As someone who has studied the “Arthurian period” at length I have noticed some things that irritate and frighten me. First Knight comes to mind, being wrong in its interpretation and understanding of the story, in error about the love triangle, the philosophies involved, and the armaments. But I have learned to live with it and media like it. After all if a person wants the romantic delusions of the Arthurian period they are either going to enjoy it blissfully or enjoy it despite me.
But for those who want to understand, the socio-economic situation was a fascinating one. Today I would like to start with the bard. Bards have been explained as the storytellers, the entertainers, the keepers of culture. And they were. There is no accurate source that tells us how long they studied their craft, or exactly what they had to learn before they were allowed to practice, but we can guess. They had to know the mythology of their people, all the regional legends and many politically important local tales as well. They learned probably hundreds of motifs, dozens of techniques to captivate audiences, and their ability to create intricately rhymed verse on short notice was honed to a legendary status. It has been said that their gift for words was so powerful that a satire foretelling doom could guarantee the demise of any warrior or king.
As legendary as they might sound, however, in the Britain of 500 they held a political significance even superior to kings. At that time, British kingships were just emerging throughout England, Wales, and parts of Scotland from a several hundred year dormancy. The tradition of kingship was dead. The old bloodlines were forgotten or extinct. And British kingship was nothing like living under Roman rule. The Romans had possessed innumerable soldiers, unlimited money, and were centered hundreds of miles away. The kings of post-Roman Britain had perhaps a dozen men, only as much money and possessions as a handful of villages could provide, and in 500 were hardly a day’s walk away. To be blunt, they didn’t have tradition, numbers, resources, or even the necessary distance from their subjects to make themselves intimidating. They were men. They were leaders of warriors, but they had been born to farmers or craftsmen. They would get old and weak, and someone else would replace them.
Bards served as the glue that held the early kingdoms together. They used their training and reputations to cement on a philosophical and emotional level the position early kings had established militarily so that they could gain the economic benefits of the villages under their rule.
How, exactly? Because of their background, it was believed that bards knew the culture and history of the entire Celtic peoples. They didn’t of course, but perception was more important than reality. They took the knowledge they had about history and applied it to the area they were working. To put this in context, a king who has recently gained power finds himself in an awkward position. As his parents were farmers or craftsmen and most or all of his more distant relatives were as well he has nothing upon which to validate his position. But a bard happens through and offers his services. The king gladly accepts and within weeks or months he suddenly has a glowing past filled with mythical and legendary warriors who were all blessed by the gods.
Of course the history wasn’t true, but it didn’t matter. A bard was believed to have such power with words that if he said it was the truth, it was.