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Although we will discuss the surviving details of each branch of Celtic – Goidelic and Brittonic – as they developed during this period, they clearly developed from a common Celtic inheritance, even if subject to new influences.
The three terms preserved in Greek and Latin texts for the sacred classes of pre-Christian Celtic society on the continent — bard, vate, and druid — survive in Gaelic to the present as bard, fàidh, and draoidh, although their social functions and status have changed considerably.
An additional title is visible from the earliest Gaelic records, the fili (plural filid), whose name originally means “seer.” It is probable that the fili originally belonged to the same profession as the fàtha (Common Celtic vate, Scottish Gaelic fàidh), and that both were adjuncts to druids in early Celtic religion. Christianity made an immediate and aggressive assault on druidic institutions and Gaelic kings may have been eager to adopt Christianity as a means of enhancing their status and breaking the monopoly of the druids. There can be little doubt that the considerable oral learning of the druids was in verse and that the filid acquired some of the status and intellectual tools of the druids as the order was systematically downgraded by the incoming religion.
According to an early tradition recorded in the prologue to Irish law tract known as the Senchas Már, only three professions wielded oral authority in pre-Christian Ireland: the seanchaidh (who recited history), the fer cerda (who performed praise and dispraise), and the britheamh (who made pronouncements on legal matters).
Other early traditions relate that the convention of Druim Cett (in County Derry) was held in 575 when the high king of Ireland determined to extinguish the filid. Colum Cille (St Columba) stepped in to save the poetic order, arguing that it should be allowed to reform itself and co-exist with Christianity. This accommodation allowed a remarkable syncretism of native and Latin learning to flourish in the churches of Gaelic Scotland and Ireland; the fact that all known poets between the sixth and twelfth centuries were associated with monasteries demonstrates the church’s monopoly on learning.
The law tracts of early Christian Ireland suggest that poets originally belonged to a single institution arranged hierarchically according to the degree of education, with the fili at the top rung of the order and the bard well below.
The role of the Celtic poet as singer of praise (or satire), and many of his “supernatural” associations, was also inherited in Brythonic culture, as the term bardd itself suggests. Poets also used the term prydydd for themselves, which means “shaper,” as well as cerddwr, which means literally “craftsman” or “artist” and is related to the Gaelic term ceard.
Medieval Welsh manuscripts contain early Brittonic poetry portraying people and events as far back as the 6th century, mostly set in the northern British kingdoms of Rheged and Gododdin. It is still a matter of debate whether or not these poems were composed at the same time as the subjects depicted in them, or some time thereafter, perhaps to accompany prose narratives describing these historical events. There is no evidence that secular Brittonic texts were being transcribed until about AD 750. The development of vernacular literacy developed from Latin learning and in Britain secular centres of learning seemed to decline with the collapse of Roman authority. The church showed little interest in developing a suitable Brythonic writing system or recording secular literature, remaining aloof from the British warlords reasserting their power in Britain.
We will return to the question of how they could have survived for several generations in oral transmission amongst the British aristocratic poetic circles, and why they were committed to writing, in a later unit. Suffice it to say for now that the poets to whom this early verse is attributed – Taliesin and Aneirin – became famous in Welsh literary tradition, figures to whom later poets looked as the founders of a venerable literature which commemorated British heroism.
How does Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae §34 portray secular British poets? Why might he disapprove of them?
Christianity did not just introduce a belief system about Jesus and salvation: it brought the technology of writing, and a whole new attitude about literacy and the authority of the written word. It introduced a linear narrative about history in which there was a definite plot with special characters (Adam, Noah, Jacob, David, Jesus, etc) and a certain destination (the return of Jesus and the end of the world). In order to understand God’s commandments and master plan, scholars studied the Bible, interpreted it and elaborated on their interpretations, a process known as exegesis. The prerequisite for fully participating in the new élite culture of Christianity, therefore, was literacy.
This rigid dogmatism, however, was not known to pagan religions. The whole notion of doctrine, of religion defined as a body of words and verbal orthodoxy, transmitted by authorized texts, linked to a special code of symbolic, ritualized actions, was unknown in the non-Judaeo/Christian world. (Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland)
Although literacy had been brought to Britain by the Roman Empire and centres of learning remained active in the church even after the withdrawal of Roman forces, Ireland had no such starting point. It did, however, rely greatly upon the British church, who were essentially the teachers of the Irish in both Christianity and Latin learning; the Britons and Irish are represented as being peers and allies in a number of church matters in the 7th century, such as the great debate over the date for Easter. The Gaels learnt Latin from their British mentors and spoke Gaelic with a “Brittonic accent”; this British pronunciation, in turn, influenced the way that Gaelic scholars interpreted the Latin alphabet when they devised a writing system for Gaelic (discussed below).
Irish monastic schools developed to train and educate youth for the church. Well before the end of the 6th century, the three major elements in the standard curriculum of the schools were Latin grammar, Biblical exegesis, and the computus (ecclesiastical calendar). Boys from noble families (especially second sons) were sent to these schools in a manner not unlike that of the old practice of fosterage, their teachers taking the place of the foster-father. The students were supposed to support themselves as a group while in school, taking turns obtaining food either by producing it, buying it, or begging for it.
The monastic schools provided unique educational benefits for Gaels training for the church or other élite professions, but also they became internationally renowned for their excellence (at a time when Classical learning was at a low ebb in continental Europe) and attracted students from other countries as well, such as England. As Bede himself wrote, “The Irish welcomed them all gladly, gave them their daily food, and also provided them with books to read and with instruction, without asking for any payment.”
The learnings and traditions of Irish monastic schools were influenced by British models initially but in the 6th century they were creating and codifying their own sets of rules of regulation and practice which went on to provide guidance for the development of Christian communities in continental Europe. The rulebooks created in major Gaelic centres such as Iona and Bangor were even taken to the continent as models for European monasteries.
Saint Uinniau (aka, Finniau or Nennius), a Briton who completed his training in Ireland in the 6th century, wrote a penitential (a tract enumerating sins and appropriate penances for them) used by his disciples. Columbanus wrote his own, based partially on Uinniau’s text, and both were highly influential in the development of European church practices.
How do we see the process of education, especially literacy, represented in Vita Sancti Samsonis §1.10? (Keep in mind that before the 7th century the Latin alphabet had just 20 letters.)
As Christianity was by nature a text-oriented religion, it needed to be able to produce written materials. Texts were written upon vellum, the skin of a young animal (usually a calf). The way in which the Irish produced their books – the sewing together of five folded vellum leaves – seems to be a survival of the old Roman method. This, in turn, suggests that this method was “inherited” by the British church and taught by them to the Gaels.
Books were very expensive to produce: a copy of the four Gospel books required the skins of about 100 calves, a full bible required about 500 calves. As manuscript space was at a premium, scribes needed sharp eyes and steady hands to be able to read and write very small text; this, in turn, made it impractical for older men to continue in scribal activity. Scribes often practiced writing the alphabet on pieces of slate, stone, or bone, now referred to as “motif pieces.”
Some inscriptions recovered in excavations at the monastery of Inchmarnock on the Isle of Bute, Scotland, date to as early as the early 7th century. One particular slate tablet, called the “Adeptus Stone,” dating to c.750, contains Latin letters on one side and ogam letters on the other. The words in Latin – adeptus sanctum praemium “having reached the holy reward” – are an excerpt from the hymn “the Antiphony of Bangor,” likely composed in the late-7th century at Bangor Abbey in the north of Ireland. This rare piece of evidence indicates the kinds of texts in the curriculum in early medieval Gaelic Scotland, corroborates the close and direct connections between Ireland and Gaelic Scotland, and confirms that ogam was taught alongside Latin letters.
Scribes would practice writing a longer text on a wax tablet before they copied it out on vellum. The beeswax on the inner leaves of the tablets could be easily melted and augmented to blank out the text there for reuse. The outer leaves protect the writing on the inside. A set of wax tablets made from yew wood were found in Springmount, Ireland, and have been dated to c. 600.
The script which Gaelic scribes adopted for their own use was not that used by the scribes of Late Antiquity (uncial or cursive scripts), but a half-uncial script probably borrowed from Britain or Gaul. The Gaelic scribes also innovated the way in which words were written to make it easier for them to read Latin, a language, after all, which was foreign to them: they introduced spaces between words, the capitalization of initial letters, punctuation, and special symbols to indicate the grammar of words in a sentence.
We have already seen that the Gaelic élite invented ogam after being inspired by the Latin alphabet during the time that the Romans occupied Britain. The Gaels demonstrated their ingenuity and intelligence once again by developing a writing system for their own vernacular language – Gaelic – during the sixth century. There seems to have been two distinct pathways, or traditions, with which scholars experimented: one starting from the ogam writing system, and the other modeled on Latin (using Brittonic pronunciation).
Again, like ogam, the most likely reason for such an effort – the social function inspiring its use – would have been for recording Gaelic personal names and place names. This passage in the Book of Armagh, written in Latin but concluding texts written in Gaelic, implies that writing in Gaelic was still an early and imprecise art, but necessary for such purposes:
This concludes these few pieces, written imperfectly in Gaelic. Even if I could not have written them in the language of the Romans, they are barely intelligible in Gaelic. On the other hand, if they had been written in Latin, the reader would be left feeling uncertain about what he had read and the language used, given that most names in Gaelic have no standard form.
Much more than Latin literacy was necessary to write in the Gaelic language, for it has a different set of sounds and morphological rules. Not only did the Gaels develop an adequate orthography (writing system), their system was remarkably regular and standardized: “this written form of the language shows no trace of dialect – a unique feature unparalleled in any other European vernacular in the early middle ages.”
As today, the life of the individual, family, community and kingdom was punctuated by two different kinds of social customs: rites of passage and calendar customs.
An important rite of passage, which met with the disapproval of the church, was keening. Although there is little evidence of keening in early Wales, as a universal primal custom, it must have existed at some time. Keening is a ritual lamentation for a person who has died, performed by professional keening women as an aspect of the burial rite. Its pre-Christian origins are reflected in tales which claim it to have been first practiced by the pagan goddess Bríg: Cath Muige Tuiread claims that Bríg, daughter of Dagda (the father god), performed the first keen in Ireland on the death of her son. Keening was a central feature of death ceremonies in the Gaelic communities of Ireland and Scotland into the 19th century, and occasionally later.
It makes a bold appearance in a Christian context in a poem composed in the later 8th century by the church-poet Bláthmac who portrays the Virgin Mary keening the death of her son, Jesus. The poem is a remarkable example of how pre-Christian Gaelic cultural practices could be reshaped in the service of Christianity, even a practice which the church actively tried to extinguish for over a thousand years. The practice of keening is alluded to in Tíreachan’s account of St. Patrick (§26), written in the later part of the 7th century.
There was not likely to have been any uniform calendar kept by all of the Celts; the geographical spread of territories occupied by them, and the variety of climates in those lands prevented that. There were, however, several special aspects of time keeping which seem to be widely shared in Celtic societies. (The Scottish Gaelic calendar, left, arguably preserves the oldest Celtic features and is the most developed of these.)
The first was beginning the new time unit on the onset of darkness: the new day began at sunset, and the new year at the end of summer.
The Celtic calendar is not oriented around the solstice and equinox (as in the Roman and modern Christian) but the agricultural cycle.
The date of Samain (its Goidelic name) marks the end of the light half of the year and the beginning of the new year; this name (as the name of a month) appears on the Coligny Calendar from ancient Gaul, and some form of it is preserved in all of the modern Celtic languages. This is the origin of modern Hallowe’en.
Bealtain – the Goidelic name for the date corresponding to “May Day” – marks the beginning of the light half of the year, and like Samain was inherited in all of the modern Celtic cultures, with a strong association with fires and a deity named “Bel.”
A day celebrating the god Lugh, connected with the beginning of harvest and oncoming autumn, is apparent in Gaul and Goidelic communities. This day is called Lughnasa in Middle Irish, Lùnasdal in Scottish Gaelic, and Laa Lunys in Manx. It influenced the creation of the English holiday of Lammas.
One of the purposes of yearly assemblies was for reviewing and approving proposals for new laws or changes to existing laws of the tuath. If approved, the king would bind the new law into effect by taking pledges from representatives of the kin-groups.
The fire ceremony portrayed in Muirchú’s Vita sancti Patricii §1.15 is no doubt Bealtain (although we should be cautious about accepting it as thoroughly accurate). How does the ostensibly religious ritual reflect political hierarchy and the social order?
Although it is a much later text (11th century?), the Dindsenchas of Carmun provides a very rare and important description of a seasonal festival in the Gaelic world, including the activities of the non-élite. How does the poem reflect the influence of social class and gender on the celebrations? How do the activities (depicted in the poem) enhance the social cohesion of the tuath and authority of rulers? What role does oral tradition have at the event? How does the poem attempt to reconcile the pagan past with the Christian present?