[Bards] What is a bard?

Scott Barrett barrett1 at cox.net
Mon Jun 11 20:59:29 PDT 2007

On Monday, June 11, 2007, at 07:44 PM, Peter Schorn wrote:

> "A bard's work defines his people;
> All other performers simply entertain their people."

I have a difficulty with this for one reason - it doesn't accurately 
describe what a bard was.
A ninth century skald can fundamentally affect the SCA with their 
craft, but they would not be a bard.
They would be a skald.

For most of my SCA life, I've heard that anyone can be a bard who calls 
themselves one. It's an attitude born of acceptance and encouragement. 
It's a friendly disposition that nurtures would-be performers. It's a 
recognizable word understood by most western cultures. I understand why 
it was originally used, but like a lot of medieval concepts, it has a 
lot of unrealistic romance attached to it.
  Heartbreaking as it may be, it is nigh impossible to become a bard as 
the early Gaelic nations knew them. As Her Grace said, the Ollamh 
(master bard) of Ireland, even the Filidh (journeyman bard), had such 
long and in-depth training that to gain even a passable patronage under 
a minor king they would begin training as adolescents, memorizing 
poetics, lore, history, law, music, mathematics and theology on a full 
time basis until well into adulthood, completely removed from society 
until they could support themselves. They were the vocal shamans, and 
complete immersion in their craft was a minimum requirement to function 
at all.

The best anyone can do today is strive to give us a glimpse of what a 
bard might have sounded and looked like...

Or a seanachie, or a minstrel, or a troubadour, or a skald, or a 
gleeman, or a minnesinger or a courtier.

I think as personal passion and self improvement continue to increase 
in the SCA, we (performers) will each continue to refine what we are 
striving to emulate. We will each work in our own ways to become more 
like the model we have chosen to craft ourselves after. "Bard" will 
likely continue to be a word the audience uses more than we, unless we 
work to change the term (which we can do, ya know. It won't be easy, 
but improvement is rarely simple).
They will use it to describe the vocal arts.
They will use it describe a performer they admire or know well.
They will use it to describe that performer that makes them forget the 
present, even for a moment.
Bard was a very specific occupation. I think we romanticize it too 
much. Some folks even use the word to differentiate who is considered a 
'bard' and who is not, no matter their persona's culture, based on 
their "wow power".
I don't care for that.

I'd rather hear a saga that makes my hair stand on end and acknowledge 
the speaker as a skald.
I'd rather hear a ribald song and laugh to know a gleeman.
I don't want to be bothered with the issue of whether they meet the 
SCA's definition of a real bard or not.

Another danger in the broad use of the word 'bard' is that we sometimes 
try to attach the duties of the old Gaelic bard to inappropriate 
personas. Gleemen and troubadours would not have concerned themselves 
with history and law like the filidh and the brehon of Ireland. They 
wouldn't have worried about having massive amounts of exact verse 
committed to memory like the Welsh bardagh. They may not even be 
skilled storytellers like the seanachie, or competent with the lyre 
like the Scop. If we try to come up with a checklist of what a bard is 
and should be in the SCA, I fear we will be stifling a huge amount of 
exciting and extraordinary art.
I say we let performers define themselves, and we let their audiences 
determine their value.
If we step away from a formal bard concept and encourage individual 
interest, we may even see more of the jester, the magician, the 
jongleur and the thesbian.
So, for my money, the bard is the ancient poet and historian of 
Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
I hope one day to recite and tell stories with a harp (no promises) but 
I'll be emulating a seanachie, not a filidh.

One storyteller's personal opinion.


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