Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Bards and the Irish Laws - Part IV

A little more about the training and repertoire of the Irish bards, based on Proinsias Mac Cana's The Learned Tales of Medieval Ireland.

Regarding the development of the poetic curriculum, he says, "in its earliest form the curriculum envisaged the student-poet as passing through these [seven] grades [of filid] in a period of seven years. But the curriculum was gradually lengthened, at least in theory, and in the next stage ... it extended over ten years ... in its final form ... [the curriculum] ... cover[ed] a course of twelve years."

The subjects to be studied in the first year included twenty tales, in the second year, thirty, and so on, until in the seventh and final year the original curriculum would have included eighty tales. What is not clear is whether the number of tales was inclusive of those previously learned, or represented the number of new items to be learned in a year. The latter supposition would result in the number of 350 given by one of the two extant tale lists as "the professional qualification of the fili in so far as it consists of stories and coimcne to be narrated to kings and princes."

Whichever interpretation is correct, it is clear the fili was supposed to know, and in some cases to tell, a very large number of stories and other traditional items of lore. According to an eighth century tale, "when Forgoll the fili came on visitation to the royal house of Mongan mac Fiachna, he told a tale every night ... and such was his learning that they continued thus from Samain to Beltaine." A master-poet with 350 tales at his command could keep this up for a year.

Some tales, however, were only supposed to be told during the winter, between Samhain and Beltane. This included especially the hero-tales, the tales of battles and raids and ravagings, expeditions to the underworld, and the birth and death of the hero himself: for in the Celtic lands it was the hero's death as much as his life which defined how he would be remembered. As Y Gododdin says, "he slew a multitude to win undying fame."

But that is the subject of another post.

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