British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

Novels I Classical Literature I (Pseudo)-Scientific I Children's Books I Comics I Music & Movies I Various stuff
What's New I Sitemap I Arthurian articles I History of Britain, 407-597 I View guestbook I Sign guestbook I Poll I About me I Links I Search

  Vortigern Studies > Faces of Arthur > British History > Book IX > chapter 9.3

Faces of Arthur Index

Vortigen Studies Index

The Arthurian Collection is a part of Vortigern Studies



British History
click here

Chapter 9.3: The Welsh language and the new native poetry

Fabio P. Barbieri

The late Roman Empire experienced a decisive shift in the centre of culture, away from secular institutions such as the professorships of rhetoric set up in most cities, and into the new monasteries. This had an inevitable artistic consequence: that the more consciously religious the culture of the monasteries became, the more areas of human experience it left out. In particular, the whole royal/aristocratic world which could have fed on Classical warrior legends of Hercules, the war of Troy, Aeneas, Turnus, and the heroes of republican Rome, sympathetic and highly relevant to its own military and governmental concerns, was simply not communicated any of them. Members of the aristocratic class who went for instruction to monasteries learned exclusively religious matter, to a surprisingly high standard, but also with a very narrow focus; it was to be centuries before the age of Aquinas and Dante started taking as much interest in the Creation, or in the Creature, as in the Creator. And conversely, the member of a warrior aristocracy who did go to a convent to be educated, did so with the intention of abandoning the rank and responsibilities of a warrior aristocrat altogether and enter the separate world of what King Alfred called the gebedmen, the men of prayer.

It follows that the aristocracy’s own experiences only expressed itself through the barbaric (this is a descriptive, not a pejorative adjective) cultural artifacts of their pagan ancestors. In Britain, the demise of secular classical culture formed a gap outside the cloisters, into which stepped the English from the East and the Welsh from the North. The only secular learning known to Gildas is that of Maglocunus' bards; the alternative is already between the life of the cloister and that of the Celtic court.

In the earliest stages of this evolution visible to us, the literary language is still Latin. There is certainly another culture, a Celtic culture, at the back of it; but no written Celtic item has reached us before the historical Taliesin. O, the Vortigernid-Pascentiad family legend, which took form in Gwynessi (that is, probably, in Old Carlisle, in the north), certainly had an oral and legendary Celtic legend that suggests bardism, but it was indubitably written in Latin; but what is most likely to be the first historical mention of Welsh-speaking bards is Gildas’ fuirious reference to certain “parasites” at Maglocunus’ court, who advertise and defend his actions. Who are they? The strongest evidence is in the manner of Gildas himself when dealing with the Five Tyrants, especially with Maglocunus; for it may very easily be described as anti-bardism. Comparison with the historical Taliesin’s praise poems show that Gildas has set himself conscientiously to reverse the chief points of a bardic praise song: where the bards praise their subjects’ virtues, he exalts their sins; where they declare their generosity and bravery, he points out their mendacity, cruelty, greed and murders; he reverses bardic values one by one, reading murder in courage, seduction in generosity, and violence in the beauty of song; and in spite of his praise of sweet church music, his manner is pretty nearly as agitated and aggressive as Taliesin’s. I have postulated that Gildas intended a severe attack on his own culture, meaning to reverse the values and postulates of L and A; here we can see him actually doing it, not against a piece of literature whose existence we can only suggest, but against a genre of praise poetry some of whose finest instances we still possess. And Maglocunus gets a triple blast - far more than any other tyrant; which strengthens the suggestion, clear in Gildas’ writing, that bardism in his day was particularly connected with him. It was he who had imported those whom Gildas call “parasites”, the screamers, the bedewers-with-spittle, not only for the sake of being praised, but in order to have his actions justified and his propaganda spread around.

Bardic tradition - which probably had good reason to remember Maglocunus - records that he died of the plague in his royal hall in Rhos. This is usually identified with the place of that name in north Wales, but considering how many places called Rhos, Ross, Roos and so on there are in Britain (including a couple in Yorkshire), the identification is thin to say the least. After his death, Maglocunus - or Maelgwn - became a matter for legend, quoted as a high king in law codes, mentioned in poetry and even brought face to face, in much the most famous of his legends, with Taliesin - I mean the Taliesin of legend, the archetype of bards. I do not think this is a coincidence. I want to argue that Maglocunus' most important contribution to future British history may well have been the bards at his court.

We have had enough to do with the historical Taliesin, the first known Old Welsh poet, who wrote praise-songs for Urien of Rheged, his son Owein, Cynan Garwyn of Powys, and Gwallawg, ordained gwledig of Elmet; but the Taliesin who meets Maelgwn is simply the figure itself of poetry as sacred and magical, with much the same overtones as Virgil assumed, in the same period, among the Latin-speaking nations, as archi-mage and sage. It does not seem likely that the two great figures met, although I think that Taliesin may have been a younger contemporary of Maglocunus. Maglocunus, I suggested, died in the 570 plague; Taliesin lived long enough to praise Gallawg, father of Ceredig, the last king of Elmet, driven out and possibly killed in 615. That is, Taliesin was probably active in the last quarter of the sixth century. I suspect, however, that Gwallawg son of Lleenawg, whose name means “man, or master, of the Wall”, had become lord of southern Yorkshire in the wake of the conquests of his Gododdin kinsman Maglocunus; that is, that by the time Taliesin went to Elmet, Maglocunus must have been, in every sense of the word, history. It is quite possible that, as the legend says, Taliesin was a boy when Maglocunus was in his glory, surrounded by his bards; but as the lord whom he defends against Maelgwn, Elffin, lived generations after Gildas’ great bandit, I do not think we need treat the legend too seriously as a historical source.

The Taliesin who was at Maelgwn's court was another one of those Celtic miraculous wise children we have met so often; a legendary figure, the Arch-Bard, who appeared at the court of an equally legendary Maelgwn to teach the king and his bards a lesson. And the point is that he could have taught that lesson to any tyrant of legend: that he was associated with Maelgwn shows that Maelgwn was particularly remembered as the king associated with bardism. Though the various versions of his story hinge on the vindication of Elffin and his wife, in all the versions I have consulted[1] the point of the story is the proper establishment of bardism as a skill and profession. When he sets out from the court, what he says is that he will intervene in the contention of the bards and make them all look sad and defeated; and that is what he does.  Of the five poems he subsequently sings before Maelgwn (excluding the last, the prophecy of Britain, sung at the king's request when the issue was already settled), every one has to do with bardism. The first affirms Taliesin's universal wisdom and mastery by identifying him (in veiled terms) with the Second Person of the Trinity[2]; the second challenges the bards of Maelgwn to match his "three hundred and sixty songs"; the third demands specific evidence of wisdom, knowledge both of God and of creation; the fourth lays down the law about the minimum requirements for a proper bard (and let whoever cannot come up to scratch flee from Taliesin's face!), and the fifth and last attacks the more disgraceful members of the craft.

The conflict between the king and Taliesin's lord Elffin, which had been started by the latter's boast that he had a wife as chaste as the king's, a horse as fast as his horses, and a bard wiser than any, becomes the occasion for the manifestation of true bardism on earth. It follows that Maelgwn was more than casually associated with bardism: what the legend says is that bardism became manifest at his court. And this agrees with Gildas' very peculiar emphasis on the bards at Maglocunus' court. The story is the bardic equivalent of one of the foundation stories in which the patriarch of a dynasty was first humiliated and then consecrated by a great Saint such as Patrick; which has to mean that Maelgwn bore the same relationship to kings who protect bards as the founder of a dynasty has to all his descendants - an organic relationship. He was the exemplar and the founder of the peculiar relationship between king and bard.

Maelgwn was a Gododdin, the famous tribe from Stirling and Lothian known to Roman geographers as Uotadini. One of the chief monuments of Welsh bardism is the cycle of poems known simply as the Gododdin, attributed to the bard Neirin (or Aneurin), which is mainly devoted to a heroic and catastrophic raid south, from Lothian into a Bernicia already under English control, which ends with the complete destruction of the raiding force at Catraeth, usually identified with Catterick. Another Coeling (Gododdin) realm, that of Elmet, also stood between Gwynedd and the north, until its destruction by Aethelferth in 615. Relationships between the Coeling dynasty of Maglocunus and the Gododdin of the north remained close until the latter ceased to exist: Neirin’s own poetic cycle mentions distant Gwynedd no less than five times, and a number of the Gododdin heroes are actually said to come from that remote land. Even later, the story of Cadwallon’s great war against Northumbria shows clearly enough that his strategic objective was conjunction between the forces of Gwynedd and of the northern Gododdin, who seem to have rushed to take his side.

Connecting two known facts about Maelgwn and his court, could it be that the central role of the Gododdin cycle in later Welsh bardic practice had something to do with the Gododdin origin of Cunedda and Maelgwn? According to one regulation, knowledge of the Gododdin cycle was regarded as equivalent to 363 songs and was paid accordingly. To Gruffydd's Taliesin, we remember, the proper number of songs for a bard to know is 360; that is to say, knowledge of the Gododdin was equivalent to a full bardic training. And if the very institution of bardism had reached Wales through the Gododdin courts of Maelgwn’s descendants, this would explain the huge importance of that lost tribe; it was not even a matter of the importance or otherwise of Cunedda or Maelgwn, so much as that they had been the vehicle by which the traditional institution of Welsh historical memory and national self-consciousness, bardism, had reached the country.

The picture is further complicated by a linguistic riddle about the stage of evolution from Celtic to Welsh[3]. It will have escaped few readers that the name forms we found in Gildas are nothing like any Welsh anyone ever heard; they belong to an earlier language, with more syllables and a quite different sound system. Maglocunus and Cuneglasus turn up in Welsh as Maelgwn and Cynlas, having undergone the same process that turned Ambrosius into Emrys, Vitalinus into Gwythelin, Octavius into Eudaf. The question is: Continental evidence shows that sixth-century Latin-speaking ears heard British names in a sound system that was already Welsh - the Welsh of Taliesin, if not that of modern speakers. In particular, a name very close to that of Maglocunus - which would probably be written, in this old spelling, as *Maglocus - turns up in a church record of 574 as Mailoc (modern Welsh Maelog). Now there is nothing particularly surprising in finding Latin words undergoing sound-changes, even of the swift and extreme sort that has, already by Nennius' time, altered Ambrosius into Embreis; what is surprising is to find a phonetically exact rendition of old Celtic sounds in the sixth century - and, in some inscriptions, even later - when we know that they cannot have been pronounced as they were written. And we must realize that this archaic way of writing names is a pattern: it is not that we find a name here and there written according to an old-fashioned spelling, but that the mass of inscriptions from the period all tend to have more or less perfect archaic spellings, and that every name in Gildas is spelled in a form that would not be pronounced by contemporary British Celts. Professor Charles Thomas called this archaic language and spelling Inscriptional Old Celtic, a convenient enough name; for though IOC is probably an insular form, nevertheless it is clear that it has much the same sound-system and even vocabulary as the polysillabic Old Celtic whose names were transcribed into Latin by Caesar.

Now it can be demonstrated that the sound-changes that led from Old Celtic to Welsh were already starting to operate on the Border, next door to the Gododdin, long before the age of Gildas. A Roman tombstone found at South Shields, written in rather ropey Latin for a resident of Syrian origin, commemorates the latter’s ex-slave and later wife, Regina (this hints at a rather touching story), whose tribe was Catuellauna[4]. This is a well-known British name, used both for tribes (the Catuuellauni of Hertfordshire, the most important tribe of southern Britain in Caesar’s time) and for people (Cadwallon himself). In its original Old Celtic form, which Caesar recorded as he heard it, it was Catuuellauni, that is a compound of the ancient word catu- (battle).  Now the important thing about the South Shields inscription is that the ear of the Syrian foreigner and of his untrained stonemason have heard the lady’s tribal name as Cat-uellauna, that is, that the –u- stem of catu- has disappeared. –U- stems are the defining feature of important groups of words in the earliest, polysyllabic Indo-European languages – Latin, Old Celtic, Sanskrit, Avestan – and their vanishing is often one of the defining points in the process that turns the classical ancient languages into the following historical stage: Sanskrit into Prakrit and Pali, Avestic into Pahlevi, Latin into Italian. In other words, this is not only a matter of a sound-change, but a serious potential grammatical change (since the fall of a stem can change the inflection of a word), even potentially of a revolution in the language: in Italian, the collapse of the Latin stems spelled the end of inflection and the need to restructure the whole language around articles and prepositions.

Old Welsh and Old Irish do not represent as strong a change from inflected Indo-European languages, but they are strong enough. To pronounce, one after the other, Cassiuelaunos and Casswallawn, Ambrosius and Emrys gives something of the dimension of what happened. Vowels have collapsed into each other, syllables have merged; the rules of pronunciation and therefore of prosody can no longer be the same. Now given that the –a at the end of Catuellauna is certainly a Latin stem imposed on a native name – that is, that there is no evidence that the name as the Syrian gentleman encountered it ever had the native –os stem in the feminine – the Catuellaunian lady’s name seems quite close in form, if not in sound, to the much later name of our old friend Cadwallon of Gwynedd. In other words, the South Shields inscription – which, though difficult to date, belongs to the Roman age, two to four centuries before Gildas – shows that the form of words used at the popular level, among people who spoke the sort of poor Latin of our Palmyrene gentleman, was probably already Welsh, and in any case certainly on its way; while the existence of what Professor Thomas calls Inscriptional Old Celtic shows that there was a class of people in Britain who were still acquainted with early Celtic vocabulary, grammar and morphology as late as Gildas' time. A mandarin class of language specialists had a clear understanding of the rules of grammar and morphology which the native Celtic populace had been losing for centuries.

Though no literary remain of this Old Celtic has come down to our own time, the parallel of Sanskrit shows that it was not impossible for a "dead" language to live, in a very archaic form, as the language of an educated class, even if evidence of writing is very dubious. By the time when writing is certain in India, Sanskrit was already a learned language, and the uneducated spoke Prakrit; its elaborate inflection and sound system had been transmitted down the generations by memory reinforced by traditional analysis.

What this postulates, however, is a vast body of traditional literature memorized and analyzed by specialist learned classes. Such classes indubitably existed, both in India and in the Celtic lands. With the enormous reach of the bardic class, everyone who ever studied ancient Ireland, Scotland and Wales is familiar; but both of these use relatively later languages, Welsh and Old Irish, in which the polysyllabic nature of Old Celtic has already collapsed, requiring an altogether new prosody and, indeed, a different aesthetics. What has to be demonstrated is the existence and activity of an Old Celtic-speaking learned class with an advanced grasp of grammatical studies.

I would suggest that the passage from Old Celtic to Welsh and Old Irish is related to a major difference between Celtic and other Indo-European cultures. In every other traditional Indo-European literature, the great epics are written in verse. The earliest Latin version of the epic of Aeneas, that of Naevius, was in verse; so, as everyone knows, was Homeric epic; so was the Mahabharata; so are the early Germanic heroic poems, both in mainland Germany (the Nibelungenlied) and in England (Beowulf). Except for the Celtic world, there is not one Indo-European province in whichlarge-scale narratives are not in verse.

In the Celtic world, and in the Celtic world alone, epic and heroic accounts are consistently told in prose. The grandest manifestations of Arthurian epic – Perlesvaus, the Vulgate cycle – are in prose; where one of the same grandeur, Parzival, is in verse, it is because the author Wolfram von Eschenbach, a High German oral versifier who admits again and again to not being able to read and write, is using his own traditional verse form, that of the German epics, to tell what seems to him an epic poem. (Indeed, it is interesting that all the Arthurian poetry of Chretien de Troyes is said to have been versified from previous “books”, that is, surely, prose accounts. The same process may be suggested for every large-scale Arthurian verse narrative, which would explain why originals are so difficult to reconstruct.) The Mabinogi and all the other Welsh tales are in prose; there is no example of a large-scale Welsh verse narrative. The same goes for the so-called “epic” of the Tain bo Cuailnge and for other large-scale Irish narratives such as the Book of Conquests. Throughout the Celtic world, the formula for large-scale narrative is the same: long prose accounts, interspersed with short related poems, or with such poems placed in appendix.

Now Taliesin's description of himself and his likes as "the singers of little songs" indicates that a separate group was known that sang "long" songs. This may refer either to lengthy heroic or epic sagas, or to the indubitably different prosody demanded by the polysyllabic Inscriptional Early Celtic. Certainly Taliesin's snappy verse, full of internal assonance and rhyme, would be impossible in the sort of language IEC seems to have been; it would seem to demand something a lot more like Latin metres. There is also – this is perhaps a subjective judgement, but it is based on literary criticism – an exultation, a happy freedom and abandon, about Taliesin's work, that suggests the discovery of the expressive means of a new medium.

I admit that the following theory does not account for the parallel developments in Ireland; but I would suggest that the sophisticated use of Welsh as a literary language was the work of Taliesin and his generation, and was restricted to shorter song-like compositions. Such a restriction may seem difficult to envision, but, once again, there is a direct parallel in my country, where dialectal poetry, while widespread to the point that most Italian dialects count as literary languages, is rarely used beyond the confines of songs, sonnets, shortish comic poems, or comedies[5] (a form for which we have no examples among the earliest Celtic literatures). It is clear therefore that if the Roman of Trilussa, or the Milanese of Carlo Porta, or even the Venetian of Carlo Goldoni or the Neapolitan of Eduardo de Filippo, had ever broken away from Italian altogether and established themselves as completely autonomous languages, they would inherit a poetic tradition rather more restricted than that of Dante, Ludovico Ariosto, and Torquato Tasso.

Bards were at the court of Arthur, who was renowned down the centuries as one of the sovereigns who were generous to bards; we know that at least one bardic praise poem about him was written after Badon but before his great conquering outburst. But not a single line has survived of their work; nor indeed have their names (unless one of them happened to be called Myrddin). And I think we might take seriously the apparently sarcastic notice in The dream of Rhonabwy that the bards of Arthur sang songs in praise of Arthur that nobody could understand, except that they were in praise of the king: quite simply, these bards may have been speaking a language that nobody except bards would understand – the already dead Inscriptional Early Celtic. We have already seen that the picture of The dream has probably quite a lot to do, despite its dreamlike strangeness, with real history. In all likelihood, the bards of Arthur’s court were in fact understandable to any educated contemporary, since we know that Gildas – who was not a bard – understood the inner rules of Inscriptional Old Celtic; what the sentence means is probably that a writer of the age of Rhonabwy, the 1200s, would not be able to understand it. Which suggests, in turn, that shreds of the old songs were known at the time; or, possibly, that a tradition of the existence of an ancient language still existed.

Another straw in the wind that suggests that Arthur’s court was known to have used Inscriptional Old Celtic is the evidence we have seen in Book VII, that an early version of the legendary account of Camlann, incorporated in Geoffrey’s work, had made a clumsy attempt to render the two mythological names of Arthurian lore, Gwennhwyvar and Caledvwlch, as Guanhumara and Caliburnus, and that Guanhumara, in particular, showed an unfortunately mistaken reversal of the Welsh sound changes to form what its author thought was an Old Celtic form. In other words, the author of the legendary “Death of Arthur” used by Geoffrey knew that Old Celtic, rather than Welsh, was used at Arthur’s court, and wanted to adequate the Welsh names of Guinevere and Excalibur to it. (As for why they should need to be adequated, we have seen reason enough to believe that the legendary Guinevere and Excalibur were late addition to the identity of Arthur, and may well have come first into Welsh-language accounts, with no Old Celtic stage at all.) Finally, there is the evidence of Gildas himself, who, born and brought up in Arthurian times at the court of his father Caw, could parse and spell correctly Inscriptional Old Celtic names; which shows that in his and Arthur’s times, the literary language was still widespread and as well understood as Gildas’ marvellous Latin.

It is in the next generation that we first have certain evidence of Welsh poetry; first at Urien’s court, then – consistently – at Gododdin courts. What language the bards of Maglocunus spoke we do not know, although I will suggest a reason to suspect it might be Welsh. The first known connection between Gododdin royalty and Welsh poetry, two generations before Neirin, is at the court of Gwallawg, to which I suspect, Taliesin moved after Urien’s death – to judge from the fact that one Owein was one of the great heroes of Gwallawg’s time. Gwallawg, the gwledig of Elmet, ordained – that is, surely, consecrated by religious rite – and head of a fleet and many lesser heroes, is surely a king of higher rank than Urien; but the fact that, late in his career and when his son Owein was already an adult, Urien began to claim descent from Coel, suggests that this may be not just the casual career move of an increasingly renowned bard from the court of a self-made cateran of no descent who illegitimately claimed Coeling descent to that of one of Britain’s political leaders (who happened to be a genuine Coeling), but the sign of a political alignment between Urien and his children on the one hand, and the most important Gododdin king on the other.

I suspect that, with the arrival of Taliesin at Gwallawg’s court, the Gododdin complex, from Edinburgh to Gwynedd began to welcome and use, even to identify itself with, the new vernacular poetry; and that the peculiar impact of the Coeling and Gododdin bards may well have depended on their being the first to pick up the artistic gauntlet thrown down by Taliesin, and use Welsh rather than Old Celtic. When Cadwallon came back from Irish exile, sixty years after, to lead the revolt of the Gododdin lands from Gwynedd through Elmet to Lothian and the Borders, there was not wanting his own bard, Afan Little-bard, who punctually became known as one of the Cynfeirdd, the first age of poetic classics[6]. It does not even seem unlikely that the sense of distance from the great men of the past that seems evinced by N, with its implicit criticism of Ambrosius and Constantine for being too nice to the barbarians, its assimilation of Uther (father of Arthur) to them, and its general separation from the past in the name of a new nationalistic “morality” that preaches the destruction of the enemy by any means at hand, may be related with this adoption of a new language, a new poetics, which set the men of Cadwallon’s time apart from their predecessors as effectively as the political situation. The rejection of the politics of Ambrosius, however great his qualities, and the treatment of Arthur as great but outdated and with no future, seems to agree with the rejection of the poetics of Latin and of Inscriptional Old Celtic, in favour of the new language of the poets of the Gododdin, Taliesin, Neirin, Afan Little-Bard.

Something like the reverse may have operated in Gildas’ time. If, by any chance, Maglocunus was the first – perhaps even before Urien - to employ bards using demotic proto-Welsh instead of aristocratic IOC, then Gildas’ protest might have another aspect: his vivid and slightly gross description of the “flatterers” roaring out their praise until they spatter the hearer with their spittle, might involve a criticism for the novelty of using poetry in that base, dialectal language. Yet, oddly enough, Taliesin and Gildas resemble each other like twins. There is the same vehement and absolutely genuine passion in both their spirits; there is a similarly fervent adhesion to individual people – which we see, in Gildas, not only in his desperate renunciation of the admirable, yet damned Maglocunus, but also in his warm mention of their unnamed teacher, and of the few but admired good men of his time; there is the same wildly imaginative use of a highly wrought literary language, Gildas' Latin running Taliesin's Welsh close for elaboration and grammatical boldness; and, as I observed, Gildas (though his grim view of the feuds of his contemporaries led him to prophecies that came all too true) has social and political ideas little more advanced than Taliesin's. His desperate call for uprightness in public and ecclesiastical life has little future in it so long as he is bound to a purely Celtic conception of history; in a world of soldiers, the realities of a social life based on the sword were not going to bend to mere appeals to better natures, however truthful and admirable. And he is conscious of it: he is trying hard to break from the shackles of his own social background – but while the result of his struggle is magnificent literary art, it is not, and it cannot be, politically effective. But what is certain is that the motor of Gildasian-age culture was in the North: all the finest literary figures in tradition come from the North, both Gildas and the Welsh poets.

The effect of the arrival of Northern bards on subsequent British history is immense. Welsh, we must realize, is not a popular slang slowly erected, like the earliest French, into a national talk by upper classes that had become too ignorant for Latin: it was, from the beginning, a language heard at the court of kings, and its very earliest manifestations, the poems of Taliesin, have a virtuosity allied to a marvelous directness of expression, that places them among the great classical poetry of the world. Single sentences stand out, as vivid and luminous as Sappho or Goethe: “They did not see a man, who did not see Gwallawg”; “O Gwallawg, teyrned are stung to silence and submit”; “There is more glory in the world, Because Urien and his sons exist”, a voice, as Sappho calls it, sweeter than the lyre, golden more than gold. Poetic early Welsh had probably only recently emerged from the shadow of literary Latin and the original IEC, and yet it almost immediately soared to classic level, when Italian, for instance, took three centuries from its first manifestations as a speech with its own grammar and morphology to the rise of the Florentine poets[7]. This argues the existence of a learned class able to grasp and make elaborate use of the potential of this new medium, because it already had a very broad and varied experience in earlier languages.

When this same society adopted Latin, it made use of it with a virtuosity and inventiveness that put the rest of the West to shame, rhetorically indeed, but with none of the dead conventions and turgid bombast of a Sidonius or a Cassiodorus; and that is, in my view, because it was already used to the virtuoso handling of a literary language separate from everyday realities. No two languages require more different handling than Latin and Welsh, and yet, within two generations, North Britain had produced two most extraordinary virtuosi in both, Gildas and Taliesin.

The influence of bardic morals and royal theory on the history of Wales and Ireland, Scotland and Brittany, has been, politically, almost invariably disastrous. An aristocracy bred in a bardic climate was, from several points of view, quite incapable of coping with enemies not bound by the categories of widespread sovereign monarchy, unchangeable borders, and the peculiar mixture of self-righteousness and justification of violence found in so many bardic texts[8]. At the same time, the intense societal concentration on musical and artistic achievement that followed from the exaltation of bards among other social classes has meant that, artistically, and especially musically, the Celtic countries have always punched far above their weight. The literature of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, has been important for the whole of Europe from the moment it began to be set down on paper; the immense impact of Arthurian epic, which changed European taste and even manners from one end of the continent to the other, would alone place these little countries in the forefront of European civilization, but how many people are familiar with the collections of Breton traditional tales – simply the most beautiful fables and fairy tales I have ever read?

Even more important than their literature is their music. From the time when Gerald of Wales marvelled at the dexterity and virtuosity of Irish and Scottish musicians to the time when Haydn and Beethoven delighted in harmonizing tunes from the British countries (Beethoven’s renderings of The Miller of Dee and The Highland Watch would suffice, had every other work of his perished, to certify his genius), to the immense influence of Irish and Scottish folksongs on present-day popular music, these have never ceased to be important, nay, central; and that is not even to count the theory that places the invention of polyphony – the fundamental core of all European musical art – in the British isles. When the citizens of the Celtic countries call each of their lands land of song, they are telling the exact truth. If the poetry and song of the bards have in some ways proved the death of the Celtic countries in political terms, they, and their cultural successors, have been their survival, their beautiful lifeblood, and their great gift to the world.


[1]Lady Jane Guest: BRITISH MYTHS AND LEGENDS, ed.Richard Barber, London, The Folio Society, 1998. Elis Gruffydd: THE MABINOGI, ed. and trans. P.K.Ford, London and Berkeley, 1977. “Idrison”: The Bardic sourcebook, ed. John Matthews, Blandford, London 1998, 81-96.

[2]F.P.BARBIERI, Gods of the West I: Indiges, Brussels 1999, 27f.

[3]For all that follows I am indebted to CHARLES THOMAS, Christian Celts: Messages and Images, Stroud 1998, 65-70, which puts the question with exemplary clarity in no more than six pages. I have no view about Professor Thomas' theory in most of his book, and I decidedly disagree with him on a few matters - e.g. the dating, origin and learning of St.Patrick - but nevertheless I have to admire the masterly simplicity of his presentation: God knows it would have taken me twenty times the space!

[4]SIR JOHN RHYS, Celtic Britain, London 1904, p.289; GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE; Companion to Roman Britain, Stroud 1999. 266.

[5]There are a few exceptions, in particular the Roman dialectal versions of classical epics by Cesare Pascarella; but they amount to imitative, even “learned” attempts half-way between wilfulness and comedy, and have little real effect on the life of Roman dialect as a literary language, which, from Pasquino to G.G.Belli to Trilussa, is always in the short, often satiric poem or in the sonnet.

[6]Bromwich, Trioedd op.cit., 268.

[7]Latin as a current language lasted longer in Italy than anywhere else, and the first written examples of decidedly separate Italian dialects date from the turn of the millennium. Even so, it is doubtful whether, without the example of the Provencal and French poets, the earliest versifiers in Florence and Sicily would have thought of using the local dialect; mediaeval Latin was not only prestigious, it was a flexible and lively language that was just then going through a period of extraordinary fertility, both on the religious side (St.Thomas Aquinas) and on the secular (the Arch-Poet of Cologne).

[8]KATHARINE SIMMS, From kings to warlords, Woodbridge 1987, p.1

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright © 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri

VortigernStudies is copyright © Robert Vermaat 1999-2007. All rights reserved