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By the year AD 600 Gaels were already in the forefront of Latin learning in Europe, but the absorption of Latin learning was balanced by affirming the worth of native tradition and, in many cases, creating Gaelic equivalents of Latin tools.
According to later legend, one of the pivotal figures in the development of Gaelic literary and intellectual tradition was a man named Cenn Faéled († 679). He was supposed to have fought in the Battle of Mag Roth in 637 and afterwards taken to the monastery of Tuaim Drecain to recover. A blow delivered to Cenn Faéled at the battle defused his “brain of forgetfulness,” allowing him to soak up and transcribe in writing all of the learning offered by the three schools of the monastery: Latin learning, Irish law, and secular Gaelic poetry. He is given the title sapiens “head of a monastic school” in the entry for his death in the annals and his believed to have written the first grammar for Gaelic (parts of which were incorporated into the later tract Auraicept na nÉces). Regardless of the fictional aspect of this tale, it seems to validate the idea that these three traditions of learning were cross-fertilizing each other in the 7th century in the monasteries.
In about the eighth century, the filid and bards were split into two separate institutions, with filid ranked into seven degrees according to education and the bards ranked by social class and function.
People who are empowered to compose and control literature which depicts and memorializes the past have the ability to control the way in which past events, characters, and places are valorized, demonized and forgotten to future generations. In the non-industrial world, literature was expensive to produce and we always need to read it with the values and agendas of the authors in mind. This will help us to understand why they wrote what they wrote and how their narratives are structured and constructed. It is inevitable that those few people who were literate – the learned classes of the church – who began to create a literary tradition in the Gaelic language drew not only upon their own native tradition but upon the many elements available to them from their formal education in the Biblical scriptures and Latin learning.
There are many clear continuities in the early Gaelic narratives from the pagan past into the Christian present: symbols, motifs, names, characters, locations, etc. This is virtually inevitable for a vernacular literature, even with spiritual themes, as the physical and conceptual world of both authors and audience had many of the same elements that they had for many generations.
And, besides this, a new religion, like Christianity, needs, at least initially, to explain itself in terms of words and ideas that the potential converts have in their pre-Christian culture. This does not mean, however, that the authors allowed old pagan tales to find their way onto manuscript unaltered or adorned them superficially with minor additions of Christian characters or elements. The earliest tales in particular (presumably composed at a time when paganism still posed some potential threat to Christianity) intentionally subvert and contradict the old pagan myths so as to underscore the innate superiority and inevitable conquest of Christianity over paganism.
Initial efforts at writing vernacular stories with secular affinities seems likely enough to have been viewed with some suspicion and disapproval in certain monastic circles. If so, there would be every reason for the earliest practitioners of this new craft to take particular pains to establish their Christian credentials. Subsequently, as the genre became established, a more permissive attitude may be assumed to have prevailed, allowing the monastic production of vernacular narrative with a secular social and/or political rather than a strictly religious orientation. (McCone, Echtrae Chonnlai)
Like other peoples who accept Christianity, some Gaelic literati sought a means of salvaging the essence of their origin legends and redeeming their forefathers. Not only did Christianity and Classical learning threaten to condemn older mythic and legendary traditions to obsolescence, but the new religion denounced pagans as eternally damned. The implications of this are difficult to reconcile for any people who hold a strong reverence for their ancestors and hereditary traditions.
European peoples who had not been subjects of the Roman Empire but settled within its previous domains began to create their own origin tales. A genealogical scheme, now commonly called the “Frankish Table of Nations,” was devised in the early 6th century to provide ancestry for several ethnic groups by claiming that Istio (in reality a name taken from Tacitus’s book Germania, written c.98 CE) was the ancestor of the Franks, the Britons, and the Romans. Alternatively, in the 7th century the Frankish scholar Fredegarius claimed that the Franks were descended from Trojan refugees.
Amongst Gaelic ancestors and mythological characters were the old gods, who were later known collectively as Tuatha Dé Donann “the people of the Goddess Donann.” Although pagan pantheons in other cultures were typically unseated by Christian reformers who claimed that they were demons or larger-than-life human beings from the past, the Gaels attempted first to find a theological loop-hole through which to absolve their old deities.
One of their solutions, unique to early European converts, was to claim them as a branch of the human race untouched by the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They still exist, said such scholars, in a state of grace beyond sin and age in a timeless paradise where they can see us but we, because of our fallen state, cannot see them. This remarkable effort by scholars to produce “a hybrid, composite culture which would be both wholly Irish [i.e., Gaelic] and wholly Christian” allowed for the continuous development of literary characters and themes influential throughout all levels of society with roots consciously planted in the pre-Christian past.
The Gaels were the first scholars outside of Spain known to make use of the volume Etymologiae by Isidore of Seville († 636), a virtual encyclopedia of Roman learning. They seem to have taken very keenly to his exercises in deriving the origins and meanings of names. Whatever influence it had, it is clear that the Gaels had an intense interest in the meanings of words and how they related to the origins of things; they developed several branches of literature which revolved around this consciousness about the invention and use of tradition. From the beginning of native vernacular literature in Gaelic, there is a great interest in the origins and meanings of names (ethnic, personal and place names).
The series of interrelated tales set at the court of King Conchobhar, ruler of the Ulaid, at Emain Macha (now known as “Navan Fort”) at about the time of Christ is commonly referred to as “the Ulster Cycle.” One of the most celebrated of these tales is the Táin Bó Cuailnge “Cattle-Raid of Cooley,” describing the efforts of Connacht queen Medb (and her husband, Ailill) to wrest a coveted bull (the Donn Cuailnge) from Ulster. The foremost Ulster hero in the tale is Cú Chulainn, although several other warriors of the Ulaid are in the Connacht camp. The tale seems to capture an echo of the destruction of the Ulaid (native kings of Ulster) in the prehistoric period, but the shape of the narrative as a whole was influenced by classical literary models.
There are allusions to some of the characters and events of the Táin Bó Cuailnge in poetry as early as the 7th century, but the first cohesive narrative probably did not take shape until the 9th century. (It only survives in manuscripts from the late 11th century and thereafter.) It is not a simple, straightforward valorization of the heroic ethos but acknowledges the social costs of warfare and the self-destructive tendencies of warriors.
What does Cenn Faélad, Auraicept na n-Éces claim about the origin of the Gaels? What does this legend imply about how Gaels reconciled themselves with and exploited the historical framework of Classical/Biblical learning? What does this passage imply about the basis for ethnic identity in Gaeldom?
The right to rule people and territory was justified by means of ancestry in Gaelic society, making genealogy a very important form of information. This importance also gave the poets and keepers of history a strong incentive to forge genealogies to re-imagine the past of people who came to power from more humble origins. The 12th century monastic scholar Gilla in Chomded Úa Cormaic commented on the causes for corruption in genealogical records:
(1) intrusions of base families taking the place and name of noble families; (2) the expansion of serfs, a shameful thing; (3) and the dying out of lords without offspring; (4) the withering away of the noble families, a dreadful horror, with the expansion of vassal folk; (5) mis-writing in the guise of learning by the ignorant of evil intent; (6) or the learned themselves, no whit better, who write what is false for gain.
Just as in the present, we should be aware of the creativity involved in the writing and rewriting of history. Medieval Gaelic historians were not just passive transmitters of texts but active shapers and re-creators of it, responding to the needs of their contemporary patrons and peers. As the modern Irish scholar Donnchadh Ó Corráin has reminded us,
Origins, then, are not simply origins. In the world of early medieval Irish historiography, an origin is the demand the present makes upon the past, not knowledge of the past for its own sake – a much more recent pretence.
In the seventh century, Gaelic scholars began accruing a massive genealogical legacy: the corpus of Gaelic genealogical material (from seventh to twelfth century) is the largest of its kind in medieval western Europe, recording some 3,300 names born by about 12,000 people. Irish scholars began to compose Gaelic poetry with historical content as early as the seventh century.
The first of these “historical” poems probably dealt with just the lineage of kings (genelach “genealogy”), but before long poets extended their topics to (2) lists of kings of kin-groups and (3) lists of battles and tales about the deaths of kings. Early poets did not initially bother themselves with providing specific dates for the events portrayed or the reigns of kings of tuatha, but simply preserved their order. In some cases, the poets were drawing upon prose narratives, as is clear in poems about the battles and deaths of famous kings.
Although there seem to be rare examples of Gaelic poems from as early as the seventh century which preserve the years of the reigns of kings, dates were generally estimated simply by counting the numbers of generations. As early as the ninth century, however, the Gaelic poets began to be concerned about correlating the historical data from the dynasties of different tuatha and the chronological accounts received from Biblical and Latin learning. This development seems to be connected with a growing national consciousness – the desire to compile and synthesize a national for all of Ireland, rather than just at the local level – and an increasing historical consciousness which demanded greater authenticity and correspondence to external historical models such as the Bible.
The term “hagiography” refers to the writing of texts portraying the lives of saints. These were not merely objective biographies: they served to further the reputations of competing churches and the patrons who were associated with them. The production of saintly narratives was kicked into gear by the competition between the churches in the 7th century, serving to promote the cult centres of their respective subjects to attract patrons and pilgrims.
The first of these was Cogitosus’s Vita sanctae Brigitae (Life of Brigit of Kildare), composed c.650; two further biographies of Brigit were written shortly thereafter. The first Life of Patrick was composed at about the same time; Armagh was then energetically promoting the cult of Patrick. The result of the Synod of Whitby (664) and the competition with Armagh must have caused Adomnán to respond defensively, creating the biography of Columba (Colum Cille) before his death in 704 to celebrate the glories and accomplishments of the saint and his foundation of Iona.
All of these initial texts were written in Latin, but in ensuing centuries, many of these were translated into Celtic languages or composed afresh in them. Narratives of the genre of hagiography followed the same essential pattern into the twelfth century. All of these authors were born after the death of their subjects and and refer to compiling their texts from a number of sources: oral traditions, eye witness accounts, and various kinds of written documents. We should expect that they exercised creativity in reshaping them according to the interests of their church and patrons.
How does the text in Vita sanctae Brigitae (Life of Brigit of Kildare) Preface §4 reflect the aspirations of contemporary churchmen to dominate the life of the church of Ireland?
The oldest surviving manuscript written by Gaelic scribes is the Cathach, created c.600 and strongly associated with Saint Columba (Colum Cille). This manuscript, written in the script known as “Insular half-uncial,” does not contain any shorthand abbreviations. By the middle of the 7th century, Gaels were selecting elements from Latin shorthand systems to develop their own, allowing them to condense the text on a manuscript even further.
Iona was probably an important centre for the creation of “Insular” art styles, being closely connected to Dál Riata, where Gaels, Britons, Picts, and Anglo-Saxons were interacting and mixing their traditions.
While other peoples were drawing illustrations which depicted what the text was describing, insular Celtic artists were unique in making the text itself an object of ornamentations: letters and words were given visual, artistic decoration as though they were objects. One of the earliest surviving illuminated Insular manuscripts is the Book of Dimma, a copy of the four Gospels (in Latin) with liturgy for the sick, probably produced in Tipperary, Ireland.
Most famous of all of these early manuscripts is the (so-called) Book of Kells, probably actually produced on the island of Iona between 752 and 767 (it was taken later for safekeeping rom the Vikings to Kells, Ireland). This is also a copy of the four Gospels (in Latin) which had at least four separate artists. The Book of Kells was probably highly popular and influential during its own time, inspiring the designs on sculptures in Scotland and Ireland.
In this portrait of John the Evangelist (above), he is holding a book in his right hand and a pen in his left. Just below the pen is an ink well. Thus, the artists creating these manuscripts sometimes depict the artistic tools and processes in which they are engaged.
The art of these manuscripts is rich and imaginative, and is open for many potential observations and interpretations. John Carey, for example, suggests that we can see in these illustrations the paradoxes at the heart of religious thinking and the continuity of the pagan past in the Christian present (amongst other things). The abstract nature of some of the art, and the interplay between micro-detail and macro-pattern, allow for the contemplation of mysteries in line with St Augustine’s dictum that “We are too weak to discover the truth by reason alone.” Could God’s cosmic order and plan be mirrored by the visual designs of the “carpet pages” of these once-living skins, some of which contain elements of La Tène art?
What does Adomnán, Vita sancti Columbae §2.8 suggest about how manuscripts were cared for and transported?
We have already discussed that it is likely that poems that had been composed in the 5th and 6th centuries were circulating in the oral tradition of professional poets who performed in the courts of Brittonic nobles long enough to be recorded by literate scribes sometime later – after a writing system had been devised for Brittonic languages. Previously it was assumed that these poems were simply preserved because they were “ancient classic” texts portraying an heroic past.
John Koch has offered a more detailed hypothesis about how, where and why this may have happened. The 7th century was a period of deep crisis for Brittonic peoples: the British kingdoms of the north were in the last stages of extinction (due to conquests by Bernicia/Northumbria); Northumbrian princes Oswald and Oswiu, having been fostered by Gaels (whether in Scotland or Ireland is uncertain), favoured the Columban (rather than British) church and were fluent in Gaelic; the Columban church, in return, was lending their support to Northumbria. The Britons were thus threatened with obsolescence in geographical, military, religious and intellectual terms.
The response to this may have been to record poetry relating to significant historical events of the Brittonic kingdoms to memorialize and celebrate the lands that they occupied and the reasons for their downfall. These poems – such as the Gododdin, and odes to heroes such as Urien of Rheged and Cadwallon – serve as textual monuments to the old British kingdoms of the north and the great warriors and leaders they produced.
The poems also make reference to celebrating Easter, which is significant given the theological weight given to the debates at the Synod of Whitby in 664 over the methods of calculating the holy day. Koch suggests that the poems were transcribed, perhaps in the 7th century, by noble Brittonic families based at Alt Clut. As we have already seen, the kingdom of the Maithi (which had a power centre at Alt Clut) had claimed territories in the east around those of Gododdin; not only that, but in the 670s, they were exerting their military might widely around Scotland.
Transcribing these literary relics may be seen as reflecting their political ambitions and territorial interests, actively staking a claim by engagement with tradition and cultural memory. The texts of these manuscripts were eventually transmitted to the courts of Wales, where they were later copied (and their language updated) into manuscripts that survive to the present. At least, this is one theory to explain their transmission over a long period of time.
This same interest in preserving the remains of the past, from the same areas, is reflected in sections of Historia Brittonum, a collection of historical and legendary materials written in Latin by a Welsh churchman but later attributed to Nennius. This text gathers together a number of different traditions and tries to reconcile some of them: the Frankish Table of Nations, for example, was grafted onto Biblical genealogies. The author also had access to early Irish scholarship, accounting for their ancestral origins, and books by the English churchman Bede.
The earliest inscription in Welsh survives on the pillar at Tywyn (sometimes called the “Cadfan stone”) which commemorates two women buried there; it probably dates from the early 9th century.
Even more interesting is Eliseg’s Pillar, erected in the early 9th century by King Concenn of Powys († c.854) to commemorate his great-grandfather, Eliseg. Most of the text is in Latin, although it contains names written in Old Welsh. The begins with a genealogy of Concenn going back four generations (which is confirmed in later manuscript sources) and celebrates Eliseg’s winning of territory from Anglo-Saxon invaders:
This Eliseg, who joined together the inheritance of Powys <...> throughout nine [years?] out of the power of the Angles with his sword and with fire.
The text goes on to claim that Eliseg was descended from two legendary figures who claimed authority over Britain before the Anglo-Saxon invasion: Vortigern and Maximus. Vortigern’s son Britu is claimed to have been blessed by Saint Germanus. The pillar thus legitimates the dynasty of Powys and their possession of territory by reference to the legendary past, very similar to the account given in Historia Brittonum. It ends, finally, by claiming divine favour for the dynasty:
May the blessing of the Lord be upon Concenn and upon his entire household, and upon the entire region of Powys until the Day of Judgement.
The oldest continuous prose written in Welsh survives in the manuscript known as the Lichfield Gospels, probably written during this time period. It seems to have been taken to Lichfield Cathedral in England (from which it was latterly named) during the late 10th century. The Welsh text includes entries dealing with legal issues, as well as short notes and glosses.
Read “Nennius,” Historia Brittonum §3, 7, 9-10, 12-15. The author is clearly motivated to gather (or create) an origin legend for the peoples inhabiting Britain. What sources and motivations are named in §3, 7? What likely motivated the author to make ethnic connections with Brutus and the Scythians? How does this text (and the Gaelic origin myth given in Auraicept na n-Éces) reflect a lack of awareness of common Celtic origins between Gaels and Britons?
How does the author of Vita Sancti Samsonis seek to reassure us of the authority and veracity of his text in §2? What does this also suggest about the transition from a purely oral culture to a literate élite culture?
Celtic peoples in this period no doubt played on a number of kinds of string and wind instruments, although we know little about the music they played or the training of musicians (it was certainly very different from what survives into the modern era).
Wind instruments have a particularly ancient lineage in human cultures: amongst the oldest surviving instruments are flutes made from animal bones, such as the two-holed bone flute found in Skara Brae in Orkney dating to c. 2,300 BCE. The Gaelic term cuisle referred to wind instruments in general. Animal horns, referred to as adharc, corn, or buabhall (singular) in Gaelic, have an ancient history of use, especially in war.
The term crott/cruit appears in Gaelic sources by the eighth century as a generic term referring to a plucked stringed instrument. This initially referred to an instrument we now call the “lyre,” that is, an instrument containing strings lying parallel to the frame, usually resting over a bridge on one end.
The lyre was well known in the wider Celtic world, probably borrowed at an early date from the Greeks. It appears on coins of the Celtic west before the Roman conquest and a stone sculpture of a Celtic musician (complete with torc) holding a seven-stringed lyre has been found in northern France, dated to the time of the Roman invasion. A fragment of a lyre dated to c.200 BCE was discovered in 2012 on the Isle of Skye and probable fragments of other lyres (and related accoutrement) have been found in Argyll, Lewis, and Orkney.
Lyres are depicted on several stone sculptures in Ireland and Gaelic Scotland carved between the eighth and eleventh centuries.
Stringed instruments were significant in heroic societies because they were used to accompany songs, especially panegyric, performed in royal courts. The high status of the cruitear “player of the cruit” is reflected in early Gaelic law tracts: while other musicians derived their legal standing from that of their patron, only the cruitear was granted legal status regardless of his employment, the highest legal status possible for a non-noble. Moreover, the cruitear was allocated a seat in the royal court near the ruler himself and next to the royal poet while other musicians were located on the far side of the hall.
The Gaelic term timpán also seems to have been used to refer to the lyre. The lyre was widespread in Ireland until it fell out of use in the fifteenth century or shortly thereafter, but by the high medieval period it seems to have already been rare in Scotland.
The clàrsach “wire-strung, triangular Gaelic harp” became the preferred string instrument of the Gaels of Scotland and Ireland during the medieval period. It is different from the lyre in that its limbs form a triangle and the strings are perpendicular to the sound board. The clàrsach was a much more versatile and audible instrument than the lyre because the design sustained a greater amount of tension, and hence more strings, and it contained a resonating chamber which was better at projecting sound.
Based on surviving evidence, the clàrsach seems to have originated amongst the Picts and been borrowed by the both the Gaels and Brittonic peoples of Scotland. The earliest depictions, dated to the eighth and ninth centuries, are found in eastern Scotland, the territory of the Picts. One of the stones of Monifieth, dated to the 8th century, contains one of the earliest portrayals of a triangular harp in Europe. Between the eight and fifteenth centuries, all but two portrayals of stringed instruments in Scotland are of the clàrsach, whereas in Ireland (and early Gaelic Scotland), the lyre is the prevailing musical instrument depicted.
What does Críth Gablach § 52, 53, 55 say about the rights and privileges of musicians in Gaelic society? What differences are there between different kinds of instruments and their players?
The Welsh harp is mentioned in the 10th century law tracts as being an instrument used to accompany the performance of poetry for the native nobility, but it must pre-date the Laws of Hywel Da. It was, at this time period, about two feet tall and unlike the Pictish/Gaelic clàrsach, was strung with horsehair strings. This probably helps to explain its name, telyn, which is related to the word for “bee,” since the resonating strings must have buzzed like the sound of a bee.
What does Gerald De Barri (of Wales), Description of Wales §1.12 say about the Welsh music and poetic tradition?