Prophets and witches in the Welsh tradition.

Some brief thoughts.

I saw a reference somewhere, I forget where, about Wales not having had witch hunts and witch trials in the mediaeval and early modern periods. In this, Wales was unlike England, Scotland, and much of Europe.

Recently, I bought a two-volume overview of the laws of mediaeval Wales. Until the traditional laws of Wales were banned by the English, the courts of Welsh princes had a standardised set of officers – one of whom was a bard.

According to the books I acquired (which were published in 1926, and are a solid scholarly review of the field at that time), in order to be appointed as House Bard to a Prince, the candidate needed to demonstrate the ability to evaluate the merits of any poem. More: he needed to demonstrate that he possessed the power of divination, drawing upon the poetic canon of Taliesin.

Divination and prophecy were thus integral to the practice of Welsh aristocratic life. They were mainstream, well into the Christian period. Owain Glyndŵr, rebel Prince of Wales at the beginning of the fifteenth century, was known to be trained in these arts – something mocked by Shakespeare in Henry IV Part One, but which would have been regarded as normal and proper by the Welsh of the time. Indeed, belief in the power of Taliesin’s prophecies was still strong eighty years later, when the Welshman Henry Tudor marched to victory at Bosworth, seizing the crown to become Henry VII.

This bardic power of prophecy seems to have been well-known, given that many Welsh people of different social classes had bardic training; in an earlier period, the awenyddion described by Gerald the Welshman in the late twelfth century seem to have been practising a form of the same technique.

It’s interesting to consider the role of the bard in a royal court. As the laws make clear, the bard’s main duty was to sing: to praise his lord and the lord’s family, and to entertain guests. He also had to sing to encourage and inspire the war-band – with whom he was expected to go to war, so as to observe and immortalize their exploits.

Still… why was skill in prophecy required? It’s interesting to consider the bard’s role in comparison with some of the other officers of the royal court. The head of these was the penteulu,  who was usually a member of the royal family, and always a nobleman. The penteulu was responsible for security and order at court in peacetime, and was the military commander of the war band in time of war. There was also the steward, who was responsible for the logistics of the court’s provisions and other supplies. These two men – the penteulu and the steward – would of necessity have been extremely well-informed about events within and beyond the Prince’s realm, and so might perhaps be considered as also performing intelligence-gathering and analysis.

The house bard would, however, probably have gathered information and insights from travelling bards who visited the court. He would have contextualised this by measuring it against the historical record passed down in the bardic canon; he would also have gained much insight into human nature, and the personalities of his day, in his own time as a travelling bard.

We might imagine, then, the penteulu and the steward as providing rational, fact-based analysis to the Prince. The bard, in contrast, would be (as Neal Stephenson puts it in Snow Crash) “condensing fact from the vapor of nuance”, and expressing it encoded in verse, using metre and allusion which would be understood by a properly educated audience. This is not to say that they were purely mystical: the bard’s role is by definition rhetorical, while we know for certain that the bards of Glamorgan, at least, were studying Donatus‘ Grammar of Latin, written originally during the late Roman period. A copy survives, with names of successive generations of bards inscribed, and the commentary added by one of the owners suggests that it was the Ars maior, which treats grammar as a meta-subject, in which the study of Latin grammar becomes a tool for decoding the grammar of other languages (in contrast to the Ars minor, which was a Latin textbook for students). Rhetoric and Grammar are two of the three branches of the Trivium; it is reasonable to assume that they were also trained in the third branch: Logic, the formal structure of critical reasoning and analysis.

Combining the poetic, mystical, inspiration of the awen with the logical tools of Rome, expressing that inspiration and reasoning in strict metre, using the language of inherited generations of poetic imagery, delivering it with a deep knowledge of formal rhetoric… A house bard, deep in experience, knowledge, and inspiration, would have been a valued counsellor indeed.

In Welsh law, the Prince had jurisdiction over the Church to a far greater degree than sovereigns of other nations at the time, up to the Reformation. The ruler did not have any rights to interfere in strictly religious and spiritual affairs, but secular law and its enforcement were closed to the Church and its officials. The prophetic activities of the bards, being valued by the Prince and regarded as belonging to his domain alone, were out of bounds to the Church – and so would the other activities in other levels and sections of Welsh society, which, in other countries, led to accusations of witchcraft.

Even after the destruction of the Princes and their courts, and the banning of Welsh law, much of this tradition continued amongst the ordinary people in the form of the dyn hysbys. This is often translated into English as “cunning man”, which is a misleading derivation of its original form: kenning man – that is to say, “a man of knowledge”. Dyn is simply the Welsh word for a man. Hysbys can be translated several ways; the form I like in this context would be one of ‘conscious’, ‘skilful’, ‘cognizant’, or ‘well-versed’. A dyn hysbys would therefore be a “skilful, well-versed man”, with overtones of “a fully conscious and fully-aware man”.

That sounds like a Druid to me, and it seems very likely that the role of the House Bard had survived the transition from paganism to Christianity largely unchanged.

What would be the training required for, and skill set of, a modern equivalent, I wonder? That’s some food for thought…

2 thoughts on “Prophets and witches in the Welsh tradition.

  1. What an awesome find! I hope you continue to post on your reflections of the material from the books. On the topic of Awenyddion, a question for you: do you think the ‘hag’ scene in Culhwch ac Olwen could be a depiction of awenydd practices as described later in the 12th c by Gerald of Wales?


    • Hi Tiege, thanks for the comment and apologies for the long delay before replying – this year hasn’t allowed much time for me to attend to this blog. Yes, I’ve been extremely lucky with books over the last twelve months; I keep on randomly finding old books which are relevant to my exploration of Druidry, and of Iolo and his work – almost as if they have been seeking me out… Sadly, buying old books is not a cheap endeavour, and my home is now starting to be overtaken by piles and piles of them… As for the scene in Culhwch ac Olwen, I’ll take a look at that when I get a spare moment!


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