Mead-Halls and Men-At-Arms: Problems of Dating and the Image of the Heroic Age
By Kit Kapphahn
Creative Spaces: A Postgraduate Journal for the Creative Industries, Vol.1 (2010)
Abstract: Problems of dating consistently haunt modern scholars who have no way of knowing whether a text written down in the fourteenth century might have been composed in the sixth, the tenth, or even later. Despite this, the enduring image of the ‘heroic age’ of early Britain has persisted, with poetry—Y Gododdin, the praise of Urien Rheged, and the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf—providing a historical canvas. Scholars pick apart the texts for clues like (and sometimes as) archaeologists, patching together what they can find into a framework built from other, equally unreliable sources.
Writers of high middle ages held an equally romantic vision of the bygone age of the noble barbarian, and far less attachment to the authorship of their own work. The images of mead-halls and blood-feuds, while attested to some extent, are far from complete, though their remnants are found throughout modern popular culture. Were the scribes who saved the poems really preserving the works of the ancients, or merely the medieval version of historical fiction? Linguistically, a strong case can be made for a later date; historical attestations point to an earlier one. Care must be taken when attempting to present a firm conclusion.
Introduction: The goal of attempting to date the Gododdin at all is a matter rife with agenda and bias, even beyond simple scholarly curiosity, becoming what Williams termed ‘furious controversies’ that remain unsolved as experts lay claims on behalf of Wales, Scotland, and even post-Norman Britain. Because of the Welsh bards’ love of archaic turns of phrase and the late date of any actual manuscript containing the poem it is impossible to determine a date, place, or author, but the desire for this ‘oldest Welsh poem’ to be exactly that is rooted in an innate patriotism; Williams attributed it to early Wales and Jackson claimed it for Scotland, lines are drawn from Rheged to Powys and further still across the Irish sea. Scholars pick apart the texts for clues like (and sometimes as) archaeologists, patching together what they can find into a framework built from other, equally unreliable sources. There exists already a vast corpus of scholarly material all amounting, in the end, to an admission of confused but encouraged ignorance: confused because some parts of the text and its possible historical context are so obscure as to baffle even the most knowledgeable scholars, but encouraged because of that peculiar thrill that the academically-minded seem to get from getting their metaphorical hands dirty and digging into the text. It is not the objective of this paper, therefore, to make any case for a firm date for the Gododdin, but rather to address the problems inherent in attempting to settle on one, and discuss, in light of the lack of concrete information, its usefulness to the literary historian as a cultural mirror, or a method of glimpsing a genuine, historic ‘heroic age.’