History of Literature

English literature



The Old English period

The early Middle English period

The later Middle English and early Renaissance periods

The Renaissance period: 1550–1660

Elizabethan and early Stuart drama

Effect of religion and science on early Stuart prose

The Restoration

The 18th century

The 18th century. The novel

The Romantic period

The later Romantics

The Post-Romantic and Victorian eras

Late Victorian literature

The 20th century. The Modernist revolution

The literature of World War I and the interwar period

Literature after 1945. Fiction. Poetry

Literature after 1945. Drama. The 21st century



English literature

The Old English period


"St. Bede the Venerable"
Caedmon manuscript
Exeter Book
Vercelli Book
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The Battle of Brunanburh
"The Battle of Maldon"

"The Dream of the Rood"


Celtic literature





English literature has sometimes been stigmatized as insular. It can be argued that no single English novel attains the universality of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace or the French writer Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Yet in the Middle Ages the Old English literature of the subjugated Saxons was leavened by the Latin and Anglo-Norman writings, eminently foreign in origin, in which the churchmen and the Norman conquerors expressed themselves. From this combination emerged a flexible and subtle linguistic instrument exploited by
Geoffrey Chaucer  and brought to supreme application by William Shakespeare. During the Renaissance the renewed interest in Classical learning and values had an important effect on English literature, as on all the arts; and ideas of Augustan literary propriety in the 18th century and reverence in the 19th century for a less specific, though still selectively viewed, Classical antiquity continued to shape the literature. All three of these impulses derived from a foreign source, namely the Mediterranean basin. The Decadents of the late 19th century and the Modernists of the early 20th looked to continental European individuals and movements for inspiration. Nor was attraction toward European intellectualism dead in the late 20th century, for by the mid-1980s the approach known as structuralism, a phenomenon predominantly French and German in origin, infused the very study of English literature itself in a host of published critical studies and university departments. Additional influence was exercised by deconstructionist analysis, based largely on the work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

Further, Britain’s past imperial activities around the globe continued to inspire literature—in some cases wistful, in other cases hostile. Finally, English literature has enjoyed a certain diffusion abroad, not only in predominantly English-speaking countries but also in all those others where English is the first choice of study as a second language.

English literature is therefore not so much insular as detached from the continental European tradition across the Channel. It is strong in all the conventional categories of the bookseller’s list: in William Shakespeare   it has a dramatist of world renown; in poetry, a genre notoriously resistant to adequate translation and therefore difficult to compare with the poetry of other literatures, it is so peculiarly rich as to merit inclusion in the front rank; English literature’s humour has been found as hard to convey to foreigners as poetry, if not more so—a fact at any rate permitting bestowal of the label “idiosyncratic”; English literature’s remarkable body of travel writings constitutes another counterthrust to the charge of insularity; in autobiography, biography, and historical writing, English literature compares with the best of any culture; and children’s literature, fantasy, essays, and journals, which tend to be considered minor genres, are all fields of exceptional achievement as regards English literature.

Even in philosophical writings, popularly thought of as hard to combine with literary value, thinkers such as
Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, and Bertrand Russell stand comparison for lucidity and grace with the best of the French philosophers and the masters of Classical antiquity.

Some of English literature’s most distinguished practitioners in the 20th century—from Joseph Conrad at its beginning to V.S. Naipaul and Tom Stoppard at its end—were born outside the British Isles. What is more, none of the aforementioned had as much in common with his adoptive country as did, for instance, Doris Lessing and Peter Porter (two other distinguished writer-immigrants to Britain), both having been born into a British family and having been brought up on British Commonwealth soil.

On the other hand, during the same period in the 20th century, many notable practitioners of English literature left the British Isles to live abroad: James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, and Muriel Spark. In one case, that of Samuel Beckett, this process was carried to the extent of writing works first in French and then translating them into English.

Even English literature considered purely as a product of the British Isles is extraordinarily heterogeneous, however. Literature actually written in those Celtic tongues once prevalent in Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales—called the “Celtic Fringe”—is treated separately. Yet Irish, Scots, and Welsh writers have contributed enormously to English literature even when they have written in dialect, as the 18th-century poet
Robert Burns and the 20th-century Scots writer Alasdair Gray have done. In the latter half of the 20th century, interest began also to focus on writings in English or English dialect by recent settlers in Britain, such as Afro-Caribbeans and people from Africa proper, the Indian subcontinent, and East Asia.

Even within England, culturally and historically the dominant partner in the union of territories comprising Britain, literature has been as enriched by strongly provincial writers as by metropolitan ones. Another contrast more fruitful than not for English letters has been that between social milieus, however much observers of Britain in their own writings may have deplored the survival of class distinctions. As far back as medieval times, a courtly tradition in literature cross-fertilized with an earthier demotic one. Shakespeare’s frequent juxtaposition of royalty in one scene with plebeians in the next reflects a very British way of looking at society. This awareness of differences between high life and low, a state of affairs fertile in creative tensions, is observable throughout the history of English literature.


The Old English period


The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who invaded Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries brought with them the common Germanic metre; but of their earliest oral poetry, probably used for panegyric, magic, and short narrative, little or none survives. For nearly a century after the conversion of King Aethelberht I of Kent to Christianity about 600, there is no evidence that the English wrote poetry in their own language. But St. Bede the Venerable, in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”), wrote that in the late 7th century Caedmon, an illiterate Northumbrian cowherd, was inspired in a dream to compose a short hymn in praise of the creation. Caedmon later composed verses based on Scripture, which was expounded for him by monks at Streaneshalch (now called Whitby), but only the Hymn of Creation survives. Caedmon legitimized the native verse form by adapting it to Christian themes. Others, following his example, gave England a body of vernacular poetry unparalleled in Europe before the end of the 1st millennium.

"St. Bede the Venerable"

born 672/673, traditionally Monkton in Jarrow, Northumbria
died May 25, 735, Jarrow; canonized 1899; feast day May 25

Anglo-Saxon theologian, historian, and chronologist, best known today for his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”), a source vital to the history of the conversion to Christianity of the Anglo-Saxon tribes. During his lifetime and throughout the Middle Ages Bede’s reputation was based mainly on his scriptural commentaries, copies of which found their way to many of the monastic libraries of western Europe. His method of dating events from the time of the incarnation, or Christ’s birth—i.e., ad—came into general use through the popularity of the Historia ecclesiastica and the two works on chronology. Bede’s influence was perpetuated at home through the school founded at York by his pupil Archbishop Egbert of York and was transmitted to the Continent by Alcuin, who studied there before becoming master of Charlemagne’s palace school at Aachen.

Nothing is known of Bede’s parentage. At the age of seven he was taken to the Monastery of St. Peter, founded at Wearmouth (near Sunderland, Durham) by Abbot St. Benedict Biscop, to whose care he was entrusted. By 685 he was moved to Biscop’s newer Monastery of St. Paul at Jarrow. Bede was ordained deacon when 19 years old and priest when 30. Apart from visits to Lindisfarne and York, he seems never to have left Wearmouth–Jarrow. Buried at Jarrow, his remains were removed to Durham and are now entombed in the Galilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral.

Bede’s works fall into three groups: grammatical and “scientific,” scriptural commentary, and historical and biographical. His earliest works include treatises on spelling, hymns, figures of speech, verse, and epigrams. His first treatise on chronology, De temporibus (“On Times”), with a brief chronicle attached, was written in 703. In 725 he completed a greatly amplified version, De temporum ratione (“On the Reckoning of Time”), with a much longer chronicle. Both these books were mainly concerned with the reckoning of Easter. His earliest biblical commentary was probably that on the Revelation to John (703?–709); in this and many similar works, his aim was to transmit and explain relevant passages from the Fathers of the Church. Although his interpretations were mainly allegorical, treating much of the biblical text as symbolic of deeper meanings, he used some critical judgment and attempted to rationalize discrepancies. Among his most notable are his verse (705–716) and prose (before 721) lives of St. Cuthbert, bishop of Lindisfarne. These works are uncritical and abound with accounts of miracles; a more exclusively historical work is Historia abbatum (c. 725; “Lives of the Abbots”).

In 731/732 Bede completed his Historia ecclesiastica. Divided into five books, it recorded events in Britain from the raids by Julius Caesar (55–54 bc) to the arrival in Kent (ad 597) of St. Augustine. For his sources he claimed the authority of ancient letters, the “traditions of our forefathers,” and his own knowledge of contemporary events. Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica leaves gaps tantalizing to secular historians. Although overloaded with the miraculous, it is the work of a scholar anxious to assess the accuracy of his sources and to record only what he regarded as trustworthy evidence. It remains an indispensable source for some of the facts and much of the feel of early Anglo-Saxon history.





flourished 658–680

first Old English Christian poet, whose fragmentary hymn to the creation remains a symbol of the adaptation of the aristocratic-heroic Anglo-Saxon verse tradition to the expression of Christian themes. His story is known from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which tells how Caedmon, an illiterate herdsman, retired from company one night in shame because he could not comply with the demand made of each guest to sing. Then in a dream a stranger appeared commanding him to sing of “the beginning of things,” and the herdsman found himself uttering “verses which he had never heard.” When Caedmon awoke he related his dream to the farm bailiff under whom he worked and was conducted by him to the monastery at Streaneshalch (now called Whitby). The abbess St. Hilda believed that Caedmon was divinely inspired and, to test his powers, proposed that he should render into verse a portion of sacred history, which the monks explained. By the following morning he had fulfilled the task. At the request of the abbess he became an inmate of the monastery. Throughout the remainder of his life his more learned brethren expounded Scripture to him, and all that he heard he reproduced in vernacular poetry. All of his poetry was on sacred themes, and its unvarying aim was to turn men from sin to righteousness. In spite of all the poetic renderings that Caedmon supposedly made, however, it is only the original dream hymn of nine historically precious, but poetically uninspired, lines that can be attributed to him with confidence. The hymn—extant in 17 manuscripts, some in the poet’s Northumbrian dialect, some in other Old English dialects—set the pattern for almost the whole art of Anglo-Saxon verse.

Alliterative verse


Alliterative verse

early verse of the Germanic languages in which alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words or stressed syllables, is a basic structural principle rather than an occasional embellishment. Although alliteration is a common device in almost all poetry, the only Indo-European languages that used it as a governing principle, along with strict rules of accent and quantity, are Old Norse, Old English, Old Saxon, Old Low German, and Old High German. The Germanic alliterative line consists of two hemistichs (half lines) separated by a caesura (pause). There are one or two alliterating letters in the first half line preceding the medial caesura; these also alliterate with the first stressed syllable in the second half line. Alliteration falls on accented syllables; unaccented syllables are not effective, even if they begin with the alliterating letter.

The introduction of rhyme, derived from medieval Latin hymns, contributed to the decline of alliterative verse. In Low German, pure alliterative verse is not known to have survived after 900; and, in Old High German, rhymed verse was by that time already replacing it. In England, alliteration as a strict structural principle is not found after 1066 (the date of the Norman-French conquest of Britain), except in the western part of the country. Although alliteration was still very important, the alliterative line became freer: the second half line often contained more than one alliterating word, and other formalistic restrictions were gradually disregarded. The early 13th-century poetry of Lawamon and later poems such as Piers Plowman, Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, and The Pearl use end rhyme extensively. Sometimes all the verses rhyme; sometimes the succession of alliterative verses is broken by rhymed verses grouped at roughly regular intervals. The last alliterative poem in English is usually held to be “Scottish Fielde,” which deals with the Battle of Flodden (1513).

Later Norse poets (after 900) also combined many forms of rhyme and assonance with alliteration in a variety of stanzaic forms. After 1000, Old Norse alliterative verse became practically confined to the Icelanders, among whom it continues to exist.

In Celtic poetry, alliteration was from the earliest times an important, but subordinate, principle. In Welsh poetry it gave rise to the cynghanedd, an intricate bardic verse.


Virtually all Old English poetry is written in a single metre, a four-stress line with a syntactical break, or caesura, between the second and third stresses, and with alliteration linking the two halves of the line; this pattern is occasionally varied by six-stress lines. The poetry is formulaic, drawing on a common set of stock phrases and phrase patterns, applying standard epithets to various classes of characters, and depicting scenery with such recurring images as the eagle and the wolf, which wait during battles to feast on carrion, and ice and snow, which appear in the landscape to signal sorrow. In the best poems such formulas, far from being tedious, give a strong impression of the richness of the cultural fund from which poets could draw. Other standard devices of this poetry are the kenning, a figurative name for a thing, usually expressed in a compound noun (e.g., swan-road used to name the sea); and variation, the repeating of a single idea in different words, with each repetition adding a new level of meaning. That these verse techniques changed little during 400 years of literary production suggests the extreme conservatism of Anglo-Saxon culture.

The major manuscripts

Most Old English poetry is preserved in four manuscripts of the late 10th and early 11th centuries. The
Beowulf manuscript (British Library) contains Beowulf, Judith, and three prose tracts; the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral) is a miscellaneous gathering of lyrics, riddles, didactic poems, and religious narratives; the Junius Manuscript (Bodleian Library, Oxford)—also called the Caedmon Manuscript, even though its contents are no longer attributed to Caedmon—contains biblical paraphrases; and the Vercelli Book (found in the cathedral library in Vercelli, Italy) contains saints’ lives, several short religious poems, and prose homilies. In addition to the poems in these books are historical poems in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; poetic renderings of Psalms 51–150; the 31 Metres included in King Alfred the Great’s translation of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae (Consolation of Philosophy); magical, didactic, elegiac, and heroic poems; and others, miscellaneously interspersed with prose, jotted in margins, and even worked in stone or metal.



heroic poem, the highest achievement of Old English literature and the earliest European vernacular epic. Preserved in a single manuscript (Cotton Vitellius A XV) from c. 1000, it deals with events of the early 6th century and is believed to have been composed between 700 and 750. It did not appear in print until 1815. Although originally untitled, it was later named after the Scandinavian hero Beowulf, whose exploits and character provide its connecting theme. There is no evidence of a historical Beowulf, but some characters, sites, and events in the poem can be historically verified.

The poem falls into two parts. It opens in Denmark, where King Hrothgar’s splendid mead hall, Heorot, has been ravaged for 12 years by nightly visits from an evil monster, Grendel, who carries off Hrothgar’s warriors and devours them. Unexpectedly, young Beowulf, a prince of the Geats of southern Sweden, arrives with a small band of retainers and offers to cleanse Heorot of its monster. The King is astonished at the little-known hero’s daring but welcomes him, and after an evening of feasting, much courtesy, and some discourtesy, the King retires, leaving Beowulf in charge. During the night Grendel comes from the moors, tears open the heavy doors, and devours one of the sleeping Geats. He then grapples with Beowulf, whose powerful grip he cannot escape. He wrenches himself free, tearing off his arm, and leaves, mortally wounded.

The next day is one of rejoicing in Heorot. But at night as the warriors sleep, Grendel’s mother comes to avenge her son, killing one of Hrothgar’s men. In the morning Beowulf seeks her out in her cave at the bottom of a mere and kills her. He cuts the head from Grendel’s corpse and returns to Heorot. The Danes rejoice once more. Hrothgar makes a farewell speech about the character of the true hero, as Beowulf, enriched with honours and princely gifts, returns home to King Hygelac of the Geats.

The second part passes rapidly over King Hygelac’s subsequent death in a battle (of historical record), the death of his son, and Beowulf’s succession to the kingship and his peaceful rule of 50 years. But now a fire-breathing dragon ravages his land and the doughty but aging Beowulf engages it. The fight is long and terrible and a painful contrast to the battles of his youth. Painful, too, is the desertion of his retainers except for his young kinsman Wiglaf. Beowulf kills the dragon but is mortally wounded. The poem ends with his funeral rites and a lament.

Beowulf belongs metrically, stylistically, and thematically to the inherited Germanic heroic tradition. Many incidents, such as Beowulf’s tearing off the monster’s arm and his descent into the mere, are familiar motifs from folklore. The ethical values are manifestly the Germanic code of loyalty to chief and tribe and vengeance to enemies. Yet the poem is so infused with a Christian spirit that it lacks the grim fatality of many of the Eddic lays or the Icelandic sagas. Beowulf himself seems more altruistic than other Germanic heroes or the heroes of the Iliad. It is significant that his three battles are not against men, which would entail the retaliation of the blood feud, but against evil monsters, enemies of the whole community and of civilization itself. Many critics have seen the poem as a Christian allegory, with Beowulf the champion of goodness and light against the forces of evil and darkness. His sacrificial death is not seen as tragic but as the fitting end of a good (some would say “too good”) hero’s life.

That is not to say that Beowulf is an optimistic poem. The English critic J.R.R. Tolkien suggests that its total effect is more like a long, lyrical elegy than an epic. Even the earlier, happier section in Denmark is filled with ominous allusions that were well understood by contemporary audiences. Thus, after Grendel’s death, King Hrothgar speaks sanguinely of the future, which the audience knows will end with the destruction of his line and the burning of Heorot. In the second part the movement is slow and funereal; scenes from Beowulf’s youth are replayed in a minor key as a counterpoint to his last battle, and the mood becomes increasingly sombre as the wyrd (fate) that comes to all men closes in on him. John Gardner’s Grendel (1971) is a retelling of the story from the point of view of the monster.




Exeter Book

The largest extant collection of Old English poetry. Copied c. 975, the manuscript was given to Exeter Cathedral by Bishop Leofric (died 1072). It begins with some long religious poems: the Christ, in three parts; two poems on St. Guthlac; the fragmentary “Azarius”; and the allegorical Phoenix. Following these are a number of shorter religious verses intermingled with poems of types that have survived only in this codex. All the extant Anglo-Saxon lyrics, or elegies, as they are usually called—“The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” “The Wife’s Lament,” “The Husband’s Message,” and “The Ruin”—are found here. These are secular poems evoking a poignant sense of desolation and loneliness in their descriptions of the separation of lovers, the sorrows of exile, or the terrors and attractions of the sea, although some of them—e.g., “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer”—also carry the weight of religious allegory. In addition, the Exeter Book preserves 95 riddles, a genre that would otherwise have been represented by a solitary example.

The remaining part of the Exeter Book includes “The Rhyming Poem,” which is the only example of its kind; the gnomic verses; “Widsith,” the heroic narrative of a fictitious bard; and the two refrain poems, “Deor” and “Wulf and Eadwacer.” The arrangement of the poems appears to be haphazard, and the book is believed to be copied from an earlier collection.


Caedmon manuscript

also called Junius Manuscript,

Old English scriptural paraphrases copied about 1000, given in 1651 to the scholar Franciscus Junius by Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh and now in the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. It contains the poems Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, and Christ and Satan, originally attributed to Caedmon because these subjects correspond roughly to the subjects described in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History as having been rendered by Caedmon into vernacular verse. The whole, called Caedmon’s Paraphrase, was first published in 1655. Later studies make the attribution to Caedmon doubtful, because the poems seem to have been written at different periods and by more than one author.

Genesis is a poem of 2,936 lines. The first 234 lines describe the fall of angels and parts of the creation. Lines 235–851 give a second account of the fall of angels and tell of the fall of man. The sequence, style, and superior quality of these lines reveal them to be interpolated. This section, later identified as a translation of an Old Saxon original, is now known as Genesis B. Its many striking resemblances to Paradise Lost suggest that John Milton might have known of the manuscript. The remaining portions, Genesis A, carry the story up to the sacrifice of Isaac.

Exodus, an incomplete poem of 590 lines regarded as older than Genesis or Daniel, describes the flight of the Israelites with considerable dramatic power.

Daniel, an incomplete poem of 764 lines, is a scholarly work closely following the Vulgate Book of Daniel and much inferior to Exodus in poetic quality.

The 729-line piece known as Christ and Satan contains a lament of the fallen angels, a description of the harrowing of hell (Christ’s descent into hell after his death), and an account of the temptation of Christ by Satan. In spite of its anachronistic sequence, it is regarded by some scholars as a single poem, its unifying theme being the “sufferings of Satan.” It has a rude vigour and lack of culture and polish. The manuscript also contains drawings.


Vercelli Book

Old English manuscript written in the late 10th century. It contains texts of the poem Andreas, two poems by Cynewulf, The Dream of the Rood, an “Address of the Saved Soul to the Body,” and a fragment of a homiletic poem, as well as 23 prose homilies and a prose life of St. Guthlac, the Vercelli Guthlac. The book is so named because it was found in the cathedral library at Vercelli, northwestern Italy, in 1822. Marginalia in the manuscript indicate that the manuscript was in English use in the 11th century. It was probably taken to Italy by one of the numerous Anglo-Saxon pilgrims on the way to Rome.


Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Chronological account of events in Anglo-Saxon and Norman England, a compilation of seven surviving interrelated manuscript records that is the primary source for the early history of England. The narrative was first assembled in the reign of King Alfred (871–899) from materials that included some epitome of universal history: the Venerable Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, genealogies, regnal and episcopal lists, a few northern annals, and probably some sets of earlier West Saxon annals. The compiler also had access to a set of Frankish annals for the late 9th century. Soon after the year 890 several manuscripts were being circulated; one was available to Asser in 893, another, which appears to have gone no further than that year, to the late 10th-century chronicler Aethelweard, while one version, which eventually reached the north and which is best represented by the surviving E version, stopped in 892. Some of the manuscripts circulated at this time were continued in various religious houses, sometimes with annals that occur in more than one manuscript, sometimes with local material, confined to one version. The fullness and quality of the entries vary at different periods; the Chronicle is a rather barren document for the mid-10th century and for the reign of Canute, for example, but it is an excellent authority for the reign of Aethelred the Unready and from the reign of Edward the Confessor until the version that was kept up longest ends with annal 1154.

The Chronicle survived to the modern period in seven manuscripts (one of these being destroyed in the 18th century) and a fragment, which are generally known by letters of the alphabet. The oldest, the A version, formally known as C.C.C. Cant. 173 from the fact that it is at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, is written in one hand up to 891 and then continued in various hands, approximately contemporary with the entries. It was at Winchester in the mid-10th century and may have been written there. It is the only source for the account of the later campaigns of King Edward the Elder. Little was added to this manuscript after 975, and in the 11th century it was removed to Christ Church, Canterbury, where various interpolations and alterations were made, some by the scribe of the F version. The manuscript G, formally known as Cotton Otho B xi (from the fact that it forms part of the Cotton collection of manuscripts at the British Museum), which was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1731, contained an 11th-century copy of A, before this was tampered with at Canterbury. Its text is known from a 16th-century transcript by L. Nowell and from Abraham Wheloc’s edition (1644).

The B version (Cott. Tib. A vi) and the C version (Cott. Tib. B i) are copies made at Abingdon from a lost archetype. B ends at 977, whereas C, which is an 11th-century copy, ends, mutilated, in 1066. Their lost original incorporated into the text in a block after annal 915 a set of annals (902–924) known as the Mercian Register.

The D version (Cott. Tib. B iv) and the E version (kept at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Laud Misc. 636) share many features, including the interpolation of much material of northern interest taken from Bede and from annals also used by Simeon of Durham; hence they are known as the “northern recension.” D has also dovetailed into its text the Mercian Register and contains a fair amount of northern material found in no other version. It is quite detailed in the English descent of Queen Margaret of Scotland. D, which is kept up until 1079, probably remained in the north, whereas the archetype of E was taken south and continued at St. Augustine’s, Canterbury, and was used by the scribe of manuscript F.

The extant manuscript E is a copy made at Peterborough, written in one stretch until 1121, and kept up there until the early part of 1155. It has several Peterborough interpolations in the earlier sections. It is the version that was continued longest, and it includes a famous account of the anarchy of Stephen’s reign.

The F version (Cott. Domit. A viii) is an abridgment, in both Old English and Latin, made in the late 11th or early 12th century, based on the archetype of E, but with some entries from A. It extends to 1058. Finally, the fragment H (Cott. Domit. A ix) deals with 1113–14 and is independent of E, the only other version to continue so late.



Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius

Roman scholar, philosopher, and statesman

born ad 470–475?, Rome? [Italy]
died 524, Pavia?

Roman scholar, Christian philosopher, and statesman, author of the celebrated De consolatione philosophiae (Consolation of Philosophy), a largely Neoplatonic work in which the pursuit of wisdom and the love of God are described as the true sources of human happiness.

The most succinct biography of Boethius, and the oldest, was written by Cassiodorus, his senatorial colleague, who cited him as an accomplished orator who delivered a fine eulogy of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths who made himself king of Italy. Cassiodorus also mentioned that Boethius wrote on theology, composed a pastoral poem, and was most famous as a translator of works of Greek logic and mathematics.

Other ancient sources, including Boethius’ own De consolatione philosophiae, give more details. He belonged to the ancient Roman family of the Anicii, which had been Christian for about a century and of which Emperor Olybrius had been a member. Boethius’ father had been consul in 487 but died soon afterward, and Boethius was raised by Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, whose daughter Rusticiana he married. He became consul in 510 under the Ostrogothic king Theodoric. Although little of Boethius’ education is known, he was evidently well trained in Greek. His early works on arithmetic and music are extant, both based on Greek handbooks by Nicomachus of Gerasa, a 1st-century-ad Palestinian mathematician. There is little that survives of Boethius’ geometry, and there is nothing of his astronomy.

It was Boethius’ scholarly aim to translate into Latin the complete works of Aristotle with commentary and all the works of Plato “perhaps with commentary,” to be followed by a “restoration of their ideas into a single harmony.” Boethius’ dedicated Hellenism, modeled on Cicero’s, supported his long labour of translating Aristotle’s Organon (six treatises on logic) and the Greek glosses on the work.

Boethius had begun before 510 to translate Porphyry’s Eisagogē, a 3rd-century Greek introduction to Aristotle’s logic, and elaborated it in a double commentary. He then translated the Katēgoriai, wrote a commentary in 511 in the year of his consulship, and also translated and wrote two commentaries on the second of Aristotle’s six treatises, the Peri hermeneias (“On Interpretation”). A brief ancient commentary on Aristotle’s Analytika Protera (“Prior Analytics”) may be his too; he also wrote two short works on the syllogism.

About 520 Boethius put his close study of Aristotle to use in four short treatises in letter form on the ecclesiastical doctrines of the Trinity and the nature of Christ; these are basically an attempt to solve disputes that had resulted from the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. Using the terminology of the Aristotelian categories, Boethius described the unity of God in terms of substance and the three divine persons in terms of relation. He also tried to solve dilemmas arising from the traditional description of Christ as both human and divine, by deploying precise definitions of “substance,” “nature,” and “person.” Notwithstanding these works, doubt has at times been cast on Boethius’ theological writings because in his logical works and in the later Consolation, the Christian idiom is nowhere apparent. The 19th-century discovery of the biography written by Cassiodorus, however, confirmed Boethius as a Christian writer, even if his philosophic sources were non-Christian.

In about 520 Boethius became magister officiorum (head of all the government and court services) under Theodoric. His two sons were consuls together in 522. Eventually Boethius fell out of favour with Theodoric. The Consolation contains the main extant evidence of his fall but does not clearly describe the actual accusation against him. After the healing of a schism between Rome and the church of Constantinople in 520, Boethius and other senators may have been suspected of communicating with the Byzantine emperor Justin I, who was orthodox in faith whereas Theodoric was Arian. Boethius openly defended the senator Albinus, who was accused of treason “for having written to the Emperor Justin against the rule of Theodoric.” The charge of treason brought against Boethius was aggravated by a further accusation of the practice of magic, or of sacrilege, which the accused was at great pains to reject. Sentence was passed and was ratified by the Senate, probably under duress. In prison, while he was awaiting execution, Boethius wrote his masterwork, De consolatione philosophiae.

The Consolation is the most personal of Boethius’ writings, the crown of his philosophic endeavours. Its style, a welcome change from the Aristotelian idiom that provided the basis for the jargon of medieval Scholasticism, seemed to the 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon “not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or Tully.” The argument of the Consolation is basically Platonic. Philosophy, personified as a woman, converts the prisoner Boethius to the Platonic notion of Good and so nurses him back to the recollection that, despite the apparent injustice of his enforced exile, there does exist a summum bonum (“highest good”), which “strongly and sweetly” controls and orders the universe. Fortune and misfortune must be subordinate to that central Providence, and the real existence of evil is excluded. Man has free will, but it is no obstacle to divine order and foreknowledge. Virtue, whatever the appearances, never goes unrewarded. The prisoner is finally consoled by the hope of reparation and reward beyond death. Through the five books of this argument, in which poetry alternates with prose, there is no specifically Christian tenet. It is the creed of a Platonist, though nowhere glaringly incongruous with Christian faith. The most widely read book in medieval times, after the Vulgate Bible, it transmitted the main doctrines of Platonism to the Middle Ages. The modern reader may not be so readily consoled by its ancient modes of argument, but he may be impressed by Boethius’ emphasis on the possibility of other grades of Being beyond the one humanly known and of other dimensions to the human experience of time.

After his detention, probably at Pavia, he was executed in 524. His remains were later placed in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia, where, possibly through a confusion with his namesake, St. Severinus of Noricum, they received the veneration due to a martyr and a memorable salute from Dante.

When Cassiodorus founded a monastery at Vivarium, in Campania, he installed there his Roman library and included Boethius’ works on the liberal arts in the annotated reading list (Institutiones) that he composed for the education of his monks. Thus, some of the literary habits of the ancient aristocracy entered the monastic tradition. Boethian logic dominated the training of the medieval clergy and the work of the cloister and court schools. His translations and commentaries, particularly those of the Katēgoriai and Peri hermeneias, became basic texts in medieval Scholasticism. The great controversy over Nominalism (denial of the existence of universals) and Realism (belief in the existence of universals) was incited by a passage in his commentary on Porphyry. Translations of the Consolation appeared early in the great vernacular literatures, with King Alfred (9th century) and Chaucer (14th century) in English, Jean de Meun (a 13th-century poet) in French, and Notker Labeo (a monk of around the turn of the 11th century) in German. There was a Byzantine version in the 13th century by Planudes and a 16th-century English one by Elizabeth I.

Thus the resolute intellectual activity of Boethius in an age of change and catastrophe affected later, very different ages; and the subtle and precise terminology of Greek antiquity survived in Latin when Greek itself was little known.

James Shiel


Problems of dating

Few poems can be dated as closely as Caedmon’s Hymn. King Alfred’s compositions fall into the late 9th century, and Bede composed his Death Song within 50 days of his death on May 25, 735. Historical poems such as The Battle of Brunanburh (after 937) and The Battle of Maldon (after 991) are fixed by the dates of the events they commemorate. A translation of one of Aldhelm’s riddles is found not only in the Exeter Book but also in an early 9th-century manuscript at Leiden, Neth. And at least a part of
The Dream of the Rood can be dated by an excerpt carved on the 8th-century Ruthwell Cross (in Dumfriesshire, Scot.). But in the absence of such indications, Old English poems are hard to date, and the scholarly consensus that most were composed in the Midlands and the North in the 8th and 9th centuries gave way to uncertainty during the last two decades of the 20th century. Many now hold that The Wanderer, Beowulf, and other poems once assumed to have been written in the 8th century are of the 9th century or later. For most poems, there is no scholarly consensus beyond the belief that they were written between the 8th and the 11th centuries.

The Battle of Brunanburh

Brunanburh also spelled Brunnanburh

Old English poem of 73 lines included in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 937. It relates the victory of the Saxon king Athelstan over the allied Norse, Scots, and Strathclyde Briton invaders under the leadership of Olaf Guthfrithson, king of Dublin and claimant to the throne of York. The poem is probably a panegyric composed for Athelstan to celebrate his victory. It counts the dead kings and earls on the battlefield and pictures the Norsemen slinking back to Dublin in their ships while their dead sons are being devoured by ravens and wolves. The poem claims that this was the greatest battle ever fought in England.


"The Battle of Maldon"

Old English heroic poem describing a historical skirmish between East Saxons and Viking (mainly Norwegian) raiders in 991. It is incomplete, its beginning and ending both lost. The poem is remarkable for its vivid, dramatic combat scenes and for its expression of the Germanic ethos of loyalty to a leader. The poem, as it survives, opens with the war parties aligned on either side of a stream (the present River Blackwater near Maldon, Essex). The Vikings offer the cynical suggestion that the English may buy their peace with golden rings. The English commander Earl Byrhtnoth replies that they will pay their tribute in spears and darts. When the Vikings cannot advance because of their poor position, Byrhtnoth recklessly allows them safe conduct across the stream, and the battle follows. In spite of Byrhtnoth’s supreme feats of courage, he is finally slain. In panic some of the English warriors desert. The names of the deserters are carefully recorded in the poem along with the names and genealogies of the loyal retainers who stand fast to avenge Byrhtnoth’s death. The 325-line fragment ends with the rallying speech of the old warrior Byrhtwold (here in modern English):

Mind must be firmer, heart the more fierce,

Courage the greater, as our strength

diminishes . . . .






(c. 639–709), West Saxon abbot of Malmesbury, the most learned teacher of 7th-century Wessex, a pioneer in the art of Latin verse among the Anglo-Saxons, and the author of numerous extant writings in Latin verse and prose.

Aldhelm was trained in Latin and in Celtic-Irish scholarship by Malmesbury’s Irish founder and went on to study at the famous school at Canterbury, where he was exposed to continental influences. He read widely in Latin poetry and prose, secular as well as sacred; he learned Greek; he followed the arithmetic and astronomy of his day; and he experimented with various forms of poetic metre. About 675 he became abbot of Malmesbury, where he remained, carrying on a threefold career, as monk and priest, as encourager of learning, and as Latin poet. In 705 he was consecrated bishop of Sherborne. He was also a popular vernacular poet, though none of his Old English verse survives.

In addition to his pastoral duties, building churches, and founding monasteries, Aldhelm wrote vigorous letters of encouragement to other scholars, the style of which betrays his Celtic training. In similar prose he also wrote a lengthy treatise on the celibate life for the nuns of Barking. Its flood of learning and its difficult style so delighted the community that he made a second version of it in Latin hexameters.

Metrical science was Aldhelm’s special preoccupation, and his most famous work is a treatise on metrics sent to his friend Aldfrith, king of Northumbria (685–704). It includes as examples 100 aenigmata (riddles) of Aldhelm’s own invention in Latin hexameters, which served as models for such 8th-century Saxon writers as Tatwine, archbishop of Canterbury, and St. Boniface, apostle of Germany.


Religious verse

If few poems can be dated accurately, still fewer can be attributed to particular poets. The most important author from whom a considerable body of work survives is Cynewulf, who wove his runic signature into the epilogues of four poems. Aside from his name, little is known of him; he probably lived in the 9th century in Mercia or Northumbria. His works include The Fates of the Apostles, a short martyrology; The Ascension (also called Christ II), a homily and biblical narrative; Juliana, a saint’s passion set in the reign of the Roman emperor Maximian (late 3rd century ad); and Elene, perhaps the best of his poems, which describes the mission of St. Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, to recover Christ’s cross. Cynewulf’s work is lucid and technically elegant; his theme is the continuing evangelical mission from the time of Christ to the triumph of Christianity under Constantine. Several poems not by Cynewulf are associated with him because of their subject matter. These include two lives of St. Guthlac and Andreas; the latter, the apocryphal story of how St. Andrew fell into the hands of the cannibalistic (and presumably mythical) Mermedonians, has stylistic affinities with Beowulf. Also in the “Cynewulf group” are several poems with Christ as their subject, of which the most important is
The Dream of the Rood, in which the cross speaks of itself as Christ’s loyal thane and yet the instrument of his death. This tragic paradox echoes a recurring theme of secular poetry and at the same time movingly expresses the religious paradoxes of Christ’s triumph in death and humankind’s redemption from sin.

Several poems of the Junius Manuscript are based on the Old Testament narratives Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel. Of these, Exodus is remarkable for its intricate diction and bold imagery. The fragmentary Judith of the Beowulf Manuscript stirringly embellishes the story from the Apocrypha of the heroine who led the Jews to victory over the Assyrians.


flourished 9th century ad, Northumbria or Mercia [now in England]

Author of four Old English poems preserved in late 10th-century manuscripts. Elene and The Fates of the Apostles are in the Vercelli Book, and The Ascension (which forms the second part of a trilogy, Christ, and is also called Christ II) and Juliana are in the Exeter Book. An epilogue to each poem, asking for prayers for the author, contains runic characters representing the letters c, y, n, (e), w, u, l, f, which are thought to spell his name. A rhymed passage in the Elene shows that Cynewulf wrote in the Northumbrian or Mercian dialect. Nothing is known of him outside his poems, as there is no reason to identify him with any of the recorded persons bearing this common name. He may have been a learned cleric since all of the poems are based on Latin sources.

Elene, a poem of 1,321 lines, is an account of the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena.

The Fates of the Apostles, 122 lines, is a versified martyrology describing the mission and death of each of the Twelve Apostles.

Christ II (The Ascension) is a lyrical version of a homily on the Ascension written by Pope Gregory I the Great. It is part of a trilogy on Christ by different authors.

Juliana, a poem of 731 lines, is a retelling of a Latin prose life of St. Juliana, a maiden who rejected the suit of a Roman prefect, Eleusius, because of her faith and consequently was made to suffer numerous torments.

Although the poems do not have great power or originality, they are more than mere paraphrases. Imagery from everyday Old English life and from the Germanic epic tradition enlivens descriptions of battles and sea voyages. At the same time, the poet, a careful and skillful craftsman, consciously applies the principles of Latin rhetoric to achieve a clarity and orderly narrative progress that is quite unlike the confusion and circumlocution of the native English style.




"The Dream of the Rood"

Old English lyric, the earliest dream poem and one of the finest religious poems in the English language, once, but no longer, attributed to Caedmon or Cynewulf. In a dream the unknown poet beholds a beautiful tree—the rood, or cross, on which Christ died. The rood tells him its own story. Forced to be the instrument of the saviour’s death, it describes how it suffered the nail wounds, spear shafts, and insults along with Christ to fulfill God’s will. Once blood-stained and horrible, it is now the resplendent sign of mankind’s redemption. The poem was originally known only in fragmentary form from some 8th-century runic inscriptions on the Ruthwell Cross, now standing in the parish church of Ruthwell, now Dumfries District, Dumfries and Galloway Region, Scot. The complete version became known with the discovery of the 10th-century Vercelli Book in northern Italy in 1822.

Elegiac and heroic verse

The term elegy is used of Old English poems that lament the loss of worldly goods, glory, or human companionship. The Wanderer is narrated by a man, deprived of lord and kinsmen, whose journeys lead him to the realization that there is stability only in heaven. The Seafarer is similar, but its journey motif more explicitly symbolizes the speaker’s spiritual yearnings. Several others have similar themes, and three elegies—

The Husband’s Message
(Old English lyric preserved in the Exeter Book, one of the few surviving love lyrics from the Anglo-Saxon period. It is remarkable for its ingenious form and for its emotive power. The speaker is a wooden staff on which a message from an exiled husband to his wife has been carved in runic letters. The staff tells how it grew as a sapling beside the sea, never dreaming it would have the power of speech, until a man carved a secret message on it. The husband’s message tells of how he was forced to flee because of a feud but now has wealth and power in a new land and longs for his wife. It implores her to set sail and join him.),

The Wife’s Lament, and Wulf and Eadwacer—describe what appears to be a conventional situation: the separation of husband and wife by the husband’s exile.

Deor bridges the gap between the elegy and the heroic poem, for in it a poet laments the loss of his position at court by alluding to sorrowful stories from Germanic legend. Beowulf itself narrates the battles of Beowulf, a prince of the Geats (a tribe in what is now southern Sweden), against the monstrous Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a fire-breathing dragon. The account contains some of the best elegiac verse in the language, and, by setting marvelous tales against a historical background in which victory is always temporary and strife is always renewed, the poet gives the whole an elegiac cast. Beowulf also is one of the best religious poems, not only because of its explicitly Christian passages but also because Beowulf’s monstrous foes are depicted as God’s enemies and Beowulf himself as God’s champion. Other heroic narratives are fragmentary. Of The Battle of Finnsburh and Waldere only enough remains to indicate that, when whole, they must have been fast-paced and stirring.

Of several poems dealing with English history and preserved in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the most notable is The Battle of Brunanburh, a panegyric on the occasion of King Athelstan’s victory over a coalition of Norsemen and Scots in 937. But the best historical poem is not from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Battle of Maldon, which describes the defeat of Aldorman Byrhtnoth and much of his army at the hands of Viking invaders in 991, discovers in defeat an occasion to celebrate the heroic ideal, contrasting the determination of many of Byrhtnoth’s thanes to avenge his death or die in the attempt with the cowardice of others who left the field. Minor poetic genres include catalogs (two sets of Maxims and Widsith, a list of rulers, tribes, and notables in the heroic age), dialogues, metrical prefaces and epilogues to prose works of the Alfredian period, and liturgical poems associated with the Benedictine Office.


The earliest English prose work, the law code of King Aethelberht I of Kent, was written within a few years of the arrival in England (597) of St. Augustine of Canterbury. Other 7th- and 8th-century prose, similarly practical in character, includes more laws, wills, and charters. According to Cuthbert, who was a monk at Jarrow, Bede at the time of his death had just finished a translation of the Gospel of St. John, though this does not survive. Two medical tracts, Herbarium and Medicina de quadrupedibus, very likely date from the 8th century.

Early translations into English

The earliest literary prose dates from the late 9th century, when King Alfred, eager to improve the state of English learning, led a vigorous program to translate into English “certain books that are necessary for all men to know.” Alfred himself translated the Pastoral Care of St. Gregory I the Great, the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, the Soliloquies of St. Augustine of Hippo, and the first 50 Psalms. His Pastoral Care is a fairly literal translation, but his Boethius is extensively restructured and revised to make explicit the Christian message that medieval commentators saw in that work. He revised the Soliloquies even more radically, departing from his source to draw from Gregory and St. Jerome, as well as from other works by Augustine. Alfred’s prefaces to these works are of great historical interest.

At Alfred’s urging, Bishop Werferth of Worcester translated the Dialogues of Gregory; probably Alfred also inspired anonymous scholars to translate Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica and Paulus Orosius’s Historiarum adversum paganos libri vii (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans). Both of these works are much abridged; the Bede translation follows its source slavishly, but the translator of Orosius added many details of northern European geography and also accounts of the voyages of Ohthere the Norwegian and Wulfstan the Dane. These accounts, in addition to their geographical interest, show that friendly commerce between England and Scandinavia was possible even during the Danish wars. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle probably originated in Alfred’s reign. Its earliest annals (beginning in the reign of Julius Caesar) are laconic, except the entry for 755, which records in detail a feud between the West Saxon king Cynewulf and the would-be usurper Cyneheard. The entries covering the Danish wars of the late 9th century are much fuller, and those running from the reign of Ethelred II to the Norman Conquest in 1066 (when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle exists in several versions) contain many passages of excellent writing. The early 10th century is not notable for literary production, but some of the homilies in the Vercelli Book and the Blickling Manuscript (Scheide Library, Princeton University) may belong to that period.



Late 10th- and 11th-century prose

The prose literature of the mid- to late 10th century is associated with the Benedictine Reform, a movement that sought to impose order and discipline on a monastic establishment that was thought to have grown lax. Aethelwold, bishop of Winchester and one of the leaders of the reform, translated the Rule of St. Benedict. But the greatest and most prolific writer of this period was his pupil

Aelfric ( flourished c. 955–c. 1025, probably Eynsham, Oxfordshire, Eng. Anglo-Saxon prose writer, considered the greatest of his time. He wrote both to instruct the monks and to spread the learning of the 10th-century monastic revival. His Catholic Homilies, written in 990–992, provided orthodox sermons, based on the Church Fathers. Author of a Latin grammar, hence his nickname Grammaticus, he also wrote Lives of the Saints, Heptateuch (a vernacular language version of the first seven books of the Bible), as well as letters and various treatises.), a monk at Cerne and later abbot of Eynsham, whose works include three cycles of 40 homilies each (Catholic Homilies, 2 vol., and the Lives of the Saints), as well as homilies not in these cycles; a Latin grammar; a treatise on time and natural history; pastoral letters; and several translations. His Latin Colloquy, supplied with an Old English version by an anonymous glossarist, gives a fascinating glimpse into the Anglo-Saxon monastic classroom. Aelfric wrote with lucidity and astonishing beauty, using the rhetorical devices of Latin literature frequently but without ostentation; his later alliterative prose, which loosely imitates the rhythms of Old English poetry, influenced writers long after the Norman Conquest. Wulfstan, archbishop of York, wrote legal codes, both civil and ecclesiastical, and a number of homilies, including Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (“Wulf’s Address to the English”), a ferocious denunciation of the morals of his time. To judge from the number of extant manuscripts, these two writers were enormously popular. Byrhtferth of Ramsey wrote several Latin works and the Enchiridion, a textbook on the calendar, notable for its ornate style. Numerous anonymous works, some of very high quality, were produced in this period, including homilies, saints’ lives, dialogues, and translations of such works as the Gospels, several Old Testament books, liturgical texts, monastic rules, penitential handbooks, and the romance Apollonius of Tyre (translated from Latin but probably derived from a Greek original). The works of the Benedictine Reform were written during a few remarkable decades around the turn of the millennium. Little original work can be securely dated to the period after Wulfstan’s death (1023), but the continued vigour of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle shows that good Old English prose was written right up to the Norman Conquest. By the end of this period, English had been established as a literary language with a polish and versatility unequaled among European vernaculars.



died May 28, 1023, York, Eng.

bishop of London, 996–1002, archbishop of York, 1002–23, and bishop of Worcester, 1002–16, the author of many Old English homilies, treatises, and law codes. He was a product of the Benedictine revival and probably had some early connection with one of the Fenland abbeys, but nothing is known of him with certainty before he became a bishop.

Wulfstan wrote in a distinctive rhetorical and rhythmic style, which has enabled the canon of his work to be established. From 1008 he was adviser to the kings Aethelred and Canute and drafted their laws; it was probably he who inspired the latter to reign as a Christian king and thus prevented the Danish conquest from being a disaster to Anglo-Saxon civilization. He was interested in problems of government and the arrangement of society, as is shown by the work known as Institutes of Polity, which describes the responsibilities of all classes, from the king down, and defines the relative powers of church and state. He was also deeply concerned with the reform of the church. He studied canonical literature, asked Aelfric to write two pastoral letters for him, and was himself the author of the text known as The Canons of Edgar, a guide for parish priests. His most famous work, the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (“Sermon of Wolf to the English”), is an impassioned call to his countrymen to repentance and reform in 1014, after Aethelred had been driven out by the Danish invasions of King Sweyn.




Celtic literature


the body of writings composed in Gaelic and the languages derived from it, Scottish Gaelic and Manx, and in Welsh and its sister languages, Breton and Cornish. For writings in English by Irish, Scottish, and Welsh authors, see English literature. French-language works by Breton authors are covered in French literature.

Irish Gaelic

The introduction of Celtic into Ireland has not been authoritatively dated, but it cannot be later than the arrival there of the first settlers of the La Tène culture in the 3rd century bc. The language is often described in its earliest form as Goídelic, named after the Celts (Goídil; singular, Goídel) who spoke it. The modern form, known in English as Gaelic (in Gaelic called Gaedhilge or Gaeilge), is derived from the Scottish Gàidhlig.

The earliest evidence of Irish Gaelic consists of archaic sepulchral inscriptions in the ogham alphabet based on a system of strokes and notches cut on the edges of stone or wood usually ascribed to the 4th and 5th centuries ad. Writings in the Roman alphabet date from 8th-century glosses in Old Irish, but 7th- and even 6th-century compositions are preserved in much later manuscripts.

Four distinct periods are recognizable in Irish Gaelic literature. The early literature (linguistically Archaic, Old, and Early Middle Irish), was composed by a professional class, the fili (singular, fili), and by churchmen. The medieval literature (linguistically late Middle and Classical Modern Irish) was dominated by the lay and hereditary bardic orders. In the late literature (17th century to the end of the 19th) authorship passed into the hands of individuals among the peasants, the class to which most Irish speakers had been reduced, using the dialects into which the language had been broken up. The subsequent revival has continued to the present day.

Early period

Irish literature was originally aristocratic and was cultivated by the fili, who seem to have inherited the role of the learned priestly order represented in Caesar’s Gaul by the Druids, vates (“seers”), and bards and to have been judges, historians, and official poets responsible for all traditional lore and the performance of all rites and ceremonies. The arrival of Christianity and the gradual disappearance of paganism led to the abandonment of their specifically priestly functions. Nevertheless, the fili seem to have retained responsibility for the oral transmission of native lore or learning, which was in marked contrast to the new book or manuscript learning of the Christian Church. Fortunately, the ecclesiastical scholars were not as hostile to the native lore as were their counterparts abroad, and they appear to have been eager to commit it to writing. As a result, Ireland’s oral culture was extensively recorded in writing long before it could have evolved that art itself. The record consisted mainly of history, legendary and factual; laws; genealogies; and poems, but prose was the predominant vehicle.

The fili were powerful in early Irish society and were often arrogant, enforcing their demands by the threat of a lampoon (áer), a poet’s curse that could ruin reputations and, so it was thought, even kill. The laws set out penalties for abuse of the áer, and belief in its powers continued up to modern times. The official work of the fili has been preserved in fragments of annals and treatises.

The earliest verse has been preserved mainly in passages incorporated into later documents, both literary and legal; most have suffered in transmission and are very obscure. One of the earliest poems is a eulogy on St. Columba (c. 521–597) in rhetorical short sentences linked by alliteration, ascribed to Dallán Forgaill, chief poet of Ireland. This device of alliterative rhythmical prose was used again in the sagas. Probably the oldest actual metre was that in which two half lines were linked by alliteration—a system reminiscent of early Germanic verse. Rhyme was used from the 7th century; the requirement was only that there should be identity of vowel and syllabic length and that consonants should belong to the same phonetic class—a system also found in early Welsh. The quatrain (seven or eight syllables to a line and rhyme between second and fourth lines) was derived from Latin hymn metres. The quatrains of the later popular metre, the debide (literally “cut in two”), consisted of two couplets with the two lines of each couplet rhyming.

Much early verse was of an official nature, but that of the church was hardly more lively than that of the fili, who often affected a deliberately obscure style. More interesting was the 10th-century Psalter, a biblical history in 150 poems. But the real glory of Irish verse lay in anonymous poets who composed poems such as the famous address to Pangur, a white cat. They avoided complicated metres and used a language that had been cultivated for centuries, with a freshness of insight denied to the fili. That the fili could, however, adapt their technique was shown by an 11th-century poem on the sea, where preface, choice of theme, and metaphorical expressions all suggest Scandinavian influence. This and other nature poetry carried on a tradition of native lyrics, sagas, and seasonal songs that showed remarkable sensitivity. The monastic and eremitic movement in the Irish Church also provided a strong impetus to nature poetry. This almost Franciscan poetry had an especial appeal to monastic scribes, so that much of it has been preserved.

Historical verse arose partly because recording of the past was an important part of the work of the fili; some of the earliest poems were metrical genealogy. As time went on the necessity for compendiums of information grew, and these were again often in metrical form. In a long poem, Fianna bátar in Emain (“The Warriors Who Were in Emain”), Cináed ua Artacáin summed up the saga material, while Fland Mainistrech collected the work of generations of fili who had laboured to synchronize Ireland’s history with that of the outside world. Equally important is a great collection, in prose and verse, called the Dindshenchas, which gave appropriate legends to famous sites of Ireland between the 9th and 11th centuries. Indeed, the development of a loose debide form, making rhyming easy, facilitated mnemonic verse on numerous subjects.

The early Irish epic was a prose narrative that usually contained non-narrative poetic passages, often in dialogue form. The resemblance between this and the type of epic found in early Sanskrit suggests that the tradition went back to Indo-European times. The oldest sagas probably were first written down in the 7th and 8th centuries, from an oral tradition. These were imperfectly preserved, since Scandinavian invasions in the 9th and 10th centuries disrupted literary studies. Not until the 11th century did life become sufficiently settled for works to be collected in monasteries, and even then the collecting seems to have been haphazard. The great codex Lebor Na Huidre (The Book of the Dun Cow), written early in the 12th century, showed older treatments of saga material than are found in The Book of Leinster, written years later. The material has preserved a picture of primitive society—fighting from chariots, taking heads as trophies, the position of the Druids, the force of taboos—for which there is little or no evidence from strictly historical sources.

The most important cycle was that of the Ulaid, a people who gave their name to Ulster. Conchobar (king of the Ulaid), Cú Chulainn (a boy warrior), Medb (queen of Connaught), and Noísi and Deirdre, doomed lovers, were outstanding figures in early Irish literature, and it was on elements from the sagas of the Ulaid that the nearest approach to an Irish epic was built— Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). First put together in the 7th or 8th century, it is striking chiefly for its terse vividness. The finest section is that in which Fergus, an exile from Ulster, recalls the deeds of Cú Chulainn’s youth. But the value of the Táin generally lies in that, as it was being continually worked over, it provides a record of the degeneration of Irish style. The Táin collected around itself a number of ancillary stories, including that of its revelation to the fili in the 7th century by the ghost of Fergus and that of the tragedy of Noísi and Deirdre.

In this period stories with an origin outside the recognized tradition began to appear. An exotic element was represented by The Taking of Troy and The Story of Alexander, which appeared in the oldest saga lists, but classical learning had comparatively little effect until the next period. Stories of Finn, whose traditions went back to an early period, only really developed when the fili were no longer in control. The “wild-man-of-the-woods” cycle associated with Suibne Geilt had its origins in Strathclyde, where Irish and Brythonic literature must have been in contact at an early date; this mixture of hagiography, saga, and nature material was one of the most attractive stories of the later period.

The earliest didactic writings, Irish in language but in content mostly of Latin origin, comprised monastic rules, homilies, and hagiography. The lives of the saints were mainly works of fantasy, increasingly incorporating elements from folklore and saga material. The emphasis was always on the miraculous, but they are valuable as social documents. Another important genre of religious work was the vision, exemplified in Fís Adamnáín (The Vision of Adamnan), whose soul is represented as leaving his body for a time to visit heaven and hell under the guidance of an angel. Both the saints’ lives and the visions tended to degenerate into extravagance, so that parodies were composed, notably Aislinge Meic Con Glinne (The Vision of MacConglinne).

Theory has always been important in Irish cultural life, and the fili built up a considerable body of academic speculation. A few surviving fragments discuss the nature of inspiration and the origin of language, with practical instruction on matters of metrics and style. Early on, a technical vocabulary was built up to deal with Latin, as well as Irish, grammar. In several ancient texts discussion of the art of the poet was mixed with questions relating to his legal status.


Middle period

The 12th century was a period of contradictions. While the oldest surviving codices were being written in monasteries, fairly faithfully preserving the much earlier literature, a new literary order elaborated verse forms to a far greater extent than before and used a language close to the vernacular of the day. After the 12th century the hereditary bardic families became custodians of Irish literature and continued in that function until the collapse of the Gaelic polity. At first completely divorced from ecclesiastical influence, they soon were sending their sons into the recently introduced orders, above all to the Franciscans, who were to become by the end of this period the greatest custodians of the tradition.

Bardic verse

The bardic reform of verse was sweeping. The language was modernized, the large number of metres used by the fili was greatly reduced, and greater rhythmic control and ornamentation were required. The scope of the verse narrowed; the bulk was poetry praising the poet’s patron or God. No longer associated with monastic foundations, the bards, who trained for six or seven years, confidently looked to patrons to secure their living. One of the earliest poets of the great bardic family of Ó Dálaigh, Muireadhach Albanach, left a fine elegy on the death of his wife, as well as a stirring defense of his action in killing a tax collector. The courtly love themes, introduced into Irish literature by the Norman invaders, were used with native bardic wit and felicitous style to produce the enchanting poems called dánta grádha. A different departure from praise poetry was the crosánacht, in which verse was frequently interspersed with humorous or satirical prose passages.

The Fenian cycle

Most native prose of this period was concerned with the hero Finn and his war band (fian). Stories about Finn, Oisín, Caoilte, and the rest must have existed among the people for many centuries. The outstanding work was Agallamh na Seanórach (“The Interrogation of the Old Men”), written in the 12th century, in which Caoilte is represented as surviving the Battle of Gabhra and living on to accompany Patrick through Ireland. The Fenian stories never received such careful literary treatment as did those of the Ulster cycle, and the old form was soon abandoned for prose tales and ballads, which may be regarded as the beginnings of popular, as opposed to professional, literature in Irish. The metres represented a drastic simplification of the bardic technique, and a distinct change in theme occurred as this literature passed into the hands of the people.


Dallán Forgaill

flourished 6th century ad

chief Irish poet of his time, probably the author of the Amra Choluim Chille, or Elegy of St. Columba, one of the earliest Irish poems of any length. The poem was composed after St. Columba’s death in 597 in the alliterative, accentual poetic form of the period, in stanzas of irregular length. It has survived in the language of later transcripts; its earliest extant copies are in The Book of the Dun Cow (c. 1100) and in the Liber hymnorum, a collection of Irish and Latin hymns begun in 860. The obscure text is accompanied by extensive glosses and commentary.

Nothing certain is known of Dallán Forgaill’s life. According to the preface to the Elegy, he met St. Columba at the assembly of Druim Cetta in 575, when the saint successfully defended the filid (professional bards) against charges of demanding excessive payment. He reputedly died as a result of leading the filid in their demands at a later assembly.


The Book of the Dun Cow

Irish Lebor na h-Uidreor Leabhar na h-Uidhri

oldest surviving miscellaneous manuscript in Irish literature, so called because the original vellum upon which it was written was supposedly taken from the hide of the famous cow of St. Ciarán of Clonmacnoise. Compiled about 1100 by learned Irish monks at the monastery of Clonmacnoise from older manuscripts and oral tradition, the book is a collection of factual material and legends that date mainly from the 8th and 9th centuries; it is interspersed with religious texts. It contains a partial text of The Cattle Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cuailnge), the longest tale of the Old Irish Ulster cycle and the one that most nearly approaches epic stature, as well as other descriptions of the conflict between Ulster and Connaught. The book also includes a poem praising St. Columba, credited to Dallán Forgaill; a poem on winter, ascribed to Finn MacCumhail, the legendary hero of the Fenian cycle; historical accounts of Mongan, an Ulster king of the 7th century, and of the Battle of Cnucha; and the story of the court of Dá Derga, an Irish romantic saga.


The Book of Leinster

Irish Leabhar Laighneach

compilation of Irish verse and prose from older manuscripts and oral tradition and from 12th- and 13th-century religious and secular sources. It was tentatively identified in 1907 and finally in 1954 as the Lebar na Núachongbála (“The Book of Noughval”), which was thought lost; thus it is not the book formerly known as The Book of Leinster or The Book of Glendalough and by various Irish titles. Ascribed to Áed Hún Crimthaind, the abbot of Tír-dá-glas (Terryglass, Tipperary), the work is notable for its calligraphy.

The Book of Leinster was written about 1160, completed sometime between 1201 and 1224, and is one of the most important extant Middle Irish collections, especially for the period before the Normans came to Ireland in the second half of the 12th century. It contains historical and genealogical poems, mainly on Leinster kings and heroes, mythological and historical accounts of invasions and battles, descriptive prose and verse topographical lists giving the history and etymology of nearly 200 place-names, treatises on bardic and Greek metres, Latin hymns, a version of the hero tale The Cattle Raid of Cooley, and the oldest version of The Tragic Death of the Sons of Usnech (the legend of Deirdre).


The Cattle Raid of Cooley

Irish Táin bó Cuailnge

Old Irish epiclike tale that is the longest of the Ulster cycle of hero tales and deals with the conflict between Ulster and Connaught over possession of the brown bull of Cooley. The tale was composed in prose with verse passages in the 7th and 8th centuries. It is partially preserved in The Book of the Dun Cow (c. 1100) and is also found in The Book of Leinster (c. 1160) and The Yellow Book of Lecan (late 14th century). Although it contains passages of lively narrative and witty dialogue, it is not a coherent work of art, and its text has been marred by revisions and interpolations. It has particular value for the literary historian in that the reworkings provide a record of the degeneration of Irish style; for example, the bare prose of the earlier passages is later replaced by bombast and alliteration, and ruthless humour becomes sentimentality.

The tale’s plot is as follows. Medb (Maeve), the warrior queen of Connaught, disputes with her husband, Ailill, over their respective wealth. Because possession of the white-horned bull guarantees Ailill’s superiority, Medb resolves to secure the even-more-famous brown bull of Cooley from the Ulstermen. Although Medb is warned of impending doom by a prophetess, the Connaught army proceeds to Ulster. The Ulster warriors are temporarily disabled by a curse, but Cú Chulainn, the youthful Ulster champion, is exempt from the curse and single-handedly holds off the Connaughtmen. The climax of the fighting is a three-day combat between Cú Chulainn and Fer Díad, his friend and foster brother, who is in exile and fighting with the Connaught forces. Cú Chulainn is victorious, and, nearly dead from wounds and exhaustion, he is joined by the Ulster army, which routs the enemy. The brown bull, however, has been captured by Connaught and defeats Ailill’s white-horned bull, after which peace is made.

The tale’s loose construction has preserved intact a few outstanding dramatic episodes, such as Medb’s dialogue with the soothsayer and Cú Chulainn’s dealings with the Connaught scouts. Undoubtedly the finest section is that in which Fergus, an exile from Ulster at the Connaught court, recalls for Medb and Ailill the heroic deeds of Cú Chulainn’s youth.

The Vision of Adamnán

Irish Fís Adamnáín

in the Gaelic literature of Ireland, one of the earliest and most outstanding medieval Irish visions. This graceful prose work dates from the 10th century and is preserved in the later The Book of the Dun Cow (c. 1100). Patterned after pagan voyages (immrama) to the otherworld, The Vision of Adamnán vividly describes the journey of Adamnán’s soul—guided by an angel—first through a delightful, fragrance-filled heaven, through the seven stages through which a sinful soul passes to reach perfection, and then through the monster-ridden Land of Torment. The work is often attributed, erroneously, to St. Adamnan, the abbot of Iona.

The Interrogation of the Old Men

Irish Agallamh Na Seanórach, also called Dialogue of the Ancients or Colloquy of the Ancients

in Irish literature, the preeminent tale of the Old Irish Fenian cycle of heroic tales. The “old men” are the Fenian poets Oisín (Ossian) and Caoilte, who, having survived the destruction of their comrades at the Battle of Gabhra, return to Ireland from the timeless Land of Youth (Tír na nÓg) to discover they have been gone 300 years. They meet St. Patrick, who interrogates them about the deeds of Finn MacCumhaill (MacCool) and the heroes of the past. Oisín joins his mother in a fairy mound; Caoilte travels with St. Patrick throughout Ireland, recounting the legends, history, and myths associated with each place they visit, while St. Patrick’s scribe Brogan records the tales. This framework combines the traditional Irish Dinnsheanchas (“Histories of Places”) with heroic legend and folklore. St. Patrick’s delight in the tales and his desire to record them confirm the sympathetic attitude of monastic scribes to the pagan past.

The Interrogation was probably compiled from older sources and oral tradition by a single author in about 1200. Preserved in the 16th-century manuscript The Book of the Dean of Lismore, it is written in prose with verse passages that later gave rise to the Ossianic ballads.


Other prose

Stories popular with the fili steadily dropped out of favour. Sometimes they were combined with folktale elements, as was the case with the very old saga of Fergus mac Léti, which was rewritten, perhaps in the 14th century, to include a story of a people of tiny stature—the leprechauns. Most important of all, a flood of translations from Latin and English began. The stories of Marco Polo, Sir John Mandeville, Prester John, and Guy of Warwick, as well as classical and Arthurian stories in their medieval adaptations, became well known in Ireland. The new religious orders translated many spiritual and devotional works, and the churchmen made the experiment, remarkable for the time, of handling philosophical material in the vernacular. There was also much technical writing, especially on grammar and metrics. Continental teaching seems to have superseded the native tradition during this period.

Sir John Mandeville

flourished 14th century

purported author of a collection of travelers’ tales from around the world, The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Knight, generally known as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. The tales are selections from the narratives of genuine travelers, embellished with Mandeville’s additions and described as his own adventures.

The actual author of the tales remains as uncertain as the existence of the English knight Sir John Mandeville himself. The book originated in French about 1356–57 and was soon translated into many languages, an English version appearing about 1375. The narrator Mandeville identifies himself as a knight of St. Albans. Incapacitated by arthritic gout, he has undertaken to stave off boredom by writing of his travels, which began on Michaelmas Day (September 29) 1322, and from which he returned in 1356. The 14th-century chronicler Jean d’Outremeuse of Liège claimed that he knew the book’s true author, a local physician named Jean de Bourgogne, and scholars afterward speculated that d’Outremeuse himself wrote the book. Modern historical research debunked the d’Outremeuse tradition but has yielded few more positive conclusions, and the actual author of the Travels remains unknown.

It is not certain whether the book’s true author ever traveled at all, since he selected his materials almost entirely from the encyclopaedias and travel books available to him, including those by William of Boldensele and Friar Odoric of Pordenone. The author enriched these itineraries with accounts of the history, customs, religions, and legends of the regions visited, culled from his remarkably wide reading, transforming and enlivening the originals by his literary skill and genuine creative imagination. The lands that he describes include the realm of Prester John, the land of darkness, and the abode of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, all legendary. Although in his time “Mandeville” was famous as the greatest traveler of the Middle Ages, in the ensuing age of exploration he lost his reputation as a truthful narrator. His book, notwithstanding, has always been popular and remains extremely readable.

Prester John

also called Presbyter John, or John The Elder,

legendary Christian ruler of the East, popularized in medieval chronicles and traditions as a hoped-for ally against the Muslims. Believed to be a Nestorian (i.e., a member of an independent Eastern Christian Church that did not accept the authority of the patriarch of Constantinople) and a king-priest reigning “in the Far East beyond Persia and Armenia,” Prester John was the centre of a number of legends that harked back to the writings of “John the Elder” in the New Testament.

The legend arose during the period of the Crusades (late 11th–13th century), when European Christians hoped to regain the Holy Land (Palestine) from the Muslims. In 1071 Jerusalem had been conquered by the Seljuq Turks. Based on a report about Prester John by Bishop Hugh of Gebal in Syria (modern Jubayl, Lebanon) in 1145 to the papal court at Viterbo, Italy, the story was first recorded by Bishop Otto of Freising, Ger., in his Chronicon (1145). According to this, John, a wealthy and powerful “priest and king,” reputedly a lineal descendant of the Magi who had visited the Christ child, defeated the Muslim kings of Persia in battle, stormed their capital at Ecbatana, and intended to proceed to Jerusalem but was impeded in the last goal because of difficulties in crossing the Tigris River. The battle referred to by Hugh may have been that fought at Qatwan, Persia, in 1141, when the Mongol khan Yeh-lü Ta-shih, the founder of the Karakitai empire in Central Asia, defeated the Seljuq sultan Sanjar. The title of the Karakitai rulers was Gur-khan, or Kor-khan, which may have been changed phonetically in Hebrew to Yoḥanan or, in Syriac, to Yuḥanan, thus producing the Latin Johannes, or John. Though the Gur-khans were Mongol Buddhists, many of their leading subjects were Nestorians, and according to a report by the Franciscan missionary Willem van Ruysbroeck in 1235, the daughter of the last Gur-khan and wife of King Küchlüg of the Naiman, a Central Asian people, was a Christian. Küchlüg, whose father’s name was Ta-yang Khan (Great King John in Chinese), was defeated by the great Mongol ruler Genghis Khan in 1218. In 1221, Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre in Palestine, and Cardinal Pelagius, a Western churchman accompanying crusaders at Damietta in Egypt, reported to Rome information about a Muslim defeat by a certain King David of India, the son or grandson of Prester John. This King David probably was none other than Genghis Khan. Because of rumours, lack of reliable information, or wishful thinking on the part of European Christians, the historical events, personages of the period, and geographical areas involved became interwoven into the legend of Prester John.

A 13th-century chronicler, Alberic de Trois-Fontaines, recorded that in 1165, a letter was sent by Prester John to several European rulers, especially Manuel I Comnenus, the Byzantine emperor, and Frederick I Barbarossa, the Holy Roman emperor. A literary fiction, the letter was in Latin and was translated into various languages, including Hebrew and Old Slavonic. Though addressed to the Byzantine (Greek) emperor, no Greek text of the letter is known; and its anti-Byzantine bias is demonstrated by the Byzantine emperor’s being addressed as “governor of the Romans,” rather than “emperor.” In the letter, the realm of Prester John, “the three Indies,” is described as a land of natural riches, marvels, peace, and justice administered by a court of archbishops, priors, and kings. Preferring the simple title presbyter, John declared that he intended to come to Palestine with his armies to battle with the Muslims and regain the Holy Sepulchre, the burial place of Jesus. The letter notes that John is the guardian of the shrine of St. Thomas, the apostle to India, at Mylapore, India.

In response to an embassy from Prester John, Pope Alexander III sent a reply in 1177 to John, “the illustrious and magnificent king of the Indies and a beloved son of Christ.” The fate of this letter is unknown, though its intent probably was to gain support for Alexander in his controversies with Barbarossa. In the 13th and 14th centuries various missionaries and lay travelers, such as Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, Giovanni da Montecorvino, and Marco Polo, all searching for the kingdom of Prester John, established direct contact between the West and the Mongols.

After the mid-14th century, Ethiopia became the centre of the search for the kingdom of Prester John, who was identified with the negus (emperor) of that African Christian nation. The legend, however, locates Prester John in Asia, especially in Nestorian areas.

Guy of Warwick

English hero of romance whose story was popular in France and England from the 13th to the 17th century and was told in English broadside ballads as late as the 19th century. The kernel of the story is a single combat in which Guy defeats Colbrand (a champion of the invading Danish kings Anlaf and Gonelaph), thereby delivering Winchester from Danish dominion. The Anlaf of the story is probably the Norwegian king Olaf I Tryggvason, who, with Sven Forkbeard of Denmark, harried the southern counties of England in 993 and pitched his winter quarters at Southampton. Although the romance of Guy perhaps was inspired by some historical incident, Winchester was not in fact saved by the valour of an English champion but by the payment of money.

The earliest French version of the tale probably dates from the 12th century; 13th-century versions survive in French and Anglo-Norman manuscripts. Four versions survive in English, as translations from the French or Anglo-Norman, the two earliest dating from about 1300. One of these has an appended sequel concerning Guy’s son Reinbrun.

The strong religious interest of the legend as it survives makes it likely that it had passed through monastic hands. The romance is not distinguished by unity of structure or by grace of style and probably owed its popularity to its combined secular and religious elements, furthered in England by its patriotic appeal.


By the end of the 15th century the printing press began to make literature available to larger numbers in most European countries. In Ireland, however, literature remained for some time the preserve of those who could afford to maintain the writers and supply their costly vellum.

Late periodThe dispossession of the Irish and the old Anglo-Irish nobility during the late 16th and early 17th centuries entailed the practical disappearance of the professional bards, who were the nobility’s dependents and propagandists. With their elimination the old order was doomed, and the Irish language itself began its long process of decay.

Hardly any correct bardic verse was written in Ireland after 1650, but new poets took over from the bards. And just as the bardic measures had been in preparation for centuries before they established themselves as canonical, so the song metres that replaced them had existed for centuries among the people. The new poets abandoned the syllable-measured lines for lines with a fixed number of stresses; the stressed vowels rhymed in patterns that might be very simple or, later, bewilderingly intricate, but simple vocalic assonance took the place of earlier rhyme. The language of poetry moved toward that of the people. While poets had little patronage, there was at least an increasing supply of paper, so that their works, still barred from the printing press, were able to circulate. The tone of verse throughout the 17th century was passionately defiant of the new regime. In it is found the first coherent expression of patriotism conceived as devotion to an abstract ideal rather than as loyalty to an individual, but much of the verse represents a mere nostalgia for the past.

The greatest poets of the song metres were Dáibhidh Ó Bruadair, one of the last poets to enjoy some patronage, and Aodhagán Ó Rathoille whose aisling (vision) poems made the genre popular. After them the poetic tradition was maintained into the 19th century by peasant poets who, although not lacking in subtlety of craftsmanship, and occasionally vigorous in satire, had none of the advantages and only a few of the virtues of their predecessors.

During the 17th century valuable antiquarian prose was produced. The most important is Annála Ríoghachta éireann (completed 1636; “Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland”; Eng. trans., Annals of the Four Masters), a compilation of all available material on the history of Ireland to 1616, directed by Michael O’Clery. Geoffrey Keating produced the first historical (as opposed to annalistic) work in his Foras Feasa ar éirinn (written c. 1640; History of Ireland) as well as some fine verse in both old and new metres and two spiritual treatises.

Michael O’Clery

born 1575, Kilbarron, County Donegal, Ire.
died 1643, Leuven, Brabant [now in Belgium]

Irish chronicler who directed the compilation of the Annála Ríoghachta Éireann (Annals of the Four Masters, 1636), a chronicle of Irish history from antiquity to 1616, a work of incalculable importance to Irish scholarship.

He was baptized Tadhg but took the name Michael when he entered the Franciscan convent at Leuven. As he was learned in Irish history and literature, Hugh Macanward, the warden of the college, sent him back to Ireland in 1620 to collect manuscripts. Assisted by other Irish scholars, he began to collect and to transcribe everything of importance he could find. The results were the Réim Rioghroidhe (1630; The Royal List), a list of kings, their successions, and their pedigrees, with lives and genealogies of saints; the Leabhar Gabhála (1631; Book of Invasions), an account of the successive settlements of Ireland; and the famous Annals. At first a mere record of names, dates, and battles, with occasional quotations from ancient sources, the Annals begin to take on the character of modern literary history as they approach the author’s own time. O’Clery also produced a martyrology of Irish saints, an Irish glossary, and other works.

An interesting development in prose style was the satire Páirliment Chloinne Tomáis (“Parliament of Clan Thomas”). It appears to be by a representative of the bardic order, for it attacked with equal savagery the new ruling class and the native peasantry, using a style close to that of the earlier crosánacht but with prose predominating over verse. It found several imitators, but the old tradition was by this time too attenuated for so aristocratic an attitude to be maintained. Imaginative prose was more popular; it consisted of developments of Fenian or romance themes from Irish and foreign medieval literature mingled with elements of folklore and of the fabliau (a short metrical tale). As in the case of the song metres, these romances had a considerable tradition before they appeared in writing. But as the public for Irish became smaller, there was little hope for much prose production.

The 18th century is a low point in Irish Gaelic literature. The last great flowering of the poetic tradition in Munster was Cúirt an Mheadhon Oidhche (written 1780, published 1904; The Midnight Court) by Brian Merriman, a Clare schoolmaster. After it, Irish poetry became a matter of folk songs.

During the 18th and early 19th centuries the only books in Irish prose were catechisms and devotional tracts. The manuscript tradition was carried on by a few scribes into the first half of the 19th century, when it all but died out. By the mid-19th century there was little literary activity in Irish, and almost all Irish speakers were illiterate.

The Gaelic revival

Ironically, it was English-speaking antiquarians and nationalists from the small educated class, rather than the Irish-speaking minority, who led the 19th-century revival, which in turn was stimulated by the Romantic movement’s interest in Celtic subjects.

The rich vocabulary and idiomatic expressions and the wealth of folklore and folktales of the Irish-speaking districts (gaeltachts) gradually were acknowledged. Folklore collectors such as Douglas Hyde were able to restore some sense of pride in the language. The revivalists even succeeded in securing for Irish a modest place in the country’s educational system.

But the revivalists were faced with a language of diverse dialects, and standardization was only effected in the mid-20th century with the help of new grammars, adequate dictionaries, and government support and direction. Writers whose Irish was rich and vigorous were persuaded that the reading public needed not more folklore but a literature that could compete internationally. Among the pioneers in this field were Patrick Pearse and Pádraic Ó Conaire, who introduced the modern short story into Irish. The short story flourished in the hands of Liam O’Flaherty and Máirtín Ó Cadhain, who also produced an outstanding novel, Cré na Cille (1953; “Churchyard Dust”). In verse the work of Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Máirtín Ó Direáin, and Seán Ó Ríordáin is impressive, and in their shadow a new generation of young poets, some of considerable talent, has grown up. Indeed, there is no lack of literary activity, as the two literary periodicals, Comhar (“Cooperation”) and Feasta (“Henceforth”), eloquently testify.

In drama Brendan Behan’s An Giall (1957; The Hostage) stands out, but Seán Ó Tuama, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, Diarmaid Ó Súilleabháin, and Criostóir Ó Floinn also have written fine plays and have contributed in other genres. However, the drama in Irish cannot be said to have created for itself the following attracted by the Anglo-Irish theatre in its heyday under the influence of Yeats and Synge.

Literary criticism of distinction has developed also, and Seán Ó Tuama, Tomás Ó Floinn, and Breandán Ó Doibhlin have produced essays of high standard.

The most valuable contribution made by the gaeltachts has been a series of personal reminiscences describing local life. One of the best is Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s An tOileánach (1929; The Islandman). At one time the gaeltacht memoirs threatened to become a vogue and inspired the brilliant satirical piece An Béal Bocht (1941; The Poor Mouth) by Flann O’Brien (pseudonym of Brian Ó Nualláin). Less characteristic but perhaps no less valuable have been the autobiographies written in Irish. Together with the spate of scholarly biographies in Irish, some on literary or semiliterary figures, they show how the revival has increased its range and depth.

Douglas Hyde

Irish Dubhighlas de Hide; pseudonym An Craoibhín Aoibhinn

born January 17, 1860, Frenchpark, County Roscommon, Ire.
died July 12, 1949, Dublin

distinguished Gaelic scholar and writer and first president of the Republic of Ireland (Éire). He was the outstanding figure in the struggle for the preservation and extension of the Irish language from 1893, when he founded the Gaelic League (a nationalistic organization of Roman Catholics and Protestants), until 1922, when the founding of the Irish Free State accorded the Irish language equal status with English.

In 1884 Hyde was graduated from Trinity College in Dublin, where he first studied ancient Gaelic. He became the first professor of modern Irish at University College, Dublin, in 1909 and held the chair until his retirement in 1932. His most important works of scholarship are The Love Songs of Connacht (1893) and A Literary History of Ireland (1899). Other works include The Bursting of the Bubble and Other Irish Plays (1905) and Legends of Saints and Sinners (1915).

During this period of academic work, he largely avoided political activity. He resigned the presidency of the Gaelic League in 1915, when it became clear that it had become a separatist organization. Later, however, he served for a short time as a member of the Senate of the Irish Free State. In 1937, when a new constitution created the office of president of Ireland, Hyde was the unanimous choice of all parties and was elected unopposed for a seven-year term.

Patrick Pearse

born November 10, 1879, Dublin, Ire.
died May 3, 1916, Dublin

leader of Irish nationalism and Irish poet and educator. He was the first president of the provisional government of the Irish Republic proclaimed in Dublin on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, and was commander in chief of the Irish forces in the anti-British uprising that began on the same day.

The son of an English sculptor and his Irish wife, Pearse became a director of the Gaelic League (founded 1893 for the preservation of the Irish language) and edited (1903–09) its weekly newspaper, An Claidheamh Soluis (“The Sword of Light”). To promote further the Irish language as a weapon against British domination, he published tales from old Irish manuscripts and a collection (1914) of his own poems in the modern Irish idiom. He founded St. Enda’s College, near Dublin (1908), as a bilingual institution with its teaching based on Irish traditions and culture.

On the formation (November 1913) of the Irish Volunteers as a counterforce against the Ulster Volunteers (militant supporters of the Anglo-Irish union), Pearse became a member of their provisional committee, and he contributed poems and articles to their newspaper, The Irish Volunteer. In July 1914 he was made a member of the supreme council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). After the Irish Volunteers split (September 1914), he became a leader of the more extreme Nationalist section, which opposed any support for Great Britain in World War I. He came to believe that the blood of martyrs would be required to liberate Ireland, and on that theme he delivered a famous oration at the burial (August 1915) of Jeremiah O’Donovan, known as O’Donovan Rossa, a veteran of Sinn Féin.

As an IRB supreme council member, Pearse helped to plan (January 1916) the Easter Rising. On Easter Monday he proclaimed the provisional government of the Irish Republic from the steps of Dublin General Post Office. On April 29, when the revolt was crushed, he surrendered to the British. After a court-martial, he was shot by a firing squad. More than any other man, Pearse was responsible for establishing the republican tradition in Ireland.

Pearse’s Collected Works appeared in 1917–22 (3 vol.) and again in 1924 (5 vol.), and his Political Writings and Speeches in 1952.

Liam O’Flaherty

born Aug. 28, 1896, Inishmore, Aran Islands, County Galway, Ire.
died Sept. 7, 1984, Dublin

Irish novelist and short-story writer whose works combine brutal naturalism, psychological analysis, poetry, and biting satire with an abiding respect for the courage and persistence of the Irish people. He was considered to be a leading figure of the Irish Renaissance.

O’Flaherty abandoned his training for the priesthood and embarked on a varied career as a soldier in World War I and an international wanderer in South America, Canada, the United States, and the Middle East. He laboured in such occupations as lumberjack, hotel porter, miner, factory worker, dishwasher, bank clerk, and deckhand. After taking part in revolutionary activities in Ireland, O’Flaherty settled in England in 1922; he returned to Dublin in the mid-1920s. His books include Thy Neighbour’s Wife (1923), his successful first novel; The Black Soul (1924), the story of a tormented former soldier who seeks tranquillity on a remote western isle; The Informer (1925; adapted as an Oscar-winning film by John Ford, 1935), about a confused revolutionary who betrays his friend during the Irish “troubles”; Skerrett (1932), a critically acclaimed story of conflict between a parish priest and a teacher; Famine (1937), a re-creation of the effect of the Irish famine of the 1840s on the individuals of a small community; Short Stories (1937; rev. ed. 1956); Insurrection (1950), a novel dealing with the Easter Rising of 1916; The Pedlar’s Revenge and Other Stories (1976); as well as several other novels and collections of short stories. His autobiography, Shame the Devil, was published in 1934.

Brendan Behan

born Feb. 9, 1923, Dublin, Ire.
died March 20, 1964, Dublin

Irish author noted for his earthy satire and powerful political commentary.

Reared in a family active in revolutionary and left-wing causes against the British, Behan at the age of eight began what became a lifelong battle with alcoholism. After leaving school in 1937, he learned the house-painter’s trade while concurrently participating in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as a courier.

Behan was arrested in England while on a sabotage mission and sentenced (February 1940) to three years in a reform school at Hollesley Bay, Suffolk. He wrote an autobiographical account of this detention in Borstal Boy (1958). He was deported to Dublin in 1942 and was soon involved in a shooting incident in which a policeman was wounded. He was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 14 years. He served at Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, the setting of his first play, The Quare Fellow (1954), and later at the Curragh Military Camp, County Kildare, from which he was released under a general amnesty in 1946. While imprisoned, he perfected his Irish, the language he used for his delicately sensitive poetry and for An Giall (1957), the initial version of his second play, The Hostage (1958).

Subsequent arrests followed, either for revolutionary activities or for drunkenness, which also forced various hospitalizations. In 1948 Behan went to Paris to write. Returning to Dublin in 1950, he wrote short stories and scripts for Radio Telefis Éireann and sang on a continuing program, Ballad Maker’s Saturday Night. In 1953 he began in the Irish Press a column about Dublin, later collected (1963) in Hold Your Hour and Have Another, with illustrations by his wife, Beatrice Salkeld, whom he had married in 1955.

The Quare Fellow opened at the small Pike Theatre, Dublin, in 1954 and was an instant success. A tragicomedy concerning the reactions of jailors and prisoners to the hanging of a condemned man (the “quare fellow”), it presents an explosive statement on capital punishment. The play was subsequently performed in London (1956) and in New York City (1958). The Hostage, however, is considered to be his masterwork, in which ballads, slapstick, and fantasies satirize social conditions and warfare with a personal gaiety that emerges from anguish. The play deals with the tragic situation of an English soldier whom the IRA holds as a hostage in a brothel to prevent the execution of one of their own men. A success in London, the play opened in 1960 off Broadway, New York City, where Behan became a celebrated personality.

Behan’s last works, which he dictated on tape, were Brendan Behan’s Island (1962), a book of Irish anecdotes; The Scarperer (1964), a novel about a smuggling adventure, first published serially in the Irish Press; Brendan Behan’s New York (1964); and Confessions of an Irish Rebel (1965), further memoirs.

Flann O’Brien

born Oct. 5, 1911, Strabane, County Tyrone, Ire.
died April 1, 1966, Dublin

Irish novelist, dramatist, and, as Myles na gCopaleen, a columnist for the Irish Times newspaper for 26 years.

O’Brien was educated in Dublin and later became a civil servant while also pursuing his writing career. He is most celebrated for his unusual novel At Swim-Two-Birds, which, though it was first published in 1939, achieved fame only after its republication in 1960. At Swim-Two-Birds is a rich literary experiment that combines Irish folklore, heroic legend, humour, and poetry in a style replete with linguistic games; on its publication it garnered praise from, among others, the experimental Irish novelist James Joyce. O’Brien’s brilliant parody of Gaelic literature, An Béal Bocht (1941), was translated as The Poor Mouth in 1973. His novels The Hard Life (1961) and The Dalkey Archive (1964; adapted as a play, When the Saints Go Cycling In, performed 1965), though written on a smaller scale than his masterpiece, are thought equally amusing. Another novel, The Third Policeman (1967), is more sombre in tone. Under the pen name Myles na gCopaleen, O’Brien wrote a satirical column for the Irish Times that drew worldwide acclaim for its incisive humour and use of parody. His journalism was republished in several collections, most notably The Best of Myles (1968).

Scottish Gaelic

Writings of the medieval period

The earliest extant Scottish Gaelic writing consists of marginalia added in the 12th century to the Latin Gospels contained in the 9th-century Book of Deer. The most important early Gaelic literary manuscript is The Book of the Dean of Lismore, an anthology of verse compiled between 1512 and 1526 by Sir James MacGregor, dean of Lismore (Argyllshire), and his brother Duncan. Its poems fall into three main groups: those by Scottish authors, those by Irish authors, and ballads concerned with Ossian, the mythical warrior and bard. This is the earliest extensive anthology of heroic Gaelic ballads in either Scotland or Ireland. The Scottish Gaelic poems date from about 1310 to 1520. The bard best represented is Fionnlagh Ruadh, bard to John, chief of clan Gregor (died 1519). There are three poems by Giolla Coluim mac an Ollaimh, a professional poet at the court of the Lord of the Isles and almost certainly a member of the MacMhuirich bardic family, the famous line of hereditary bards whose work spans nearly 500 years from the 13th to the 18th century. Perhaps the most notable of the other poets is Giolla Críost Brúilingeach and two women, Aithbhreac Inghean Coirceadail and Isabella, countess of Argyll.

The Book of Deer

illuminated manuscript written in Latin, probably in the 9th century, at a monastery founded by St. Columba at Deer Abbey (now in Aberdeenshire, Scotland) and containing 12th-century additions in Latin and an early form of Scottish Gaelic. The Book of Deer includes the whole of the New Testament Gospel of St. John and parts of the other three Gospels, an early version of the Apostles’ Creed, and a later charter granted to the monks by King David I of Scotland. The illuminations—capitals, borders, and pictures of the Evangelists—resemble those in earlier Irish Gospels. The version of the Gospels is that used in Ireland (combining the Vulgate with earlier readings): the manuscript is clearly a careless transcript of a corrupt text. It was discovered in 1860 in the library of the University of Cambridge.

The 12th-century Gaelic memorandums (the earliest extant Gaelic written in Scotland) provide information on a little-known period of Scottish history—the end of the Celtic period. They give details of clan organization, land divisions, and monastic land tenure and an account of the monastery’s foundation.

The Book of the Dean of Lismore

miscellany of Scottish and Irish poetry, the oldest collection of Gaelic poetry extant in Scotland. It was compiled between 1512 and 1526, chiefly by Sir James MacGregor, the dean of Lismore (now in Argyll and Bute council area), and his brother Duncan.

The manuscript, which is preserved in the National Library of Scotland, begins with a fragmentary Latin genealogy of MacGregor chiefs and contains the Chronicle of Fortingall to 1579 and a Latin list of Scottish kings to 1542. It concludes with a series of heroic tales and ballads from both the Ulster (Ulaid) cycle and Fenian cycle of Irish legend, and it also contains miscellaneous poems by 44 Scottish and 21 Irish authors. The poems are written in literary Gaelic, in spelling based on vernacular usage, with phonetic additions to the Gaelic alphabet, probably common in part of the Scottish Highlands.

Continuation of the oral tradition

Some 16th-century Gaelic poetry survived in oral tradition until the mid-18th century, when it was written down. Examples are An Duanag Ullamh (“The Finished Poem”), composed in honour of Archibald Campbell, 4th earl of Argyll, and the lovely lament Griogal Cridhe (“Teasing Heart”; c. 1570). It is certain that the poetry recorded in The Book of the Dean of Lismore was not an isolated outburst; much professional and popular poetry must have been lost. Songs in the nonsyllabic, accented measures survived, again orally, from the early 17th century. This was the tradition that produced the work songs—e.g., waulking songs used when fulling cloth.

In 1567 appeared the first book printed in Gaelic in Scotland: Bishop John Carswell’s Foirm na n-Urrnuidheadh a translation of John Knox’s liturgy, in Classical Common Gaelic.

The 17th century

This period was the high point of Scottish Gaelic literature. The political, ecclesiastical, and social structures of Scotland were changing as was the relationship between the central government and the Gaelic area. Enough Gaelic poetry survives to show that there were many poets of great talent, and the diffusion of artistic talent is scarcely matched in any other period in Scottish Gaelic history. It was the great age of the work songs and of the classical bagpipe music. Some of the poetry and prose was contained in three 17th-century manuscripts. The first two were the Black Book of Clanranald and the Red Book of Clanranald, written by members of the MacMhuirich family, who were latterly hereditary bards to the MacDonalds of Clanranald. They were probably written for the most part in the 17th century but contained poems by earlier representatives of the family. The other important document was the Fernaig manuscript, compiled between 1688 and 1693, containing about 4,200 lines of verse, mostly political and religious.

The two best known poets of the 17th century were Mary MacLeod and Iain Lom. The former, known as Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh, was closely associated with the MacLeods of Harris and Dunvegan. Her poems show deep personal emotion, and her style is fresh and natural. She inherited the imagery of the bardic poets but placed it in a new setting, and her metres were strophic (having repeating patterns of lines) rather than strictly syllabic. John Macdonald, known as Iain Lom, took an active part in the events of his time. His life spanned an eventful period in Highland history, and his poetry reflected this. He composed poems about the battles of Inverlochy and Killiecrankie, a lament for the Marquess of Montrose, a poem on the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, several poems dealing with the Keppoch murder of 1663, and a song bitterly opposing the union of the Parliaments in 1707. His versification had a compression and concentration not often found in later Gaelic poetry.

Mary MacLeod

born 1569, Rowdil, Harris, Inverness, Scot.
died 1674, Dunvegan, Skye

Scottish Gaelic poet who is a major representative of the emergent 17th-century poetical school, which gradually supplanted the classical Gaelic bards.

Macleod’s poetry is written in simple, natural rhythms and incorporates much of the imagery of the bardic poets. It mainly deals with the heroic exploits of the Macleod family and expresses her deep emotional attachment to the family. She spent most of her life at the Macleod household of Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye, acting as nurse to successive generations of chieftains. Only a few of her poems survive; among these, her tender and nostalgic elegies for the dead Macleods are notable for their fresh style and sincerity of feeling.

Other noteworthy 17th-century poets include Donnchadh MacRaoiridh, whose best-known poem consists of four calm, resigned verses composed on the day of his death; Alasdair MacKenzie and his son Murdo Mackenzie; and Roderick Morison, known as An Clarsair Dall (the Blind Harper), who became harper to Iain Breac MacLeod of Dunvegan. The strong texture and poetic intensity of Morison’s Oran do Iain Breac MacLeòid (“Song to Iain MacLeod”) and his Creach na Ciadaoin (“Wednesday’s Bereavement”) are remarkable. Dorothy Brown and Sìleas na Ceapaich were women poets of great talent.

Four other poets mark the transition from the poetry of the 17th century to that of the 18th: Lachlan MacKinnon (Lachlann Mac Thearlaich Oig); John Mackay (Am Pìobaire Dall), whose Coire an Easa (“The Waterfall Corrie”) was significant in the development of Gaelic nature poetry; John Macdonald (Iain Dubh Mac Iain ’Ic Ailein), who wrote popular jingles; and John Maclean (Iain Mac Ailein), who showed an interest in early Gaelic legend. Finally, bardic poetry continued to be composed into the 18th century by Niall and Domhnall MacMhuirich.


Developments of the 18th century

Almost no secular poetry in Gaelic was printed before 1751, and most earlier verse was recovered from oral tradition after that date. Much of the inspiration of Gaelic printing in the 18th century can be traced to Alexander Macdonald (Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair), who published a Gaelic vocabulary in 1741 and the first Scottish Gaelic book of secular poetry, Ais-eiridh na Sean Chánain Albannaich (“Resurrection of the Ancient Scottish Tongue”), in 1751. He rallied his fellow Highlanders to Prince Charles Edward’s cause in the ’45 rising with Brosnachadh nam Fineachan Gaidhealach (“Incitement to the Highland Clans”) and a song of welcome to the Prince. His masterpiece, Birlinn Chlann Raghnaill (“The Galley of Clanranald”), is an extravaganza, ostensibly a description of a voyage from South Uist in the Hebrides Isles to Carrickfergus in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. He also composed nature poems, love poems, drinking songs, and satires.

Duncan Ban Macintyre (Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir), who was influenced by Macdonald, had his poems published in 1768. He fought on the Hanoverian side at the Battle of Falkirk and later praised George III in Oran do’n Rìgh (“Song to the King”), but he had been a forester on the Perthshire–Argyllshire borders in early manhood, and this is the setting of his greatest poems, Moladh Beinn Dóbhrainn (The Praise of Ben Dorain) and Oran Coire a Cheathaich (“Song of the Misty Corrie”). His most famous love song is addressed to his wife, Màiri.

Other poets of note in the 18th century included John MacCodrum, author of much humorous and satirical poetry; Robert (called Rob Donn) Mackay, who wrote social satire with a wealth of shrewd and humorous understanding of human nature; and William Ross, the Romantic poet of the group, several of whose best poems, such as Feasgar Luain (“Monday Evening”) and Oran Eile (“Another Song”), were occasioned by an unhappy love affair.

The greatest composer of Gaelic religious verse in the 18th century was Dugald Buchanan, who assisted the Rev. James Stewart of Killin in preparing his Gaelic translation of the New Testament (1767). His Latha à Bhreitheanis (“Day of Judgment”) and An Claigeann (“The Skull”) are impressive and sombre and show considerable imaginative power.

Modern trends and works

Short stories and essays appeared in 19th- and 20th-century periodicals. Alongside these were numerous religious translations from the 17th century onward, including Calvin’s catechism of 1631, Gaelic translations of the Old and New Testaments, Kirk’s Psalter and his Irish version of the Bible, and the 1807 Gaelic Bible. Other translations included works by
John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, Thomas Boston, and Philip Doddridge. Among original prose writers were the Rev. Donald Lamont, Donald Mackechnie, and Angus Robertson. The most notable modern short stories have been written by Colin Mackenzie, John Murray, and Iain Crichton Smith.

Little vital poetry appeared in the 19th century, and a 20th-century movement to free Gaelic poetry from its traditional shackles began with Sorley Maclean, George Campbell Hay, and Derick Thomson. This has been continued by Donald MacAulay and Iain Crichton Smith.


Iain Crichton Smith

Scottish poet, novelist, and playwright who was one of Scotland’s most important writers and lyric poets; writing prolifically in both English and Gaelic, he produced a dozen novels, 11 volumes of short stories, and 17 books of poetry, in addition to stage and radio plays and literary criticism (b. Jan. 1, 1928, Glasgow, Scot.--d. Oct. 15, 1998, Taynuilt, Argyll, Scot.).


Although they succeeded in establishing their language on the Isle of Man, the Gaels lost their hegemony over the island to the Norse in the 9th century and recovered it only from 1266 to 1333, when they lost it again to the English. They were consequently unable to provide there, as they did in Ireland and Scotland, the aristocratic support needed by the bardic institution. This, and the fact that Manx and Scottish Gaelic did not deviate significantly from Irish until the 16th century, explains why no medieval literature specifically identifiable with the island survives, and why such modern literature as exists, apart from translation literature, is predominantly folklore.

The Reformation’s slow progress on the island is reflected in the comparatively late appearance of a Manx translation of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. The latter was completed about 1610 by a Welshman, John Phillips, bishop of Sodor and Man, but it remained unpublished until it was printed in 1893–94 side by side with the 1765 version made by the Manx clergy.

Translating the Bible into Manx was indeed a formidable task because the clergy on whom it fell had but few scholars among them and no literary tradition to draw upon. A start was made in 1748 with the appearance of a Manx version of the Gospel According to St. Matthew. A revision of Matthew and a translation of the other Gospels and of the Acts appeared in 1763, and the remainder of the New Testament in 1767. The translation of the Old Testament was published in two parts: Genesis to Esther in 1771, Job to Malachi with two books of the Apocrypha in 1773.

The Holy Scriptures were not the only religious books to be translated. Bishop Thomas Wilson’s Principles and Duties of Christianity appeared in English and Manx in 1699, and 22 of his sermons appeared in a Manx translation in 1783. More interesting are Pargys Caillit, the paraphrase translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which was published in 1794 and reprinted in 1872, and Coontey ghiare yeh Ellan Vannin (“The Short Account of the Isle of Man”), written in Manx by Joseph Bridson and printed as the 20th volume of the Publications of the Manx Language Society. As late as 1901 there appeared from the press Skeealyn Æsop, a selection of Aesop’s fables.

More characteristic of Manx folk culture were the ballads and carols, or carvels. Among the most notable of the former are an Ossianic ballad describing the fate of Finn’s enemy, Orree; the Manx Traditionary Ballad, a history of the island to the year 1507 made up of a mixture of fact and fiction; and the ballad on the death of Brown William; i.e., William Christian, shot as a traitor in 1663. The carvels differ from English carols because they take as their subject not so much the Nativity as the life of Jesus, his crucifixion, and the Last Judgment. They were sung by individuals in church on Christmas Eve. With the spread of Nonconformity on the island, Manx translations of some of the popular hymns of the Methodist Revival were published.

Welsh literature

The Middle Ages

Welsh literature has extended in an unbroken tradition from about the middle of the 6th century to the present day, but, except for two or three short pieces, all pre-Norman poetry has survived only in 12th- to 15th-century manuscripts. Welsh had developed from the older Brythonic by the middle of the 6th century. In the Historia Brittonum (c. 830) references are made to Welsh poets who, if the synchronism is correct, sang in the 6th century. Works by two of them, Taliesin and Aneirin, have survived. Taliesin wrote odes, or awdlau, in praise of the warlike deeds of his lord, Urien of Rheged, a kingdom in present-day southwest Scotland and northwest England. To Aneirin is attributed a long poem, Y Gododdin, commemorating in elegies an ill-starred expedition sent from Gododdin, the region where Edinburgh stands today, to take Catraeth (Catterick, North Yorkshire) from the invading Saxons. The background, inspiration, and social conventions of the poems of Taliesin and Aneirin are typically heroic, the language is direct and simple, and the expression terse and vigorous. These poems, and others that have not been preserved, set standards for later ages. The alliterative verse and internal rhyme found here were developed by the 13th century into the intricate system of consonant correspondence and internal rhyme called cynghanedd.

The heroic tradition of poetry existed also in Wales proper and was continued after the break with North Britain in the mid-7th century. The earliest surviving example is a poem in praise of Cynan Garwyn of Powys, whose son Selyf was slain in battle. This poem struck a note that remained constant in all Welsh eulogies and elegies down to the fall of the Welsh bardic system: Cynan is the bravest in the field, the most generous in his home, all others are thrall to him and sing his praises.

The period between the 7th and 10th centuries is represented by a few scattered poems, most of them in the heroic tradition, including Moliant Cadwallon (“The Eulogy of Cadwallon”), by Afan Ferddig, the elegy on Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn of Powys in the first half of the 7th century, and Edmyg Dinbych (“The Eulogy of Tenby”), by an unknown South Wales poet. Poetry claiming to foretell the future is represented by Armes Prydain Fawr (“The Great Prophecy of Britain”), a stirring appeal to the Welsh to unite with other Britons, with the Irish, and with the Norse of Dublin to oppose the Saxons and to refuse the unjust demands of their “great king,” probably Athelstan of Wessex. Poetry outside the main bardic tradition is preserved in englyns (stanzas of three or four lines), a dialogue between Myrddin and Taliesin, and in Kanu y Gwynt (“The Song of the Wind”), a riddle poem that contains the germ of the later convention known as dyfaliad (kenning).

The poems associated with the name Llywarch Hen are the verse remains of at least two sagas composed toward the middle of the 9th century by unknown poets of Powys, whose basic material was the traditions associated with the historical Llywarch and Heledd, sister to Cynddylan ap Cyndrwyn. In these, it seems that prose (now lost) was used for narrative and description and verse for dialogue and soliloquy. The metrical form was embellished by alliteration, internal rhyme, and incipient cynghanedd. The theme of both sagas was lamentation for the glory that once had been. The background was the heroic struggle of the Welsh of Powys against the Saxons of Mercia. Some fragments of poetry preserved in the Black Book of Carmarthen (c. 1250) were parts of soliloquies or dialogues from other lost sagas. Examples are a conversation between Arthur and the doorkeeper Glewlwyd Mightygrasp; a monologue of Ysgolan the Cleric; verses in praise of Geraint, son of Erbin; and a fragment of what may be an early native version of the Trystan and Esyllt (Tristan and Iseult) story. The manuscript shows that there once existed a legend of Myrddin Wyllt, a wild man of the woods who went mad at the sight of a battle, a legend associated with Suibne Geilt in Ireland and with Lailoken in Scotland. This Myrddin (later better known as Merlin) had the gift of prophecy. The historical poet Taliesin also became the central prophetic figure in a folk tale that was given literary form in the 9th or 10th century, but that has survived only in certain monologues preserved in The Book of Taliesin and in garbled versions in late texts of Hanes Taliesin (“Story of Taliesin”).

Nature, a source of similes in the heroic poetry and of symbolism in verse fragments of the sagas, was sometimes a subject of song in its own right. Generally, treatment of the subject was remarkable for its sensitive objectivity, its awareness of form, colour, and sound, and its concise, often epigrammatic, expression. In mood, matter, and form (that of the englyn) it often overlapped with gnomic poetry, which consisted of sententious sayings about man and nature. Most gnomic and nature poems were probably produced in the 10th and 11th centuries by poets other than professional bards. Toward the end of the pre-Norman period a few poems on religious, biblical, and other subjects showed acquaintance with nonnative legends. Saga poetry gradually gave way to prose.

With the consolidation of the principality of Gwynedd under Gruffudd ap Cynan (1054–1137) and his descendants, court poetry flourished in the country, composed by the gogynfeirdd, or poets of the princes, who continued and developed the tradition of their predecessors, the cynfeirdd. The bardic order seems to have been reorganized, although no clear picture of it emerges from references in the poetry and law texts, and it seems to have been less schematized in practice than in theory. At the top of the order was the pencerdd (“chief of song or craft”), the ruler’s chief poet, whose duty was to sing the praise of God, the ruler, and his family. Next came the bardd teulu, who was the poet of the ruler’s war band although he seems to have been poet to the ruler’s family as well. There were other, less exalted grades, with less exalted duties and the license probably to engage in satire and ribaldry.

Bards were also graded according to proficiency. This classification led to the holding of an eisteddfod, or a session of bards, to confer certificates of proficiency and to prevent the lower orders from proliferating and drifting into mendicancy. One of the results of a bardic system of this type was a remarkable conservatism in literature. Most of the 13th-century bards used a conventional diction that was consciously archaic in its vocabulary, grammar, and idiom and incomprehensible to anyone uneducated in poetry.

Bardism often went by families, and among the first court poets were Meilyr, his son Gwalchmai, and his grandson Meilyr ap Gwalchmai, who were attached to the court of Gwynedd at Aberffraw. Gwalchmai in his Arwyrain Owain (“Exaltation of Owain”) displayed one characteristic of all the gogynfeirdd, description of water, whether of river or sea. Bardic poetry, highly conventional in form, was now marked not by profundity but by adornment and linguistic virtuosity. Two poet-princes, Owain Cyfeiliog of Powys and Hywel ab Owain of Gwynedd, however, stand out from contemporary bards. Cyfeiliog’s most famous work, the Hirlas Owain (“Owain’s Long Blue Drinking Horn”), celebrates a victorious raid; Hywel ab Owain’s departure from convention was more striking; for the first time in Welsh literature love of country and of beauty in the modern sense appeared: land and sea and women and the Welsh language spoken in cultured accent by his ladylove awoke in him feelings of awe and wonder. The gogynfeirdd poetry alternated throughout this period between marwnad (“elegy”) and moliant (“eulogy”), and the period closed with the most famous of all elegies, Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch’s elegy after the death in 1282 of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, last native prince of Wales.

The religious verse of the gogynfeirdd was generally simpler in style than the eulogies and elegies. A set type was the marwysgafn (“deathbed song”), in which the poet, sensing the approach of death, confessed his sins and prayed for forgiveness. Other religious poems were in praise of God and the Trinity, in honour of saints, on the torments of hell, and on the birth of Christ. They illustrate the gradual widening of the bardic horizon.

With the passing of princes and their pageantry, the poets were forced to find patrons among the new aristocracy. These patrons had more limited means and less restricted interests, with the result that the bardic system and its educational basis were gradually changed and a new kind of poetry was produced. The language became less esoteric, less specialized. Poets in the years between the English conquest (1282) and the appearance of Dafydd ap Gwilym in the mid-14th century seem to have returned to an earlier poetic fashion or to have been influenced by new ideas from other lands. Famous in this period of transition were Gruffudd ap Maredudd, Gruffudd ap Dafydd, and Casnodyn.

The conquest of Wales by Edward I transferred the patronage of court poetry at Gwynedd and Powys from prince to landed aristocracy. The pencerdd lost his superiority over the lower bardic ranks, who were no longer restricted in choice of content and style, and who, especially in South Wales (where the Norman Conquest had been established for a whole century before the conquest of Gwynedd), became more vocal as the older bardic song began to decline. The new poets of the south were well established before their works began to be preserved. The most important of them was Dafydd ap Gwilym, who in his early period wrote according to two distinct traditions. He wrote awdlau, or odes, in the manner of the later gogynfeirdd. (Originally an awdl was a poem with a single end rhyme throughout; later it contained sequences of lines with such end rhymes. In both cases the lines were embellished with alliteration, a correspondence of consonants or internal rhyme; i.e., “free” or incipient cynghanedd.) In the manner of a more popular and perhaps lower class of poets, Dafydd ap Gwilym wrote cywyddau, composed of couplets of seven-syllable lines rhyming in alternately stressed and unstressed final syllables. Each line was embellished by a stricter form of cynghanedd, the cynghanedd gaeth. Dafydd established, if he did not invent, the cywydd, but his main achievement was the simplicity of diction he cultivated in it. His successors followed his lead; the old diction became obsolete, and he thus established the standards of modern Welsh. The substance of his poetry was also new, for he seems to have borrowed many of his themes from the wandering minstrels and trouvères of France. He wrote love poetry but perhaps is best known for his descriptions of nature.

Dafydd’s influence was twofold: the cywydd was established as the leading form, and the new subjects were recognized as fit themes for poetry. One contemporary, Gruffudd ab Adda, went much further toward a modern conception of nature; another, Iolo Goch, in his poem to the husbandman shows traces of English ideas, as seen in Piers Plowman. Llywelyn Goch Amheurug Hen wrote some early poems in the gogynfeirdd tradition, but his “Elegy to Lleucu Llwyd” successfully combined the Welsh elegy tradition with the imported serenade form.

In the 15th century the cywydd was refined. Although Dafydd Nanmor was inferior to most of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s contemporaries in treatment of his subject and in imagination, in his mastery of the cywydd form he had no equal. Further advances in the cywydd metre were made by Lewis Glyn Cothi and Guto’r Glyn, in whose work a real consciousness of Welsh nationhood is seen.

The earliest examples of Welsh prose were utilitarian: notes on Latin texts dealing with weights and measures, an agreement, a list of church dues, and an astronomical commentary. Shortly before the middle of the 10th century, Howel (Hywel) Dda, according to tradition, had the Welsh laws codified. Although the earliest Welsh law manuscripts belong to the first half of the 13th century, some of the texts probably derive from 12th-century and earlier exemplars.

The stylistic merits of the legal texts were reflected in a more conscious literary use of prose by storytellers (cyfarwyddiaid), who recited oral tales made up of a medley of mythology, folklore, and heroic elements. Some of these were recorded in writing; the most famous collection is the Mabinogion, preserved in The White Book of Rhydderch (c. 1300–25) and The Red Book of Hergest (c. 1375–1425). The Mabinogion are composed of 11 anonymous tales, based on older oral material. The greatest are the four related stories “The Four Branches of the Mabinogi,” redacted in the second half of the 11th century by an unknown author. The author of “Culhwch and Olwen” (c. 1100), drawing on material akin to that of the “Four Branches,” appears to have kept closer to the oral tale, but his inferior stylistics presaged the later decadent areithiau (“rhetorics”), which were in part parodies of the Mabinogion. Three of the Mabinogion tales, “Owain” (or “The Lady of the Fountain”), “Geraint and Enid,” and “Peredur Son of Efrawg,” represented a transition from purely native tales to those composed under Norman influence. These romances correspond to the Yvain, Erec, and Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes, and the exact relationship between the Welsh and French texts has long been debated. Although more sophisticated, they show a decline from the directness and restraint of the native tales.

Many translations from Latin and French helped to create a prose that could express aspects of life rarely touched on in the tales. Most of them dated from the 13th and 14th centuries and were probably made by monks. Notable among them were translations from the Latin of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae and the French of the Queste del Saint Graal and Perlesvaux. Their prose was largely experimental and influenced in varying degrees by the language and style of the originals, but at its best it was a not unworthy development of the prose of the law tracts and native tales.

The development of medieval prose was hampered by a gap between Welsh literary tradition and the wider learning of western Europe. The inspiration for the fashioning of a prose able to express all facets of thought and activity arose toward the middle of the 16th century out of the Reformation and the Renaissance, from foundations laid by humanists, both Protestant and Catholic.

The Reformation and the Renaissance

After the outstanding period of Dafydd ap Gwilym and his followers in the cywydd, there arose for a short time a school of literary formalists. The chief of these was Dafydd ab Edmwnd, whose poetic heirs were Tudur Aled (died 1526) and Gutun Owain (flourished c. 1460–1500).

The Reformation broke the hold of the Roman Catholic religion on Welsh life without establishing at the same time a similar hold of its own. The Tudor policy of encouraging the spread of English at the expense of Welsh and of inducing the Welsh aristocracy to emigrate to England almost destroyed the old Welsh culture, completely bound up as it was with the language. Yet fine poetry was written by the satirists Siôn Tudur and Edmwnd Prys. Other masters of the cywydd were William Llŷn and Siôn Phylip.

The rise of modern prose

When printing began in Wales in the 16th century, traditional prose was abandoned by the Renaissance humanists. The new prose they fashioned was based on bardic language and classical authors, enriched by new formations and borrowings. The first Welsh printed book, Yn y lhyvyr hwnn (1547; “In This Book”), consisted of extracts from the Scriptures and the prayer book: from this time modern Welsh prose began to assume definite form.

The Reformation

The most important figure of the Reformation was William Salesbury, who translated most of the New Testament of 1567. Despite some eccentricities, it was a fine piece of translation. In the same year was published the Welsh Prayer Book, also translated mainly by Salesbury in collaboration with Richard Davies, bishop of St. David’s. The Welsh Bible translated by William Morgan, bishop of St. Asaph, aided by Edmwnd Prys, was published in 1588. The revised version, published in 1620, is still used. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of these three translations in the development of Welsh prose. They started a steady, if not large, stream of Welsh prose books. The first were translations from English and Latin aimed at grounding the Welsh nation in the principles of the Reformation.

The Counter-Reformation

While the reformed religion was being established in Wales, Welsh society and the Welsh language were at their lowest ebb. The Roman Catholic writers of the Counter-Reformation regarded the new religion as an English import and struggled to preserve old Roman Catholic culture. As a result there appeared Dosparth Byrr (“A Short Rationale”), the earliest printed Welsh primer, the work of Gruffydd Robert (c. 1522–c. 1610), and several religious works, many of which were published on the Continent.

The Welsh Renaissance

Just as Italy and other European countries during the Renaissance turned to the Latin and Greek classics, so Wales turned to its own classical tradition of bardism. In addition to Gruffydd Robert’s primer mentioned above, there appeared a set of rules for bardic poetry and principles of the Welsh language compiled by Siôn Dafydd Rhys and a dictionary and a grammar by John Davies of Mallwyd.

Welsh literature in the 17th century

So far, writers of Welsh prose had contented themselves with translation, until Morgan Llwyd produced his religious works. A Puritan, he made an original contribution to Welsh religious thought, chiefly in Llyfr y Tri Aderyn (1653; “The Book of the Three Birds”), a disquisition on government and religious liberty, and Llythur ir Cymru Cariadus (c. 1653; “Letter to the Beloved Welsh”), which expounded a mystical gospel. Among the clergy who produced some of the many translations, mostly of religious originals, during this period were Edward Samuel; Moses Williams, a diligent searcher into manuscripts; Griffith Jones, the father of Welsh popular education; and Theophilus Evans, author of Drych y Prif Oesoedd (1716; A View of the Primitive Ages). Ellis Wynne o Lasynys is often regarded as the greatest of Welsh prose writers. His two great works were Rheol Buchedd Sanctaidd (1701), a translation of Jeremy Taylor’s Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, and Gweledigaetheu y Bardd Cwsc (1703; The Visions of the Sleeping Bard), an adaptation of a translation of the Sueños of the Spanish satirist Quevedo.

When Henry VII came to the throne, the old Welsh gentry began to turn toward England for preferment. Soon, poets of the older school had no audience, and only the rich gentlemen farmers kept up the old tradition. A new school, however, was rising that combined a vast store of folk song, previously despised and unrecorded, with imitation of contemporary English popular poetry and sophisticated lyrics. Landmarks of this new development were Edmwnd Prys’s metrical version of the Psalms and Rhys Prichard’s Canwyll y Cymry (1646–72; “The Welshman’s Candle”), both written in so-called free metres. Prys’s Psalter contained the first Welsh metrical hymns. Prichard’s work consisted of moral verses in the metres of the old folk songs (penillion telyn). Many other poets wrote in these metres, but they were generally crude until handled by the greatest poet of the period, Huw Morus, who was particularly famous for his love poems. Later came Lewis Morris, the inspirer and patron of Goronwy Owen and thus a strong link with the next extremely productive period.


collection of 11 medieval Welsh tales based on mythology, folklore, and heroic legends. The tales provide interesting examples of the transmission of Celtic, Norman, and French traditions in early romance. The name Mabinogion derives from a scribal error and is an unjustified but convenient term for these anonymous tales.

The finest of the tales are the four related stories known as “The Four Branches of the Mabinogi” or “The Four Branches” (dating, in their present form, from the late 11th century), the only tales in which the word Mabinogi (possibly meaning “Matters Concerning [the Family of?] Maponos”) appears. Of great interest to Welsh studies are “The Four Independent Native Tales,” which show minimal Continental influence and include “Kulhwch and Olwen,” “Lludd and Llefelys,” “The Dream of Macsen,” and “The Dream of Rhonabwy.” The tales “Owein” (or “The Lady of the Fountain”), “Geraint and Enid,” and “Peredur Son of Efrawg” parallel the French romances Yvain, Erec, and Perceval of Chrétien de Troyes.

The Welsh text of “The Four Branches” was edited by Ifor Williams, as Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi, in 1930; an English translation, The Mabinogion, was published in 1949; and a new translation was included in The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales (1977) by Patrick K. Ford.

Culhwch and Olwen

Welsh Culhwch ac Olwen

(c. 1100), Welsh prose work that is one of the earliest-known Arthurian romances. It is a lighthearted tale that skillfully incorporates themes from mythology, folk literature, and history. The earliest form of the story survives in an early 14th-century manuscript called The White Book of Rhydderch, and the first translation of the story into modern English was made by Lady Charlotte Guest from The Red Book of Hergest (c. 1375–1425) and was included in her translation of Mabinogion.

The story uses the folk formula of a stepmother’s attempt to thwart her stepson. Kulhwch, after refusing to marry the daughter of his stepmother, is told by her that he shall never wed until he wins Olwen, the daughter of the malevolent giant Yspaddaden Penkawr. Because of a prophecy that if she marries, he will die, Olwen’s father first tries to kill Kulhwch but then agrees to the marriage if Kulhwch performs several perilous feats and brings him the 13 treasures he desires. Kulhwch is aided in several of his adventures by his cousin Arthur and some of Arthur’s men, including Kei (Sir Kay) and Gwalchmei (Sir Gawain). Kulhwch returns to Yspaddaden with only part of his goal accomplished, kills him, and marries Olwen.

William Salesbury

born c. 1520, Cae Du, Llansannan, Denbighshire [now in Conwy], Wales
died c. 1584, Llanrwst, Denbighshire [now in Conwy]

Welsh lexicographer and translator who is noted particularly for his Welsh-English dictionary and for translating the New Testament into Welsh.

Salesbury spent most of his life at Llanrwst following antiquarian, botanical, and literary pursuits. About 1546 he edited a collection of Welsh proverbs, Oll Synnwyr Pen Kembero Ygyd (“The Whole Sense of a Welshman’s Head”), possibly the first book printed in Welsh. His Dictionary in Englyshe and Welshe (1547), the first work of its kind, appeared in a facsimile edition in 1877. His translation of the New Testament (1567), based on the Greek version, was prepared in collaboration with Richard Davies, bishop of St. David’s, Abergwili, Carmarthenshire.

Morgan Llwyd

born 1619, Merioneth, Wales
died June 3, 1659, Wrexham, Denbighshire

Puritan writer whose Llyfr y Tri Aderyn (1653; “The Book of the Three Birds”) is considered the most important original Welsh work published during the 17th century. One of the most widely read of Welsh classics, the work is in two parts, on the theory of government and on religious liberty. The book is in the form of a discourse conducted among the eagle (Oliver Cromwell, or the secular power), the raven (the Anglicans, or organized religion), and the dove (the Nonconformists, or the followers of the inner light).

Llwyd came from a gentry family and probably received his early education at Wrexham, Denbighshire. In the English Civil Wars he served as a chaplain in the Parliamentary army. He was identified with the first Dissenting church in Wales. His other works include Llythyr ir Cymry Cariadus (1653; “Letter to the Beloved Welsh”). A selection of his works was published by the University of Wales in two volumes (1899, 1905).


The 18th century: the first revival

The mid-18th century was, after the 14th, the most fruitful period of Welsh literature. Goronwy Owen, inspired by English Augustanism, reintroduced and improved the strict metres of the cywydd and awdl (by this time a long poem written in a number of the classical cynghanedd metres). He also introduced a wide range of subject content, and thus founded a new classical school of Welsh poetry. The more important poets of this school were William Wynn of Llangynhafal, Edward Richard, and Evan Evans (Ieuan Fardd). Much of their activity was associated with the Welsh community in London and the Cymmrodorion Society and led to the establishment of local eisteddfods in Wales, which perpetuated the classical forms of Welsh poetry.

Chief among Owen’s successors was David Thomas (Dafydd Ddu Eryri), who, however, like other eisteddfodic bards of this period, soon departed from classical strictness.

The classicists of the 18th century stood aloof from the Methodist Revival, but religious fervour brought a new articulateness and inspired poets in free metre, especially hymn writers like the preeminent William Williams of Pant-y-celyn and the mystical Ann Griffiths.

For a long time after 1750, Welsh prose was mainly concerned with religious subjects. The French Revolution, however, gave impetus to political writing, and among those it influenced was John Jones (Jac Glan-y-gors). It was only after a periodical press had been established that politics began to compete with religion as a subject for comment.

Goronwy Owen

also called Goronwy Ddu o Fôn

born Jan. 1, 1723, Llanfair Mathafarn Eithaf, Anglesey, Wales
died July 1769, Brunswick, Va. [U.S.]

clergyman and poet who revived the bardic tradition in 18th-century Welsh literature. He breathed new life into two moribund bardic meters, cywydd and the awdl, using them as vehicles for the expression of classic ideals rather than in praise of patrons.

Owen was taught an appreciation of medieval Welsh poetry from his youth. He studied briefly to be a priest and then taught school for some years. While serving as master of the local school and curate of Uppington, Owen began to attract attention as a poet. Other poets gathered around him, and, influenced by Owen’s vision (his letters are a foundation stone of Welsh literary criticism), they formed a neoclassical school of poetry whose influence lasted until the 20th century. In 1757 Owen obtained an appointment, through the efforts of friends, as headmaster of the grammar school attached to the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va. After losing this mastership (for excessive drinking and “riotous living”), he became a planter and the minister of St. Andrew’s, Brunswick county, where he remained until he died.

Owen’s best-known poems were written before his departure for America; among them are “Cywydd y Farn Fawr” (“Cywydd of the Great Judgment”), “Cywydd y Gem neu’r Maen Gwerthfawr” (“Cywydd of the Gem or the Precious Stone”), and “Cywydd yn ateb Huw’r Bardd Coch o Fôn” (“Cywydd in Answer to Huw the Red Poet [Hugh Hughes]”).

19th-century literary trends

Strict metre poetry declined in the 19th century. Although the volume produced was enormous, the quality was poor. Eben Fardd was probably the last of the eisteddfodic poets to make any real contribution. The influence of the hymn writers of the 18th century was seen in the development of the lyric. In fact, all the poetry of the 19th century betrays a religious origin. The influence of contemporary English songs was also seen, as in the work of John Blackwell (Alun). More originality was shown by Evan Evans (Ieuan Glan Geirionydd), who founded the Eryri school of poetry, inspired by the scenery of Snowdonia. The earlier lyricists were followed by a more bohemian group—Talhaiarn (John Jones), Mynyddog (Richard Davies), and Ceiriog (John Hughes), the latter the greatest lyrical writer of the century. Only one poet, Islwyn (William Thomas), made a success of the long poem: his Y Storm is a series of meditations on life and art.

This was the most prolific period of Welsh prose, though much of it was of poor quality, partly because it was produced by a people who had had little formal education in their own language and who had lost touch with their own literary past. Much of it was marred also by the pretentious style of the followers of William Owen Pughe, who tried to “restore” literary standards. A tremendous volume of prose was produced—periodicals, religious books and tracts, biographies, sermons, letters, and monumental works such as Y Gwyddoniadur (“The Encyclopaedia”) and Hanes y Brytaniaid a’r Cymry (“History of the Britons and the Welsh”). Political writings became an important part of Welsh literature, the two great political writers of the century being Samuel Roberts and Gwilym Hiraethog (William Rees). Lewis Edwards, founder and editor of Y Traethodydd (“The Essayist”), tried to introduce a wider, European standard of literary criticism. There were some interesting attempts at creative writing, but the only great novelist was Daniel Owen, whose work portrays the extraordinary influence of religion on contemporary society.


Eben Fardd

born August 1802, Llanarmon, Caernarvonshire, Wales
died Feb. 17, 1863

Welsh-language poet, the last of the 19th-century bards to contribute works of genuine poetic distinction to the eisteddfods (poetic competitions).

His best-known poems include Dinystr Jerusalem (“Destruction of Jerusalem”), an ode that won the prize at the Welshpool eisteddfod (1824); Job, which won at Liverpool (1840); and Maes Bosworth (“Bosworth Field”), which won at Llangollen (1858). In addition to his eisteddfodic compositions, he wrote many hymns, a collection of which was published in 1862. His complete works appeared under the title Gweithiau Barddonol Eben Fardd (1875; “Poetic Works of Eben Fardd”). From 1827 he conducted a school at Clynnog, Caernarvonshire.

John Blackwell

born 1797, Mold, Flintshire, Wales
died May 19, 1841, Cardigan, Cardiganshire

poet and prose writer, regarded as the father of the modern Welsh secular lyric.

While an apprentice shoemaker, he began attending meetings of the Cymreigyddion, an organization of Welshmen in London dedicated to preserving ancient Welsh literature, and he participated in eisteddfods (competitive festivals in the arts, especially poetry and singing). With financial help from friends he attended the University of Oxford, graduating in 1828, in which year his elegy to Bishop Heber won the prize at the Denbigh eisteddfod. In 1833 Blackwell became rector of Manordeifi, Pembrokeshire, and in 1834–35 he was editor of a Welsh magazine, Y Cylchgrawn. His collected works were published as Ceinion Alun (1851).

Evan Evans

born May 20, 1731, Cynhawdref, Cardiganshire [now Dyfed], Wales
died Aug. 4, 1788, Cynhawdref

Welsh poet and antiquary, one of the principal figures in the mid-18th-century revival of Welsh classical poetry.

After leaving the University of Oxford without taking a degree, he served as curate in various parishes. His first publication, Some Specimens of the Poetry of the Antient Welsh Bards (1764), which contains English translations with historical notes, secured his reputation as a scholar and critic. Much of his own Welsh-language poetry is in the collection Dyddanwch Teuluaidd. Evans’ bardic names were Ieuan Brydydd Hir (Evan the Tall Poet) and Ieuan Fardd. In the last decade of his life he was embittered by the loss of a private pension and by the antipathy of the Welsh church to Welsh scholarship.

John Ceiriog Hughes

pseudonym Ceiriog, or Syr Meurig Grynswth

born Sept. 25, 1832, Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog, Denbighshire, Wales
died April 23, 1887, Caersws, Montgomeryshire

poet and folk musicologist who wrote outstanding Welsh-language lyrics.

After working successively as a grocer’s helper, a clerk in Manchester, and a railway official in Wales, Hughes began winning poetry prizes in the 1850s and thereafter published several volumes of verse, the first being Oriau’r Hwyr (1860; “Evening Hours”). Many of his lighthearted lyrics (totalling about 600) were adapted to old Welsh tunes; others were set to original music by various composers. He investigated the history of old Welsh airs and of the harpists with whom the tunes were identified. Of his projected four-volume compendium of Welsh airs, one volume, Cant o Ganeuon (1863; “A Hundred Poems”), appeared. He also wrote many satirical prose letters, collected in Gohebiaethau Syr Meurig Grynswth (1948; “Correspondence of Syr Meurig Grynswth”).

William Thomas

born April 3, 1832, Ynysddu, Monmouthshire [now in Caerphilly], Wales
died November 20, 1878, Mynyddislwyn, Monmouthshire

clergyman and poet, considered the only successful practitioner of the long Welsh poem in the 19th century. His major work is the uncompleted philosophical poem Y Storm (1856; The Storm).

Originally a land surveyor, Thomas was ordained in the Calvinistic Methodist ministry in 1859. From his youth he wrote poetry in Welsh, under the bardic name Islwyn. A master of strict Welsh metres, he was also highly accomplished at blank verse; he published a considerable body of work, largely characterized by a mystical and melancholy tone. Although he was relatively unknown in his time, some of his work later was judged to be among the finest 19th-century Welsh poetry.

Daniel Owen

born Oct. 20, 1836, Mold, Flintshire, Wales
died Oct. 22, 1895, Mold

writer, considered the national novelist of Wales. He was a natural storyteller whose works, set in his own time, introduced a wealth of vivid and memorable characters that have given him a place in Welsh literature comparable to that of Charles Dickens in English.

The son of a coal miner and the youngest of six children, Owen received little formal education and at the age of 12 was apprenticed to a tailor. In 1864 he started to preach, and in the following year he enrolled in Bala Calvinistic Methodist College but returned home before completing the course. He resumed preaching and soon began writing for publication.

His works include the novels Hunangofiant Rhys Lewis (1885; Rhys Lewis, Minister of Bethel: An Autobiography), Profedigaethau Enoc Huws (1891; “The Trials of Enoc Huws”), Y Dreflan, ei Phobl a’i Phethau (1881; “Dreflan, Its People and Its Affairs”), which describes the life around the Welsh chapel, and Gwen Tomos (1894). Offrymau Neilltuaeth (1879; “Offerings of Seclusion”) is a volume of sermons and portraits of Methodists; Y Siswrn (1888; “The Scissors”) is a collection of poems, essays, and stories. Owen’s works are characterized by vigorous diction, pungent humour, and freedom from didacticism, qualities that are generally lacking in 19th-century Welsh literature.

The second revival

The most important event for the second revival in Welsh literature was the establishment of the University of Wales (1872–93). The immediate result was a great widening of literary horizons, accompanied by a strong reaction toward the old Welsh classical ideas. Sir Owen M. Edwards, Sir John Morris-Jones, Emrys ap Iwan (Robert Ambrose Jones), and others made the Welsh conscious of their literary identity and set new standards for correctness of language and integrity of thought. The great literary renaissance that followed was marked by T. Gwynn Jones’s masterly use of the old strict metres to express modern thought and W.J. Gruffydd’s lyrical use of the free metres to express his rebellion against society and his love for the countryside of his youth. R. Williams Parry showed a superb gift of poetic observation, while Sir Thomas Parry-Williams combined a mystical love for his native Gwynedd with an almost scientific analysis of his own metaphysical preoccupations. Older poets, such as Cynan (A. Evans-Jones), William Morris, and Wil Ifan (William Evans), clung to earlier lyrical models, although many others, like D. Gwenallt Jones and Saunders Lewis, drew increasingly on the rhythms and vocabulary of colloquial speech. Waldo Williams, Gwilym R. Jones, the younger Bobi Jones, and particularly Euros Bowen experimented with form and subject. Their work was followed and developed by writers of the next generation, the most distinctive and prolific being Gwyn Thomas. Interest in the use of the strict metres of cynghanedd was revived, as represented by the publication of the popular periodical Barddas (“Bardism”), whose editor, Alan Llwyd, was an outstanding poet. The work of most poets, old and young, reflected a varying involvement in contemporary Welsh political activity.

The high standard of the periodical Y Llenor (“The Litterateur”; 1922–51) indicated the advances made in prose. Contributors were generally involved in a wide range of activities: its editor, W.J. Gruffydd, was both poet and essayist; Saunders Lewis was a poet, dramatist, and politician; Sir Thomas Parry-Williams a poet and essayist; and R.T. Jenkins an essayist and historian. Together with novelists and short-story writers such as Tegla Davies, T. Rowland Hughes, Kate Roberts, and D.J. Williams, they effectively mirrored contemporary Wales. John Gwilym Jones and Islwyn Ffowc Ellis were innovators in form and subject matter, and they were followed by an enthusiastic younger generation. Postmodernism enlivened the Welsh novel in the last two decades of the 20th century through the works of William Owen Roberts, Angharad Tomos, Robin Llywelyn, and Mihangel Morgan. Literary criticism also benefited. The standard set by Y Llenor was maintained in Ysgrifau Beirniadol (“Critical Essays”). In this field as in others, the establishment of the Welsh Academy (Yr Academi Gymreig) in 1959 and the publication of its review Taliesin made an outstanding contribution.

Drama in Wales was first written in the 20th century. At first realistic, it developed into poetic, symbolic drama, often based on historical and mythological themes but dealing with moral, social, and psychological contemporary problems. The outstanding Welsh dramatists of the 20th century were Saunders Lewis, John Gwilym Jones, Emyr Humphreys, and Gwenlyn Parry.

Thomas Gwynn Jones

born Oct. 10, 1871, Abergele, Denbighshire, Wales
died March 7, 1949, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion

Welsh-language poet and scholar best known for his narrative poems on traditional Celtic themes.

After spending much of his earlier life as a journalist, Jones joined the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth in 1909; in 1913 he went to the University of Wales as lecturer and, later, as professor of Welsh literature.

His awdl “Ymadawiad Arthur” (“The Departure of Arthur”), which won the highest honour at the National Eisteddfod in 1902, is one of the most significant landmarks in the Welsh literary revival of the early 20th century. Critics have seen his greatest achievement in the poems Tir na n-Og, a lyrical play for performance with music; “Broseliawnd,” set in the forest of Broceliande; “Anatiomaros,” set in a district of ancient Gaul; “Argoed,” depicting an ideal community; and “Cynddilig,” a bitter protest against war written in the style of the Llywarch Hen cycle. His translations of Goethe’s Faust (1922) and his collection of Greek poems and Latin epigrams, Blodau o Hen Ardd (1927; “Flowers from an Ancient Garden”), with H.J. Rose, are considered among the most successful renderings of literary classics into Welsh.

William John Gruffydd

born Feb. 14, 1881, Bethel, Caernarvonshire, Wales
died Sept. 29, 1954, Caernarvon

Welsh-language poet and scholar whose works represented first a rebellion against Victorian standards of morality and literature and later a longing for the society he knew as a youth.

Educated at the University of Oxford, Gruffydd was appointed professor of Celtic at University College, Cardiff, Wales, a position he held until his retirement in 1946. He edited the Welsh quarterly review Y llenor (“The Literary Man”) from its inception in 1922 until 1951, when it was discontinued.

His earliest work, with R. Silyn Roberts, the book of poems Telynegion (1900; “Lyrics”), naturalized the romantic lyric in Wales. Other works include Caneuon a cherddi (1906; “Songs and Poems”), Llenyddiaeth Cymru o 1450 hyd 1600 (1922; “History of Welsh Literature, 1450–1600”), Ynys yr hud (1923; “The Enchanted Island”), Caniadau (1932; “Poems”), and Hen atgofion (1936; “Old Memories”).

Gwyn Thomas

born July 6, 1913, Cymmer, Rhondda Cynon Taff, Wales
died April 14, 1981, Cardiff

Welsh novelist and playwright whose works, many on grim themes, were marked with gusto, much humour, and compassion.

Thomas was educated at Oxford and the University of Madrid and began writing seriously in the 1930s. His first novel, The Dark Philosophers (1946), built on the conversations of four unemployed Welsh miners, reminded critics of such disparate authors as Geoffrey Chaucer, the 16th-century French humorist François Rabelais, and the 20th-century American writer Damon Runyon. Thomas’s next important novel, All Things Betray Thee (1949), set in an ironworks in industrial Wales in 1885, is grim in style and tone but relieved by an ironic humour. A Few Selected Exits (1968) is “a sort of autobiography.” Among his plays are The Keep (1962), Loud Organs (performed 1962), Jackie the Jumper (1963), The Councillors (performed 1971), and The Breakers (1976). Thomas also wrote for radio and television.

Kate Roberts

born February 13, 1891, Rhosgadfan, Caernarvonshire [now in Gwynedd], Wales
died April 4, 1985, Denbigh, Clwyd [now in Denbighshire]

one of the outstanding Welsh-language novelists and short-story writers of the 20th century and the first woman to be recognized as a major figure in the history of Welsh literature.

Roberts set her early works in the quarrying districts of North Wales and in the mining villages of South Wales, where poverty is usually the harsh determinant of her characters’ hopes and fates, while her later works deal mainly with the psychological problems of characters living in more comfortable material circumstances. Her works include O Gors y Bryniau (1925; “From the Swamp of the Hills”), Rhigolau Bywyd (1929; “The Grooves of Life”), Traed mewn Cyffion (1936; Feet in Chains), A Summer Day and Other Stories (1946), Stryd y Glep (1949; “Gossip Street”), and Y Byw Sy’n Cysgu (1956; The Living Sleep).


The oldest remains of Cornish are proper names in the Bodmin Gospels and in the Domesday Book, 10th-century glosses on Latin texts, and a 12th-century vocabulary based on Aelfric’s Latin–Anglo-Saxon glossary. The earliest literary text in Middle Cornish is a 41-line fragment of a drama, written about 1400, in which a girl is offered as wife, praised for her virtues, and counseled on her behaviour. The other plays that have survived complete or in part are related to the medieval miracle and morality plays.

Of these the most important is the Ordinalia, a trilogy written in Middle Cornish (probably late 14th century) and designed to be acted on three consecutive days, perhaps in a plen-an-gwary (“play-field”). The first play, the Origo Mundi (“Origin of the World”), is based on the Old Testament and serves as a prologue to the other two, the Passio Domini Nostri Ihesu Christi; and the Resurrexio Domini Nostri Ihesu Christi. Lacking a treatment of the Nativity and of the ministry of Jesus, the scheme underlying the Ordinalia is more like that of the great French Passions than that of the English Corpus Christi cycle.

The Pascon Agan Arluth (“Passion of Our Lord”), of which 259 stanzas have survived, has passages common to the Ordinalia and must have been composed about the same time.

Beunans Meriasek (“The Life of Meriasek [or Meriadoc]”), on the patron saint of Camborne, is held to be considerably later: the manuscript in which it is found was completed in 1504 by one Dominus Hadton, thought to have been a canon of the Collegiate Church of Glasney. Gwreans an Bys (“The Creation of the World”), surviving in a text written in 1611, was intended to be the first of three plays and seems to be an extended and reworked version of the Origo Mundi. Written in Late Cornish, it is the latest of the Cornish religious plays.

The Protestant Reformation destroyed the mentality that had created and enjoyed these plays, although there is evidence that the destruction was slow. Unfortunately the Reformation provided no work in the Cornish language that could take the place of the plays. A few people recognized that the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer should be made accessible to the monoglot Cornishmen, but little was done to that end. John Tregear translated into Cornish 12 of Bishop Edmund Bonner’s sermons and a 13th sermon from an unidentified source, and it is probably significant that this translation was lost and not rediscovered until 1949.

Attempts have been made to revive the use of Cornish as a spoken and written language. Among the societies and movements that have worked to this end are the Cornish-Celtic Society, The Old Cornwall Society, Land and Language, The Sons of Cornwall, and The Cornish Language Board; and among the papers or periodicals these have promoted, Kernow (“Cornwall”), An Lef (“The Voice”), An Lef Kernewek (“The Cornish Voice”), and Hedhyu (“Today”) have been notable for the attention they have given to compositions in Cornish—mostly poems, short stories, and short plays. Among the Cornish language revivalists are Henry Jenner, R. Morton Nance, and A.S.D. Smith.


Domesday Book

the original record or summary of William I’s survey of England. By contemporaries the whole operation was known as “the description of England,” but the popular name Domesday—i.e., “doomsday,” when men face the record from which there is no appeal—was in general use by the mid-12th century. The survey, in the scope of its detail and the speed of its execution, was perhaps the most remarkable administrative accomplishment of the Middle Ages.

The survey was carried out, against great popular resentment, in 1086 by seven or eight panels of commissioners, each working in a separate group of counties, for which they compiled elaborate accounts of the estates of the king and of his tenants in chief (those who held their land by direct services to him). From these documents the king’s clerks compiled a summary, which is Domesday Book.

Domesday Book covers all of England except the northern areas. Though invariably called Domesday Book, in the singular, it in fact consists of two volumes quite different from each other. Volume I (Great Domesday) contains the final summarized record of all the counties surveyed except Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk. For these three counties the full, unabbreviated return sent in to Winchester by the commissioners is preserved in volume II (Little Domesday), which, for some reason, was never summarized and added to the larger volume.

Several related documents survive, one of which is the Exon Domesday, an early draft of the return for the circuit comprising the counties of Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire, Devon, and Cornwall.

From yet another related document, the Inquisitio comitatus Cantabrigiensis (“The Inquisition of the County of Cambridge”), a very early draft of the Cambridgeshire material, the actual procedure followed by the commissioners is revealed. Their method was that of the sworn inquest, by which answers were given to a long list of definite questions. Formal sessions were apparently held in the chief county town, and the facts were supplied by the sheriff, the barons, and their subtenants and by representatives from each hundred (or subsidiary division of the county) and from every village.

The procedure was thus strictly geographic, material being collected by shires, hundreds, and villages. But before being sent to the royal court at Winchester the material for each county was regrouped under the names of the king and his tenants in chief, thus recognizing the new Norman conception of a feudal society based on the honour or barony, a complex of estates that were treated as a unit even if not adjacent.

Volume I thus gives, under each county heading, a roll of the holders of land, from the king to the humblest tenant in chief. Their fiefs are described consecutively and consist of long lists of manors, with the names of their holders in 1066 and 1086, their dimensions and plowing capacity, the number of agricultural workers of various sorts, their mills, fishponds, and other amenities, and finally their values in pounds.

For most English villages and towns (but not, unfortunately, London and Winchester, for which no Domesday records survive), Domesday is the starting point of their history. For historians of Anglo-Norman England, the survey is of immeasurable importance.

Domesday Book is kept at the National Archives in London.


The three major periods of Breton literature

Old Breton (8th to 11th century) is found only in lists and glosses in documents or as names in Latin books and charters. From the Middle Breton period (11th to 17th century) the 11th- to 15th-century compositions were mainly oral, and little except a few scraps of verse is extant until the late 15th century, when there appeared the Catholicon of Jean Lagadeuc, a Breton–Latin–French dictionary printed in 1499, and Quiquer de Roscoff’s French–Breton dictionary and conversations (printed 1616).

A 17th-century collection, Cantiques bretons (1642), names several Breton airs. All the remaining works of the middle period were religious and mostly in verse. Three mystery plays were probably the most significant products of the period: Buez santez Nonn (“Life of St. Nonn”), Burzud bras Jesuz (“The Great Mystery of Jesus”), and Buhez santes Barba (“Life of St. Barbara”). Three long poems, “Tremenvan an itron gwerches Maria” (“The Passion of the Virgin Mary”), “Pemzec levenez Maria” (“The Fifteen Joys of Mary”), and “Buhez mabden” (“The Life of Man”), were all probably based on French versions. A book of hours in verse, a prose extract from the Leon missal, and a prose catechism belong to this period, as does the prose Buhez an itron sanctes Cathell, guerches ha merzeres (“Life of St. Catherine, Virgin and Martyr”). Am Mirouer a Confession (“The Mirror of Confession”) and Doctrin an Christenien (“Christian’s Doctrine”) are translated from the French. A collection of carols, An Nouelou ancient ha devot (“Ancient and Devout Songs”), appeared in 1650, and a book of metrical meditations in 1651. In general, Middle Breton literature lacked originality, and the indigenous culture of Brittany seems to have been entirely neglected by the educated classes, who introduced an enormous number of French words into the vocabulary.

Modern Breton is said to have begun in 1659, when Julien Maunoir introduced a more phonetic orthography, but works of the Middle Breton type appeared until the 19th century. The bulk of Breton literature in this period consisted of mystery and miracle plays treating subjects from the Old and New Testaments, saints’ lives, and stories of chivalry derived from French or Latin. Even plays depicting Breton saints evinced little originality. In the 18th century many Breton dictionaries were published but little of literary significance was produced. One name survives: Claude-Marie Le Laë, who wrote satiric poems.

The revival of Breton

literatureInterest in Breton, which revived at a time when France’s central government was trying to impose French on Brittany and destroy the regional language, was particularly stimulated with the publication of the celebrated Barzaz Breiz (originally Barzas-Breiz, 1839; “Breton Bardic Poems”). This collection of poems was compiled by Théodore Hersart de La Villemarqué, who declared that they had survived unchanged as part of Breton folklore. Breton-speaking scholars doubted the collection’s authenticity, and attacks reached their height when R.-F. Le Men, in a reprinting in about 1870 of Catholicon, and François-Marie Luzel, in a paper delivered in 1872, showed that Barzaz Breiz was not authentic (though scholars during the period often edited such collected material). Barzaz Breiz led to a renaissance of Breton writing and stimulated Luzel to collect authentic folk songs and publish Gwerziou Breiz-Izel (2 vol., 1868–74; “Ballads of Lower Brittany”) and, in collaboration with Anatole Le Braz, Soniou Breiz-Izel (2 vol., 1890; “Folk Songs of Lower Brittanyrdquo;). In the 1980s Donatien Laurent, the first to have had access to Villemarqué’s papers, demonstrated that some of the poems were authentic.


Barzaz Breiz

originally Barzas-Breiz; Chants Populaires de la Bretagne (“Breton Bardic Poems: Popular Songs of Brittany”)

collection of folk songs and ballads purported to be survivals from ancient Breton folklore. The collection was made, supposedly from the oral literature of Breton peasants, by Théodore Hersart de La Villemarqué and was published in 1839. In the 1870s it was demonstrated that Barzaz Breiz was not an anthology of Breton folk poetry but rather a mixture of old poems, chiefly love songs and ballads, that were rearranged by the editor or others; modern poems made to look medieval; and spurious poems about such romance figures as Merlin and Nominoë. Review of Villemarqué’s papers in the 1980s, however, showed that some of the poems were authentic.

Barzaz Breiz was extremely influential: the historical poems exalting the Bretons’ traditional struggle against oppression revived Breton pride in their language and heritage; it also led to the reawakening of Breton writers and stimulated further study of Breton folklore.

Anatole Le Braz

born April 2, 1859, Duault, France
died March 20, 1926, Menton

French folklorist, novelist, and poet who collected and edited the legends and popular beliefs of his native province, Brittany.

Educated in Paris, Le Braz was professor of philosophy at several schools and, later, professor of French literature at the University of Rennes (1901–24). He traveled to the United States to lecture at Harvard University in 1906. One of his major works, La Légende de la mort (1893; “The Legend of the Dead”; Eng. trans., Dealings with the Dead), includes vividly poetic retellings of the legends of death—stories, traditions, and practices—Le Braz collected in Brittany. He also wrote Vieilles histoires du pays breton (1897; “Ancient Stories of Brittany”) and a study of Celtic drama, L’Essai sur l’histoire du théâtre celtique (1903; “Essay on the History of Celtic Theatre”). His other works, also based on the traditions of Brittany, include a collection of poems, La Chanson de la Bretagne (1892; “The Song of Brittany”), and several novels and stories, Le Gardien du feu (1890; “Keeper of the Fire”; Eng. trans., The Night of the Fires), Pâques d’Islande (1897; “Iceland Easter”), and Contes du soleil et de la brume (1905; “Tales of Sun and Mist”).


Luzel also collected folktales and legends, publishing many in Breton as well as in French translation. His collaborator, Le Braz, published stories concerning an ankou (“death”), as La Légende de la mort (1893; Dealings with the Dead). Traditional and literary elements combined indistinguishably in many stories. When Breton writers did not depend on folk legends for material, they fictionalized their own life stories. The many improving religious works published were not at all original; yet many Bretons who have read only one book in their own language have read Buez ar Zent (“Lives of the Saints”).

Most playwrights were concerned to teach moral and religious lessons, such as Toussaint Le Garrec and Abbé J. Le Bayon, who revived several great mystery plays—Nicolazig, Boeh er goed (“The Voice of the Blood”), Ar hent en Hadour (“In the Steps of the Sower”), and Ar en hent de Vethleem (“On the Way to Bethlehem”).


For 200 years Bretons expressed their feelings in poems that were published as pamphlets—either as soniou (love songs, satires, carols, marriage lays) or gwerziou (ballads or broadsides describing recent events in Brittany and elsewhere). Their authors were people of every social class, and the poems were hawked at fairs. Dozens of poets published collections after the appearance of Barzaz Breiz.

Developments of the 20th century

Collections of folklore continued to appear, but there was an ever-increasing realization that the reading public needed a literature reflecting contemporary life. Literary periodicals attempted to satisfy the need. Worthy of special mention are Dihunamb (1905; “Let Us Wake Up”), Gwalarn (1925–44; “North West”), and Al Liamm (1946; “The Bond”). Tangi Malemanche was a prolific playwright but gained little recognition. Per-Jakez Helias as poet, playwright, and radio script writer has been both prolific and popular. The reminiscences of Yeun ar Go in E Skeud Tour Bras Sant Jermen (1955; “In the Shadow of the Great Tower of Saint-Germain”) and continued in Al Liamm have great charm. But the three writers who can claim to have done most to give Brittany a 20th-century Breton literature have been Jakez Riou and Youenn Drezen, authors of short stories and novellas, and Roparz Hemon, who has enriched every genre. Maodez Glanndour has given of his best to poetry. As one would expect in a literature in which little prose was written until the 20th century, verse continues to attract the attention and the skill of young and old writers. One of its recurring themes is the fear that the Breton language will die.

David Greene
Derick S. Thomson
Thomas Jones
J.E. Caerwyn Williams


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