Bards and Storytelling

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Gobae
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Bards and Storytelling

Post by Gobae »

While we were sitting around the evening fire at the last summer solstice enjoying the immersion, we noticed something distinctly missing. Stories.

As it turns out, while we were busy making all the material items that the Celts used, we were forgetting an integral part of their lives. The ancient Celts relied heavily on stories, and oral history for their culture.

Who else here is regularly incorporating storytelling or a bardic event into their living history events?

Is it for your group's entertainment or for the public?

Do you memorize in the original language, use a translation, or just know the story well enough to ad lib?

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Storytelling etc

Post by jelayemprins »

Hi there

I regularly organise events with storytelling as a major part of the public display - all part of trying to please 5 senses I guess. Most of my shows are medieval.

At most of my public display events planned for 2008 the following will be on offer. [Most of the performers are professional btw.]

Storytelling - either period specific, such as Chaucer for late 14th century, or general historical dependent on type of event. This is always useful for little kids who like stories of princessess, dragons etc... I've learned a couple as well- we use them for banquet entertainment...

Minstrels and music - as above, gets more difficult the further back you go as the tunes have gone, but get the instruments right and you're well on the way.

Singing - single voice- latin plainchant and complex melody, and multi voice - favourite tunes such as the Agincourt carol.

Plays - mummers and mystery -

Puppetry.

Holi Religion- always present- I never do an event without it.

Food and drink - as accurate as possible. Especially bread baking.

If you fancy a chat with the Storyteller then PM me and i'll give you his details. Or if you want to come to a show and see it in action...

Have a good new Year!
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Post by Marcus Woodhouse »

I like the Agincourt Carol as well "Deo gracis Anglia, Deo gracis Anglia..."
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Post by Cat »

I have storytold before; what I do is learn the plot of the story, then tell it in my own way with my own embellishments. I can't do it if i'm too pished, as I forget where I am and either go into minute detail or ramble myself in circles!
Celt Martin of GCoT and a couple of the other occasionally Woady types are the ones to ask.
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ViscontesseD'Asbeau
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Post by ViscontesseD'Asbeau »

Not sure if you mean loose rambling storytelling or actually doing what bards did. And there's a HUGE difference between them!

Have never done this in a re-enactment way as the periods I loved enough to get a degree in (Old Norse and Old English with a lot of snooze-worthy medieval stuff thrown in), I've never wanted to re-enact. Had an article out a year or two back about the survival of the bardic tradition into Anglo Saxon culture, though, so it's something I done a bit of research on. And whilst I'm widely read in celtic stuff it's only in translation so I wouldn't calim to have any knowledge of it, knowing plenty of Scots, Welsh and Irish friends who can read their languages. I'd be happy to help any Dark Ages re-enactors who want help in pronouncing their Old English or Old Norse - PM me anytime and I'll help if I can! But, in terms of re-enacting it, the more you know of it, the less likely you'd be to attempt it, am afraid.

So... I can only answer with any real knowledge here re. the Anglo Saxon or viking stuff, only having read 'Celtic' stories in translation, and aware that most of the translations are dodgy. (You'll be aware of all the kerfuffle surrounding the Mabinogion, for example).

But the idea of a 'bard' survived into Anglo Saxon culture as the 'scop'. (See the fragmentary poem 'Deor' for an idea about bards and how they lived their lives).

Problem with the Anglo Saxon scop, is the same as the British bards from what we know - they'd memorise genealogies as long as yer arm and poems like Beowulf say, tens of thousands of lines long. There is no way to do that accurately, and not much chance to improvise unless you know the structures and metres backwards. But from the linguistic clues we know it happened as so much earlier grammatical forms etc are somehow preserved in a version which seems to have been told for at least a couple of hundred years orally, before it was ever written down. Bards, like scops were favoured people - so probably high status clothes, not the romantic down at heel troubadour 1950's Technicolour view of say medieval minstrels that re-enactors have, in the later periods. And bards had a long, intensive training as we know from the later survivals of them into the xian period, in Ireland. It's not a vague, waffly modern storytelling - it's a precise art, and a feat of memorisation we can't begin to comprehend in our sound byte 21stC world.

Then you have the textual problems of the older, oral culture often only surviving because it's been recorded by monks, so some pretty dire xian 'literary' accretions overlay older, more valuable poetry. Yet even experienced philologists wouldn't be able to tease it all apart, although we can say with some certainty, that in oral cultures, epics like say, Beowulf, have evolved and changed considerably over generations of telling then again, in the writing down of them.

So you're left with a few problems - the length and scope of material memorized (not a few hundred lines, but many thousands it appears...) and then the language thing (is it valid in translation? Is it valid if the audience can't understand it? Is it valid unless prnounced by someone who's spent years learning it in the original, at a high level rather than translations done by ill-educated dilletantes off the net! etc etc). On the other hand, why leave it out when it was such an entrenched part of the culture?

The celtic method of training bards appears to have been very formalised and rigid. We don't know if it was quite the same in Anglo Saxon England. I somehow doubt it - think the druids went the extra mile with their 19 year thing.

Those appalling medieval frenchified bits of minstrelsy nonsense would be very hard to sit through - in translation or in Anglo-Norman, in entireity or edited. Bit of a turn off for the crowd. The earlier stuff you're talking about - depends where you're coming from. Not Lady Guest, I hope! I dunno - am torn between the purist part of me and the make-it-accessible part of me, and it's an interesting q. But as I say, the only 'celtic' stuff I know is essentially medieval so also prone to some claptrap and later add-ons. I wouldn't want to hear someone reciting Seamus Heaney's Beowulf, worthy as that is, for example (dunno the 'celtic' equivalent apart from the Mab) - but I wouldn't want to hear someone who learned Anglo Saxon themselves try and do it, in the original either. Dunno the answer to this one. But it is problematic. Paraphrase and re-tall is probably the nearest you can get but doesn't even begin to get close to the way it appears (from the AS sources) to have been done. (And recalling that bards spent 19 years in training, most of which seems to have involved feats of memory). I spose one answer is do it well - or not at all.

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Post by RottenCad »

Vd'A

Please take this at face value, but how is one (academic or otherwise) able to claim accurate pronunciation of an essentially dead / metamorphosed language? I think of the Church Latin / phonetic Latin dichotomy, or even in modern times the stressed long or short "a" sound, such as "Mast / marst", "bath / barth" which is dialectically distinct as one hits different regions.

I'm (obviously!) not from that realm of Academe, or I wouldn't be asking such a stupid - if not downright impertinent - question. But I am genuinely curious / intrigued...

TTFN,

Cad
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Post by Cat »

Cad, I'm coming from the same non-academic point as you, but the reading I've done around the history and development of the language leads me to think that a lot of the early stuff was written phonetically.

This (as far as I can work out) is how the great vowel shift was postulated, by the spellings of (f'rex) Mr Chaucer...he spells Moon as Moun (IIRC) so we can postulate that the vowel 'o' was pronounced further back in the mouth...this is just one example of evidence, it's been a while since I read around it.
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Post by Gobae »

ViscontesseD'Asbeau wrote:Not sure if you mean loose rambling storytelling or actually doing what bards did. And there's a HUGE difference between them!
Since I originally started this topic I guess I've come to the same conclusion you have.

(See if I'm summarizing this right). You can't do a truly Iron Age Celtic Bardic living history presentation for 2 reasons: 1) Our knowledge of the original linguistics and bardic training are mangled/incomplete/inaccurate for a variety of reasons. 2) Even if we did have enough knowledge to pull it off accurately it would be dreadfully boring because virtually no one speaks the original languages or understands the cultural contexts and significances of the bardic styles.

But there is a middle ground where the storytelling isn't just "rambling", but instead does get to the heart of the tale and is still accessible to modern listeners. Since my first goal is to get our members interested in the "Myths" and entertain them, I think I will shoot for this first.

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Post by ViscontesseD'Asbeau »

RottenCad wrote:Vd'A

Please take this at face value, but how is one (academic or otherwise) able to claim accurate pronunciation of an essentially dead / metamorphosed language? I think of the Church Latin / phonetic Latin dichotomy, or even in modern times the stressed long or short "a" sound, such as "Mast / marst", "bath / barth" which is dialectically distinct as one hits different regions.

I'm (obviously!) not from that realm of Academe, or I wouldn't be asking such a stupid - if not downright impertinent - question. But I am genuinely curious / intrigued...

TTFN,

Cad
That's an interesting question and one German scholars spent a lot of the 19thC debating, British scholars joined in by the 20thC too!

I can;t give you the scholarly version just the noddy one as that's all I can recall.

How do we reconstruct a language's pronunciation? In a sense there are clues backwards and forwards - in how language changes and develops (and it does so in fairly predictable ways) - so we can look at Modern English and then back at OE and figure a few things out.... Then also, looking back to the family of languages - West Germanic - from which it came. Eg: the modern word for our language is 'English' but in OE, they wrote it 'Englisc'. This gives us the clue that -sc is pronounced -sh. And then you see it repeated over and again in similar words, which have Modern English equivalents. In the 19thC, European scholars figured out the putative common language where the roots of many European languages lie - Indo-European, and slowly they developed theories as to how the languages mutate and change, reconstructing pronunciation as they went.

The scholars are still arguing over how ancient Greek was pronounced but OE is less complicated, in a sense.

Very few (less than a dozen) words from our older, Prettanic language managed to survive into Anglo Saxon, and thence into Mdn English. (I always find that really amazing). So that doesn't seem to queer the pitch in any way, re. pronunciation.

English was made more complicated re. pronunciation, when it got ruined by the Frenchification because that brought in a lot of borrowings and influences that made it less clear cut. It became grammatically less sophisticated by the Middle Ages, as we lost lots of morphological detail and also gained a lot of French vocab, as well as borrowings from 'classical' languages.

You get further clues in borrowings from other scholarly languages - how they're rendered into OE. What rhymes with what, where the stresses fall, how many sounds add up to a line, etc. But essentially, it's something we can take a stab at, knowing, say how vowel sounds mutate over time. Also, our concept of 'English' is informed by Modern English of course - which is full of weird hybrid words, borrowings, and the creep-in of various bits and pieces. So, for example, in Mdn E we have the concept of 'silent letters'. That's because words like 'psychology' have borrowed roots. In OE, there were no 'silent letters'. Things were pretty well said as written (that said, the alphabet had more letters, omitted a few familiar ones, etc).

Also, the language was inflected with 5 cases, and 3 genders. Inflected languages for some reason I don't understand, tend to have fairly rigid and predictable pronunciation rules (compare French to Mdn English for example - once you know the basics of how to pronounce it, you can pronounce things you can't even understand. OE is the same!) Mdn English is a strange and subtle thing, the most complex language in the world in terms of vocab - and yet its old, rich morphological diversity has gone. The complexity that made OE predictable and reconstructable is, ironically, gone by the time you get to Mdn English.

I should point out there are various dialects. The usual literary one is West Saxon. There would be wide variations in terms of accent, such as we have today - and so what most British university educated Old English speakers, speak is probably pretty well West Saxon. The vowel sounds shift first and further, as a rule.

We also have many clues in the extant poetry as much of it conforms to given metres which tells us that the 'ae' sound, for example, is a short a. Stresses seem to have been usually on the first syllable - like Mdn British English as opposed to say, American English. (Ber-nard, not Ber- NARD). Again we can tell this from words cropping up in poetic context.

I know that's an inadequate answer but hope it goes some way.

Steve Pollington has a tape called Aergeweorc: Old English Verse and Prose

where you can hear this beautiful language spoken.

Gobae (That would be 'Go-bah' in OE!) - think you have hit the right note with it - if you can find something better than drunken rambling but obviously can't approximate what the bards did, but at least do some storytelling - that would be a good idea! My only caveat with what the xians call 'mythology' is to remember you have to render it as if telling it to an audience who knows it backwards, who believe it - done with respect, I mean, which I'm sure you're well able to do!

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Post by Marcus Woodhouse »

But it is mythology, VA, just as you can have Christian mythology and even scientific mythology. A myth explains what is unexplainable in the world.
Now that may be the world growing out of an egg, the Gods warring in the heavens, Adam and Eve or the theory of evolution, they all try to explain something that cannot be proved beyond a doubt and all depend upon an element of faith.
As a teacher I always point out to the children I work with that what I or they may call a myth was, or may well still be another persons accepted fact, and yes i include the Genesis explaination of creation, along with those of the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and the Hindu religion.
I suspect even when the stories were first told by the way there would have been Celts/Jews/Vikings sitting there thinking "This sounds like a load of B***cks to me but hey its a great story".
I imagine most of the myths we tell have little in relation to the magic they must have created when they were first told, translation and context will have undone that.
I still recall playing D&D for the first time and encountering a horde of skeletons-my only concept of them came from watching Jason and the Argonauts and I was genuinally frightened, how could I possibly kill something that was already dead? How could I stab something that had no flesh? A few games latter though and that magic had gone.
And of course we really have no idea what or how bards really told their stories as the Romans (who were also a "pagan" race), then the Church then the English, then the Reformation, then the Enlightenmen have all played a part in obliterating the world in which those stories were first told.
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Post by ViscontesseD'Asbeau »

I take your point and agree with you, but it misses mine a little. What I meant was - what is implicit with a 19 year long training cycle is one hell of a lot of belief. And in terms of portraying that, it would be fantastic to see it done 'from the heart' with some real respect and sincerity - regardless of what the audience thought of the story being told - what counts is what the teller thinks about it. I'd love to see it done not in a drunken, rambling storytelling way as some have said they've done it above - but with respect and sincerity, so you can maybe convince as someone who deeply believes what they're telling, relating something real and authentic to them not someone recounting 'myth' in a worthy, teachery sort of way. If that makes sense! :D

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Post by Thor Ewing »

Hi Gobae!

There is, as you say, a middle ground. I specialise in telling stories that were told in the past, and trying to get to the nub of them in a historical context. I have told stories for Roman, Celtic, Medieval, Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Tudor events - I have even been a storyteller at a pre-historic event! See my storytelling page at http://www.historicalarts.co.uk/thor/stories.html

Each tradition needs its own approach, because each makes different basic assumptions about what a story is, or is for. This is why V d'A finds medieval romances to be boring - but I'm sure that a good performance could persuade her otherwise.

I'd say the teller needs to take his/her cue from the story itself, rather than from any preconceived ideas about what it should have meant. Having said that, unless you utterly believe in the meaning of the story, you cannot hope to put it across. This calls for a willingness to engage with other approaches to the big questions of life, but without ever drawing attention to it in performance. Perhaps, the reason there are so few good storytellers today is that our culture has developed a very simplistic attitude towards belief. Luckily, most listeners are still very ready to abandon their literal-minded world when they hear a tale well told.

Because of the need to believe in what you are telling, there are stories which I don't do. This is usually because they don't persuade me - probably a different storyteller would jump at some of these. At other times it is because I deeply disagree with a story's underlying philosophy, which is why I won't tell gothic horror stories.

Unfortunately, I don't do very many events as a storyteller, because 9 times out of 10, the organiser wants you to tell jolly stories to little children beside a merry-go-round. I'm all for stories for children (I have two wee ones myself), but it's not really what I do best. For me, the best audiences include both adults and older children - they help each other to listen and understand simply by their presence together.

Best wishes,
Thor

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Post by James Bretlington »

I've done a brief History of the Crusades in story form to 8 year old kids on a school gig. Managed to keep their attention as well, though that may have something to do with the sword I was waving around to emphasise points in the story.

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Post by Cat »

Re: Vd'A's ' drunken, rambling' comment. The point I was making was that you can't do it if you've had more than a drink or two.

Gobae, for what it's worth, a bunch of friends would probably (and this again is only my thoughts on this) be unlikely to be in the august presence of a trained bard... imagine the fee, because I don't imagine that after a training of 19 years that I'd do it for nothing.
Learn the plot of Beowulf or which ever ancient story takes your fancy. Then just go for it. It's meant to be fun.
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Post by ViscontesseD'Asbeau »

You know, occurs to me if you're portraying an essentially oral culture - which the AS feats of memorization suggest was the norm - then it would be an omission not to find someone who could attempt this. But not in a half assed way. Find a real pagan! :D

Not your period, but... Tell you what strikes me as an appalling lack of imagination - when I see medieval people 'doing' Chaucer (yet again). It's too obvious and kids doing GCSE are already turned off by it at school (I know the examining board they use round here 'did' Chaucer recently). Any medievalist worth their salt would know some far more unusual stuff.

BTW reading 'Beowulf' in translation (esp a modern translation) won't necessarily give you the plot as them translations can be er 'free'. To the point of omitting the entire second plotline of the story. Ditto anything else not written in accessible (ie: Modern) English!

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Post by lidimy »

ViscontesseD'Asbeau wrote:

Not your period, but... Tell you what strikes me as an appalling lack of imagination - when I see medieval people 'doing' Chaucer (yet again). It's too obvious and kids doing GCSE are already turned off by it at school (I know the examining board they use round here 'did' Chaucer recently). Any medievalist worth their salt would know some far more unusual stuff.
V d'A - I disagree. Having a Medieval story teller doing Chaucer, IMO, brings it to life in a vivid and real way. At Kenilworth I was absolutely thrilled to watch two costumed story tellers recounting some of Chaucer's tales, just a few weeks before I had my AS exam for Eng Lit where we had been studying it. So I don't think their value for school children should be underestimated, rather, it can do wonders. Definitely 'Assessment Objective 5'. :lol: Equally, Chaucer is a household name and therefore may be easier to connect with.

Just some personal thoughts - I know for some people doing Chaucer, Shakespeare etc at school is a major turn off, but 'performing' them might be a turning point for some people :D
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Post by ViscontesseD'Asbeau »

It's way too obvious though - far better stuff (not talking literary merit here, but interesting, weird and dark stuff) and only the tip of the iceberg translated therefore accessible to the sort of people who are going to attempt it. Why go for the obvious stuff that kiddies in school do?

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Post by lidimy »

Maybe it's popular for a reason :D
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Post by gregory23b »

"It's way too obvious though"

perhaps for practical reasons, so that the curriculum can be assessed across the board, and there is an expectation that Chaucer 'was the 14thc', erroneous I know, but he was also popular in his own time. Plus for any analytical excercise there is probably loads of 3rd party source material to draw from....
middle english dictionary

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Post by ViscontesseD'Asbeau »

Because someone with no knowledge of Middle English can read it, it's so late. :lol: Shows a lack of real knowledge when there is some good stuff (usually anonymous) out there. I doubt that would trouble many people anyways - but I do have a laugh to myself when I see it yet again. Be nice for someone to take it seriously enough to drop the cliches and look for something new but not my period, luckily for me! I've seen it done and done well by someone with a doctorate in medieval lit - but I want to see something new. Too much to ask?

Plenty of stuff of equal merit is just sitting there, for anyone who cares to find it. And again Chaucer's high literary culture - (be fun to watch someone argue that one :wink: ) not the oral culture this thread is talking about, so an irrelevance - just an aside. In terms of storytelling text is not what we're discussing here - but something more powerful, which has few vestigial traces in any literature, something much earlier than late medieval.

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Post by lidimy »

Sorry - didn't mean to Cuba! :D
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Story telling

Post by Cyt »

As a re-enactor for over 30 years, and a Pagan, I think Vicontesse D’Asbeau and some others have it right. You have to believe the story, not just read it as it is printed. At a recent Pagan ‘do’ I organised, one of our number told the story of Rhiannon and Pwll, but from the Woman’s perspective. It was magical! Hoping to get some similar stories at our Samhain (Al – Hallows) event.
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Post by burton_kane »

I was just at the battle of the Bards at Flagg fen Iron Age village.
Which many fine bard type people were taking part including my wife and one of her best friends call robin.

Now robin won the event and is official bard of the fens for a year and a day. He is a practicing Druid, as he explains it the levels of druid include the ability to recall a certain number of stories and poems from memory at any given time. As well as know the various forms of poetic meter used to create new poems and stories. From what I’ve seen and heard of him over the last 15 years he has lots of names of gods and goddess and well a heroes and villain to remember and the basic facts of the story the telling can be different as long as the basics are correct. Celtic poems on the other hand have to say as learnt. Robin can quote most poems in both welsh or Irish Celtic and in modern English.

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