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The Bard

The Bard (ca. 1817), by John Martin

In medieval Gaelic and British culture (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man, Brittany and Cornwall) 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.[1]

Etymology and originEdit

The word is a loanword from Scottish Gaelic, deriving from Proto-Celtic *bardos, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *gwrh2-dh1-ó-, from the root *gwerh2 "to raise the voice; praise". The first recorded example in English is in 1449, Lowland Scots, denoting an itinerant musician, usually with a contemptuous connotation. The word subsequently entered the English language via Scottish English.

Secondly, 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, offices that may sometimes also be subsumed under the term "bard" by extension. 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.[2]

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 memorization of such materials by the use of poetic meter and rhyme of time.

During the era of Romanticism, when knowledge of Celtic culture was overlaid by legends and fictions, the word was reintroduced into the West Germanic languages, this time directly into the English language, in the sense of 'lyric poet', idealised by writers such as the Scottish romantic novelist Sir Walter Scott. The word was taken from Latin bardus, Greek bardos, in turn loanwords from the Gaulish language, describing a class of Celtic priest (see druid, vates). From this romantic use came the epitheton The Bard applied to William Shakespeare and, in Scotland, Robert Burns.

Irish bardsEdit

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.[3]

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 schools were extinct by the mid 17th century in Ireland and by the early 18th century in Scotland.

Welsh bardsEdit

A number of legendary 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 to 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.

Welsh bardic tradition appears to end in the same 13th century, the Welsh campaigns of Edward I supposedly culminating in the legendary suicide of The Last Bard (c. 1283), as 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. There seems to be some continuity of Early Medieval Welsh tradition into the Late Middle Ages, with 14th century poets such as Dafydd ap Gwilym and Iolo Goch, and even to the present day with the Gorsedd of Bards.


Works discussing "bards" 18th and 19th century Celtic revivalism include The Bard by Thomas Gray, Cuma, The warrior-bard of Erin by John Richard Best, The Bard by John Walker Ord, The Mountain Bard by James Hogg, The Bard of Mary Redcliffe by Ernest Lacy, among others. The role of bards in Neo-Druidism (such as the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids), in Welsh nationalism and in popular notions on pre-Roman Britain originate in this context.[4] In modern Wales the Gorsedd of Bards (Welsh: Gorsedd y Beirdd) is a society whose honorary membership is extended to those who have done great things for Wales.

From its frequent use in Romanticism, 'The Bard' became attached as a title to various poets,

In the 20th century, the word lost much of its original connotation of Celtic revivalism or Romanticism, and could refer to any professional poet or singer, sometimes in a mildly ironic tone. In the Soviet Union, singers who were outside the establishment were called bards from the 1960s.

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 MMORPG Forsaken World allows the player to play as a Bard.

See alsoEdit

References Edit

  1. "Bard", Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. Accessed 11 Jan. 2008.
  2. Martin Litchfield West, Indo-European poetry and myth, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-19-928075-9, p. 30.
  3. Breatnach, Liam. Uraicecht na Ríar, ca. p. 98
  4. "The figure of the bard flows through mid-eighteenth century thought in which the fantasy construct began to act as a cypher for a number of nationalist ideological arguments. He is often associated with certain geographical regions (Wales, or the far north of Scotland) and with fantasies about ancient English societies most commonly aroused through the invocation of the Druids" Andrew Ashfield, , Peter De Bolla, The sublime: a reader in British eighteenth-century aesthetic theory, Cambridge University Press (1996) ISBN 978-0-521-39582-3, p. 160.

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