The birth of an ancient tradition: the gorsedd at the eisteddfod

The eisteddfod, a traditional Welsh competition in literature and music, has served for a little over two centuries as a rallying point to define and glorify Welsh culture, customs, nationhood, and above all, language. The competition itself can be traced back to the twelfth century. Its revival in the eighteenth century introduced some new practices, although the person who invented them never admitted it.

The earliest reliably documented eisteddfod was summoned in 1176, although others undoubtedly took place much earlier.  From the earliest times until the seventeenth century, eisteddfods occurred at irregular intervals, with at least one purpose being to examine the professional qualifications of bards in order to exclude incompetents from their number.

For example, English Queen Elizabeth I ordered an eisteddfod at Caerwys in 1568 because of the intolerable number of vagabonds who made nuisances of themselves and created difficulties for skilled musicians and poets.  All who desired to make their living from these arts were required to appear.  Whoever failed to make the grade rendered themselves liable to imprisonment if they did not quickly find some other line of honest work.

The need for this method of discouraging vagrants disappeared along with professional bards and minstrels.  No such gathering approached the size or importance of the Caerwys eisteddfod for more than 250 years.  History records very few of any size in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In the late eighteenth century, a renascence of Welsh nationalism gave birth to the modern eisteddfod.  A growing scholarly interest in Welsh antiquity led to the founding of the Society of Cymmrodorion (in London!) in 1751 and the Society of Gwyneddigion in 1771.  The latter represented one of the first stirrings of the romantic movement, with its love of the strange and remote.

Under the auspices of the  Society of Gwyneddigion, Edward Williams, known by the bardic name Iolo Morganwg, undertook to find as many ancient Welsh manuscripts as possible.  Sickly as a child, he was educated at home by his mother, although he later claimed to have taught himself to read by watching his father carve inscriptions on grave stones!

Unknown to his benefactors, Iolo was looking not only for old manuscripts, but also for evidence to substantiate his hope that the medieval eisteddfod could be traced back to the ancient Druids.  Not finding what he needed, he resorted to forgery.  His fabrications were so skillful that scholars have not yet succeded in separating fact from fiction.

The first eisteddfod in modern times was sponsored in May 1789 by Thomas Jones of Corwen and actively supported by the Society of Gwyneddigion.  Later that year, the society  sponsored its own eisteddfod.

On June 21 1792, Iolo Morganwg unveiled his most colorful invention, a highly ritualistic, quasi-religious ceremony called the gorsedd  By 1819, he had persuaded his contemporaries that an authentic eisteddfod should begin with a gorsedd.  And so at the eisteddfod held that year at Carmarthen, an ancient tradition was born.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, most Welshmen accepted Iolo’s “scholarship” as genuine, although some expressed skepticism.

One writer noted five eisteddfods spoken of in tradition, but without documentation, from the sixth to the twelfth centuries, and then reached back hundreds of years before the Roman invasion, when

Prydain, the son of Aedd the Great, was, in conformity with the principles originated by Tydain, “the father of Poetic Inspiration,” proclaimed monarch of the island.  After the death of Tydain, a duly proclaimed Eisteddfod was held. . . 
Three persons–Plenydd, Alawn, and Gwron by name–stood pre-eminent among the assembled bards for their knowledge of bardic lore, and they were authorized therefore to draw up a code of regulations for the government of the country, for the regulation of the Cimbric language, and (be it carefully noted) for the preservation of the rights and privileges of the bards. . . 

No Welshman, even though he were a bard, need believe this interesting little story, nor need he pretend  that he believes it, except perhaps once a year, in open Gorsedd, in the face of the sun–the eye of light, when it seems to be expected of Welshman that they shall assume a credulous attitude towards everything, except  the truth.

(Source: T. Marchant Williams, “The History of the Eisteddfod,” The Cambrian 12 (1892): 136-37).

Not many shared this skeptical attitude.  Many publications reported that traveling druids visiting the Greek Olympics took back to Wales a more cultured, intellectual version.   As late as  1911, no less authoritative a  reference work than Encyclopaedia Britannica passed on the story of Prydain without hesitation.

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