John Hines

The Earliest Welsh Court Poetry

Meilir Brydydd’s Death-Song for Gruffudd ap Cynan and the Skaldic Tradition

Thursday 7 April 2016 kl. 16.30
Askja 132

John Hines

Starting in the early twelfth century, the Middle Welsh literary corpus contains an important body of eulogistic court poetry, composed by a well-trained cadre of court-associated poets in praise of the rulers and princes of the regional kingdoms/principalities of Wales. These poets are known as the gogynfeirdd, the successors of the cynfeirdd or ‘ancient poets’ of the sixth to tenth centuries A.D.

The earliest extant complete court poem is Meilir Brydydd’s Marwnad (Death-Song) for Gruffudd ap Cynan, ruler of Gwynedd in North-West Wales from the late 1090s to 1137. Gruffudd was the son of a Welsh prince of Gwynedd and a Hiberno-Norse princess, Ragnhildr, daughter of Óláfr, son of Sigtryggr silkiskeggi. Gruffudd appears to have lived the first 20 years of his life in Dublin, and so presumably had Norse and Irish as his first languages in addition to Welsh.

The principal sources for Gruffudd’s life are a Latin Historia (with an early Welsh translation), the Marwnad, and some annalistic entries. These portray a turbulent early life involved in military struggles for power around the Irish Sea and the Scottish coast and islands, until Gruffudd finally achieved secure power (pragmatically accepted by King Henry I of England and the Norman Earl of Chester) and could focus on building the infrastructure of his territory, not least of the Church, over the last 30 years or so of his life. Both formally and in content, the Marwnad can be directly paralleled in contemporary skaldic poetry. While it is inconceivable that Gruffudd could have fostered court poetry without awareness of the skaldic tradition, it is argued that the poetic parallels are general rather than specific, and yet still of great significance as evidence of the common context, interests and character of the early poetry of the gogynfeirdd and that of the skalds, and also of the generally under-recognized dynamism of the multi-lingual Irish Sea zone in the High Middle Ages.

John Hines worked as a field archaeologist before taking a BA degree (in English Language and Literature) and a DPhil in Archaeology at Oxford. He was Lecturer and Reader in English at Cardiff University before transferring as Reader and Professor to the School of History, Archaeology and Religion. His research focuses upon the integration of archaeological, linguistic and literary evidence from northern Europe across the medieval period (5th–16th centuries A.D.).