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.
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/