Friday, June 15, 2007

Bards and the Irish laws - part I

My reference for this series of posts is Fergus Kelly's A Guide to Early Irish Law, which like so many useful academic texts is now out of print. Note to the reader: If you come across any book which treats on an obscure topic that interests you, buy if immediately! Far too many of the useful books in my reference library which I bought eight or ten years ago are now out of print, and available, if at all, as second-hand copies at inflated prices. Buy these gems while they are available, and remember: you can never have too many books. (Too few bookcases, however, may be a problem...)

Surviving law texts are much more abundant for Ireland than for Wales, and the core material in many of them dates back to the 7th and 8th centuries, as opposed to the 9th - 10th century Law of Hywel. This does not, however, make the researcher's job easier; on the contrary, the abundance of exemplars means we have many more disagreements among them. In addition, lawyers seem to have been plentiful in ancient Ireland, and the resulting classifications of things and people - such as bards and poets - is intricate to a degree. The main distinctions, however, are "1) between those who are nemed 'privileged', and those who are not nemed, and 2) between those who are soer 'free' and those who are doer 'unfree'." Poets and bards - there is a distinction - are among the "men of art", those who are nemed because of their knowledge and skills rather than their political power or wealth.

Among the "men of art", it is only the poet who has full nemed status. The two main categories of poets recognized were the fili and the bard. Both of these groups were divided legally in seven or more subgroups, of which more presently. The chief differences between the two, however, were their degree of education and their pedigree. Poetry was a hereditary profession: "a poet is expected to be the son and grandson of a poet." On that basis, few of us would qualify today!

Next: the filid.

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