Class Discussion

What were the social virtues of the Lordship of the Isles according to Giolla Coluim mac an Ollaimh’s poem “Ní h-Éibhneas gan Chlainn Domhnaill” (There is No Joy without Clan Donald)? How do these relate to the maintenance of literature and the arts?

Welsh Literature

The professional poetic order relied upon noble patrons for support, so the English conquest of the independent Welsh kingdoms caused a crisis in Welsh culture, including poets and poetry. Some scholars, especially in the monasteries, responded to this national predicament by compiling and copying older materials into manuscripts, lest relics of past history and literature be lost. The monks of Strata Florida, a Cistercian establishment, were responsible for the Welsh historical chronicle Brut y Tywysogyon, as well as the compilation of older poetic relics in the Hendregadardd Manuscript, begun c.1300. On the whole, however, the circumstances were favourable for the cultivation of Welsh poetry, as the new social fluidity provided many opportunities for poets to provide verbal endorsements for the aspiring squirearchy.

Although the Welsh gentry could not provide permanent employment like the kings of old had done, poets could cobble together a career by traveling to the homes of wealthy patrons and composing and performing poems for them. These poets continued the traditional genres of eulogy/praise, but as their patrons and audiences were now of a less élite status, their verse became more personal, accessible, and vernacular (reflecting less elevated levels of formality and learning).

Such patrons contributed to the survival of aspects of the medieval literary tradition: Rhydderch ab Ieuan Llwyd, an authority on Welsh law who came from a literary family, was probably responsible for the compilation of Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch (the White Book of Rhydderch) c.1350 which contains early Welsh poetry as well as the earliest surviving prose narratives; Hopcyn ap Tomas of Swansea commissioned the creation of Llyfr Coch Hergest (the Red Book of Hergest), which was written c.1400 and contains a variety of the poetry of the Welsh Princes, prose narratives (the Mabinogion), and a set of Triads.

During the 14th century, churchmen Einion Offeiriad and Dafydd Ddu of Hiraddug compiled Welsh bardic grammars, demonstrating that there was an effort to reorganize the Welsh poetic order to acknowledge the new social reality and to revise its poetic standards. It is not certain how widely these poetic tracts were used or regarded but they contain interesting references to contemporary cultural practices which illuminate Welsh life. Take, for example, the advice from a grammar dated to c.1375 which compares the creation of a poem to the building of a house:

The first thing that a good poet should do: he should fashion his poem faultlessly and think of a good and unusual design. In the same way the architect, before he builds the house, goes to the field to find all his source materials, then considers the measurement of the house and lays its foundations firmly where it is to stand. Then [he places] the crucks, the beams, the purlins and the rafters.

A new poetic metre emerged in this time period called cywydd, consisting of patterns of alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme known as cynghanedd. Cywydd became the standard poetic form by the 15th century.

Dafydd ap Gwilym (c.1315-50) is considered by many to be the greatest of Welsh poets and one of the best poets of medieval Europe. Although he did not receive a formal education in poetry, he learnt the craft from his uncle, who was the constable of Newcastle Emlyn under English rule. Dafydd’s poetry helped to strengthen the popularity of the cywydd poetic style, and he himself may have contributed significantly to its development.

Dafydd incorporated continental European influences into his poetry as well as Welsh folklore of the peasantry, such as calendar customs and beliefs. He is especially known for the themes of love and nature in many of his surviving 151 poems; of the latter, he sings of love trysts with married women, which was a common motif of European courtly love tradition which idealized the inaccessible object of love. He also made himself the main topic of some of his poetry, an idea that would not have been feasible in the days when professional poetry was primarily paid for by aristocratic patrons who expected poetry to focus on their reputations and political interests. He probably died from the Black Death.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the decline in Welsh political independence after the defeat of Owain Glyndwr, the Welsh poetic tradition saw an astonishing rise in development and popularity from the 1430s to the mid-16th century.

This period also gives us the first evidence of female poets in the Welsh tradition, some of them composing verse just as earthy as their male peers. One of these is Gwerful Mechain (fl. 1460-1502) of Montgomery-shire, who wrote some of the most sexually-explicit poetry known in Welsh.

Lewis Glyn Cothi (fl. 1447-89) was one of first poets to transcribe his own poetry in manuscript, leaving the largest body of surviving medieval Welsh verse by a single poet. A formal gathering of the poets and musicians of Wales – an eisteddfod – was held in Carmarthen c. 1451, allowing discussion of the practice of the art of poetry and a competition for the best poet, who was awarded with a chair as his prize.

Class Discussion

How does Dafydd ap Gwilym, “Eternal greetings to Newborough” use traditional values and motifs in order to praise something entirely foreign in origin, namely, an urban settlement planned by the Anglo-Normans? What does this say about the use of tradition and the role of literature?

Gaelic Music Traditions

The Gaelic term píopaí is a loanword from a Latin-derived language which probably referred to a wind instrument with a vibrating reed; the foreign origin of the word suggests that it was used for a instrument that had been also imported. The bagpipe, a wind instrument with a melody chanter and one or more drones using a bag of animal skin as an air reservoir, developed its modern form in the towns of Continental Europe during the twelfth century, stimulated by economic prosperity and contact with the Islamic world.

The bagpipe appeared in England by the thirteenth century and shows up in Lowland Scotland about a century later. Scotland had many trading and political links with Continental Europe, so the bagpipe may have come directly from the continent with the people recruited to establish the burghs of the Scottish Lowlands. On the other hand, the English royal court provided patronage for bagpipers by 1285×6 (during the reign of Edward I) and by the reign of King James III (1452–88) English bagpipers were finding paid work in the Scottish royal court.

The bagpipe probably did not arrive in the Gaelic world, however, until the late fifteenth century, and even when it did, it seems to have had the function of the trumpet in other parts of Europe: it was used at first primarily as a signaling device and not particularly conceived of as a full musical instrument. Because it had not been integrated into élite Gaelic performance culture, the bagpipe is not mentioned by Gaelic poets until the late 16th century.


Bannerman, Beatons.

—  “The Clàrsach.”

— “Lordship.”

Caball, “The literature.”

Donnelly, “The Warpipes.”

Hollo, “The literature.”

Jenkins, A Concise History.

Johnston, The Literature.

McLeod, Divided Gaels.

Newton, Warriors of the Word.

Owen, “Gramadeg Gwysanau.”

Thomson, “Gaelic Learned Orders.”