Early Gaelic and Old English vernacular literatures are the earliest in Western Europe outside of the Mediterranean world of Latin and Greek literatures. Both Gaelic and Anglo-Saxon societies developed highly evolved bilingual intellectual cultures in Latin and in their respective vernaculars as a result of their conversions to Christianity.Footnote 1 Their literatures in the vernacular were probably encouraged by the fact that both societies had to learn Latin as a second language. The conversion of the Gaels began in the fifth century, and the Anglo-Saxons were converted during the course of the seventh century. In both societies, the Church played an active role in the dissemination of learning and literacy in Latin as well as in their vernaculars.
This study will examine Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic attitudes towards vernacular poets and their literary culture starting from early accounts by clerics writing in Latin for ecclesiastical purposes. Both societies privileged ecclesiastical learning in the earliest phases of their recorded cultures. The named vernacular poets in these Latin accounts became known outside of the immediate context of the accounts. It would appear, therefore, that both clerics recognized the contribution that vernacular poets could make to the Church and their wider societies. The focus of this study is on how Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic societies each treated these poets in their subsequent cultural histories using ca. 1200 as a notional time limit.
Muirchú maccu Machtheni, sometime ca. 690, was commissioned by Bishop Áed of Sletty [Sléibte] (d. 700) to write Vita Sancti Patricii. Footnote 2 A short episode of this hagiographical work, set against the background of the conversion of the Gaels in the fifth century, tells how the professional poet Dubthach maccu Lugair, in the company of his understudy Fiacc Finn Sléibte, accepted the faith ahead of the others as Patrick endeavored to convert the pagan royal court of Lóegaire mac Néill at Tara. Muirchú treats as natural the presence at court of these high-status professionals without elaboration as though he expects his audience to know them already by their reputations.
Bede finished the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum in 731, several decades after Muirchú had written his Vita of Saint Patrick.Footnote 3 Bede's Historia relates the conversion of the English people and the growth of the English church during the course of the seventh century. Bede describes Cædmon as a poet whose background, experience, and training apparently contradict his audience's expectations of a typical Anglo-Saxon poet. Nevertheless, Bede's account tells of the first recorded verse in Old English and how Cædmon's poetic talent was his gateway into religious life. We must consider the possibility that Bede was conscious of Gaelic precedence in his own portrayal of a vernacular poet's contribution to the early Church.Footnote 4
These two Latin accounts are separated by roughly forty years with Muirchú being the earlier of the two. The events that Bede describes are removed from his time of writing by, perhaps, no more than forty-five to seventy-five years, which means that he could have relied on eyewitnesses.Footnote 5 Muirchú, alternatively, is recreating purported events that were more than two centuries previous to his own time of writing. Some evidence suggests, as will be shown, that Muirchú was writing about persons whose reputations were already established.
While there are similarities in how these vernacular poets are treated in their respective cultural histories, it is the contrasts that may reveal the most about the societies that produced them. An important contrast would appear to be the formal recognition of social rank of poets in the law tracts among the Gaels. Anglo-Saxon records provide no equivalence. In order to trace Cædmon's biography, we never depart from Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica and learn nothing new about Cædmon outside of Bede's account. However, in the self-reflective Gaelic literary tradition we must search beyond Muirchú’s Vita of Patrick and access other hagiographies, law tracts, martyrologies, genealogies, and poems in order to fill out the portraits of the poets Dubthach and Fiacc. Legal recognition of status may help explain the broad, intertextual acknowledgement of Gaelic poets in their cultural history.
An aspect of this study is to survey an array of information about poets and texts that is already well known by researchers in the early medieval period, specifically Anglo-Saxonists and Celticists. Inevitably, some will feel that certain subjects have been overemphasized while others have been underemphasized. Whatever the deficiencies in the broader comparisons, the focus of this study is to contrast the treatment of the named vernacular poets in the accounts of Bede and Muirchú in the subsequent literary histories of their respective societies.
Poets in Society
Each society differed in how poets were integrated into the social structure. Recent research among Anglo-Saxon scholars has highlighted poets, the production of their works, their social positions, and their contributions to society. For example, Daniel O'Donnell has completed a thorough study of Cædmon's Hymn, placing it in the larger Anglo-Saxon and Germanic traditions, summarizing the search for analogues and sources, tracing its manuscript history, and editing the surviving versions of the hymn in its various dialects.Footnote 6 In another wide-ranging study, Emily Thornbury has examined those who became poets in Anglo-Saxon literary cultural history, whether in Old English or Anglo-Latin, seeking to know their social backgrounds and functions within their communities.Footnote 7 While she states that terms for poets, whether in Old English or Latin, reflected “relative privilege,”Footnote 8 she notes that those historical persons who created poetry were more likely to be referred to by other terms that reflected their social positions such as scribe, abbot, or bishop. This tendency not to refer to creators of poetry as “poets” may reflect the fact that “there is no solid evidence that a professional class of poets existed in Anglo-Saxon England.”Footnote 9
Based on surviving records from both societies, it appears that Gaelic poets enjoyed higher social status than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Early Gaelic society was “hierarchical and inegalitarian,”Footnote 10 and the law tracts lay “great stress on distinctions of rank and profession.”Footnote 11 The chief distinctions in rank were between those who were nemed, a term which can be translated as “privileged,” and those who were non-nemed. Anyone with nemed status had special privileges. Within the nemed social ranks and professions was the further distinction of those who were sóernemed (“noble nemed; a noble dignitary”) and those who were dóernemed (“base nemed; a dependent professional”).Footnote 12 The only profession with sóernemed status was the poet (fili), as will be discussed.Footnote 13 All other professions were dóernemed or non-nemed. Some professions that enjoyed dóernemed status included lawyers (brithem and aigne), the physician (liaig), the woodworker (sáer), the blacksmith (gobae), and other craftsmen such as the silversmith (cerd) and coppersmith (umaige). Entertainers also figured as professionals, but only the harpist (cruit) achieved dóernemed status. All other entertainers were non-nemed and considered fodána (“subordinate professions”), such as the piper (cuislennach), the horn player (cornaire), the juggler (clesamnach), and the jester (fuirsire).Footnote 14
Professional poets among the Gaels participated in a system of formal training or apprenticeship that could include hereditary privileges for those descended from poets. There were hierarchies of poets with named divisions that helped designate the amount of training, skills and qualifications, honor-price, and privileges — such as size of retinues and freedom to travel — that each poet had attained.Footnote 15 Many details are found in four eighth-century vernacular law tracts that adumbrate the status of poets in the larger society.Footnote 16 What is probably the most recent of them, Uraicecht na Ríar (“Primer of the Stipulations”),Footnote 17 is devoted entirely to poets, their grades, their qualifications, their training, and more. The earliest of the four, Bretha Nemed (“Judgments of Privileged Persons”), is dated to the second quarter of the eighth century,Footnote 18 composed sometime after the Collectio canonum Hibernensis.Footnote 19 Bretha Nemed distinguishes four divisions of those who are sóernemed, that is, those who occupied the highest rank of the Gaelic social hierarchy. They are the “ecclesiastical scholar, churchman, lord, poet” (ecnae, eclais, flaith, fili).Footnote 20 Note that top-ranking poets were sóernemed and shared the highest social status along with elite secular and religious leaders. The remaining two law tracts, Uraicecht Becc (“Small Primer”)Footnote 21 and Míadslechtae (“Sections on Rank”),Footnote 22 were probably composed after the middle of the eighth century. While each of these law tracts differs with regard to specific details, they all agree in the esteem accorded the poets as a professional, learned class within the Gaelic social hierarchy. Anglo-Saxon poets did not enjoy such formal, legal recognition.
The advantages that accrued to those poets who worked in cooperation with the bilingual world of the ecclesiastical intelligentsia are evident in both societies.Footnote 23 For example, named Anglo-Saxon poets, who may or may not have composed in Old English, were usually sophisticated, literate nobles or churchmen. Aldhelm (d. 709), from whom no vernacular poems survive, was a Latin poet and scholar who attained the ranks of abbot and bishop.Footnote 24 The tradition that he composed Old English verse was reported by William of Malmesbury in the twelfth century, after the Anglo-Saxon period had ended.Footnote 25 Bede (d. 735) was himself an influential Latin scholar and priest.Footnote 26 We learn that Bede knew Old English poetry (“erat doctus in nostris carminibus”) only posthumously in a letter by one of his pupils who described his last days.Footnote 27 The poems of Cynewulf (ninth–tenth century) reveal a literate cleric working among his books to create devotional texts, but we acknowledge this most prolific of Old English named poets only because he identified himself with runes in four of his poems.Footnote 28 King Alfred (d. 899), who was of the highest social rank, engaged his court scholars in a project of “translating” into Old English from selected Latin originals for a literate, ecclesiastical audience.Footnote 29
When we examine Gaelic society for named vernacular poets, we find many of them cooperating with the Church as we saw among the named Anglo-Saxon poets. Colmán mac Lénéni (d. 606) began his career as a professional praise poet but later entered religious life and founded the ecclesiastical site at Cloyne, Co. Cork.Footnote 30 Among surviving fragments of his work are examples of religious verse as well as encomia.Footnote 31 Abbot Adomnán of Iona (d. 704) composed in both Latin and Gaelic and has poetry as well as prose in both languages attributed to him.Footnote 32 His work De locis sanctis was well known among the Anglo-Saxons and was disseminated by both King Aldfrith and Bede.Footnote 33 Óengus mac Óengobann (fl. 830), whose floruit coincides with a productive period of Gaelic literary activity,Footnote 34 composed the versified martyrology Félire Óengusso which included local saints as well as those from the wider Christian world.Footnote 35 Cormac mac Cuilennáin (d. 908), a close contemporary of King Alfred, was king-bishop of Cashel and has several important texts attributed to him, including the learned Sanas Cormaic (“Cormac's Glossary”).Footnote 36 This brief list of Gaelic poets could easily be expanded.Footnote 37
Secular Vernacular Texts
The surviving vernacular texts attributed to named, historical poets in both societies reveal their debt to the Church and its promulgation of Latinate learning. Literature in Old English is dominated by religious texts such as saints’ lives, homilies, retellings of biblical texts, or other works that can be sourced in the Latinate tradition. Indeed, the emphasis on biblical and Latinate sources may help account for the lack of references to vernacular poets and their traditions in surviving Anglo-Saxon records.
Only a handful of secular texts survive and even fewer that deal with characters and events of the Germanic past that help adumbrate the functions and practices of poets. Three such poems are Beowulf, Widsith, and Deor. Beowulf takes its modern title from the main character and relates his three combats against extraordinary beings.Footnote 38 Although the language of the text is Old English, the main action of the narrative occurs between Sweden and Denmark. The title Widsith names the poet. This catalog poem demonstrates that a poet was expected to know persons, peoples, and events that centered on, but extended beyond, the Germanic world.Footnote 39 The title Deor also names the poet who describes himself as a scop and laments his loss of patronage.Footnote 40 The poem refers to characters and episodes from Germanic myth and history.Footnote 41 Widsith and Deor share with Beowulf the characteristics of Old English poems that reflect Germanic traditions about named characters from myth, legend, and history. They also portray functioning poets, implying their professional status and reliance on patronage.Footnote 42 However, none of the three poems is firmly placed in the English landscape or unequivocally depicts a specifically Anglo-Saxon, as opposed to a general Germanic, context.Footnote 43
Early Gaelic literature preserves a wider array of genres, including those genres present in Old English, but the secular texts dealing with traditional characters and themes are more numerous. For example, many tales deal with the Ulster heroes, such as Táin Bó Cuailnge, often translated as “The Cattle Raid of Cooley.”Footnote 44 It survives in various recensions which relate the single combats of Cú Chulainn against the warriors of the armies invading Ulster. Scéla Mucce meic Dathó (“The Tidings of Mac Dathó’s Pig”) is often treated as a parody of the heroic ethos.Footnote 45 Many tales are concerned with mythic themes. For example, Tochmarc Étaíne (“The Wooing of Étaín”) follows Midir's pursuit of the beautiful faerie woman Étaín through various incarnations.Footnote 46 Cath Maige Tuired (“The Second Battle of Mag Tuired”) recounts the battle between the Túatha Dé Danann and the Fomoire, supernatural races of pre-Christian Ireland.Footnote 47 Many tales are based on historical characters of the seventh century, though the historicity of the tales may be queried. Compert Mongáin (“The Conception of Mongán”) is set in the context of Áedán mac Gabráin's battles against the Anglo-Saxons that were known to Bede (HE 1.34).Footnote 48 Mongán mac Fiachnai died in 625.Footnote 49 Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin (“Tidings of Cano son of Gartnán”) preserves early features of the Tristan legend.Footnote 50 Cano mac Gartnáin died in 688.Footnote 51 Some tales seem intended as Christian allegories in traditional settings, such as Immram Brain (“The Voyage of Bran”) in which Bran is taken on a trip to a deathless world across the sea.Footnote 52 In Echtrae Chonnlai (“The Adventure of Connlae”) the hero, who is the son of the famous king Conn Cétchathach,Footnote 53 abandons the courtly life for a sinless, deathless “otherworld” similar to that described in Immram Brain. These Gaelic texts all mention identifiable locations on the landscapes of Ireland and/or Britain. All of the vernacular, secular texts named above, in either language, are anonymous.Footnote 54
We have surveyed, briefly and broadly, poets and their works in Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic societies. We should now turn to the specific accounts of vernacular poets by the ecclesiastical writers Bede and Muirchù.
Bede's Account of Cædmon
Bede's account of Cædmon's composition of a poem in praise of the Creator in book 4, chapter 24 of the Historia Ecclesiastica is acknowledged as the earliest description of surviving literature in the Old English vernacular.Footnote 55 The event took place at the monastery of Whitby on the Cleveland coast during the abbacy of Hild between 657 and 680, or a few years later, perhaps up to 684.Footnote 56 Bede's Latin account is the longest and most detailed of how a poet in the Anglo-Saxon world pursued his craft. Since it is the earliest and most complete account of an Anglo-Saxon poet, critics have used it as the leading example of the methods and techniques employed by those poets who composed in Old English. It is by coupling Bede's account with descriptions of practicing poets from Old English poems that critics have attempted to recreate a picture of the functioning Anglo-Saxon poet.Footnote 57 In the context of the present argument, we see Bede's attempt to elevate Cædmon as the first recorded vernacular poet among the Anglo-Saxons. The following extracts from Bede's account are most pertinent to the discussion.
In huius monasterio abbatissae fuit frater quidam diuina gratia specialiter insignis, quia carmina religioni et pietati apta facere solebat, ita ut, quicquid ex diuinis litteris per interpretes disceret, hoc ipse post pusillum uerbis poeticis maxima suauitate et / conpunctione conpositis in sua, id est Anglorum, lingua proferret. Cuius carminibus multorum saepe animi ad contemtum saeculi et appetitum sunt uitae caelestis accensi. Et quidem et alii post illum in gente Anglorum religiosa poemata facere temtabant, sed nullus eum aequiperare potuit. Namque ipse non ab hominibus neque per hominem institutus canendi artem didicit, sed diuinitus adiutus gratis canendi donum accepit. Vnde nil umquam friuoli et superuacui poematis facere potuit, sed ea tantummodo, quae ad religionem pertinent, religiosam eius linguam decebant. Siquidem in habitu saeculari usque ad tempora prouectioris aetatis constitutus, nil carminum aliquando didicerat.
In the monastery of this abbess there was a certain brother who was specially marked out by the grace of God, so that he used to compose godly and religious songs; thus, whatever he learned from the holy Scriptures by means of interpreters, he quickly turned into extremely delightful and moving poetry, in English, which was his own tongue. By his songs the minds of many were often inspired to despise the world and to long for the heavenly life. It is true that after him other Englishmen attempted to compose religious poems, but none could compare with him. For he did not learn the art of poetry from men nor through a man but he received the gift of song freely by the grace of God. Hence he could never compose any foolish or trivial poem but only those which were concerned with devotion and so were fitting for his devout tongue to utter. He had lived in the secular habit until he was well advanced in years and had never learned any songs.Footnote 58
Bede was eager to show the piety and faith of his subject. He stressed the divine nature of Cædmon's inspiration, how his poetic gift was used to bring others to the faith, and how Cædmon met an exemplary death of which this pious ex-layman himself had prior knowledge.Footnote 59
Cædmon among Poets
Bede relates that Cædmon never sang at convivia and, once, having left the others at the gathering, went off to a cattle byre where it was his duty to watch over the livestock. As he slept, a voice commanded him to compose a song in praise of the Creator. The song he composed, known as his Hymn, was approved at the monastery “in the presence of a number of the more learned men.”Footnote 60 The examination by “more learned men” that Cædmon had to submit to can be compared to the eighth-century Gaelic law tract Uraicecht na Ríar which portrays the official approval process for a student poet:
Céist, cía cruth do-berar grád for filid? Ní hansae, taisbénad a dréchtae do ollamain — ⁊ biit na secht ngráda fis occa — ⁊ gaibthi in rí inna lángrád, inid-focladar int ollam asa dréchtaib . . .
How is a grade conferred on a poet? Not difficult; he shows his compositions to an ollam — and he has the seven grades of knowledge — and the king receives him in his full grade, in which the ollam declares him to be on the basis of his compositions . . .Footnote 61
The ollam filed was the highest grade of poet in Gaelic society. Once the ollam approved the student poet's accomplishments, the king could receive him into society at the appropriate poetic grade. After his examination, Cædmon was able to produce more verses on biblical and religious topics when they were recited to him. No one could do this better than he, and the abbess urged him to take monastic vows, which he did.
When we contrast Cædmon with named Old English poets discussed above we have a different picture of a vernacular Anglo-Saxon poet. Bede is clear that Cædmon was a layman of advanced age, was of humble status, had no formal training in Old English poetry, and resisted performing in public. Nevertheless, Cædmon took monastic vows after demonstrating his divinely inspired poetic ability. Unlike for many Gaelic poets, we have no genealogical background for Cædmon. It has long been noted that his name is Brythonic, equivalent to the modern Welsh Cadfan.Footnote 62 It is possible that his name reflects his ethnic background and, therefore, his outsider status among the Anglo-Saxons.Footnote 63
Bede assures his readers that Cædmon knew nothing of poetry, despite his acknowledged presence at convivia. Bede had said that Cædmon “did not learn the art of poetry from men nor through a man but he received the gift of song freely by the grace of God.”Footnote 64 Bede implies that Cædmon's gift of song was a divinely inspired gift. The notion of inspired poets is a commonplace among the Gaels with professional poets encouraging belief in their special status as inspired individuals. They even named techniques or skills to induce the phenomenon.Footnote 65 The Gaels recognized that strong emotion, either deep sorrow or great joy, could produce poetic inspiration.Footnote 66 For example, an early eighth-century text, the “Caldron of Poesy,” identified fáilte déodae (“divine joy”) as a source of inspiration, like that experienced by Cædmon, which can come from the grace of God.Footnote 67 Thus Gaelic society recognized that poetic inspiration could come to any person in the right circumstances, regardless of a lack of training or inherited skills.
Furthermore, Bede said that Cædmon “had lived in the secular habit until he was well advanced in years and had never learned any songs.”Footnote 68 Bede deliberately distanced Cædmon from secular Anglo-Saxon poetic practices as we understand them and from any notion of formal training. But he emphasized the worthiness of Cædmon's poetic topics for inclusion in the ambit of the Church.
Canebat autem de creatione mundi et origine humani generis / et tota Genesis historia, de egressu Israel ex Aegypto et ingressu in terram repromissionis, de aliis plurimis sacrae scriptura historiis, de incarnatione dominica, passione, resurrectione et ascensione in caelum, de Spiritus Sancti aduentu et apostolorum doctrina;
He sang about the creation of the world, the origin of the human race, and the whole history of Genesis, of the departure of Israel from Egypt and the entry into the promised land and of many other of the stories taken from the sacred Scriptures: of the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of the Lord, of His ascension into heaven, and of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of the apostles.Footnote 69
It is uncanny how Bede's list of Cædmon's topics could have anticipated so astutely the surviving corpus of Old English verse. Bede says that Cædmon was instructed in sacred history and doctrine by those who were more learned. Thus he converted the Latinate subjects they taught him into melodious verse in the vernacular. His merit as a poet and, by extension, his value to the Church and its project of conversion, are confirmed when “his teachers became in turn his audience.”Footnote 70
The fact that some modern critics accept Cædmon's inspired gift as a “miracle” reveals the mythic qualities of Bede's account.Footnote 71 Bede never called Cædmon's newly realized talents a miracle, although he emphasized, as noted above, that they were received “freely by the grace of God,” thus supporting Bede's desire to elevate Cædmon as a pious individual. Bede had no hesitation in talking about miracles, but when he did so he unequivocally called them miracles.Footnote 72 For example, Bede took several chapters to describe miracles attributed to King Oswald and to Bishop Aidan.Footnote 73 While Bede seemed intent on stressing Cædmon's sanctity, the attempt to elevate him to sainthood is, apparently, a late phenomenon.Footnote 74 If there had been an earlier attempt to create a saint's cult around Cædmon, it never had any recorded success.Footnote 75
Cædmon does not appear elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon literature, either in Latin or in Old English, outside of Bede's account.Footnote 76 He is not mentioned in the chronicles, law tracts, saints’ lives, martyrologies, genealogies, homilies, sermons, or other narratives before the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. There is evidence that he was known further afield, however. For example, sometime in the first half of the twelfth century, after the Anglo-Saxon period, William of Malmesbury mentioned Cædmon, although he did not explicitly name him, as that monk buried at Whitby and to whom Bede referred who received the knowledge of song as a divine gift.Footnote 77 It is clear that Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica is William's source for Cædmon. Likewise, on the Continent, the preface to the Old Saxon Heliand was influenced by Bede's account of Cædmon. But it has been argued that the Heliand’s preface, at least in part, is not entirely medieval. Rather, some of it may have been produced by Renaissance antiquarians.Footnote 78
In examining Bede's account of Cædmon, it has been instructive to compare aspects of Gaelic poetic traditions. We should now turn our attention to the account that mentions vernacular poets by Muirchú, a Gaelic hagiographer who also wrote in Latin.
Muirchú’s Account of Dubthach and Fiacc
Muirchú maccu Machtheni wrote a Life of St. Patrick around 690, several decades before Bede wrote the Historia Ecclesiastica.Footnote 79 However, Muirchú, as a Gaelic cleric, does not seem conflicted by the presence of poets who composed in the vernacular for secular purposes. It is possible that Muirchú was familiar with the traditions about Colmán mac Lénéni, a poet who became a cleric and died ca. 606 and who was a contemporary of St. Columba.Footnote 80 It would seem that Gaelic hagiographers were more accepting of vernacular poets than were their Anglo-Saxon or continental counterparts. For example, Adomnán in Vita Sancti Columbae, a late seventh-century text, relates that, while on a journey, sometime putatively in the last half of the sixth century, some monks ask Columba, after meeting up with a vernacular poet (scoticus poeta) named Crónán, “why did you not according to the custom ask for a song of his own composition, sung to a tune?”Footnote 81 The saint had not made the request of Crónán because his prophetic ability allowed him to foresee the poet's impending violent death.
Muirchú’s work was commissioned by another churchman, Bishop Áed of Sletty (Sléibte), who died in 700 as an anchorite.Footnote 82 Sletty is on the River Barrow just north of the town of Carlow, which is itself only a few miles north of Rath Melsigi, cited by Bede as an important school that trained Englishmen to become clerics at home in England and missionaries on the Continent.Footnote 83 The Englishman Ecgberht at Rath Melsigi has been noted as a likely conduit for Gaelic literary and cultural traditions into Anglo-Saxon England.Footnote 84 The names of both Bishop Áed of Sletty and Muirchú maccu Machtheni appear on the guarantor list for Cáin Adomnáin (known in Latin as Lex innocentium), a law promoted by Adomnán, abbot of Iona, in 697 and promulgated at Birr, Co. Offaly in the Irish midlands.Footnote 85 Thus Muirchú’s career reflects his relationships with Armagh in Ulster, with Sletty and Birr in Leinster, and with Iona in Scotland.
The episode involving Dubthach and Fiacc related by Muirchú is set on an Easter Day in the mid-fifth century at Lóegaire mac Néill's royal court at Tara in the Irish midlands. In typical hagiographical style, the protagonists’ deeds are compared to those of biblical characters. St. Patrick had been attempting to convert the pagans at the court of King Lóegaire mac Néill in Tara. Patrick and his companions entered the court through closed doors, as Christ had done before them, in order to preach before all nations.
(1) Sequenti uero die, hoc est in die pascae, recumbentibus regibus et principibus et magis apud Loiguire — festus enim dies maximus apud eos erat —, manducantibus illis et bibentibus uinum in palatio Temoriae sermocinantibusque aliis et aliis cogitantibus de his quae facta fuerant, (2) sanctus Patricius quinque tantum uiris, ut contenderet et uerbum faceret de fide sancta in Temoria coram omnibus nationibus, hostiis claussis secundum id quod de Christo legitur uenit. (3) Adueniente ergo eo in caenacolum Temoriae nemo de omnibus ad aduentum eius surrexit praeter unum tantum, id est Dubthoch maccu Lugir, poetam optimum, apud quem tunc temporis ibi erat quidam adoliscens poeta nomine Feec, qui postea mirabilis episcopus fuit, cuius reliquiae adorantur hi Sleibti; (4) hic, ut dixi, Dubthach solus ex gentibus in honorem sancti Patricii surrexit et benedixit ei sanctus crediditque primus in illa die Deo et repputatum est ei ad iustitiam.
(1) On the following day, that is Easter Day, when the kings and princes and druids were at table with Loíguire [Lóegaire] — for this was their greatest feast day — eating and drinking wine in the palace of Tara, some of them talking, and others thinking about the things that had happened, (2) holy Patrick with only five companions entered through closed doors, as we read about Christ [John 20:19], in order to vindicate and to preach the holy faith at Tara before all the nations. (3) As he entered the banquet hall of Tara, none of them all rose in order to welcome him, except one man only [Deut. 4:35], Dubthach maccu Lug[a]ir, an excellent poet. With him was then in that place a young poet named Fíacc, who afterwards became a renowned bishop, whose relics are worshipped in Sléibte [Sletty]. (4) This Dubthach, as I have said, alone among the pagans rose in honour of holy Patrick, and the holy man blessed him, and he was the first on that day to believe in God, and it was counted to him for righteousness [Gen. 15:6].Footnote 86
Both secular, professional poets, Dubthach maccu Lugair and Fiacc Finn Sléibte, are brought to the faith by Patrick. The chief poet Dubthach was the only person among the pagans to rise in honor of Patrick to welcome him. Since the poet was the first to believe in God on that day, as Muirchú stated, “it was counted to him for righteousness,” a phrase used in Genesis of the patriarch Abraham. Dubthach figures, along with Patrick, as a primary syncretist of indigenous legal practice and custom with Christian doctrine in the Gaelic law tracts, as we will see presently.Footnote 87 Fiacc, the younger poet, as stated in Muirchú’s account, became a bishop and founded the monastery at Sletty. It was one of Fiacc's successors in the bishopric at Sletty, Bishop Áed, who commissioned the Life of Patrick written by Muirchú. Thus Muirchú is drawing on the foundation narrative of Sletty in his anecdote about Dubthach and Fiacc in Vita Patricii.
Both Dubthach and Fiacc are mentioned in the Additamenta, a collection of brief documents in Latin and Old Gaelic found in the Book of Armagh, compiled by the mid-eighth century but whose contents are datable on linguistic criteria to ca. 700.Footnote 88 One episode relates how Patrick asked Dubthach to suggest a candidate for ordination as bishop from among his pupils in Leinster. The man must be of a free lineage, without blemish, neither too wealthy nor too poor. Furthermore, the candidate should have but one wife who has borne him one child.Footnote 89 Dubthach suggested Fiacc as a poet who filled the requirements, including personal purity and being above reproach, and Fiacc became the first bishop among the Leinstermen.Footnote 90 This anecdote about Fiacc is repeated in various contexts throughout Gaelic literary cultural history, sometimes filling out details and adding new ones.
Fiacc Finn Sléibte
Fiacc's consecration as first bishop of Leinster by Patrick is noted by Tírechán, an earlier contemporary of Muirchú.Footnote 91 Tírechán's Collectanea were, apparently, intended as the basis for a Life of Patrick and show that both he and Muirchú had gathered, and were repeating, established tradition about Fiacc in their anecdotes. The outlines of the tale from the Additamenta about Fiacc's consecration, along with numerous other narrative details, are repeated in the late ninth- or early tenth-century macaronic Tripartite Life of Patrick in which Fiacc's only son, Fiachrae, is also named.Footnote 92 The ninth-century martyrology Félire Óengusso, composed by Óengus mac Óengobann, cites both Fiacc and his son Fiachrae in its entry at 12 October.Footnote 93
Fiacc continued to practice his profession as poet, according to tradition, after becoming a cleric much as Colmán mac Lénéni is portrayed as having done. The Old Gaelic poem Fiacc's Hymn, a vernacular verse Life of St. Patrick found in the Liber Hymnorum, is attributed to him.Footnote 94 Needless to say, the fifth-century poet and bishop could not have composed the Hymn, and its attribution to Fiacc must be seen as an example of using his auctoritas to lend prestige to the poem. One of the hymn's interesting features is the mention of ancestral figures Éber and Éremón, who form part of the national origin legend which is elaborated fully in later centuries in Lebor Gabála Érenn (“Book of the Taking of Ireland”).Footnote 95 The hymn states that a sídflaith núae (“new prince of peace”) was prophesied to come to the people of Ireland and that Tara would lie vacant.Footnote 96 It also states that King Lóegaire's druids foresaw Patrick's arrival in Ireland and, hence, the coming of the faith.Footnote 97 These topics just mentioned highlight the fact that the Gaels saw no incongruity in attributing to a venerated bishop, reputed to have been a professional poet, verses that portray legends of their pagan ancestors anticipating the arrival of the new Christian dispensation.
The prose preface to Fiacc's Hymn in the Liber Hymnorum repeats the aetiological legend first recorded in Muirchú’s Life of St Patrick and expanded in the Additamenta, but this later prose preface fills out narrative details and provides motivation for some of the events. For example, once Fiacc accepted from Patrick his role in the Church, “tanic rath mór fair iarsein co roleg in n-ord n-eclastacda uile i n-oen aidche” (“thereupon a great grace came upon him, and he read all of the ecclesiastical rule in one night”), although the text acknowledges another version that claimed it took fifteen days.Footnote 98 But Fiacc's suitability for the Church through divine grace is clear.
The preface to Fiacc's Hymn also provides information, confirmed by the genealogical tracts, to show that Fiacc was a member of the Uí Bairrche, an important Leinster family whose revered ancestor was Cathaír Már.Footnote 99 Establishing the ancestry of any esteemed figure is an important function in Gaelic society.Footnote 100
Our various accounts of Fiacc provide further contrasts with Cædmon. While Bede said that “he did not learn the art of poetry from men nor through a man,” Fiacc is described as Dubthach's deiscipul (“disciple, pupil”) in the Additamenta and as Dubthach's daltae (“pupil, fosterling”) in the prose preface to Fiacc's Hymn. Footnote 101 These terms emphasize Fiacc's participation in an organization that had formalized training or an apprenticeship.Footnote 102 Cædmon could also “never compose any foolish or trivial poem but only those which were concerned with devotion.” The Tripartite Life explains that when Patrick first visited Dubthach in Leinster to seek a candidate for bishop in the region, Fiacc was “hi tír Connacht co mbairtni donaib rígaib” (“in Connacht with bairdne for the kings”).Footnote 103 Bairdne (“bardic craft,” “eulogy”) means that Fiacc was away on circuit in Connacht selling encomia to the local nobility.Footnote 104 For the adoliscens poeta Fiacc to be on circuit with bairdne implies that he had not yet achieved the higher levels of the poetic arts (filidecht, the art of the fili).Footnote 105 Nevertheless, his participation in the poetic orders and his good character made him a worthy candidate for the higher ranks of the early Church.
Dubthach maccu Lugair
In Muirchú’s account, Dubthach maccu Lugair, the professional poet present at the royal court, is described as a poeta optimus, translated by Bieler as “excellent poet,” but better treated as an ollam filed (“chief poet”).Footnote 106 When Patrick and his companions arrived, Dubthach was “the first on that day to believe in God, and it was counted to him for righteousness.”Footnote 107 In other words, Dubthach is immediately drawn into the ambit of the Church, and the implicit reference to the patriarch Abraham suggests his role in helping to lead the Gaels into a new dispensation.
Dubthach figures centrally, along with Patrick, in an etiological legend that purports to explain the process of syncretism between native legal traditions and the teachings of the Christian Church.Footnote 108 The legend, which survives in variant versions, is given expression in what has been called the “pseudo-historical prologue” to the Senchas Már (“The Great Tradition”), a major law tract compilation.Footnote 109 The “pseudo-historical prologue” survives in three varying versions preserved in three separate manuscripts.Footnote 110 The most recent editors agree that the language of the prologues is consistent with the eighth century.Footnote 111 The syncretism is presented in the form of a leading legal case.Footnote 112 King Lóegaire and his court advisors were concerned that the Christian doctrine of forgiveness would disrupt the existing societal structures and controls. In order to test the doctrine, it was decided that a member of Lóegaire's court, Nuadu Derg, would slay a member of Patrick's entourage, Odrán, Patrick's charioteer, in order to see how the saint would respond. It was left to Dubthach to pronounce judgment on the murderer. Being a trained fili (“poet”), Dubthach's judgment was presented in the form of an obscure, unrhymed, alliterating poem.Footnote 113
Dubthach was worried about the responsibility of pronouncing on the murder, understanding fully the quandary he was in. Patrick encouraged Dubthach that whatever he said would come from God.Footnote 114 So Dubthach submitted himself to God and Patrick in order to produce his inspired poem and make the correct judgment. The final judgment was that the murderer, Nuadu Derg, must lose his life for having murdered but, since he was not baptized and had not yet received the faith, his murder was not held against his soul, his sin could be expiated, and he could be granted a place in heaven.Footnote 115 We then have the allegorical explanation of how a group of nine named, high-status men were brought together to reconcile the teachings of the Church with the laws and customs of the Gaels. This ostensible committee consisted of three kings, three bishops, and three learned men, two of the latter three being Dubthach himself and another poet named Fergus fili.Footnote 116
In addition to the preface to the Senchas Már, the story of Dubthach's participation in the syncretism of Church and secular law is outlined in the eighth-century law tract Córus Bésgnai (“The Regulation of Proper Behavior”).Footnote 117 In both law tracts, Dubthach is among the people who, along with Patrick, examined native Gaelic law and harmonized those parts of it that did not contradict Christian conscience with Holy Scripture and the Church's teachings.
We see the story of Patrick's arrival at the pagan court of Lóegaire mac Néill again in the later prose narrative Comthóth Lóegairi co cretim ocus a aided (“Lóegaire's conversion to the faith and his violent death”) preserved in the early twelfth-century manuscript Lebor na hUidre.Footnote 118 The text is in the hand of an interpolator, referred to as H, who was working long after the manuscript had been compiled. Most of the tale is based on the “pseudo-historical prologue” of the Senchas Már and relates the traditions about Dubthach cooperating with Patrick to blend Gaelic tradition and Church teachings as part of the conversion of the Gaels. But the tale then shifts to Lóegaire's battles with the Leinstermen and the collection of the bórama tax. When Lóegaire is captured by his enemies, pledges are given, based on the elements of nature, that seem to reflect pre-Christian practice. The tale relates, “the just sanction of the elements of God, it is this which killed Loegaire.”Footnote 119 Lóegaire was buried in full armor on a ridge of Tara facing southward towards his enemies. This burial reflects presumed pre-Christian practice and is drawn from Tírechán's account of Lóegaire in which, unlike Muirchú’s Vita Patricii, Lóegaire does not accept the faith and is not converted.Footnote 120 Muirchú’s benign treatment of Lóegaire is different from many of the surviving traditions where Lóegaire can represent the reluctance to renounce paganism.Footnote 121 Comthóth Lóegairi draws on some clearly identifiable (contradictory) sources and serves as a reminder that the path to conversion among the Gaels was not free of obstacles.
Dubthach maccu Lugair also plays a role in the ninth-century Bethu Brigte (“Life of St Brigit”).Footnote 122 In this saint's Life, Dubthach comes as a suitor to Brigit's father seeking Brigit in marriage. Brigit, however, refused the offer and suggested instead another young maiden. She blessed Dubthach's mouth so that his marriage proposal to the other maiden would be successful and all transpired as Brigit had predicted.Footnote 123 Both Brigit and Dubthach descended from Leinster lineages, but Dubthach came to represent Patrick's paruchia based in Ulster at Armagh, and Brigit represents Kildare in Leinster. Armagh eventually dominated.Footnote 124 This episode in the ninth-century Bethu Brigte appears to be an allegorical expression of Kildare's desire to maintain independence.
Like Fiacc, Dubthach is portrayed as a professional poet throughout the tradition, and his Leinster lineage is the reason for the association. Three poems are attributed to him in the Lebar na Núachongbála (“The Book of Leinster”), all three of which are about Leinster heroes and dynasties and their eponymous ancestors.Footnote 125 The attribution of these poems to Dubthach is another example of using his name to add auctoritas. In the same way Dubthach, or a poet of his lineage, also has poetic fragments attributed to him in the Leinster genealogies.Footnote 126 James Carney cited a seldom-noted tradition that Patrick was buried in Leinster along with Dubthach among the Cenél Lugair.Footnote 127
In a poem on Gaelic authors and laws, composed by Gilla in Choimded Úa Cormaic, sometime between 1050 and 1150, Dubthach and the others of the nine experts from the allegory who worked on the syncretism that resulted in the Senchas Már are all cited.Footnote 128 This legal poem was written in the era when some of the poems on Leinster lineages and heroes attributed to Dubthach mentioned above may have been composed. It shows that, by the end of the Anglo-Saxon era, these Gaelic traditions reflected in the eighth-century “pseudo-historical prologue” continued to impact Gaelic intellectual life, and these cultured experts of a much earlier period survived into later centuries as icons of the tradition.
We have examined two accounts by clerics writing in Latin that named three vernacular poets who have impacted subsequent cultural history. The three poets qualify as fir fíréoin (“righteous men”). John Carey has highlighted the importance of this Gaelic term in the pre-conversion context of men like Dubthach and Fiacc; but it could be extended to the process of converting others, as Cædmon helped to do.Footnote 129 Cædmon was righteous in the manner of his death and his own foreknowledge of it. Dubthach was righteous in honoring Patrick and accepting the faith before others at the pagan court.Footnote 130 Fiacc's good character and manner of living made him a natural candidate for bishop.
All three poets were “inspired” individuals. Both Cædmon and Dubthach produced inspired poems. Cædmon composed “by the grace of God” and entered monastic life. Dubthach's judgment poem, inspired through God and Patrick, motivated the conversion of Lóegaire's hesitant court and helped institute the legendary movement to syncretize Church teachings and Gaelic tradition. Once Fiacc accepted his role in the Church, he was inspired by divine grace to learn the ecclesiastical rule in short order. The qualities of righteousness and inspiration in these early poets are shared by both traditions.
There are significant distinctions between the two accounts. Bede was writing within a few generations of the conversion of Anglo-Saxon society. Muirchú, although describing pivotal events of the conversion of the Gaels, was writing at a remove of at least two centuries from those events. The differences in the attitudes of the two clerics may reflect the relative distance from each society's conversion with Bede necessarily being the more circumspect. Bede's cautious attitude is reflected in his insistence that Cædmon was incapable of composing on “trivial” topics. Nevertheless, scholars have long noted the encomiastic diction of his Hymn.Footnote 131 Muirchú, and other Gaelic hagiographers, accepted the secular duties and functions of vernacular poets, including composing encomia, as seen with Fiacc bringing bairdne to the nobility.
Cædmon is unique for his low social status among both Gaelic and Anglo-Saxon named vernacular poets, including those in Widsith and Deor, and an unnamed poet in Beowulf.Footnote 132 Given Bede's account of his own obscure social background (HE 5.24), Cædmon's low status — exacerbated by uncertain ethnic origins — may have resonated with Bede's personal experience.Footnote 133 Bede described Cædmon seemingly by way of contrast to a traditional Anglo-Saxon poet; Cædmon was a low-status layman, mature in years, who never learned poetry from human teachers and who avoided public performance. Bede's negative depiction of Cædmon's poetic background provides, ironically, the most complete account of a functioning poet preserved in any records, Latin or vernacular, from Anglo-Saxon society.Footnote 134 A challenge for scholars of Old English literature is to determine where on the spectrum from antithesis to epitome Bede's account of Cædmon represents the practice of Anglo-Saxon poets.
Just as Cædmon changed his teachers into his audience, he was himself converted and elevated, in Bede's eyes, from the lay to the religious life. This lifestyle elevation may have suited Bede's purposes given the recent memories of the Anglo-Saxon conversion. Muirchú, by contrast, accepts the prestige that high-status poets bring to the Church. Bede assures us that Cædmon had no training in poetry and did not learn any of his skills from other men. Dubthach and Fiacc, conversely, participated in the formal training and apprenticeship systems of the Gaelic professional poets. Bede wanted his readers to see Cædmon's poetic talent as a divinely inspired gift, but formally trained Gaelic poets also relied on, or were purported to rely on, poetic inspiration, whether the source was human or divine.
The most striking contrast between the two literary cultures is the vibrant intertextuality and self-referential tendencies of the Gaelic tradition that cannot be matched by the Anglo-Saxon. Cædmon exists only in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica. It can be argued that Bede attempted to create an air of sanctity around Cædmon in order to elevate his status.Footnote 135 Traces of Dubthach and Fiacc, conversely, are frequent in Gaelic tradition where they are found in law tracts, in hagiography, in martyrologies, in genealogies, in prose narratives, and in other poems. Their reputations apparently preceded Muirchú’s writing, as suggested by their inclusion in the nearly contemporary, but more detailed, Additamenta (ca. 700) and Fiacc's appearance in the earlier work by Tírechán (ca. 680). If Muirchú had not mentioned Dubthach and Fiacc in the Vita Sancti Patricii, we would still know about them, be able to recreate something of their personal histories, and recognize their contributions to Gaelic cultural history.
Bede had devoted an entire chapter to Cædmon synopsizing, in essence, his career and literary influence. Muirchú had mentioned Dubthach and Fiacc only briefly, highlighting specific points about each one: Dubthach was the first at court to believe on the day, and Fiacc would become the founding bishop of Sléibte. Yet subsequent literary history treats these three poets very differently. Cædmon is not recorded outside of Bede's account until after the Anglo-Saxon period. The careers of Dubthach and Fiacc, alternatively, must be filled out from references in a wide array of sources and various genres for the same timeframe. It would appear that professional status, formalized training, and legal recognition of rank may have contributed to greater acknowledgement for Gaelic vernacular poets than that achieved by their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.
The vernacular literatures of early medieval Europe evolved, in part, as a result of the conversion to Christianity. The study of these literatures must be conducted against the background of the Church's Latinate teachings, which helped disperse widely the learning of Mediterranean cultures to western and northern Europe. Both Early Gaelic and Old English vernacular literatures developed as a result of these contacts and transformations and have much to reveal about the processes.