On Bards, And Bardic Circles

(Excerpted and annotated from LOCKSLEY'S E-Z HARP METHOD) -Ioseph of Locksley, OL, Pel, &c. (c) 1989, 1990 W. J. Bethancourt III

In the SCA, in written Fantasy, in too many instances the word "bard" seems to be bandied about in a rather loose manner, being applied indiscriminately to true Bards, trouveres, troubadors, jongleurs, poets, playwrights, actors...in short, anyone who entertains.

I hope to clear up this misconception, though to hope that the usage of the word will be corrected may be a forlorn hope....

Bards are found in Celtic cultures (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Manx and Brittany) and a rough equivalent can be found in Norse culture, too, where they were known as "scops."

There is no real equivalent to the Celtic Bard in Anglo-Saxon England, however.

In Ireland and Scotland, the use of the word "Bard" apparently fell into some disrepute, as the records we have show that the Bard was simply a minor poet, while the "filidh" (seer) or the "ollave" (master poet) occupied the former status and functions of the Bard.

In Wales, the Bard was not so lucky. There, the traditions ossified, and the Bards, after the advent of Christianity, became Court Poets, known as "Gogynfeirdd," or "Prydydd," limited in subject matter and form, and with rigidly structured rules.

The word that corresponds with the irish "filidh," in Welsh, would be "derwydd," (oak-seer) the word from which "druid" is derived.

The "hedge-Bards" were the ones that carried on the real traditions of the Bard. These are the people that gave us the "Cad Goddeu" and the "Hanes Taliesin," and who -may- have passed the "Matter of Britain" on to the French troubadors and trouveres, thus giving us Arthur and Camelot.

The word "Bard," in Wales, denoted a master-poet. In Ireland it meant a poet who was not an Ollave, one who had not taken all the formal training. Apparently even the lower-status Irish Bard was on a level with the Welsh Bard in knowledge and poetic education, however, and these were what I have termed "hedge-bards," above.

In the Celtic cultures, the Bard/Filidh/Ollave was inviolate. He could travel anywhere, say anything, and perform when and where he pleased. The reason for this was, of course, that he was the bearer of news and the carrier of messages, and, if he was harmed, then nobody found out what was happening over the next hill. In addition, he carried the Custom of the country as memorized verses...he could be consulted in cases of Customary (Common) Law. He was, therefore, quite a valuble repository of cultural information, news, and entertainment.

Bards were part of the Druidic hierarchy, though this may or may not (depending on who you talk to!) be period for the SCA.

A true Bard must know the following: music (and the playing of a period instrument, preferably Harp), poetry (original, and other people's), song (original and other people's), the History, Law and Custom of his/her Kingdom and of the SCA, as much knowledge of mundane medieval history, Law, and custom as they can possibly learn, and at least a very basic knowledge of linguistics and alphabet/cyphers. Some training in Folklore, and in the arts of Sociology and Semantics would help, too. A reasonable amount of heraldic knowledge would not be out of place, either. See the list of suggested College courses at the end of this article.

The Bard should investigate the "Matter of Britain" very thoroughly, paying special attention to Sir Gawain, and to Arthur's Queen. Do a little reading in the Robin Hood cycle, too, with special attention to the village festivals in Britain that mention him.

Bards do -not- just sing songs! They recite, and write poetry, stories, tell myths (both historical and SCA...), but the operative word here is that they -speak-. Just playing music does not entitle you to be called a Bard.

Some Bards are "titled," that is, someone, be it another Bard, or whoever, or sometimes (very seldom) the Bard himself, has given them a bardic "name" or "title," that serves to identify them. Thusly, I am known as "y bardd Gwyn," "Bard Ban," or "the Whyte Bard." Another was known as "Derwydd Prydain," while even another has no title at all, and does not want one. Be wary of taking such a title yourself. Allow the giving of such to happen on its own, and do NOT take it from a King of any kind, unless you wish to be the "King's Bard" in the Welsh sense of the word.

Each individual Bard will have certain perogatives that they have developed over the years. I, myself, tend to interrupt a Coronation court, or other Courts, at any time with a poem, or a song, relating to the event. Other Bards will have other perogatives. Don't try to set yourself up with these; let them happen naturally.

A Bard should remain as neutral as possible in matters of SCA politics, though the expressing of his/her opinion -in verse- about such things is quite acceptable, and is traditionally "non-challengeable," but maybe answered -in verse,- and ONLY in verse.

The other classes of period musical entertainers include Minstrels, Troubadors, Trouveres, Jongleurs....and, believe it or not, Heralds!

On Music And Songwriting

Every so often, one hears a self-important "scholar" say something along the lines of: "Well, you have only written new words, or parodied the words, to a common tune....this is NOT real songwriting, but simply "filk" (as termed in the Science Fiction sub-culture) songs."

Tell them to sit on it. This is, and was, an accepted thing to do, is quite legitimate, and very authentic. The period name for this technique is called the "siervente."

Just try to keep the general "sound" as Medieval/Renaissance as possible...admittedly a bit difficult when you are stealing ** er ** adapting a rock and roll melody, but it CAN be done....and please encourage others to do the same.

If you -must- use a familiar mundane tune that is blatantly out- of-period, be -clever- with your adaptation. Otherwise, the song becomes just another boring "filk." About the cleverest I have heard is the use of the "Agincourt Carole" to the tune of "The Banana Boat Song...." This is one of the most God-awful, and funniest, things I have heard in years.

On Bardic Circles

A Bardic Circle, at least in an SCA context, is simply a setting for the listeners to entertain each other. This can be with poetry, song, and stories. All should participate, though it is not necessary for all to contribute to make it a fun thing to do. What IS necessary is that the number of things done by each person at any one time be limited, to keep the inevitable "stage-hog" from monopolizing the evening, and to keep the "Awful No-Talent Stage Hog" from running everyone off.

I recommend that each person be limited to TWO songs, poems or whatever at a time, and then pass on to the next singer. This keeps it varigated, and interesting, and gives EVERYONE a chance to contribute.

Try to keep discussion to a minimum, but, should it be interesting, let it go on for a while, as a break in the music. In any event, try to do something different about every hour or so, to allow your listeners to stretch, use the bathroom, get refreshments, and gossip for a while. This will keep them there longer, and add more fun to the occasion.

Suggested College Level Courses

Basic and Advanced Folklore of the Appalachian and Ozark mountains of the USA

Basic and Advanced Folklore of the British Isles

Music History (100 and 200 levels)

Anything else in the Music curriculum that relates to Medieval music

Comparative Religions

Basic Sociology (100 and 200 levels at least) (watch out here! This is an "art," not a "science!")


Medieval History (100 thru Graduate levels)

Medieval Law (100 thru 400 levels)

English Writing

The Literature of England (Ireland, Wales, Britanny, Scotland etc.)


Fencing or other formal Martial Art


And ANYTHING else that might possibly relate and/or help.

Reading list:

Ogham: the Poet's Secret, Sean O Boyle; Gilbert Dalton, Dublin, 1980

The English And Scottish Popular Ballads, Francis James Child; (five volumes) Dover, 1965

The Singing Tradition Of Child's Popular Ballads, Bertrand Harris Bronson; Princeton University Press 1976

The Viking Book Of Folk Ballads Of The English-Speaking World, Albert B. Friedman; Viking, 1956, 1982

Traditional Ballads: The Compleat Anachronist #11, Tsivia bas Tamara v'Amberview (pseud.); Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc, 1984

Folk Songs Of England, Ireland, Scotland And Wales, William Cole; Cornerstone, 1961, 1969

Folksinger's Wordbook, Fred and Irwin Silber; Oak, 1973

101 Scottish Songs, Norman Buchan; Collins, 1974

Rise Up Singing, Peter Blood-Patterson; Sing Out! 1988

The Troubadors: The Compleat Anachronist #44, Leah di Estera (pseud.) Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc, 1989

Caidan Bardic CIrcle Songbook (5 Vols.), Caidan Bardic Consortium, 1988

The White Goddess, Robert Graves; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY 1966 (LCCCN: 48-8257)

The Golden Bough, James G. Frazer; Avenel Books, 1981

Contrarywise, Zohra Greenhalgh, Ace (paperback) April 1989 0-441-117112-2

Permission is given for this paper to be used in publications of the SCA or related groups. If you use it, send a copy of the publication to:
Joe Bethancourt - PO Box 35190 - Phoenix, AZ - 85069

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir