The Celts Under Feudalism (1150-ca. 1500)


During the 12th and 13th centuries Anglo-Norman feudal lords took control of most of Ireland and Wales, with the Church's blessing. Feudal norms of land use and social hierarchy largely replaced the small tribal monarchies that had been the norm in the Celtic world. Native Celtic lineages that had kept their hold on power had to find a niche within the new order of feudalism. Even in Scotland and Brittany, which remained independent countries under native rulers, social institutions inspired by international feudalism gradually gained in influence, marginalizing the native Celtic heritage.


Yet the feudal lords, even though they fiercely repressed all political or religious dissent, weren't cultural imperialists. Many of them learned Celtic languages, and appreciated native literary traditions. The representatives of the trained bardic orders -- the _filid_ in Ireland, the _beirdd_ or _prydyddion_ in Wales -- received their patronage and composed praise-poems in their honour. Praise-poetry in the Celtic world wasn't mere flattery and stroking of aristocratic egos: since the bards derived their power from the Otherworld and served as the mouthpieces of the deities of sovereignty, by publicly praising a ruler they legitimized his rule. Thus by transferring their allegiance to the new overlords they smoothed the transition of Celtic communities into the new social realities of feudal Europe and adapted those realities to Celtic tradition.


Although not all of them were drawn to their subjects' culture, many Anglo-Norman aristocrats found themselves "going native" -- using Celtic tongues as their primary languages, and even resorting to native Celtic jurisprudence rather than feudal law for the settling of legal cases (especially since native law was often more flexible and convenient than feudal law in dealing with such matters as divorce, remarriage, and the disposal of inheritance). This caused enough concern in England that in 1366 the Statutes of Kilkenny were passed, forbidding Anglo-Norman settlers from following Irish customs. Such laws, however, were largely ignored: the Gaelicization of the newcomers continued unabated.


During this period there was a major literary flowering of all the Celtic languages. Aristocratic lineages (both native and foreign) became fascinated by ancient traditions that enhanced the prestige of their families or of the territories they ruled, and were willing to give generous salaries to anyone who could turn up such evidence. Since the monasteries had lost their special connection with Celtic culture, it was a new class of "literary families" -- professionally trained to research and collate manuscript sources - - that took on the role of passing down the historical traditions. Much old lore was re- processed in new forms, both in verse and in prose. Most of the manuscript collections that serve as the source for our knowledge of older Celtic literature were written down during this period (although some of the texts they contain are actually much more ancient).


Some of this literary creativity had a major impact outside the Celtic world. Around the 11th century Breton poets and storytellers began to appear as entertainers in French-speaking feudal courts on the Continent, regaling their audiences with adaptations of Celtic mythological tales. Most of these stories were centered on the figure of Arthur, possibly a historical war leader from 5th-century Britain but later revered by British Celts as an ideal sacred king who was expected to return from the dead to be a savior of his people. Numerous pre-Christian mythic patterns related to sacred kingship had become attached to his lore, which had developed in part as a political message of hope for a dispossessed people. While non-Celtic audiences didn't resonate to the political message, they were fascinated by the mythology. Soon new re-tellings and elaborations of this material began to appear in French and German, and later in English. The "Matter of Britain", as this lore was called, came to be an essential part of general European culture, and made the reading public throughout Europe familiar with symbols and themes from Celtic tradition -- even if these came to be used in the service of completely different cultural and spiritual agendas.


Meanwhile, the peasantry of Celtic lands continued to practice their traditional rituals to ensure the success of the agricultural cycle. A balance had been struck between the sequences of the Christian and pre-Christian calendars, so that the major ritual occasions of both could coincide without conflict, and pre-Christian practices could find legitimacy by becoming relevant to Christian feasts. The result was a pre-Christian ritual ideology overlaid with Christian iconography. Nevertheless, it made possible a real continuity in Celtic religious culture.




Suggested reading:


General social and political history:



BARROW, Geoffrey W. S. _The Kingdom of the Scots: Government, Church and


Society From the Eleventh to the Fourteenth Century_. 2003.


BROUN, Dauvit. _The Irish Identity of the Kingdom of the Scots in the Twelfth and


Thirteenth Centuries_. 1999.


CLARKE, Howard (Ed.). _Medieval Dublin: The Making of a Metropolis_. 1990.


COSGROVE, Art. _A New History of Ireland: Medieval Ireland 1169-1534_. 1993.


COWAN, Edward J. (Ed.) & McDONALD, R. Andrew (Ed.). _Alba: Celtic Scotland in


the Middle Ages_. 2001.


DAVIES, J.C. _The Welsh Wars of Edward the First_.


DAVIES, R.R. _Domination and Conquest: the Experience of Ireland, Scotland and


Wales, 1100-1300_. 1990.


GRIFFITHS, Ralph Allan. _Conquerors and Conquered in Medieval Wales_. 1994.


HATCHER, J. _Rural Economy and Society in Medieval Cornwall, 1300-1500_. 1970.


JACK, R. Ian. _Mediaeval Wales_. 1976.


JONES, Michael. _Between France and England: Politics, Power and Society in Late


Medieval Brittany_. 2003.


MAUND, Karl. _The Welsh Kings_. 2000.


McDONALD, R. Andrew. _The Kingdom of the Isles: Scotland's Western Seaboard,


c.1100-c.1336_. 1997.


McNEILL, Tom. _Castles in Ireland: Feudal Power in a Gaelic World_. 2000.


MULDOON, James. _Identity on the Medieval Irish Frontier: Degenerate Englishmen,


Wild Irishmen, Middle Nations._ 2003.


NICHOLLS, K.W. _Gaelic and Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages_.


ORAM, Richard. _The Canmores: Kings and Queens of the Scots, 1058-1290_. 2002.


SIMS, Katherine. _From Kings to Warlords: The Changing Structures of Gaelic Ireland


in the Latter Middle Ages_.


STACEY, Robert Chapman. _From Custom to Court in Medieval Ireland and Wales_. 1994.


WEBSTER, Bruce. _Medieval Scotland: The Making of an Identity_.


WILLIAMS, Glanmor. _Owen Glendower_. 1966.




Religious history:


HALL, Dianne. _Women and Church in Medieval Ireland ca. 1140-1540_. 2003.


MOONEY, Canice. _The Church in Gaelic Ireland: Thirteenth to Fifteenth Centuries_.


WILLIAMS, Glanmor. _The Welsh Church From Conquest to Reformation_. 1962.


Aspects of cultural/literary history:


GOLDSTEIN, James R. _The Matter of Scotland: Historical Narrative in Medieval Scotland_.


HARRIS, John R. _Adaptations of Roman Epic in Medieval Ireland: Three Studies in the Interplay of Erudition and Oral Tradition_. 1994.


O CUIV, Brian. _The Linguistic Training of the Medieval Irish Poet_.






  1. Identify the following and place them in historical context:

    1. Owain Glyn Dwr

    2. Llywelyn the Great

    3. Llywelyn ap Gruffydd

    4. Jeanne de Penthi�vre

    5. Thomas Flamank and Myghal An Gov

    6. Ruair’ O Conchobhair

    7. Rhys ap Gruffydd

    8. John of Lorn

    9. The "Red Comyn"

    10. Somerled

    11. Alexander III Canmore

    12. Maolmaedoc of Armagh

    13. Pierre Landais

    14. Anne of Brittany

    15. Andrew Moray of Bothwell

    16. Art Og Mac Murchaidh

    17. Thomas Fitzgerald

    18. Dafydd ap Gwilym

  2. Describe the social and political factors that led to the emergence of the Scottish clan system.

    1. What aspects of this system resembled older social models?

    2. What aspects were clearly different?

  3. Imagine that you are a traditional Celtic chieftain ca. 1350 in:

    1. Ireland

    2. Wales

    3. Scotland

    4. Brittany

  4. Faced with new overlords seeking to impose a feudal system of government, what options do you have for retaining some of your authority and status?

  5. Discuss the impact of Scandinavian political power on Scotland and the Isle of Man.

  6. Imagine that you are a traditionally trained:

    1. bard

    2. storyteller

      1. In a Celtic area with new feudal overlords. The tradition you work with is alien to these overlords, yet you still need to relate to them as your patrons. What strategies might you devise to enable them to appreciate your art?

  7. Choose any Celtic region (i.e., an individual tribal area, not an entire country or province) and trace in detail the changes in political control over it that occur between 1150 and 1500.

  8. Date and discuss the significance of the following events:

    1. The Treaty of Perth.

    2. The Battle of St-Aubin-du-Cormier.

    3. The Battle of Bannockburn.

    4. The Synod of Kells.