1.2. The Eisteddfods [1] of the Middle Ages

Many claim that an eisteddfod took place during the reign of King Cdwaladr (who died in 664). The Juvencus Codex (9th century), in which a number of Welsh stanzas are found, makes it clear that Welsh lyric poetry was being written at this time at the latest.[2]
In the 10th century we find the Welsh Laws (,Leges Wallicae‘), codified by Hywel Dda, in which is mentioned that “the king has twenty-four officers of the court“, one of them is “the Bard of the Household [Bardd Teulu]“.[3]

In various writings it is said: “There are three legal harps; the king’s harp [telyn e brenhyn]; the harp of a chief of song [a thelyn penkerd]; and a harp of a gwrda [a thelyn gurda].“

According to the Dimetian and Gwentian Codes the chief of song is “a bard who shall have gained a chair“.[4] He was richly rewarded and enjoyed many privileges. By the ‚chief of song’ (Penkerdd) they probably meant “the head of the whole bardic community within the limits of the kingdom“.[5]

In 1070, Bleddyn ap Kynfyn is said to have held an eisteddfod lasting 40 days. "De­grees were conferred on chiefs of song, and gifts and presents made to them, as in the time of the Emperor Arthur“ [6].

Around 1107  Cadwgan ab Bleddyn held a feast at Christmas to which “he invited the best bards, singers, and musicians in all Wales (...) and set chairs for them, and instituted contests between them, as was the practice at the feast of king Arthur“.[7]

Gruffydd ap Cynan (who ruled at the beginning of the 12th century and grew up in Ire­land) achieved a thorough reform among the bards. He “formed a complete body of insti­tutes for the amendment of their manners, and the correction of their art and practice“.[8]

From then on there were various classes of bards (poets, herald bards, musical bards). Among the musical bards there were: a) performers on the harp, b) performers on the fix-stringed crwth, c) singers. [9] [10]

From this time on at the latest it appears that at least 24 measures existed which gave Welsh harp and crwth music a metrical form independent of the text which was sung.[11] Every 3 years the bards assembled at eisteddfods (mostly in Aberffraw / Anglesey): There the arts of poetry and music were given rules and honorary degrees were awarded.

The lord of the land had to propose the candidates. A candidate had to explain the 5 Welsh meters of song and also sing them expertly. Then he could become the pupil of one of the chief bards and remained a “probationary student of poetry“ [12] for 3 years. After an examination at the next eisteddfod he could become a “bachelor of the art of poetry“ and after a probationary period “master“ (if he mastered the rules of grammar and rhetoric and was able to sing 21 meters melodiously in the various parts. Only he who mastered all the secrets of the art of poetry and who was far superior to all those who had a lower title could become a “Pencerdd“, i.e. “professor of poetry“. The highest title was that of the “Doctor of music“ ("pencerdd athraw").

All the bards were looked up to at court. The court bard was the 8th officer according to rank at the court of the king and was often one of the king’s advisers. This position could sometimes be inherited. The bards’ main income was gained from presents given to them at weddings and money that they received at Christmas, Easter and Whitsun.
Besides the graduate bards, there were also 'unlicensed bards'. These were lower qualified musicians and poets. They had no connection to the eisteddfods and were less highly re­spected.

In 1135, Gruffiydd ab Rhys held a festival lasting 40 days in Ystrad Tywi, to which people from North Wales, Powys, South Wales, Glamorgan and the Marches came.

In the Codex of Pope Calixtus II (1140) there is a description of how pilgrims from all over the world came to Santiago in Spain. The Welsh are mentioned especially:  Some sang to the accompaniment of the (...) lyre, some to the timbrel, others to the flute, others to the British and Welsh harp and crwth.“ [13]

At Christmas in 1176 Lord Rhys held a great festival in Aberteifi (Cardigan). He set up two competitions, one between the bards and poets, the other between the harpers, crow­thers, and pipers. He donated two chairs for the winners of the competitions. The festival was announced in Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland and in many other countries. Giraldus de Barri writes in his 'Description of Wales‘, that in every Welsh family “the art of playing on the harp is held preferable to any other learning”. And that “their musical instruments charm and delight the ear with their sweetness, are borne along by such a celerity and delicacy of modulation, producing such a consonance from the rapid­ity of seemingly discordant touches. (…) It is astonishing that in so complex and rapid a movement of the fingers, the musical proportions can be preserved, and that throughout the difficult modulations on their various instruments, the harmony is completed with such a sweet velocity, so unequal an equality, so discordant a concord, as if the chords sounded together fourths or fifths (…)"

Giraldus also describes Welsh part-singing. At this time there must have been a high standard of musical culture. Perhaps the Welsh were the inventors of modern harmony, and  the most advanced country of Europe from the point of view of musicality.[14]

“In their musical concerts they do not sing in unison like the inhabitants of other coun­tries, but in many different parts; so that in a company of singers, which one very fre­quently meets with in Wales, you will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers, who all at length unite, with organic melody, in one consonance, and the sweetness of B flat.“ [15]

Of course this claim is very controversial. Dr. Burney [16] for example thinks that the Welsh of old were no doubt great lovers of music and poetry, but “that a rude and uncivilized people, driven into a mountainous and barren country, with­out commerce, or communication with the rest of Europe, should invent counterpoint, and cultivate harmony, at a period when it was unknown to the most polished and refined in­habitants of the earth, still remains a problem difficult of solution”.[17]

W.S. Gwyn Williams draws attention to the fact that the Welsh “had advanced more quickly in regard to intellectual exercises, poetry, and music than in regard to material prosperity and higher morality“. The reason for this was, in his opinion, that they always had to be prepared to flee and couldn’t take anything with them - apart from their herds and flocks and their art of song.[18]

The ancient Celtic mastersingers did not use written down notes, because they wanted to keep their art for those initiated into their circle. The master used to pass on to his pupil what he himself had learnt from his tutor.

Because of the continuous warfare in the 14th and 15th centuries, the musical tradition of the bards was interrupted and valuable treasures of culture were forgotten. The bardic tra­dition crumbled. Wandering minstrels or gleemen, the pop singers of their time, became the rivals of the master bards.

After the political union with England in 1536 the artists and bards moved to the king’s court in London and to English castles so that it came to a final cultural sell-off.

It was not until the reign of Henry VII that the eisteddfods were brought back to life.
In the year 1567 Queen Elisa­beth I published a decree according to which all minstrels had to come before a board of examiners who awarded the title of bard to those who passed the examination, but who were to denounce those who failed as vagabonds and to administer corporal punishment to them. In 1568 she ordered an eisteddfod to be held in Caerwys.

After this the bardic meetings gradually died out once more.


[1] Poet and singer competitions; the word means "session of learned men" [< eistedd = to sit
[2]
cf. Williams, W.S.G., p. 19
[3]
cf. Williams, W.S.G., p. 22
[4]
cf. Williams, W.S.G., p. 24; The Chairing of the Bard is still part of the Eisteddfod tradition!
[5]
cf. Williams, W.S.G., p. 25
[6]
cf. Williams, W.S.G., p. 29
[7]
cf. Gwentian Brut as cited in Williams, W.S.G., p. 35
[8]
cf. Bingley, W., p. 319
[9]
cf. Bingley, W., p. 321
[10]
cf. Williams, W.S.G., p. 30/31
[11]
cf. page of Robert ap Huw Manuscript, as cited in Williams, W.S.G., front page
[12]
cf. Bingley, W., p. 322
[13]
as cited in Williams, W.S.G., p. 35/36
[14]
cf. Williams, W.S.G., 40
[15]
cf. Geraldus, as cited in Williams, W.S.G., p. 40
[16]
cf. Bingley, W., p. 341
[17]
as cited in Bingley, W., p. 342
[18]
cf. Williams, W.S.G., p. 40/42

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