Taliesin and Aneirin – Christian Bards or Pagan? Part 1.
Throughout its recorded history, Welsh poetry – true to its Indo-European roots – has been first and foremost praise poetry: praise of the king, praise of heroes, praise of the Christian God, and (somewhat later in its development) praise of country, of beautiful women, and of love. The earliest examples of this poetry of which we have record is that attributed to the historical poets Taliesin and Aneirin, who probably sang in the second half of the sixth century CE (c. 550-600 CE), mostly in northern Britain. These two, together with Talhaearn Tad Awen, Cian, and Bluchbard, none of whose work survives, and with the anonymous authors of a few other early poems, are called in Welsh the Cynfeirdd – the “first” or “early bards” – and their surviving work is almost entirely praise poetry of one sort or another. Traditionally these early bards have been assumed to be Christians. This paper will examine the background of that assumption, and will perhaps reach a different conclusion.
Although the question of the dating of this earliest material is complex and contentious, I will assume for the purpose of this discussion that at least some of it, in at least some core parts, is the work of the early bards to whom it has long been ascribed. If I say, then, that a poem “is Taliesin’s”, the reader should interpret this statement as meaning “some scholars think that this poem may have been composed originally by a historical sixth century bard called Taliesin; other scholars may disagree.”
The British bards were in their functions the descendants of one of the three Celtic learned classes – Druids, Bards, and Seers – described by a number of the classical writers, and argued about ever since. In Britain the druids were suppressed by the incoming Romans in the first century CE, but the bards survived; and after the Roman withdrawal (c. 410 CE) they flourished, adapting their performances as needed to the environment in which they moved. In Ireland, as the druids declined in status, losing their religious function to the Christian priests and becoming simply magicians, the seers – the Irish filid or high-caste poets – acquired some of their lore-keeping and judicial functions, while splitting their poetic functions with the lower-caste bards. Whether or not something like this happened in Britain, with the British bards acquiring some of the druidical functions as the druids and seers disappeared, is a matter for speculation. Be that as it may, the Cynfeirdd were highly respected professionals whose craft was important to their society. They were not only poets in the modern sense, but genealogists, historians, performers, entertainers, and publicists (Bromwich lxxi). Theirs was a craft of memory and oral transmission in a mostly illiterate society; they proclaimed the deeds of heroes, and knew the descent of kings.
In Ireland their counterparts the filid were one of only a few groups who could travel freely though the little kingdoms, and the honor price of an ollam fili – a chief poet – was equal to that of a minor king (Kelly 46). Even in Medieval Wales the master bard or pencerdd had high status and privileges beyond that of most king’s officers, including an honor price equal to that of the king’s judge (beside whom he sat at feasts), and a lodging with the edling or king’s heir (Jenkins 38-39). The satire of the bards was feared as much as their praise was desired, and when Aneirin sang that poets of the world determined the hero’s worth, he made no idle boast. The poets were well paid for their services: lines from the Gododdin show that Aneirin had been given rich gifts, including a fine gilded spear, by the warriors he praised, while Taliesin’s praise of Cynan Garwyn starts with a list of the valuable items he has received: “a hundred horses with silver trappings; a hundred splendid, colorful mantles; a hundred bracelets; and … a beautiful sword with a worthy scabbard” (Evans 82). Even allowing for poetic exaggeration, this is “fine pay” indeed (another, punning, translation of that poet’s name).
Our information on Taliesin and Aneirin as individuals is limited to the little that can be gleaned from their work. On the slight evidence of the one (possibly early) poem by Taliesin to Cynan Garwyn, a prince of Powys based near modern Shrewsbury, and of later traditions (Bromwich 509-510; Williams xxxix; lix; lxi), it has been suggested that he was a native of that area, who subsequently journeyed north to Elmet (an area north and east of modern Manchester, possibly located on the east side of the Pennines) (Charles-Edwards 13), whose prince he praised in two surviving songs. The main body of Taliesin’s surviving work, however, was composed in Rheged (a kingdom which may have included modern Carlisle) (Charles-Edwards 13), and consisted of eulogies to its ruler Urien and an elegy to Urien’s son Owein (Williams xxix; lix-lxi). The sort of mobility implied by these three locations is plausible; the later Medieval Gogynfeirdd (“Poets of the Princes”) traveled freely throughout Wales, and their Irish counterparts traveled throughout the Gaelic-speaking world (Bromwich 510).
Aneirin, on the other hand, may have been a native of the kingdom of Gododdin (an area which included modern Edinburgh) where his work was composed. Another hypothesis, however, based on a poetical reference to him as “the son of Dwywei”, places his origins farther south, between Elmet and Gododdin, as a possible younger son of Dunod Fwr ap Pabo Post Prydyn, the prince of an area adjoining Elmet and Rheged, who married Dwywei daughter of Lleenog – the sister of Gwallog ap Lleenog, the ruler of Elmet whom Taliesin praised. If this is correct, he might also have been a younger brother or half-brother to Saint Deiniol, founder of the monastery of Bangor in North Wales (Bartrum 167; 191). The Welsh Triads preserve a tradition that Aneirin was killed by a hatchet blow to the head, inflicted by one “Heidyn mab Enygan” – a suspicious name, considering that the court of Gododdin was located at Din Eidyn (Bronwich 70-74; Charles-Edwards 6), but outside the limits of this investigation.
Depending on largely hypothetical reconstructions of the relationships among the latter three kingdoms and their Anglo-Saxon neighbors, historians have located the floret of these two bards anywhere from the middle of the sixth century CE to the first quarter of the seventh century CE, with the last quarter of the sixth century being most likely. It is time now to take a closer look at the religious environment of the courts where they sang.
The Christian Britons.
Like many other strange cultural innovations, Christianity first came to Britain through the Roman Empire. The earliest evidence of its presence is around 200 CE, with its first British martyrdom (St. Alban) dated to about 251-259 CE. In 313 CE it was declared tolerated by Rome, and in 395 CE it became the state religion of the Empire. Even by 314 CE, when at least five British clerics attended the Council of Arles, it was evidently well established in southern Britain. The religion may have spread to the region north of Hadrian’s Wall and westward into parts of Wales before the end of the Roman period. By the time of the Roman withdrawal in c. 410 CE, it seems to have been well established in many parts of the island, reaching perhaps as far north as the old Antonine Wall which spans the narrow strip of land between the Clyde and the Firth of Forth, at the latitude of modern Glasgow and Edinburgh. There is plentiful historical and archaeological evidence for it in these areas from the sixth century onward (Laing 207). Later historical records refer to Saints Dubricus and Illtud as being active in southeastern Wales c. 475 CE, St. David in southwest Wales during the later sixth century (Laing 208), Ninian in southern and east-central Scotland around the mid-fifth century, Kentigern along the Clyde-Forth axis in the sixth century, and St. Columba in northern and western Scotland after 563 CE (Laing 322).
In the absence or uncertainty of contemporary written records, what sort of physical evidence can we use to document Christianity’s spread? Archaeologists have looked chiefly at burial practices, incised stone monuments, and chance finds on sites of occupation. In the past, a form of group burial called the “long cist” cemetery was considered diagnostic of the presence of a Christian community. These graves consisted of a supine extended burial – the body was buried on its back with legs extended, not crouched – often with the head to the west and the feet to the east, and usually without grave goods. However, this form of burial has been found to have been normal throughout much of Europe in the Roman and sub-Roman periods, and to have been used by both Christians and pagans; it is not now generally considered evidence of Christianity (Charles-Edwards 45-46; Fraser 37; Harding 217-218; but see Smyth 34 for a contrary opinion; Laing e.g. 305 and Carver Surviving 40-47 are ambivalent). The “long cist” description refers to a box-like stone grave lining, often without bottom or lid, surrounding the body; these were more common in the north of Britain, but were also found in other areas as well. In Scotland they have been shown to predate Christianity in some areas (Harding 195), but do seem to have become more common after its arrival.
Inscribed stones are another matter, those bearing crosses as well as (usually Latin) inscriptions being unequivocally Christian, but they are less common than long-cist cemeteries (although they often accompany them, especially those datable to our period of interest). There are about twenty of these stones known in northern Britain between Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, dating from the fifth to the eighth century CE. There is some archaeological evidence for possible Roman period churches at three sites on Hadrian’s Wall, one of which (Vindolanda) also has a sixth century memorial stone (Laing 303). Christian memorial stones dating back to as early as the fifth century CE and possibly earlier have been found at Whithorn in Galloway (an area which may have lain in Rheged), a site associated with St. Ninnian (Laing 303-304). A long cist cemetery near Edinburgh is accompanied by a late fifth or sixth century CE inscribed stone called the Catstane, now unfortunately within the perimeter of Edinburgh airport; this is the only known Christian memorial stone in Gododdin territory (Laing 304; Harding 218).
All in all, Christianity seems to have been widely present in much of Britain during Taliesin and Aneirin’s period, although what percentage of the population considered themselves Christian, and how deeply that religion affected their daily life, may be another matter. In the next installment of this paper, we will consider the Britons’ pagan neighbors.
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