Gaelic Literature

Gaelic Literature, literature, both oral and written, in the Gaelic languages of Ireland and Scotland. Before the development of a distinct Scottish Gaelic language in the 15th century, the literature of both countries may be considered as one.

Early Period

The earliest pre-Christian writings in Ireland are tombstone inscriptions in the ogham alphabet, which date from the 5th to the 8th century.
The earliest Christian writings survive in a few manuscripts of the 7th through the 10th century-for example, some material on the life of Saint Patrick included in the 9th-century illuminated gospels The Book of Armagh. The scarcity of literary works until the 11th century is the result of the Norse invasions of Ireland in the 8th century and the sacking of the monasteries, the centers of learning. While some manuscripts were preserved on the European continent by scholars fleeing the invaders, most of the literary works composed in this period survive, in fragments, in much later manuscripts.

A characteristic form was the praise poetry composed by a professional class of bards, the filidh, in honor of their kings and chieftains. Freer, more personal poetry was written by anonymous poets, such as the one who addressed his white cat, or the writer who composed The Old Woman of Beare (9th century), an expression of longing for the pagan past. In the form of a dramatic monologue, it is one of the earliest examples of a genre popular in Gaelic poetry. The hermit monks of the early Irish church, living on intimate terms with their environment, established the tradition of nature poetry that is one of the glories of Irish and, later, Scottish Gaelic verse. Some fine examples of this genre are from the 8th century.

The Mabinogion

The Mabinogion is a collection of Welsh prose tales, composed between the second half of the 11th century and the end of the 13th century, but based on older oral tradition.
Most of the 11 anonymous tales incorporate Welsh mythology and folklore and deal with the Arthurian legend. These stories are preserved in two manuscripts, the White Book of Rhydderch (circa 1300-25), and the Red Book of Hergest (circa 1375-1425); the first English translation was made from the latter in 1838-39 by Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Guest.
The meaning of the name Mabinogion, which she adopted as the title, is the subject of debate. It is derived from the group of four related stories that begins the collection, "The Four Branches of the Mabinogi"; of 11th-century composition, they concern the life of Prince Gwri, or Pryderi. This cycle is followed by four independent tales also based on native Welsh lore. The collection concludes with a group of three Arthurian romances, showing Norman-French influence and bearing some relation to the work of the 12th-century French poet Chrétien de Troyes, although originally of Welsh origin.

11th to 15th Century


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