Taliesin and Aneirin

The names of a number of sixth- and seventh-century bards have come down to us, as have a number of poems in Brythonic/Old Welsh. But so far as I am aware, the link between poet and poem has only reliably been made in the case of works attributed to Taliesin and Aneirin. If I understand correctly, they were roughly contemporaries, although Taliesin is generally considered to be the elder. He wrote about events known to have taken place in the mid- to late sixth century, while Aneirin wrote about events known to have taken place around the year 600. Both were men of the north, of the Hen Ogledd (why is that not Ogledd Hen anybody?)

Aneirin is the poet of Y Goddodin, a long story praising the warriors killed in a battle involving the men of the area around Edinburgh and (possibly) Angles from Bernicia or (possibly) other Brythons. The poem, like all Brythonic poems which have survived from this era (and, indeed, many of the Anglo-Saxon ones) is obscure. Elliptical references and internal puzzles were the fashion of the day. Explaining was no part of the bard’s task. Praising was usually his first priority, although satire is not unknown.

Taliesin was bard to Urien of Rheged (Cumbria). A relatively large body of work has survived which is attributed to Taliesin, but there is an even larger body of legend surrounding his name. Unlike Aneirin, whose reputation appears grounded in tales of feasting and death in battle on earth, Taliesin’s name has become entwined with tales of the other-world, of magic and shape-shifting and supernatural powers. In places his story has even become a part of Arthurian legend and what later poets called ‘The Matter of Britain.’

All the same, it is possible to glimpse the real bard through his poems and Taliesin, it seems, served more than one lord. This opens up a window on the workaday lives of sixth-century bards. For although most of the poems reliably attributed to Taliesin place him in Rheged at the court of Urien and his son Owain, he also seems to have written in praise of Gwallog of Elmet (South Yorkshire), Cynan Garwyn of Powys (now on the Welsh/English border) and (less certainly) in praise of Tenby in South Wales.

On this, admittedly thin, basis, I have constructed a career path where bards travelled from court to court until they found a lord who was prepared to support them on a permanent basis – an idea more akin to the working life of a high-medieval troubadour than our usual image of the early-medieval bard. If this scenario is accepted, it follows that bards would have had a wider experience of the world than many of their contemporaries.

Other people did travel, of course, especially members of the elites. Fosterage of noble children into the households of other nobles was the norm, for both Brythons and Anglo-Saxons; ambitious members of the church travelled – to Ireland if they were ‘Celtic’ Christians, to Rome if they belonged to the Roman church; and importantly, noble women, whether Brython or Anglo-Saxon, almost always travelled to marry. For members of the many royal families, daughters of one king typically changed kingdoms to marry the son of another.

There are several well-documented examples of these sorts of exchanges taking place across the language divide between the Germanic and Brythonic groups. Ethelfrith of Bernicia’s children grew up in Dal Riata and among the Picts of what is now Scotland and at least one of them married while there; less certainly, Edwin of Deira was fostered with Cadfan of Gwynedd in North Wales and a sister of Penda of Mercia married Cadwallon of Gwynedd.

So could bards cross this language divide too? Was the warrior culture of feasting and praise-singing in hall sufficiently similar? It is a big leap away from any evidence, but I have made it in the story. Two of my characters are twin sons of Aneirin. Both bards, displaced by war as small boys, they grow up fluent in Anglo-Saxon as well as Old Welsh. They do not compose in the Germanic language, but necessity dictates that they sing in it to survive. They also know, and sing, and modify, their father’s works and Taliesin’s works.

One way or another, several fragments of the poems of Taliesin and Aneirin (in modern English!) are woven into my story.

An early type of harp from the web site of instrumentsofantiquity.com

As I understand it, early medieval bards played small harps of the kind that could sit in the lap. Originally, these were straight-armed and the curved profile that is now so familiar was only adopted in the 11th/12th centuries. The most useful site that I have found for the very early period of harps is: http://www.instrumentsofantiquity.com/


This entry was posted in Ancient Welsh History, Anglo-Saxon History, Early Christianity, Elmet, Historical characters, Original sources and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Taliesin and Aneirin

  1. Sally – where does Caedmon fit in this account? I just checked Wikipedia (so it must be true) which suggests that he may have been bilingual (his surviving poems are in Anglo-Saxon, but he has a Brythonic name). On the other hand, he was certainly not a wanderer like your two bards.

  2. Sally says:

    Hi Marion
    As I understand it, the general view is that Caedmon was probably a descendant of the pre-Anglo-Saxon population. This is if you go along with the view that they weren’t all wiped out/didn’t all become refugees to Brittany/Wales etc. We have no information as to whether or not he was bilingual but my guess is probably not. If this population group remained Brythonic-speaking as late as the late seventh century, then surely more Brythonic words would have made their way into English. I envisage a sort of peasant class that may or may not have retained pre-A-S traditions/stories/folk beliefs but that was probably pretty much A-S speaking by Caedmon’s time. But, of course, this would have varied by date of conquest. Caedmon’s area is east coast and was conquered/ settled by the Anglo-Saxons early, maybe 100 years or more before he was born; but people in Elmet, for instance, and other kingdoms that were only taken over in the seventh century would still almost certainly have been Brythonic speakers.

  3. I wonder if you have seen any evidence about when Taliesin died? I wondered if it is a reasonable assumption (giving the wandering nature of these bards which I agree with you sound likely) that the two knew each other?

    I get the feeling that the bards had quite a lot of influence over the courts they visited. Their words were powerful propaganda after all. I wonder just how much inffluence they had.

    Had you heard the story of what happened when Augustine met the welsh Bishops. He was trying to get them to rejoin with Rome. The Welsh were uncertain what to do as they felt he was arrogant. and sought advice from a wise man who suggested that they allow Augustine to arrive first and then go in. If he rose (as if greeting equals) then they should try and reach accommodation. In the event he did not rise and they realised then that he looked down on them and treated them as inferior.

    It seems to me VERY likely that the “wise man” they talked to could have been one of these bards. Maybe Taliesen?

    All guess work of course.

    • Sally says:

      Thanks for that Richard. An interesting idea. I suppose I had always assumed that the wise man in the story was a priest. As to whether Taliesin and Aneirin ever met, what evidence we have would seem to suggest that Aneirin was significantly younger. Was he an active poet before Taliesin died? I really don’t know. In the story I have sort of assumed that they were rivals, not in the sense of confronting each other but in the sense of being compared to each other by those who came after them, carrying their words from hall to hall and enhancing their reputations.

  4. Chris Nogy says:

    Thanks you for linking to my page http://www.instrumentsofantiquity.com. As both a production shop and a teaching center, I am very excited when my images and products are linked in educational efforts, or when a performer creates content that show the pre-baroque early instruments in the proper light. I started building because of I got completely caught up in a world without instrument standards, where everything did and could happen. I got caught up in the world where performers did not pretend to have social relevance, they were social relevance, and where performance had actual practical meaning instead of just imagined and promoted entertainment value. Is a lot of it guesswork? Certainly. But the more you know, the more accurate your guesses can be, and the more relevant the meaning to both performer and audience alike. Thank you for going more in-depth in a class of men without which none of who we are or what we have today would have been possible.

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