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A fascinating insight into the medieval world of bardic patronage is offered by Sally Harper’s excellent ‘Music in Welsh Culture Before 1650: A Study of the Principal Sources’. (It’s available on Amazon – grab yourself a copy!) Sally has kindly given us permission to include, edited for brevity (hopefully not compromising the excellent quality of Sally’s writing too much), extracts from the book here, focussing particularly on the bardic craft of cerdd dant, which, as you’ll see as you read, has an obvious relationship with The Druidstone Ring.

Cerdd Dant: A Welsh Bardic Craft in Context

The most significant, distinctive, and yet most elusive, music of medieval and early modern Wales is ‘the craft of the string’ or cerdd dant, played on harp and crŵth. Its elusiveness is in part due to the oral nature of the craft, and in part results from the social framework and context in which it was made and valued. But there is no doubt that this was an elevated music with a courtly function. It belonged in the households of the Welsh nobility and their princely predecessors, and its status was further underlined by an intimate relationship with Welsh strict-metre poetry, cerdd dafod, or ‘the craft of the tongue’. Musicians and poets trained in this sophisticated tradition were regarded as skilled professional craftsmen belonging to an hierarchical bardic order. These bardic practitioners were sometimes referred to collectively as gwŷr wrth gerdd (literally, ‘men at their craft’).

Music and poetry in the noble Welsh household

A vivid picture of the environment in which these related Welsh crafts of string and tongue flourished emerges from the poetry itself. Since the professional bard earned his living in the service of the noble patron, much of the surviving verse sets out to affirm pedigree and status by direct reference to gentility and generosity. Patrons were celebrated in eulogies, elegies, greetings, and in poems that solicit gifts, all delivered in an environment where harp and crwth provided an essential musical framework. A patron’s house – the physical embodiment of his affluence and liberality – was a subject of particular celebration. Dafydd ap Gwilym (fl. 1330-50), that finest of Welsh poets, addressed a series of praise poems to Ifor ap Llywelyn or Ifor Hael (‘the generous’), whose home at Gwernyclepa, near Basaleg in south-east Wales provided a ready welcome for the bards. Here were gifts of jewels and red gold, the constant flow of wine vessels; a fine floor that echoed with carousing and melody; and an invitation from the host himself to hunt with hawk and hound or to play chess and backgammon.

The physical focus of an affluent household was its great open hall, designed for feasting, and the remains of several Welsh timber-framed hall-houses surviving from the period 1430-1555 give us an idea of the surroundings in which bardic poetry and music were delivered. Typically, the hall was supported by a great central truss (celebrated and described explicitly by a number of poets), and often incorporated a canopied dais, where the owner and his family sat at high table.

(Some) Households not only welcomed poets and musicians in the venerable bardic tradition, but also delighted in magicians, acrobats and diverse instrumentalists. Other households were more discriminating in their tastes and would clearly have no truck with lesser entertainers. These included tinkers, unlicensed ‘dung-heap’ poetasters (kler y dom), and the common minstrel (erestyn) playing on a ‘coarse string’ (crastant), probably a form of three-stringed fiddle derided in several other sources. In such houses, only qualified master poets (pencerddiaid) and respectable harp-playing teuluwyr could be sure of their welcome.

The rise of bardic circuiting (clera)

Prior to Edward I’s invasion and occupation of Wales at the end of the thirteenth century – marked by the defeat of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, last of the Welsh princes, in 1282 – most bards seem to have been attached to a single princely court. Little is known of the music of this period, although these ‘bards of the princes’ (beirdd y tywysogion) sometimes accompanied themselves on the harp, and again their chief function was to sustain the honour and glory of the patron by providing praise poetry.

Yet the demise of the princes after 1282 inevitably brought about a sea change for bardic craftsmen. Patronage now passed to the next layer of the social hierarchy, the uchelwyr (literally, ‘the high men’), landowners of good stock, identified in later generations as the gentry. Those who sang in their honour (known as beirdd yr uchelwyr or sometimes cywyddwyr) were now forced to ‘circuit’ between the houses of their patrons, a practice known as clera. Many poets – including those of the highest status – evidently covered great distances in this manner. Dafydd ap Gwilym, for instance, celebrated not only the house of Ifor Hael at Basaleg, but also several other locations (including ecclesiastical institutions) in Cardiganshire, Anglesey and the Welsh Marches.

This practice of clera was to prevail until the collapse of the bardic order in the seventeenth century, and poets and musicians alike were sometimes referred to by the loose epithet (sometimes translated ‘minstrel’), a term that could also be employed in a derogatory context to indicate a lesser class of casual strolling entertainer – not least the tinkers and fiddlers whose presence was clearly an anathema to much of the gentry.

The performance of bardic poetry: the rise of the cywydd

Since the relationship of Welsh bardic poetry and music was so close, a proper understanding of cerdd dant inevitably demands some understanding of the poetry that partnered it. One of the most striking features of such poetry is its strongly aural quality, in part a natural outcome of its social function: as we have seen, this was poetry for public declamation before a noble audience, rather than for private reading. During the era of Dafydd ap Gwilym a particularly significant development was to occur in this respect: the flowering of a lively new poetic form known as the cywydd, which was to became the staple genre for poets of the Welsh nobility right up to the demise of the bardic order. The cywydd took its title from the strict metre known as cywydd deuair hirion (‘long-lined couplet’), and was constructed from rhymed pairs of seven-syllable lines, with the end-rhyme falling alternately on stressed and unstressed syllables. It also featured the idiosyncratic device of cynghanedd, a sophisticated form of verbal ‘harmony’ based on patterns of internal repetition, assonance and alliteration that could only be appreciated properly when the poem was declaimed. The cywydd may have had direct impact on the shaping of the style and structures of cerdd dant, for despite the inherent sound-qualities of the text itself, the cywydd was clearly nothing without some form of accompaniment.

Exactly how this stringed accompaniment worked in practice remains a matter for speculation, but the notion of an accompanied poetry seems to have gathered strength throughout the bardic period. It also embraced both harp and crŵth.

An era of change

The practitioners of cerdd dant and cerdd dafod remained active throughout the sixteenth century, although by now the very fabric of Welsh society was moving into an era of fundamental transformation. As early as 1485, the ascent to the English throne of Henry Tudor had ushered in inevitable change, with many Welshmen soon seeking preferment in the English court. Others were similarly lured by the opportunities of the expanding universities and the Inns of Court, an exodus that gathered increasing momentum following the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1543, whereby English was adopted throughout Wales as the official language of justice and administration.

We must also take into account the impact upon Wales of the renaissance of learning and humanist thinking that had already swept across much of Europe. Humanism brought with it a priority for an accessible written culture, a phenomenon that was greatly enabled by the circulation of printed texts. In the homes of some lay patrons (and indeed in some of the Welsh Cistercian houses), there had long been study of selected texts and a consequent awareness of a written past, but now there was an impetus to assemble and record, to codify and preserve. The movement was no doubt hastened from the 1530s by the dissolution of the religious houses – traditional centres of knowledge and repositories of written texts that had long offered a welcome to the bards – and by the gradual infiltration of new fashions and repertories from England and Europe. All of this was to have profound effect on cerdd dant, for a repertory that had long been transmitted and sustained through memory would soon become static and moribund.