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The Gaelic literary tradition, as a sophisticated, written art form, was a product of the Christian church. Most (if not all) early Gaelic scholars and scribes worked within the aegis of the church, which had become entirely enmeshed within secular society, governed by hereditary laymen, and dependent upon the patronage of powerful rulers.
There are still many aspects of the structure, operation, and funding of literary endeavours within the church about which we are unsure, although the names of many scholars working in church contexts, and limited biographic information about them, survive. It seems likely that a royal patron appointed an ollam (the highest grade of poet) who composed or emended texts to support his interests (and those of his family).
Medieval manuscripts contain a great variety of types of texts. They are not random assortments of materials, but reveal conscious planning about their intentions and uses, being structured so that the reader might read and understand certain materials together. Taking their cue from early Biblical exegesis, scribes added annotations explaining where, when, who and why texts were written. Furthermore, scribes did not generally copy texts verbatim but updated the language according to contemporary usages, added new relevant information, and slanted the message of the story to suit their agendas.
Until the tenth century, the Latin content in Irish manuscripts was greater than the Gaelic content, but the balance thereafter shifted greatly in favour of the native tongue. Already in the seventh century, as we have already seen, many of the tools and technologies of classical learning were imported into the Gaelic sphere, and this trend continued into this period.
Cormac mac Cuileannáin (†908), a bishop and later king of Munster, was (retroactively) credited with the creation of Sanas Cormaic, the first etymological dictionary for any western European language. Cormac was also said to be the author of Lebor na Cert, a book summarizing the rights of the kings of Cashel, probably more in terms of what they hoped to achieve than what had actually been accomplished.
Gaelic prose narrative flourished in this era: there are some 150 surviving tales, although two surviving tale lists from the 12th-century name even more. The native scholars devised their own classification scheme for tales, based on the subject of the tale. The classification is usually reflected in the name of the tale itself, including táin “cattle-raid,” eachtra “expedition, adventure,” compert “conception, begetting,” cath “battle,” togail “attack, destruction,” buile “vision, madness,” tochmarc “wooing, courtship,” aithed “elopement,” serc “love story,” immram “sea voyage,” and aided “death tale.” Another item which suggests that the Irish literary orders were collating texts and thinking on a national scale are the Triads of Ireland.
The medieval Gaelic literati were constantly drawn to issues of power and kingship in their writings, which may reflect the concerns of their patrons as much as the interests of the church in defining good governance. Narrative was a means of exploring different kinds of kings and leadership, and the opinions of the authors are implicit in the outcomes of the tales themselves. The tales abound with exemplars of good and bad kings, whose lands and people prosper or fail, who thrive or are doomed, according to their actions and relationship with the Otherworld.
One of functions of the king’s poet was to defend him from “supernatural” harm, especially on the evening of Samain (Halloween). He was also to use his poetic functions, which had magical associations, to aid in the attack of enemies of the tuath and the king. A number of tales refer to tales of warfare and heroism being told on the night before a battle, and examples of poetic incitement to combat continued to be composed and performed by Gaelic poets into the modern era.
One of the major cycles of medieval Gaelic literature is focused on the hero Finn mac Cumhaill and his warrior band, the Fían (aka, “Fianna” or “Fenians”). This group form a kind of Gaelic parallel to King Arthur and his knights. There are some references to Finn in the 9th century, but literature about Finn and his warriors do not appear until the 10th century. When they do appear, the tales seem fairly full formed, as though the literati were not recording a genre that was developing “underground” because of the church’s disapproval of the institution of the fían until it became extinct in the 10th century. The literary Finn acquired “psychic” abilities by absorbing a Leinster character of the same name, a seer called Finn file. Arguably the most popular of the Fenian tales, Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne “The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne,” was in existence by the 10th century, although the earliest surviving version is from the modern period.
How does the poet validate and legitimate King Máel Coluim mac Donnchada (aka Malcolm Canmore) as King of Scotland in “A eolcha Alban uile”?
During the tenth century, Gaelic poets began to work through historical materials, allocating time periods to kings and important historical events. “Only the assigning of dates would ‘authenticate’ Irish prehistory and allow it to be woven into the larger scheme of the new history of the Irish people in the form of the Irish World-Chronicle.” One way in which they did this was to connect important Irish historical events to similar events in mediterranean history, such as equating the time of the release of the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt with the time when Gaedel Glas (the presumed ancestor of the Gaels) was leaving Egypt for Scythia.
Although these may seem to us like artificial fabrications, Gaelic scholars were using systematic mathematical principles in their calculations, not unlike what they had long been using for the computation of the calendar. This same kind of historical thinking was also used in their Latin poetry about Biblical learning. That these poets were conscious of their methods and were careful to back them up is reflected in the appearance of terms such as rímid “count, reckon; recount,” ríagal “rule, authority, measure” and the derived verb ríaglaid in this poetry.
One such example occurs in the poem “Éistet, áes écna aíbind” by Eochaid úa Flainn († 1004), which says, in translation, “Though these are the tales circulated to the people of the world of generations, their truth is known by witnesses, according to rules and reckoning.”
There are clues in Historia Brittonum that by the early ninth century the Gaels were already working on origin legends that explained how they reached Ireland. One of the two legends presented in Historia Brittonum describes three waves of migration to Ireland; in the third wave were the three sons of Miles Hispaniae (meaning “Spanish soldier”) who is the ancestor of all of the Gaels of Ireland (and Scotland).
This legend became further elaborated by successive authors until it was able to absorb many different traditions, including vestiges of the pagan Celtic gods, who are represented as a previous wave of invaders. Scél Tuáin meic Cairill “The Story of Tuan the son of Cairell” was composed in the ninth century, elaborating on the framework of waves of invasions of Ireland, but added two very important populations into the sequence: the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé are inserted before the sons of Míl.
The name “Builc” had already been recorded by “Nennius” as the name of a later immigrant and is clearly related to the Fir Bolg of Scél Tuáin meic Cairill. It is very likely, though perhaps unprovable, that this name is related in some way to the Belgae, a powerful Celtic tribe on the continent of Europe who gave their name to Belgium.
The Tuatha Dé Dannon, the old pantheon of Celtic gods, are inserted into the story, and the narrator’s evasion about the nature of these beings implies he is avoiding taboo subjects. There are many later tales about the fairies being cast out of heaven when Lucifer rebelled, making it clear that similar tales attempting to reconcile native and Christian cosmology were already under way.
The “national origin-legend” seems to have undergone a great burst of activity in the 10th and 11th century, as many different pagan traditions and “tribal” origin legends were brought together, elaborated, and harmonized with one another and with classical and Biblical learning. The result, a huge corpus of material known as Lebar Gabála (Érend) “The Book of the Takings (of Ireland)” became a hugely important and influential reference work for the rest of the history of Gaelic literary activity. Four poets produced a large amount of the text drawn upon for the Lebar Gabála: Eochaid úa Flainn (†1004), Flann Mainistrech (†1056), Tanaide Eólach (†c.1075) and Gilla Coemáin († ≥1072).
What literary device is used in Scél Tuáin meic Cairill to explain the way in which ancient Irish history has been preserved and transmitted to Finnia, who (supposedly) recorded it for us in writing? What does this suggest about the interface between the religious orders and secular life? How does the tale reflect an acceptance of, and synthesis with, the Christian worldview? How does it also seem to reflect ancient Celtic concepts?
From the earliest stages of Gaelic literature, authors display a keen interest in the origin and meaning of place names; narratives purporting to preserve such lore can be found in a wide variety of texts. This interest and methodology is probably, at least to some extent, a reflection of the influence of the writings of Isidore of Seville. This genre was entitled dindsenchas, which could be translated as “the historical lore of places.” There are at least three recurring elements in these materials: (1) the explanation of the origin of the place name and its meaning; (2) the history of the people at the site; (3) the person who died there or was buried there who gave it its name. This latter element could be said to be a reflection of a “cult of the dead” in pagan Gaelic culture.
We should not take the origins of place names offered in these texts as a single literal truth, for we know that the Gaelic literati did not: there are multiple explanations offered, sometimes even in the same narrative. These are often fanciful, but sometimes insightful, interpretations of the syllables or elements of the name. Scholars in the twelfth century collected a body of texts, both prose and poetry, which related to the legendary sites of Ireland and lore about them, some of which had been composed in the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries. Most all of the important ancient sites of Ireland have a dindsenchas text for them: there are 207 prose texts and 207 poetic texts describing 218 different sites in Ireland.
How does Dindsenchas Tara 1 represent the ancient past and glory of Ireland? How does it represent stages of history and historical consciousness? How does it boost the status of the poets?
The bardd teulu was probably originally a poet that accompanied a war-band but later sought greater stability as the official poet employed in a particular lord’s court. The section of the Laws of Hywel Dda known as “the Welsh Laws of Court” state the following rights and privileges for the bardd teulu:
He is entitled to free land [to live on] and a horse in waiting; to get woolen clothing from the king and linen clothing from the queen; he is entitled to sit next to the [military] captain of the household at the three special feasts so that the harp can be put into his hands. [...] When a song must be sung, the bard in his chair begins: his first song for God, the second about the lord in whose court he is, and if he has nothing to sing about him, he should sing about another lord. [...] He is entitled to a cow or ox from the raids undertaken by the lord’s retinue in foreign territory, after the king has taken a third of it; and when they share out the spoils, it is proper for him to sing “The Sovereignty of Britain” to them.
One manuscript of the laws relating to poets states: “If the court poet performs poetry with the lord’s retinue when they are raiding, he gets the best beast of the spoils.” The song “The Sovereignty of Britain” – which was not preserved for us but may well resemble Armes Prydein – clearly relates to the fact that the Welsh, as descendants of the native Britons, saw themselves as the original and indigenous inhabitants of Britain whose rights had been usurped by the English. The song performed around battle by the Welsh poets is very reminiscent of the function of the Gaelic literati in performing material the night before going into battle in order to prepare the warriors for the experience.
The term pencerdd “chief poet” originally referred to the highest recognized office in the Welsh poetic order: a highly accomplished poet who was not necessarily tied to a particular court. The concept and office are thus survivals of an earlier time, from before the Laws of Hywel Dda. He may have some rights and responsibilities similar to the Gaelic ollamh, such as the training of students and the privilege of visiting the courts of Welsh kings. The Welsh Laws of Court state:
He is entitled to free land [to live on]; his place is at the side of the court justice; it is proper for him to start the song, first for God, then one about the lord in whose court he is, or about another. [...] He has a right to 24 pence from every cerddor [poet] after he has finished his training.
One particular manuscript of the Welsh laws states: “Every pencerdd has a right to get a harp from the king. Every student who earns a wage must share a third of it with his pencerdd. And after he has finished his training, the pencerdd should give him a harp.”
Although there is no doubt that Brittonic poets were actively composed and performing poetry for noble patrons during this period, there are only a few manuscripts containing Welsh from this period survive to allow us to analyze this activity in any detail.
How do the excerpt from the Welsh Laws of Court above and the excerpts from Trioedd Ynys Prydain “Triads of the Isle of Britain” reflect the role of literature (oral or written) in facilitating ethnic cohesion and maintaining the cultural memory of political claims? How might the operation of the Welsh poetic order have reinforced the cultural unity of Wales despite its political fragmentation?
What does Gerald De Barri (of Wales), Description of Wales §1.3, 1.17 say about the political role of the Welsh poets? How are genealogy, poetry, and politics intertwined?
The old connections between the British church and Irish church continued into this period with surprising vigour. Many Irish churchmen went through Wales on their way to the continent of Europe and some decided to stay there. Sulien, the bishop at St David’s Cathedral in the late 11th century, had received his training in Ireland. Although there is a frustrating shortage of manuscripts from Wales during this period, those that do survive suggest a long continuity of formal education methods and attest to the continued interaction between Irish and Welsh scholarship.
The manuscript now referred to as the “Cambridge Juvencus” was written in the second half of the 9th century, mostly in Latin but with numerous glosses and some verses in Old Welsh. At the end of the text, one of the seven scribes of the glosses asks the reader for a blessing on his behalf with the note “a prayer for Nuadu.” Although this note is itself written in Old Welsh, the name is Irish, again implying the continued interchange between members of the Irish and British churches. Paul Russell has argued that this manuscript (and the glosses on it) exemplify the kinds of high-level Latin literary exercises that an aspiring church scholar would have experienced in his training.
The verses in the Cambridge Juvencus are in a three-line metre known in Welsh as englyn, much used by professional Welsh poets in the medieval period. One of the poems depicts a chieftain who is not enjoying the company he is used to; the other poem is a religious text in praise of the Trinity. The existence of these verses demonstrates that the englyn metre was in use no later than this date, and possibly well before.
The manuscript known as the Liber Commonei contains 18 vellum leaves and is striking for its diverse components: it contains sections written by Breton, Welsh, and Anglo-Saxon scribes about grammar, liturgies, biblical exegesis, and the calendar computus in a variety of scripts. The glosses in the manuscript are written in Old Gaelic, Old Breton, and Old Welsh. Its ultimate origin is uncertain, but it may well have been created in a Welsh scriptorium between 900 and 1100, where clerics from a wide range of backgrounds could be found. The manuscript was later taken to Glastonbury, where it acquired the name “St. Dunstan’s Classbook” after Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury c.940-57.
There are a number of other Old Welsh poems, and poem-cycles, which are also in the englyn metre and were most likely composed in this period. There is a series of poems centered on the character Llywarch Hen [“the old”], who was a cousin of Urien Rheged (from the 6th century), and put in his voice. Rather than being set in the north of Britain, however, the drama has been reset to border conflicts with the English in Wales. Llywarch sees all twenty-four of his sons killed in combat and is left alone to lament their loss. There is another set of verses centering on Urien himself, depicting his downfall and death as a hero of Rheged.
There is also a series of poems in the voice of a female poetess, Heledd, who laments the death of her brother Cynddylan and the fall of his kingdom, in a territory mostly in modern Shropshire, to the English of Mercia in the 7th century.
The nostalgic, backward look of these poem cycles demonstrates how the Welsh continued to reflect on the conflicts over territory and sovereignty in which they had been engaged since the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons.
What clues in the poem Armes Prydein, especially towards the end, indicate that the author is a churchman rather than a secular poet?
One of the most impressive of the surviving Breton manuscripts is the “Harkness Gospels,” dating from the late 9th century, which seems to have been created at Landevennec Abbey and illuminated using “Insular Celtic” art style. The Breton monasteries of Landevennec, Léhon, Alet and Redon all show strong Irish influences, including in their manuscript traditions.
The scribes make a clever visual “pun” in the manuscript: the evangelist Mark is represented in the book as a horse. This is because in Breton (and the other Brittonic languages), marc is the word for horse.
The early history of Landevennec Abbey is obscure, but by the time that the manuscript was created, it was a member of the Benedictine order strongly connected to the Breton dynasty of Cornouaille.