Beyond the Gododdin

I have just finished reading a rather thought-provoking collection of essays entitled: Beyond the Gododdin, Dark Age Scotland in Medieval Wales. (ed Alex Woolf, St Andrews 2013, proceedings of a day conference held on 19th February 2005).

The Gododdin is a series of stanzas in medieval Welsh, each about a warrior who came to a sticky end in battle. If taken at face value, the warriors in question were all from the area around what is now Edinburgh. Traditionally, the work is attributed to the poet Aneirin, who is an historical figure who supposedly lived in the late 6th/early 7th century.

Firstly, I have to say that the editing of the essays in this recent book about the poem is as slack as you might imagine from the fact that it took them 8 years between the conference and publication. Although as a past editor of conference proceedings myself, I do understand how it can take fooor eeever  to get those papers out of the participants.

A page from the Book of Aneirin, a 13th century manuscript of a much earlier text.

A page from the Book of Aneirin, a 13th century manuscript of a much earlier text.

The manuscript is in the National Library of Wales and the image above is from Wikimedia Commons.

Anyway, this book is all about re-assessing the Gododdin in the light of recent scholarship. The basic points of disagreement revolve around:

1: is there any genuinely 6th/7th century basis to the composition of the poem(s)?

2: what can the work tell us (if anything) about the 6th/7th century?

If I understand the essays correctly (and some read rather more like jazz riffs on a theme of which I am unaware than straight forward academic argument), the linguists tend to doubt the antiquity of whatever lies behind the versions of the poem which have survived and argue for a 9th/10th century original. In contrast, the historians tend to think the subject matter is genuinely very early.

Reading through the essays I was struck by something I have noted about myself before: I tend to believe what I read first and then take up the attitude: ‘well go on, convince me’ about what I read next. So the order of the articles is critical.

Chapter 3, for instance, by Philip Dunshea (‘The meaning of Catraeth: a revised early context for y Gododdin’) argues for a 6th century original for the poem, while the next chapter by O.J. Padel argues on linguistic grounds that the poem cannot possibly have a 6th century original. (‘Aneirin and Taliesin: Sceptical Speculation’).

Well, of course, I believed Dunshea, partly because he reinforces what I want to believe and partly because I read that chapter first. His argument is interesting and (in my view) overcomes a number of problems with earlier interpretations. The warriors, who all die, appear on the face of it to be fighting a battle at Catraeth, generally identified with Catterick in Yorkshire – a rather long way south of Edinburgh. Dunshea argues that the poem is not about one battle but about generalised border skirmishes in a range of locations.

Another page from the  13th century Book of Aneirin held in the National Library of Wales. Image Wikimedia Commons

Another page from the 13th century Book of Aneirin held in the National Library of Wales. Image Wikimedia Commons

So why does this matter, I hear you ask? Well, two of my main characters are sons of Aneirin; the poems attributed to Aneirin and Taliesin wander in and out of the mouths of several of my characters; and the kind of world conjured up in the poems of Aneirn and Taliesin has had a huge impact on the kind of atmosphere I am trying to create in the books.

I would hate to think that I have been working so hard to conjure up something that was actually 300 or more years too late!

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3 Responses to Beyond the Gododdin

  1. Beth says:

    Glad you posted this, Sally; I’ve been wondering about getting hold of these essays for a while, and it’s nice to know what the content is. Sounds like the same old arguments that always spring up around the Cynfeirdd texts – they were; they weren’t – but nevertheless worth a read. I haven’t come across Dunshea’s theory before; very interesting.

    Yes, when the poems are foremost amongst what little ‘evidence’ we writers have for the period, it does matter a lot – I confess a tendency to preferring the more lenient theories, too. 🙂

  2. Sally says:

    Thanks Beth. The other interesting chapter in this collection is from Clancy. (Thomas Owen Clancy, ‘The kingdoms of the north: poetry, places, politics.’) Like Dunshea, he is interested in what the poems tell us, rather than what they do not and argues that even if you are an agnostic about when they were written down, the background is authentically early and can tell us quite a lot about the nature of 6th/7th century kingdoms.
    Putting that together with Dunshea, I realise that they have reinforced a view that was developing in my own mind. I feel that many writers seem to approach the kingdoms of this era as if they were geographical entities with clear boundaries and this has never made any sense to me. You can (and 6th/7th century warlords did) defend a river crossing or a mountain pass or a track across marshland, but an entire boundary? I don’t think so and the earthwork building habit only reinforces my view on this. I just can’t imagine this era as about equal levels of control over a whole landscape, but rather about control of nodes and routes. Strong warlords then raided deep into adjacent areas down those routes, whilst weak ones fell back to the nodes/areas of key resources like grain lands around York or on Anglesey.
    What do you think?

  3. steve says:

    yes – Catraeth is certainly not Catterick
    whats the point in in travelling past Bernicia to fight Deira.
    i think i know where it is , but its a secret for now , email me and i will let you know
    holdenp5b at hotmail

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