The Harp and the Celtic Mystique in the Middle Ages
by Carol Wood

Medieval woodcut: click on image to see larger viewThere is some kind of connection between the harp and the culture of the Celtic peoples, or so it seems, to many of us; is this connection due to the fact that the triangular frame harp was invented, or at least more fully developed by the Irish (or by the Scots, as it has been claimed)? The answer to this question has yet to be settled; what is certain, though, is that the harp has had a connection to Celtic lands and stories in the imaginations of Europeans for centuries, a connection extending back before the Irish Literary Renaissance, before O'Carolan and the itinerant and court harpers of Ireland and Scotland. We cannot know when the great harping traditions of the Celts first began-do they extend all the way back to the "stringed instruments" played by the ancient bards, as the Latin and Greek authors recorded? We can say with certainty, however, that in European culture of the Middle Ages there was already a strong notion that the masters of the harp and its music were the Celtic peoples.

From at least the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries the literatures of the major languages of Europe contain references to the importance and prestige of harpers from Ireland, Wales, Brittany, Scotland, and Cornwall. Probably the earliest "non- fiction" examples of this occur in two works by Geraldus Cambrensis (Gerald the Welshman): Topographia Hibernica(The Topography of Ireland) and Itinerarium Kambriae(The Story of a Journey through Wales). Both these works describe trips Gerald made in the 1180's, and both contain passages praising the skills of harpers in those countries in the most glowing terms, though their harping is almost the only thing that Gerald can praise about the Irish:

"The only thing to which I find that this people apply a commendable industry is playing upon musical instruments; in which they are incomparably more skillful than any other nation I have ever seen. For their modulation on these instruments, unlike that of the Britons to which I am accustomed, is not slow and harsh, but lively and rapid, while the harmony is both sweet and gay. . . . It must be remarked, however, that both Scotland and Wales strive to rival Ireland in the art of music; the former from its community of race, the latter from its contiguity and facility of communication. Ireland only uses and delights in two instruments, the harp and the tabor. Scotland has three, the harp, the tabor, and the crowth or crowd [the crwth]; and Wales, the harp, the pipes, and the crowd. The Irish also use strings of brass. . . . Scotland at the present day, in the opinion of many persons, is not only equal to Ireland, her teacher, in musical skill, but excells her; so that they now look to that country as the fountain head of this science." (trans. T. Wright, quoted in The Portable Medieval Reader, James Ross and Mary McLaughlin, eds., New York: Penguin Books, 1977, 554)


Concerning the musicians of his native country, Gerald wrote a longer and more detailed description, which has been the subject of great investigation by students of early music because of its specific references to notes and harmonies:
" Their musical instruments charm and delight the ear with their sweetness, are borne along by such celerity and delicacy of modulation, producing such a consonance from the rapidity of seemingly discordant touches, that I shall briefly repeat what is set forth in our Irish Topography on the subject of the musical instruments of the three nations. It is astonishing that in so complex and rapid a movement of the fingers, the musical proportions can be preserved, and that throughout the difficult modulations on their various instruments, the harmony is completed with such a sweet velocity, so unequal an equality, so discordant a concord, as if the chords sounded together fourths or fifths. They always begin from B flat, and return to the same, that the whole may be completed under the sweetness of a pleasing sound. They enter into a movement, and conclude it in so delicate a manner, and play the little notes so sportively under the blunter sounds of the base [sic] strings, enlivening with wanton levity, or communicating a deeper internal sensation of pleasure, so that the perfection of their art appears in the concealment of it. . . .They make use of three instruments, the harp, the pipes, and the crwth or crowd. "(trans. Sir R. C. Hoare, quoted in The Portable Medieval Reader, 552-553)

Medieval woodcut: click on image to see larger viewIt might be argued that, as Gerald was from Wales himself, his description of Welsh harping cannot be an unbiased one and is not representative of what other Europeans might have thought; however, Gerald was writing these works in Latin for an international audience, and Gerald himself was of mixed Welsh and Norman descent and had been educated in England and at the University of Paris.

Yet it is really in the vernacular works of poetry and of the prose romance that we can see how wide-ranging was the notion that the harp was somehow a Celtic instrument. As the legends of King Arthur flourished in the literatures of all the languages of Europe, so did the idea of the courtly, aristocratic harper, represented best in the figure of Tristan. It may be that the earliest poets to compose love lyrics in the Middle Ages, the troubadours of southern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, already knew of Tristan and Isolde, as the name Tristan is used once in one of the most famous poems by Bernart de Ventadorn, Can vei la lauzeta mover.

However, this lovely song really gives no hint of the story of the two lovers or any suggestion that Tristan played the harp. It is the early 13th century German author Gottfried von Strassburg who has given us the fullest picture of Tristan the lover and Tristan the harper. Gottfried also makes it clear that he is telling a story that is concerned with Celtic (in this case, British, non-English) people: Tristan is the nephew of King Mark and "Cornwall," Gottfried writes, "was Mark's heritage" (Tristan, ed. and trans. A.T. Hatto, [New York: Penguin Books, 1960], 47. All subsequent references will be to this edition.) Early in the tale, when Tristan first appears at his uncle's court, Gottfried describes how Tristan reveals his gift for harping. The scene also makes it clear that the Welsh and the Bretons had great reputations as harpers:

Now it happened one day a little after supper, when people seek entertainment, that Mark has sat down somewhere and was listening intently to a lay which a harper was playing. (The man was a master of his art, the best they knew, and a Welshman.) (88-89)


Tristan compliments the harper's "sad passion" and recognizes the Breton origin of the tune. After being encouraged to play, he reluctantly takes the harp in his hands.

"Passing them over the strings he struck up some preludes and phrases, fine, sweet, and haunting, recapturing his lays of Arthur. . . . He made such excellent sweet music on his harp in the Breton style that many a man sitting or standing there forgot his very name. Hearts and ears began to play the fool and desert their rightful paths. "(89-90)


The harp-playing hero (or heroine) who comes from Celtic lands is very well represented in French medieval literature, as well. The distinguished music historian Christopher Page has discerned a literary convention in the French romances of
  1. the courtly hero/heroine who plays a harp and who
  2. sings/composes works called lais
  3. as part of a tale richly endowed with what might be called "Celtic mystique"-the charisma of Arthurian Britain and all ancient Celtic realms (especially Cornwall, Brittany, and Ireland). (Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages: Instrumental Practice and Songs in France 1100--1300 [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986], 96.)

Medieval woodcut: click on image to see larger view A good many of these French tales found their way into English, and the prestige of the Celtic harper, if it was not already established among the English, certainly came along with these stories. Two of the so-called Breton lays that have come down to us from the Middle English period begin with almost the same twenty-two line opening, an opening which both defines the characteristics of the Breton lay and pays homage to the harpers of Brittany. One of these lays is Sir Orfeo; the other, probably earlier of the two, is the Lay le Freine, a translation of the lay by Marie de France called Le lai del Fraisne, composed sometime before 1190. Interestingly, the openings lines about the harpers of Brittany are not in Marie's version and so must have been added by the English author:
"We redeth oft and findeth it y-write [written]-
And this clerkes wele it wite-
[And these clerks know well]
Layes that ben in harping
Ben y-founde of ferli thing.
[Tell about miraculous things.]
. . . . . . . . . Of al things that men seth [saith]
Mest o love for sothe thai beth.
[Most of love in truth they are.]
In Breteyne [Brittany] bi hold [in olden] time
This [these] layes were wrought, so seith this rime.
When kinges might our [anywhere] y-here [hear]
Of ani mervailes [any marvels] that ther were,
Thai [They] token an harp in gle and game,
And maked a lay and gaf it a name."
(Middle English Romances, Donald B. Sands, ed. [New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966], 234-235)

Finally, we might take a look at what the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages seems to suggest in his strange but fascinating work on reputation and renown, The House of Fame. Chaucer was apparently considering his own standing among the great poets of his day and even among those of the past when he wrote this dream vision in which a golden eagle (just like Dante's in The Divine Comedy) carries him to the palace of the Goddess Fame. The palace is carved all over with niches, and all the niches contain minstrels and tellers of tales. Chaucer describes the harpers first among all these entertainers. First he names three famous harpers from classical antiquity, Orpheus, Arion, and Chiron. There are many other harpers there, he says, but he names only one other: "the Bret Glascurion" (The Riverside Chaucer, Larry D. Benson, ed. [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987], 362.) I discuss in The Chaucer Songbook the likelihood that Glascurion is a tenth- century Welsh bard who also appears as the hero of the ballad "Glenkindie," but the important fact here is that only one harper seems famous enough for Chaucer to include by name among the most illustrious harpers of all history, and that one harper, whoever he was, was Celtic.

Listen to Carol Wood play Ne Qu'on Porroit from the album The Chaucer Songbook.
( You will need Realplayer to listen to this clip. )


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