Species Mentioned: A group of less than stellar warriors are compared with a flock of mewling seagulls (Larus argentatus). Sorry guys.
Source: A poem by the historical Taliesin, one of the most famous Welsh bards ever to live. This is impressive since (i) he may not have been Welsh (ii) he would have taken offence at the term ‘bard’ (iii) he may never have existed.
Date of Source: Traditionally c.550-600, but perhaps centuries later.
Highlights: The comparison with seagulls is not a flattering one for the Cumbrian heroes but Taliesin tells it like it is: ‘They didn’t fight well, there’s no point denying it’. Ouch.
THE TEXT AND ITS DATE
Taliesin is the most famous Welsh poet and absolutely everything about him is controversial. For medievalists that means two things: (i) most scholars will never dare to mention him and (ii) it’s really fun but completely deceptive to try and read anything written by non-scholars about him.
Our source for the Taliesin poems is Peniarth 2 (The Book of Taliesin), from c.1300-1350 A.D. (Huws, 2000, p.79). Unfortunately for us, the material of this manuscript is very diverse. There are (still) eleven poems sung to praise Urien Rheged and his armies, which may be the work of a bard called Taliesin of the sixth century. However there are also some obscure poems which are much more metaphysical and ambiguous in meaning. These were most probably written by a poet or poets borrowing Taliesin’s name in the tenth century. The first Taliesin is called the ‘historical Taliesin’ and the second ‘the legendary Taliesin’. There are also several fragments which have nothing to do with Taliesin at all (Caerwyn Williams, 1987 trans.).
Scholars have traditionally explained the links between this material like so:
- The historical Taliesin lived along with Urien in Rheged in the second half of the sixth century. This poet is listed in the ninth century ‘Historia Brittonum’ and inspired later legends.
- Over the centuries after his death, Taliesin gained a cult following. He was seen as one of the foremost bards ever to write and ascribed mystical powers.
- In or around the tenth century a series of verses were written in Taliesin’s voice, extolling his magical powers. A mythical story of his life was also written explaining how he acquired his powers from the Cauldron of Knowledge, changed into different animals to escape a witch, and lived with Elphin in the court of Urien.
- This character continued to be popular for the next few centuries eventually leading to the creation of the Book of Taliesin which gathered together a number of materials relevant to the bard.
To add further complication, the kingdom of Rheged where Taliesin is said to have written this poem is usually thought to have been centred around Carlisle on the border between north England and south Scotland. Some scholars are uncomfortable with calling the language of this area ‘Welsh’ since it is far outside of Wales. The poems are in a Welsh manuscript, and tend to be edited towards a modern Welsh orthography, by scholars of medieval Welsh, but might be more appropriately thought of as ‘British’. They may well have as much in common with Cornish as they do with Welsh. In the sixth century most of Britain probably spoke a single British language with dialects of Cornish, Welsh, Cumbric etc. This language may have been mutually intelligible with Pictish, spoken in Scotland. English, Scots and Gaelic began to be widely spoken at the end of the sixth century.
Our text comes from the opening verse of a poem called ‘Rheged Arise’. This is usually seen as the work of the ‘historical Taliesin’ and therefore might be regarded as having been originally composed in the sixth century, although many scholars would be uncomfortable with anything more than a tentative suggestion of date.
The seagulls enter ‘Rheged Arise’ in line 5 of the text (Pennar, 1988, p.83):
Verse 1 of ‘Rheged Arise’
Rheged arise, the spawner of kings,
I have watched over you even though I am not one of yours
Blades and spears in battle wheeze;
Men moan behind their shields.
The poignant cries of seagulls are those of our boys in Mathrau
Not too well did they fight around their king
To lie would be bad.
The word used for seagulls is ‘gwylein’. Today in Welsh the plural has changed in form but the word is still instantly recognisable (‘gwylanod’).
Clearly in this poem’s world the seagulls are not real animals. The term is being used metaphorically. ‘The poignant cries of seagulls are those of our boys in Mathrau’ means that the soldiers of the text are mewling like seagulls. The term ‘gwylein’ could refer to any species of gull (Laridae), but considering relative species frequency and the fact that the seagull-men are ‘moaning’ in the line before, the most probably species intended is the herring gull (L. argentatus) (Hume, 2002, accompanying CD).
Herring gulls are probably the ‘seagulls’ you are most familiar with if you live in northern Europe. They nest together in colonies and flock together to find food, although once they find food they jealously guard it from other birds. They are a highly vocal species and are constantly in communication which has led to many people complaining about their noise over the last century.
This insult of comparing warriors to a flock of seagulls is immediately obvious to a modern reader, but the strength of the metaphor might be hidden. The comparison of men with seagulls absolutely contrasts with the usual view of warriors which I have previously described. Ordinarily warriors are compared with hawks, falcons and eagles. They are the ones who feed the ravens and create blood baths to please the wolves. The disparity between the usually heroic imagery and the idea of men moaning and crying like seagulls is striking. Taliesin is directly and horribly satirising the warriors who took part in this battle.
There is another problem with our view of this situation. Today in the UK you can find seagulls in almost every town. They are one of the most common urban detrivores and scavengers, they are seen even more frequently than pigeons (C. livia) in some British cities. But this hasn’t always been true. Before the 1920s, seagulls were not very often seen nesting inland (BTO, 2005; Fitter, 1959, p.4). They actually caught their own fish in estuaries and on coastlines. Black-headed gulls were the first to move inland, before they were followed by herring gulls a few years later. These are still the most popular urban scavengers today.
Whenever this poem was written, it was a long time before seagulls became such intrusive nuisances in urban areas. The poet’s reference the birds suggests they were still common enough in coastal areas that the audience would be able to imagine the cry of the seagull without any difficulties.
In modern folklore of the Celtic areas the seagull is a very important bird. The bird’s cry invokes homesickness and the seagulls of a particular area are thought to be tied to it and to represent it. The modern Scottish Gaelic expression ‘Faoileag againn fhèin’ is used to describe an old neighbour or member of the family – i.e. the English term ‘one of us’. In Brittany, I have heard the souls of old sea-captains are said to turn into herring gulls (Fr: ‘goéland argenté’) and continue to haunt the shores they sailed.
These pieces of folklore do permit alternative interpretations of the text. It is possible the men in Mathrau died, and that’s why they are being heard as seagulls. This would help explain why the cries of the seagulls are poignant, but Taliesin’s jibe at these men would seem much crueller if they all died in battle. Although the idea that souls become birds is a very common motif in medieval Irish and Welsh literature, the idea that they become seagulls in particular is less well attested. The safer interpretation is to contrast the mewling seagull-men with the usual heroic falcon-warriors.
This text suggests that the herring gull was a well known bird to medieval northern British audiences, even though formerly it was not as widespread as it is today. The herring gull today is known for its loud and penetrating cry, and it seems to have also had this fame in the early medieval period.
The reference also suggests the herring gull was not highly thought of. Taliesin is not complementing the warriors by comparing them to seagulls. On a list of honourable and respected birds, seagulls were clearly near the bottom of the list, with hawks, eagles and falcons (the more usual comparison for a warrior) near the top.
BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) (2005), Herring Gull. (Birdfacts, BTO.org, [accessed 25/5/14])
Caerwyn Williams, J.E. (1987 trans.) The Poems of Taliesin. (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies)
Fitter, R.S.R. (1959) London’s Natural History. (London, Collins)
Hume, R. (2002) Complete Birds of Britain and Europe. (DK, London)
Huws, D. (2000) Medieval Welsh Manuscripts. (University of Wales Press, Cardiff)
Pennar, M. (1988) Taliesin Poems. (Llanerch, Felinfach)