Page images
PDF
EPUB

The first of the Celtic tongues hås oftenest been called Erse or Gaelic. It was common, with dialectic varieties only, to the Celts of Ireland and those of Scotland. Ireland was wholly occupied by tribes of this stock, except some small Norse settlements on the seacoast. Whether Scotland, beyond the Forth and Clyde, was so likewise, is a question not to be answered, until it shall have been determined whether the Picts, the early inhabitants of the eastern Scottish counties, were Celts or Goths. It is certain, at least, that either before the Norman conquest, or soon afterwards, the Celtic Scots were confined within limits corresponding nearly with those which now bound their descendants.

And here, while we are looking beyond the Anglo-Saxon frontiers, it is to be noted that the Romans did not conquer any part of Ireland, and that their hold on the north and west of Scotland had been so slight as to leave hardly any appreciable effects.

The second Celtic tongue, that of the Cymrians or ancient Britons, has been preserved in the Welsh. Its seats, during the Anglo-Saxon period, were the provinces which were still held by Britons, quite independent or imperfectly subdued. Accordingly, it was universally used in Wales, and, for a long time, in Cornwall; and, for several centuries, it kept its hold in the petty kingdoms of Cumbria and Strathclyde, extending to the Clyde from the middle of Lancashire, and thus covering the north-west of England and the south-west of Scotland.

We have not time to study the history of Galloway, situated in Strathclyde, but long occupied chiefly by Gaelic Čelts ; nor that of the Hebrides and other islands, disputed for centuries between the Gaelic Celts and the Northmen.

CELTIC LITERATURE.

2. Of the two Celtic nations whose living tongue was the Erse, Ireland had immeasurably the advantage, in the success with which its vernacular speech was applied to uses that may be called literary

To others must be left the task of estimating rightly the genuineness, as well as the poetical merit, of the ancient metrical relies still extant in the Irish language. They consist of many Bardic Songs and Historical Legends. Some of these are asserted to be much older than the ninth century, the close of which was the date of the legendary collection called the Psalter of Cashel, still surviving, and probably in its genuine shape. Competent critics have admitted the great historical value of the

Prose Chronicles, preserved to this day, which grew up, by the successive additions of many generations, in the monasteries of the “ Island of Saints.” In the form in which these now exist, none of them seems to be so ancient as the Annals compiled by Tigernach, who died in the close of the eleventh century ; but it is believed, on .good grounds, that, both in this work, in the Annals of the Five Masters, and in several such local records as the Annals of Ulster and Innisfallen, there are incorporated the substance, and often the very words, of many chronicles composed much earlier. It does not thus appear rash to say, that the Irish

possess contemporary histories of their country, written in the language of the people, and authentic though meagre, from the fifth century or little later. No other nation of modern Europe is able to make a similar boast.

Nor does it appear that the Scottish Celts can point to literary monuments of any kind, having an antiquity at all comparable to this. Indeed their social position was, in all respects, much below that of their western kinsmen. All the earliest relics of their language are metrical. Such is the Albanic Duan, an historical poem, described as possessing a bardic and legendary character, and said to belong to the eleventh century. The poems which bear the name of Ossian are professedly celebrations, by an eye-witness, of events occurring in the third century. But, though we were to throw out of view the modern patchwork which disguises the original from the English reader, and though likewise we should hesitate to assert positively that the Fingalic tales were really borrowed from Ireland, it is still impossible to satisfy oneself that any pieces, now exhibited as the groundwork of the poems, have a just claim to so remote an origin. All such productions seem to be merely attempts, some of them exceedingly imaginative and spirited, to invest with poetical and mythical glory the legends of generations which had passed away long before the poet's time.

3. The literature of the Cymric Celts becomes an object of lively interest, through our familiarity with circumstances relating to it

, which occurred in the Middle Ages. We seek eagerly, among the fallen fragments of British poetry and history, for the foundations of the magnificent legend, which, in the days of chivalry, was built up to immortalize King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. We desire to trace upward, till the dim distance hides it, the memory of those Welsh bards, who, in the decay of their race, were the champions, and at last the martyrs, of national freedom.

Ancient Welsh writings, still extant, are described as dealing intelligently, both in prose and verse, with a wonderful variety of topics. It is not universally admitted that any of these were composed earlier than the twelfth century; but it is probable, from evidence both external and internal, that some are much older.

There is a marked character of primitive antiquity in the singular pieces called the Triads. They are collections of historical facts, maxims ethical and legal, mythological doctrines and traditions, and rules for the structure of verse : all of them are expressed with extreme brevity, and regularly disposed in groups of three. Among the Welsh Metrical pieces, those of the times succeeding the Norman Conquest are very numerous ; but a few are to be found which have plausibly been assigned to celebrated bards of the sixth century. It is pleasant to believe that the great Taliessin still speaks to us from his grave; that we read the poems of Aneurin, the heroic and unfortunate prince of Cumbria and Strathclyde ; and that, in the verses of Merdhin, the Caledonian, we possess relics of the sage and poet, whom the reverence of later ages transformed into the enchanter Merlin. The romantic impression is strengthened by the earnest simplicity, and the spirit of pathetic lamentation, with which some of these irregular lyrics chant the calamities of the Cymrians. There exists likewise a considerable stock of old Welsh Romances, the most remarkable of which are contained in the series called the Mabinogi or Tales of Youth. Most of those that have been translated into English, such as Peredur and the Lady of the Fountain, are merely versions from some of the finest of the Norman-French romances. But several others, as the stories of Prince Pwyll and Math the Enchanter, are very similar to the older Norse sagas; and these, if not very ancient in their present shape, must have sprung from the traditions of an exceedingly rude and early generation.

Frequently, both in the triads and in the bardic songs, allusions are made to the heroic Arthur. A Cymric prince of Wales or Cumbria, surrounded by patriotic warriors like himself, and valiantly resisting the alien enemies of his country, had in many a battle triumphantly carried the Dragon-flag of his race into the heart of the hosts amidst whom floated the Pale Horse of the Saxon standard. At length, we are told, he died by domestic treason ; and the flower of the British nobles perished with him. His name was cherished with melancholy pride, and his heroism magnified with increasingly fond exaggeration, alike among those Welsh Britons who still guarded the valleys of Snowdon, and among those who, having sought a foreign seat of liberty,

wandered in exile on the banks of the Loire. Poetic chroniclers among the Cymrians of Brittany gradually wove the scattered and embellished traditions into a legendary British history : this Armoric compilation was used, perhaps with traditions also that had lingered in Wales, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the twelfth century, as the groundwork of a Latin historical work; and then the poets of chivalry, allured by the beauty and pathos of the tale, made it for ages the centre of the most animated pictures of romance.•

[blocks in formation]

а

4. The Latin learning of the Dark Ages, seldom extensive or exact, and always confined to a very small circle of students, formed a point of contact between the instructed men of the several races. Its cultivation arose out of the introduction of Christianity; and its most valued uses were those which related to the faith and the church.

It is doubtful at what time the seeds of spiritual life were first scattered on our island shores. Miracles were said to have attested the preaching of Joseph of Arimathea in England ; and

cave which still looks, from the cliffs of Fifeshire, over the eastern sea, was celebrated as the oratory whence, towards the close of the fourth century, the Greek Saint Regulus went forth to christianize the Picts. It is better proved that there were British converts among the martyrs in the persecution of Diocletian ; and that, not much later, Irishmen, such as the heretical Pelagius, were to be found in the continental churches. But any progress which the true faith may have made among our forefathers, in the Roman times, seems to have been arrested by the anarchy and bloodshed which everywhere attended the Germanic invasions.

Ireland, in which St. Patrick's teaching is said to have begun a few years before the middle of the fifth century, certainly led the way to the general acceptance of Christianity; and the conversion of Britain was first attempted by Irish missionaries. Among these, Saint Columba is especially named, as having, in the latter half of the sixth century, founded his celebrated monastery in the sacred isle of Iona, from which he and his disciples and successors extended their preaching in the west and north of Scotland. About the end of the same century, Saint Augustine arrived in England, sent by Pope Gregory, who, according to the beautiful story told by the old historians, had been deeply moved by seeing Anglo-Saxon youths exposed in the slave market of Rome. For several generations before the Nor

[ocr errors]

man conquest, Great Britain and Ireland were, in name at least, universally Christian.

5. Almost all who then cultivated Latin learning were ecclesiastics; and by far the larger number of those who became eminent in it were unquestionably Irishmen. Most of them are described by old writers as Scots; but this name was first applied to the Irish Celts, and was not transferred to the inhabitants of North Britain till after the Dark Ages. Indeed, amidst the bloodshed and wanderings which accompanied and followed the fall of the Roman Empire, Ireland was a place of rest and safety, both to fugitives from the continent, and to others from England. Among the latter is named Gildas the Wise, a brother of the British bard Aneurin, the supposed writer of a treatise “on the Destruction of Britain," which, if it were undoubtedly genuine, would be the oldest of our Latin histories. Thus adding the acquisitions of other countries to its own, the Green Isle contained, for more centuries than one, a larger amount of learning than all that could have been collected from the rest of Europe, and its scholars often found other sanctuaries among the storm-defended rocks of the Hebrides.

It is a fact well deserving the attention of the student, that the communication between distant countries, thus arising out of the miseries incident to troublous times, received a new impulse as each country adopted the Christian faith. All were thenceforth members of one ecclesiastical community; and each maintained connexion, both with the rest, and with Rome the common centre. It does indeed appear, that the Anglo-Saxon church was much less dependent on the papal see than many others, in respect both of government and of doctrine ; yet, from an early date, its intercourse with Italy was close and constant. Pilgrimages were exceedingly common. Two, if not more, of the Saxon princes assumed the cowl, and were buried in the precincts of the Church of Saint Peter; among the hospices for the reception of pilgrims which were built around the venerated spot, that of our countrymen was one of the earliest; and the Anglo-Saxon fraternity (technically described in the old books as a school), received corporate privileges from the popes, and is honorably cominemorated as having repeatedly given valiant aid in the defence of the city. Alfred is said to have sent alms every year to Rome, receiving, in return, not only relics, but other and more valuable gifts; and he invited foreign ecclesiastics to settle in his kingdom, and assist in his attempts to revive learning among the native clergy. Religious zeal thus produced an interchange of knowledge, which, in times almost without commerce, and in a state

« PreviousContinue »