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Who Were The Bards?

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

There is nothing more fun in a fantasy world than the image of the bard all dressed up in his multi-coloured cape, lute or pipes in hand, dancing merrily around the fire while flirting with the old maids and making the children giggle. But how true is this story? Were the bards really like that?

Digging into the dictionary is often a good place to start. The word simply means a poet-singer and minstrel and comes from Gaelic. The Earliest English mention being around 1450.  But it is a little more complicated.

They were also an ancient Celtic order of minstrels who had the job of writing verses to celebrate victories and used verse to write histories, religious ideas, laws, and family histories.  In modern Celtic languages, especially Welsh, it is used as the word for "poet."

One other, rather cute thing I discovered in the OED is the word Bardling. And it means an inexperienced bard! Sweet!

Book of Taliesin - Affiliate link to Amazon
Book of Taliesin - Affiliate link to Amazon

Medieval bards played a big part in recording history. They would recall history and genealogy in song at a time when so much was not yet written down. Many had vast repertoires, so much so that even monasteries sometimes employed them.

Some were highly respected and were awarded honours. In Wales, Taliesin was a famous bard of the 6th Century CE who served at the courts of three Brythonic kings. The Brythons (Welsh) were the Celtic Britons.  He also wrote the Book of Taliesin.

Dafydd ap Gwilym was a 14th Century bard and the Welsh regard him as one of the greatest of all times, especially his poems. Check out Gwyneth Lewis who is a poet and has dome some wonderful translations of both these great people. 

The bards themselves had a mixed background. Some were nobles and some served as judges as well as their bardic duties. And who they were was often governed by laws. In Ireland, the law Uraicecht na Ríar not only spoke about being payed, but also about the poetic craft and what a bard had to achieve to be a certain grade!

These days, bards are judged simply in the court of public opinion - far better, me thinks.

Eventually, bards were replaces by Troubadours and Minstrels, and I think it is really these characters who we think about most. The image of Allen a Dale from Robin hood, whether as a minstrel with a feather in his hat, or as a cockerel (thanks, Disney for that), is buried in our brains and will be for evermore.

I love that idea. The poet and storyteller wandering through the glades, performing to anyone who would give them a few coins or something to eat, or a bed for the night.

I suspect this image is mostly fantasy and probably has only come to reality in modern times with poets and singers performing in pubs and clubs, on the street and on YouTube.

But now here too.

I don't have the shape or the hat to pull off medieval bard, and the one time I tried a lute was less than memorable!  But perhaps I have a little of the voice, and I certainly love telling stories.

And that is what it is all about - telling and sharing. Whether that is news, history, family history, poetry, or a story by a collector of fairy tales.