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In medieval Gaelic and British culture, a bard was a professional poet, employed by a patron, such as a monarch or nobleman, to commemorate the patron's ancestors and to praise the patron's own activities.
Originally a specific class of poet, contrasting with another class known as fili in Ireland and Highland Scotland, the term "bard", with the decline of living bardic tradition in the modern period, acquired generic meanings of an epic author/singer/narrator, comparable with the terms in other cultures (minstrel, skald, scop, rhapsode, udgatar, griot, ashik) or any poets, especially famous ones. For example, William Shakespeare is known as the Bard or the Bard of Avon.
Etymology and origin
The word is a Celtic loan word from Scottish Gaelic bàrd, Irish bard, Welsh bardd. In Scotland in the 16th century it was a derogatory term for an itinerant musician, but was later romanticised by Sir Walter Scott.
In medieval Gaelic and Welsh society, a bard (Scottish and Irish Gaelic) or bardd (Welsh) was a professional poet, employed to compose eulogies for his lord (see planxty). If the employer failed to pay the proper amount, the bard would then compose a satire (c.f. fili, fáith). In other Indo-European societies, the same function was fulfilled by skalds, rhapsodes, minstrels and scops, among others. A hereditary caste of professional poets in Proto-Indo-European society has been reconstructed by comparison of the position of poets in medieval Ireland and in ancient India in particular.
Bards (who are not the same as the Irish 'filidh' or 'fili') were those who sang the songs recalling the tribal warriors' deeds of bravery as well as the genealogies and family histories of the ruling strata among Celtic societies. The pre-Christian Celtic peoples recorded no written histories; however, Celtic peoples did maintain an intricate oral history committed to memory and transmitted by bards and filid. Bards facilitated the memorisation of such materials by the use of metre, rhyme and other formulaic poetic devices.
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In medieval Ireland, bards were one of two distinct groups of poets, the other being the fili. According to the Early Irish law text on status, Uraicecht Becc, bards were a lesser class of poets, not eligible for higher poetic roles as described above. However, it has also been argued that the distinction between filid (pl. of fili) and bards was a creation of Christian Ireland, and that the filid were more associated with the church.
Irish bards formed a professional hereditary caste of highly trained, learned poets. The bards were steeped in the history and traditions of clan and country, as well as in the technical requirements of a verse technique that was syllabic and used assonance, half rhyme and alliteration, among other conventions. As officials of the court of king or chieftain, they performed a number of official roles. They were chroniclers and satirists whose job it was to praise their employers and damn those who crossed them. It was believed that a well-aimed bardic satire, glam dicenn, could raise boils on the face of its target.
The bardic system lasted until the mid-17th century in Ireland and the early 18th century in Scotland.
The early history of the bards can be known only indirectly through mythological stories. The first mention of the bardic profession in Ireland is found in the Book of Invasions of Ireland, in a story about the Irish colony of Tuatha De Danann (Peoples of Goddess Danu), also called Danonians. They became the aos sí (folk of the mound), comparable to Norse alfr and British fairy. During the tenth year of the reign of the last Belgic monarch, the people of the colony of Tuatha De Danann, as the Irish called it, invaded and settled in Ireland. They were divided into three tribes—the tribe of Tuatha who were the nobility, the tribe of De who were the priests (those devoted to serving God or De) and the tribe of Danann, who were the bards. This account of the Tuatha De Danann must be considered legendary; however the story was an integral part of the oral history of Irish bards themselves.
The best-known group of bards in Scotland were the members of the MacMhuirich family, who flourished from the 15th to the 18th centuries. The family was centred in the Hebrides, and claimed descent from a 13th-century Irish bard who, according to legend, was exiled to Scotland. The family was at first chiefly employed by the Lords of the Isles as poets, lawyers, and physicians. With the fall of the Lordship of the Isles in the 15th century, the family was chiefly employed by the chiefs of the MacDonalds of Clanranald. Members of the family were also recorded as musicians in the early 16th century, and as clergymen possibly as early as the early 15th century. The last of the family to practise classical Gaelic poetry was Domhnall MacMhuirich, who lived on South Uist in the 18th century.
A number of bards in Welsh mythology have been preserved in medieval Welsh literature such as the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch, the Book of Aneirin and the Book of Taliesin. The bards Aneirin and Taliesin may be legendary reflections of historical bards active in the 6th and 7th centuries. Very little historical information about Dark Age Welsh court tradition survives, but the Middle Welsh material came to be the nucleus of the Matter of Britain and Arthurian legend as they developed from the 13th century. The (Welsh) Laws of Hywel Dda, originally compiled around 900 A.D, identify a bard as a member of a king's household. His duties, when the bodyguard were sharing out booty, included the singing of the sovereignty of Britain—possibly why the genealogies of the British high kings survived into the written historical record.
The royal form of bardic tradition ceased in the 13th century, when the 1282 Edwardian conquest permanently ended the rule of the Welsh princes. The legendary suicide of The Last Bard (c. 1283), was commemorated in the poem The Bards of Wales by the Hungarian poet János Arany in 1857, as a way of encoded resistance to the suppressive politics of his own time. However, the poetic and musical traditions were continued throughout the Middle Ages, e.g., by noted 14th-century poets Dafydd ap Gwilym and Iolo Goch. The tradition of regularly assembling bards at an eisteddfod never lapsed, and was strengthened by formation of the Gorsedd by Iolo Morganwg in 1792, establishing Wales as the major Celtic upholder of bardic tradition in the 21st century. Many regular eisteddfodau are held in Wales, including the National Eisteddfod of Wales which was instituted in 1861 and has been held annually since 1880. Many Welsh schools conduct their own annual versions at which bardic traditions are emulated.
A description of life at a training school for bards survives in the Memoirs of the Marquis of Clanricarde, written in 1641-1643, but published in 1722. Clanricarde was a territory in Ireland, located in what is now County Galway. This description, found in the introduction to the memoirs, appears to be by the lawyer Thomas O'Sullivane.
Concerning the poetical Seminary or School, from which I was carried away to clear other things that fell in my way, it was open only to such as were descended of Poets and reputed within their Tribes. And so was it with all the Schools of that kind in the Nation, being equal to the Number of Families that followed the said calling. But some more or less frequented for the difference of Professors, Conveniency, with other Reasons, and seldom any come but from remote parts, to be at a distance from Relations and other Acquaintances that might interrupt his Study. The Qualifications first requir'd were reading well, writing the Mother-tongue, and a strong Memory. It was likewise necessary the Place should be in the solitary Recess of a Garden or within a Sept or Enclosure far out of the reach of any Noise, which an Intercourse of People might otherwise occasion. The Structure was a snug, low Hut, and beds in it at convenient Distances, each within a small Apartment without much Furniture of any kind, save only a Table, some Seats, and a Conveniency for Cloaths to hang upon. No Windows to let in the Day, nor any Light at all us'd but that of Candles, and these brought in at a proper Season only. The Students upon thorough Examination being first divided into Classes, wherein a regard was had to every one's Age, Genius, and teh Schooling ha before, if any at all, or otherwise. The Professors (one or more as there was occasion) gave a Subject suitable to the Capacity of each Class, determining the number of Rhimes, and clearing what was to be chiefly observed therein as to Syllables, Quartans, Concord, Correspondence, Termination and Union, each of which were restrain'd by peculiar Rules. The said Subject (either one or more as aforesaid) having been given over Night, they work'd it apart each by himself upon his own Bed, the whole next Day in the Dark, till at a certain Hour in the Night, Lights being brought in, they committed it to writing. Being afterwards dress'd and come together into a large Room, where the Masters waited, each Scholar gave in his Performance, which being corrected or approv'd of (according as it requir'd) either the same or fresh subjects were given for the next Day. This Part being over, the Students went to their Meal, which was then serv'd up; and so, after some time spent in Conversation and other Diversions, each retir'd to his Rest, to be ready for the Business of the next Morning. Every Saturday and on the Eves of Festival Days they broke up and dispers'd themselves among the Gentlemen and rich Farmers of the Country, by whom they were very well entertain'd and much made of, till they thought fit to take their leaves, in order to re-assume their Study. Nor was the People satisfied with affording this Hospitality alone; they sent in by turns every Week from far and near Liquors and all manner of Provision towards the Subsistence of the Academy, so that the chief Poet was at little or no Charges, but, on the contrary, got very well by it, besides the Presents made him by the Students upon their first coming, which was always at Michaelmas [29 September], and from thence till the 25th of March, during the cold season of the Year only, did that close Study last. At that time the Scholars broke up, and repair'd each to his own Country, with an Attestation of his Behaviour and Capacity from the chief Professor to those that had sent him.
The reason of laying the Study aforesaid in the Dark was doubtless to avoid the Distraction which Light and the variety of Objects represented thereby commonly occasions. This being prevented, the Faculties of the Soul occupied themselves solely upon the Subject in hand, and the Theme given; so that it was soon brought to some Perfection according to the Notions or Capacities of the Students. Yet the course was long and tedious, as we find, and it was six or seven Years before a Mastery or the last Degree was conferred, which you'll the less admire upon considering the great Difficulty of the Art, the many kinds of their Poems, the Exactness and Nicety to be observ'd in each, which was necessary to render their Numbers soft, and the Harmony agreeable and pleasing to the Ear.
As every Professor, or chief Poet, depended on some Prince or great Lord, that had endowed his Tribe, he was under strict ties to him and Family, as to record in good Metre his Marriages, Births, Deaths, Acquisitions made in war and Peace, Exploits, and other remarkable things relating to the Same. He was likewise bound to offer an Elegy on the Decease of the said Lord, his consort, or any of their children, and a Marriage Song when there should be Occasion. But as to any Epick, or Heroick Verse to be made for any other Lord or Stranger, it was requir'd that at least a Paroemion, or Metre therein, should be upon the Patron, or the Name in general. [...]The last Part to be done, which was the Action and Pronunciation of the Poem in Presence of the Maecenas, or the principal Person it related to, was perform'd with agreat deal of Ceremony in a Consort of Vocal and Instrumental Musick. The Poet himself said nothing, but directed and took are that everybody else did his Part right. The Bards having first had the Composition from him, got it well by Heart, and now pronounc'd it orderly, keeping even Pace with a Harp, touch'd upon that Occasion; no other musical Instrument being allowed for the said Purpose than this alone, as being Masculin, much sweeter and fuller than any other.
Martin Martin, in his Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (London, 1703), paints a picture of the bardic culture as he encountered it a few decades later, providing in the process a description of bardic training rites. This is one of the last eyewitness accounts of the bardic culture.
The Orators, in their Language called Is-Dane, were in high esteem in these Islands and the Continent, until within these forty years they sat always among the Nobles and Chiefs of Families in the Streah or Circle. Their Houses and little Villages were Sanctuaries, as well as Churches, and they took place before Doctors of Physic. The Orators, after the Druids were extinct, were brought in to preserve the Genealogy of Families and to repeat the same at every Succession of a Chief; and upon the occasion of marriages and Births they made Epithalamiums and Panegyricks, which the Poet or Bard pronounc'd. The Orators by the force of their Eloquence had a powerful ascendant over the greatest men in their time; for if any Orator did but ask the Habit, Arms, Horse, or any other thing belonging to the greatest Man in these Islands, it was readily granted them, sometimes out of respect, and sometimes for fear of being exclaimed against by a Satire, which in those days was roeckon'd a great dishonour; but these Gentlemen becoming insolent, lost ever since both the Profit and Esteem which was formerly due to their Character; for neither their Panegyricks nor Satires are regarded to what they have been ,and they are now allowed but a small salary. I must not omit to relate their way of Study, which is very singular. They shut their Doors and Windows for a Days time, and lie on their backs with a STone upon their Belly, and Plads [sic, plaid?] about their Heads, and their Eyes being cover'd they pump their Brains for Rhetorical Encomium or Panegyrick; and indeed they furnish such a Stile from this Dark Cell as is understood by very few; and if they purchase a couple of Horses as the reward of their Meditation, they think they have done a great Matter. The Poet or Bard had a Title to the Bridegroom's upper Garb – that is the Plad and Bonnet - but now he is satisfy'd with what the Bridegroom pleases to give him on such occasions.
From its frequent use in Romanticism, 'The Bard' became attached as a title to various poets,
- 'The Bard of Avon,' 'The Immortal Bard' (or in England, simply 'The Bard') is William Shakespeare
- 'The Bard of Ayrshire' (or in Scotland, simply 'The Bard') is Robert Burns
- 'The Bard of Olney' is William Cowper
- 'The Bard of Rydal Mount' is William Wordsworth
- 'The Bard of Twickenham' is Alexander Pope
- 'The Bard of Salford' is John Cooper Clarke
- 'The Bard of Armagh' is Martin Hearty
- Bob Dylan, Jim MacCool and the band Blind Guardian have also been termed 'bards'
From its Romanticist usage, the notion of the bard as a minstrel with qualities of a priest, magician or seer also entered the fantasy genre in the 1960s to 1980s, for example as the "Bard" class in Dungeons & Dragons, Bard by Keith Taylor (1981), Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish by Morgan Llywelyn (1984), and in video games in fantasy settings such as The Bard's Tale (1985).
The class of Bard can also be found in the webcomic, Homestuck.
- Oxford Dictionary of English
- Martin Litchfield West, Indo-European poetry and myth, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-19-928075-9, p. 30.
- Breatnach, Liam. Uraicecht na Ríar, ca. p. 98
- Clancy, Thomas Owen (2006), "Clann MacMhuirich", in Koch, John T., Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, p. 453, ISBN 1-85109-445-8
- Thomson, Derick S. (1968), "Gaelic Learned Orders and Literati in Medieval Scotland", Scottish Studies (The Journal of the School of Scottish Studies University of Edinburgh) 12 (1): 65
- e.g., Our Eisteddfod at St Julian's School, Newport, 19 March 2013. Accessed 20 June 2013
- Ulrick de Burgh, Earl of Clanricarde (1604-1657), Memoirs of the Right Honourable the Marquis of Clanricarde ... containing several original papers and letters of King Charles II, queen mother, the Duke of York ... &c. relating to the treaty between the Duke of Lorrain and the Irish commissioners, from February 1650 to August 1653. Publish'd from his lordship's original mss. To which is prefix'd, a dissertation ... containing several curious observations concerning the antiquities of Ireland. London, Printed for J. Woodman, 1722. The manuscript of these memoirs was thought lost until it was rediscovered in 1866 in the Philadelphia Public Library among a collection of Irish state papers which had been missing since the time of king James II.
- Robin Flower, Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the British Museum, London: 1926-1953, vol. 3, p.16
- Memoirs of the Marquis of Clanricarde, cited in O. Bergin, Irish Bardic Poetry, Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1970, p.5-8.
- Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, cited in O. Bergin, Irish Bardic Poetry, Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1970, p. 8.
- Walker, Joseph C., Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards. New York: Garland, 1971.
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