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Although a shared language – Gaelic, especially in its high-register “Classical Gaelic” variety – enabled some social and cultural developments to be shared across the Celtic regions of Ireland and Scotland, they were also subject to local conditions and circumstances. Arguably the most important of these was the rise of a new professional literary occupation that relied upon the patronage of Gaelic aristocrats for a mutually supportive relationship.
Anglo-Normans introduced abrupt changes into the regions they conquered which reduced the prestige of Gaelic practices and the patronage available to maintain them. This was especially true of the monasteries which had been the centres of native learning but were transformed in the twelfth century by continental religious orders. Churches largely discontinued their support of secular Gaelic learning and for the next century poets understated the pagan overtones of their lore to avoid clerics’ censure.
There are notable discontinuities during the thirteenth century as poetic patronage and learning shifted from religious centres to dynastic patrons: while syllabic poetry of the twelfth century encoded royal genealogies, territorial claims, and legendary lore, the poetry in later periods, while drawing on the versified wisdom of the past, focuses primarily on relations between poet and aristocrat.
The Uí Dhálaigh family of poets was probably largely responsible for founding the new literary order: several Uí Dhálaigh poets of high status are recorded in twelfth-century Ireland, including Maol Íosa, a high-chieftain of Westmeath also described as a chief poet of Ireland and Scotland (ollam Érenn 7 Albann). The emergence of their leadership, coinciding with the abandonment of secular learning in monastic foundations, suggests that they were instrumental in redefining the practices of the art of poetry.
Some Gaelic lords and chieftains in both Scotland and Ireland began to regain some of the ground that had been lost during Anglo-Norman invasions in the later 13th century. On top of this, many of the lords of Anglo-Norman descent were beginning to “go native” and needed the social and political functions which the Gaelic poets provided, not least of which was to validate them by recourse to Gaelic tradition and genealogy. This brought the poets new opportunities for patronage.
After having securely reestablished their social relevance and system of patronage, the poetic order in Ireland reconsolidated itself into a national institution. The schools of “bardic poetry” functioned as a sort of trade union. It even extended in a limited fashion into Scotland by Irish poets working abroad or establishing poetic dynasties, or by sending Scottish students to Irish schools.
The poetic order devised a high-register, literary form of language, which we now call “Classical Gaelic,” which enabled them to produce literature not tied to a single dialect or region. They also agreed upon a standard set of syllabic metres and stylistic conventions for their poetic forms. The normative pressure created by this “medieval exercise in language planning” was such that a well-wrought poem from twelfth-century Ireland does not differ greatly in terms of language or style from one from early-eighteenth century Scotland. Bardic poetry was an intellectual art form with political significance in which both Scottish and Irish Gaels participated, but not entirely as equal partners.
“Bardic poetry should be understood as an essentially Irish phenomenon, conceived and developed in Ireland on Irish terms, to which Scottish Gaeldom became attached in a loose and somewhat ambiguous fashion.” (McLeod, Divided Gaels)
It is possible to create a composite portrait of the filidh based on a variety of evidence from Scotland and Ireland. Training was reserved for males born within poetic families who were not only literate but also good at memorization. Sometimes the training was from father to son, but more often the son was sent away to a bardic school.
The master-apprentice relationship was cast in traditional Gaelic form as the bond between foster-father (oide) and fosterling (dalta). A full degree of filidheacht took six or seven years, during which time the candidate studied a canon of Gaelic literature and history, and tracts on metre and language; exemplars from famous poets of the past were expected to be committed to memory.
The literature of the filidh makes frequent allusion to this corpus as well as to Biblical, Greek, and Latin literature. Poets were assigned poetic exercises in the syllabic metres using Classical Gaelic, composing their verses by memory in the dark and writing them down after they were complete. The schoolmaster critiqued the work of his students and conferred degrees. Some students sought training under several different teachers.
Once a file had completed his training he could be employed as the ollamh “official master-poet” to a king or chieftain, for which he was given rent-free land holdings close to those of his patron. Such was the stature of the poet, and intimacy between him and his patron, that the metaphor of marriage was used of their relationship. He was expected to compose poems to commemorate significant events in his patron’s family, such as marriages, battles, inaugurations, and death, for which he could charge a duais “commission, fee.”
The most important of these could be transcribed into a duanaire “poetry book,” which formed a kind of family history book in verse. The poems were meant for public performance in the chieftain’s hall, but were recited not by the file himself but by a lower-order reacaire “reciter” to the music of a stringed instrument. A significant percentage of the Gaelic élite were literate and accustomed to the formalisms of Classical Gaelic; if this were not the case, such costly performances would have been futile. The ollamh was also responsible for the education of the chieftain’s family.
His educational background and freedom to travel made the file a valuable aid and confidant to the chieftain. He also wrote legal documents and witnessed them. During his regular cuairt “circuit, tour” the file could visit the courts of other nobles and relay messages between them and his patron, acting as ambassador and diplomat,6 accompanied by his cliar “poetic retinue.” He could compose a praise poem to the noble he had visited, complimenting him according to his rank and hospitality.
Poets were not just sycophantic flatterers: they could withhold their approval or explicitly disapprove of actions and policies, and wielded considerable influence over the nobility. Poets composed a piece called a trefhocal which contained a mixture of praise and threat as a necessary preliminary warning of a satire. Poets were expected to use satire discriminately or they would be discredited; they were to also defend their patrons against unjust satires.
The Book of Deer is the oldest surviving manuscript from medieval Scotland. It contains Latin religious texts and was probably originally created in the 10th century. The manuscript is decorated with knotwork and stylized human figures representing the four Evangelists. Several Gaelic texts were written in the margins a couple of centuries later. While the artists who produced this manuscript must have been familiar with the manuscript style of Insular Art, there are many parallels with late Pictish stone sculptures as well. It thus reflects the strands of art and tradition to which Scottish churchmen in this period were exposed.
There are several other Gaelic items that appear to have been composed in Scotland during this era which show an interest in the past, or in using the past to validate the present political order. The Gaelic translation of Historia Brittonum, titled Lebor Bretnach in Gaelic, was probably written in the second half of the 11th century and demonstrates a knowledge of local sites and legends in Scotland. The personal name for the ancestral figure Isitio (or Hessitio) which had appeared in the Frankish Table of Nations and the Latin Historia Brittonum was miscopied into this Gaelic source as Isicón, and continued to appear in this (or similar) form in later texts about ancient Gaelic genealogy.
Poems were also written for the Gaelic élite on the Scottish mainland and in the Western Isles during this era. We have praise poems for such leaders as Raghnall, king of Man and the Western Isles (called from its first line Baile suthach síth Emhna), and Aenghus Mór, king of the Western Isles, and other poems on religious and political topics, such as those written by poets who had accompanied crusaders.
One member of the Irish Uí Dálaigh family who came to be known as Muireadhach Albanach brought the craft to Scotland when he immigrated in the early thirteenth century and founded a poetic dynasty which survived into the eighteenth century, making it the longest-lived literary dynasty in European history. Muireadhach Albanach composed verse for the Earl of the Lennox and his son, and was cited as a paragon of poetic skill by later bardic textbooks. Although, like other professional poets of his era, he composed formal poetry for his patrons, one of his most celebrated poems is a highly personal and emotional lament on the death of his wife.
How does The Book of Deer §1 explain the foundation of the monastery of Deer and the meaning of its name? How does this dindsenchas origin legend strengthen the authority of the monastery?
In what terms does “Saor do leannan, a Leamhain” legitimate the rule of the Earl of the Lennox? How does he use dindsenchas (place lore)?
By this time Wales was the only Brittonic area of Britain to have weathered the social and cultural damage wrought by foreign conquest to develop a robust literary tradition which continued to nurture its Celtic inheritance in secular institutions. The lack of surviving documentary materials makes it difficult for us now to assess literary activity in Brittany.
The Anglo-Norman invasions caused some Welsh élite to go into exile in Ireland. When they returned to Wales, some of them returned with Gaelic poets and musicians, allowing for another era of Gaelic-Welsh cross-fertilization.
The Brittonic poetic tradition re-emerges in our surviving textual sources in the 12th century in a fully developed and flourishing state under the patronage of the royal kingdoms of Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth. It is because of the close association between poets and these patrons that the poets are referred to in English as the “Poets of the Princes” (but in Welsh as y Gogynfeirdd “the fairly early poets”). They took great pride as being the heirs of the legacy of Aneirin and Taliesin and used their finely honed verbal skills to craft public perceptions and opinions regarding the political matters of their day.
The earliest surviving poem by these practitioners is the elegy by Meilyr Brydydd for Gruffudd ap Cynan (†1137), the king of Gwynedd. There are altogether about 12,700 lines of poetry which survive from this era.
We have already seen that there had been an independent poetic order in Wales, the highest rank of which was pencerdd, and that there was an official position in the noble courts of the Welsh kingdoms for a poet, given the title bardd teulu. The poet’s chair and harp were the symbols of the official poet’s office. These poets recited their poetry to the accompaniment of the harp. There were also lower ranking poetic performers, the cerddion, whose audiences did not require the lofty subjects and ornate style of the nobility.
While there are some examples of professional poets whose fathers had been poets as well, the Welsh poetic order does not seem to have been a hereditary profession, as it was in Gaeldom. Like the Gaelic order, however, it was dominated by men. This was the era of the high medieval flowering of court culture in Europe in general. The first surviving example of Welsh poetry about love, a popular theme in noble courts where it was tied it to notions of chivalry, was composed by Hywel son of Owain of Gwynedd († 1170).
Despite the close relationship between patron and poet, the verses of Cynddelw Bydedd Mawr (fl. 1155-1200) demonstrate that the order of poets also exercised their voices independent of specific rulers as defenders of Welsh culture. By the 13th century, the verses of the court poets of Gwynedd were arguing in favour of an independent Wales under the leadership of their patrons.
Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd of Deheubarth in 1176 organized a performance and competition of poetry and music at Cardigan Castle. This gathering may have been a forerunner of the annual celebration of Welsh tradition known as the eisteddfod.
It is significant that this era, from which we have the documentary evidence of a flourishing Welsh poetic tradition, was also the time period in which Welsh prose narrative also developed into a written tradition. The oldest surviving manuscript consisting primarily of Welsh is Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin “The Black Book of Carmarthen,” written c.1250 by a single scribe. It is made up of 54 folios (108 pages) of vellum but part of the original manuscript is missing. It contains a small set of triads about Welsh heroes but most of the pages are devoted to poetry: three poems about Myrddin (the prophet later renamed as “Merlin”), some of which predict the success of the Welsh against the English, and other heroic, elegiac, and religious poems.
The political role of hagiography is well illustrated by the Life of Saint David, written by Rhigyfarch (†1099) in Latin c.1090 in response to the attempts of the English church of Canterbury to claim authority over the churches of Wales. Rhigyfarch had reason to depict Saint David as the founder of an independent Christian establishment in Wales, a national church that owed nothing to the church in England.
This is not to deny the fact that the Britons were actually Christianized before the Anglo-Saxons and that a network of Celtic saints did actually do the work of converting the peoples of the Atlantic region. However, we must keep the contemporary social and political agendas of the authors in mind when we read their reconstructions of history, which they usually wrote centuries after the people and events they describe.
Although the cult of Saint David already existed in Wales, Rhigyfarch did much to enhance its popularity, which also benefited St. David’s Cathedral, which is built on top of the monastery founded by David in Pembrokeshire.
What does The Life of St David §2 and §68 say about the secular authority and roots of Saint David in Wales? How does the list of churches in §13 bolster the claim of the independence of the church in Wales? How does the statement in §53 underscore these ideas? What does it say about ethnic identity?
We have already seen that tracts about how to be a good and effective ruler have a long history and were periodically updated to respond to developments in models of kingship. Some of these tracts were political essays, meant to be used by a tutor during the education of a prince; others were expressed ideas in narrative form and could be enjoyed as a form of entertainment, their messages about good and bad kings being absorbed subconsciously through the outcome of the story.
The most renowned of medieval Welsh prose texts is a cycle known in English as The Mabinogion. It depicts the deeds and adventures of legendary and mythological British figures, drawing from ancient Celtic traditions, medieval histories, and international folklore. There are fragments of the tales from the 13th century, but the main surviving texts were copied in the 14th century. These were not mere idle tales for the children and idle but were recited for noble entertainment and contained themes and ideas of interest to this learned audience.
The stories of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi in particular reflect the political institutions and mechanisms and processes of governance active in this era, from the consultation between king and advisers to ensuring the smooth succession of a chosen son to the throne after his father’s death.
The most overt lessons offered by the tales are related to the practices of leadership, good governance, and the development of appropriate personal virtues, practices designed to encourage and maintain loyalty, and the political stability of units within a centralized state. Each of the Four Branches presents a different kind of prince – regional, national, regent, boy-prince – each of whom demonstrates a number of the leadership skills which are promoted in the educational and didactic literature of the Latin tradition. (Fulton, “The Mabinogi”)
It is perhaps one of the ironies of this period of the conquest of Celtic societies by Anglo-Normans, who held such a dim view of the civilization of the Celts, that Celtic literary influences were able to exert a strong influence on the development the literature in Europe especially due to being transmitted by these Anglo-Norman conquerers.
The character of King Arthur is probably the best example of Celtic influence on European, even world literature. A warrior by the name of Arthur first appears in the late-6th or early-7th-century poetry of the Gododdin. A literary character of this name seems to have been the subject of the Brittonic poets of the early medieval period, for he seems to have gained stature as a Brittonic hero in this period, appearing in a number of poems and tales in the next several centuries.
One of these is the poem Preiddiau Annwfn “The Spoils of Otherworld,” dating sometime between the 8th and 10th century, in which Arthur is a warrior on a quest to rescue a prisoner in the Otherworld. Arthur continues to appear in Welsh prose literature of the early 12th to 14th century and acquired the status of a messianic hero who fought on behalf of the Brittonic people against foreign invaders.
The early literary Arthurian cult was not confined to Wales, for we know that Arthur was a popular and central figure in the literature of Breton performers (in song-poetry and prose narrative). Unfortunately, none of the early materials were recorded in Breton, but we know that they were circulating orally, for Arthurian material which does not appear in Welsh appears in French texts which were influenced by the Bretons. Arthur and a related cast of characters began to appear in other regions after the Francophone literati adopted them into their literary repertoire, which was carried by Norman conquerors into other areas of Europe. Arthurian names and motifs appear in distinct pockets of France and Italy by the early 1100s.
A good analogy would be if we had no written record of the Harry Potter fiction series, but could show that all of a sudden the people signing their names to legal documents had names like Severus and Hermione. Arthurian material was obviously becoming popular, whether it was via Irish monks, Welsh interpreters, or itinerant Breton storytellers. Famously, a Welsh interpreter named Bleddri ap Cadifor is supposed to have gone to the court of Poitou, where he may have told stories to Count Guilhem IX, the first troubadour, that found their way into the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes and his successors.
Brittonic legendary material, especially Arthurian, was radically transformed and popularized by the Anglo-Norman churchman Geoffrey of Monmouth. His book Historia Regnum Brittaniae “The History of the Kings of Britain,” finished in 1136-8, is regarded as one of the most influential books of medieval Europe. Geoffrey took the figure of Arthur, originally a Celtic warrior-hero, and transformed him into a feudal emperor surrounded by knights, defeated by the treachery of his nephew Modred. Geoffrey also took the poet Myrddin, who figures in Welsh prophecies of the 9th and 10th centuries about victories over the English, and reshaped him into Merlin, a royal magician of Arthur’s court.
Geoffrey’s book was so popular as to be widely copied and circulated, not only in its original Latin form but also in translation into French. The most important of French adaptations was the Roman de Brut, written in verse and finished in 1155. It was in the Roman de Brut that the Round Table first appears. These Latin and French texts were taken up by European authors and developed further in many different directions in other languages (such as English, Polish, Italian, and Norwegian). The further these fictions were elaborated, the less they reflected their Celtic origins.
Even the Welsh enjoyed the work of Geoffrey, who valorized their struggle against the English, especially as personified by the majestic King Arthur. Portions of Historia Regnum Brittaniae were adapted for Welsh audiences, or at least influenced Welsh prose narrative claiming to depict the history of the ancient Britons.
In the second half of the twelfth century, Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes self- consciously invented two of the blockbuster genres of the Middle Ages: the “Breton lay” and Arthurian romance, respectively. Both of these spread across linguistic and national boundaries, though Arthuriana ultimately traveled farther.
Marie’s Lais (c.1165), written for the Anglo-Norman court, were based (she claimed) on the sung compositions of li Bretun; this name could refer to the Brittonic Celts in general, or the Bretons specifically. She quotes some specifically Breton words in her texts such as ha “and,” aüstic (Modern Breton eostig) for “nightingale,” and bisclavret (apparently from bleiz claffret “wolf-diseased [one]”) for a werewolf. Some of her lays have both narrative logic and specific motifs in common with the early literature of Ireland and Wales, and it seems like Marie’s claim of Celtic sources deserves more than the benefit of the doubt. It would seem (and some have forcefully argued that this is the case) that the Breton songs Marie referred to as “lays” have their “exact extension” (to quote Donatien Laurent) in the modern orally-transmitted ballads known as gwerzioù, as well as their medieval inheritance in Chaucer (“The Franklin’s Tale”) and others.
Chrétien de Troyes, meanwhile, began his career in Arthurian romance with Erec et Enide, a poem about a marriage that was itself, in a sense, a marriage of two traditions, what Chrétien called “a most beautiful conjoining”: he stretched the plot of a Welsh story, reflected in the Mabinogion romance Geraint, over the framework provided by Martianus Capella’s late-antique Marriage of Mercury and Philology. Two of his later poems, Yvain and Perceval, also have counterparts in Welsh; in general these Welsh romances seem to be influenced both by Chrétien himself and by earlier Welsh tradition. It was Chrétien’s unfinished Perceval, the Grail romance, that opened the floodgates to massive continuations, revisions, and imitations of Chrétien’s work in the thirteenth century.
Although both these genres came under the French designation Matière de Bretagne or “Matter of Britain,” in the thirteenth century we sometimes see distinctively Irish influences creeping in: lays and romances are set in Ireland, and draw on early Irish literature, Gaelic folklore, and the sociopolitical context of medieval Ireland in both subtle and obvious ways.
Arguably there was a “window of opportunity” for this sort of influence that was shut down by measures like the Statutes of Kilkenny, although French and Anglo-Norman texts continued to be translated and adapted into Irish.
Although there are a few points in common between Goidelic and Brittonic communities where music is concerned, these had for the most part followed very different lines of development and must be addressed separately.
Although some form of the clàrsach (triangular metal-strung harp) seems to have existed in Pictland at an early date, evidence of it does not begin to appear in Ireland until the eleventh century, and even afterwards they seem to be rare. This is ironic, given the later iconic status of the clàrsach in Ireland. Still, there are many early Irish tales which relate the magical effects of stringed instruments and the prowess of individual musicians. In his work Topographia Hibernica (written in 1187) Gerald de Barri claimed:
Scotland, because of her affinity and intercourse [with Ireland], tries to imitate Ireland in music and strives in emulation. Ireland uses and delights in two instruments only, the harp [clàrsach?], and the tympanum [lyre?]. Scotland uses three, the harp, the tympanum and the crowd [bowed string instrument]. In the opinion, however, of many, Scotland has by now not only caught up on Ireland, her instructor, but already far outdistances her and excels her in musical skill. Therefore, [Irish] people now look to that country as the fountain of the art.
Many aspects of the professional clàrsairean “clàrsach-players” followed the precedents set by the filidh, even if musicians could not quite achieve the same economic and social standing as their poetic peers. The clàrsair often exhibited the same haughty pride and sense of entitlement as the file. The clàrsair travelled with a servant who, like the modern “roadie,” looked after him and his instrument.
Also similar to the file was the clàrsair’s cuairt “traveling circuit” from the hall of one chieftain to the next. Like a file, a clàrsair required extensive and expensive training, and the office of clàrsair tended to be inherited from father to son over several generations if not centuries.
Only three medieval clàrsachs are known to remain today: the (misnamed) Brian Ború harp, now in Trinity College, Ireland, the Lamont Harp, and the (misnamed) Queen Mary harp. The latter two are held in the National Museum of Scotland. All three of these are likely to have been the produced in workshops in the West Highlands during the 15th century, judging by the style of art work on them and the depictions of similar harps on the grave slabs of West Highland chieftains.
How does the description of the harp in “A chláirsioch Chnuic Í Chosgair” actually match the physical harps that have survived? How has the description of the harp been influenced by the poetic tradition of praise of human subjects?