Sunday, 15 June 2014

What is a Bard?

By THLaird Colyne Stewart
(mka Todd H. C. Fischer)
June 2014 (AS 49)

This article is to examine what it means to be a bard within the SCA. It will strongly be coloured by my own experiences and exposure within the Society, but I have tried to make it as broad as possible. If I have left something out, I apologize. No offense was meant to any field of bardic endeavour I may have missed.

A bard was a Celtic poet-singer who composed, sang and/or recited stories, poems and songs. Such entertainers were common in multiple cultures. In Wales the bard was called bardd, in Scandinavia skald, in Anglo-Saxon lands scop, and in Ireland fili (to name just a few examples).

However, bards and their kin were not just entertainers, but scholars, and keepers of oral tradition. They not only entertained but praised those worthy of praise (or those who could reward the bard) and condemned those who had transgressed the common good in some way. They were also repositories of such information as genealogies and the law. As the years progressed, the term was broadened to include composers of the written as well as the oral word. In fact, William Shakespeare is known as “the Bard”.

One of the things that set bards apart from other entertainers is that they did not only recite the work of others, but wrote their own material as well.

The Celtic Bard / Bardd / Fili

In the Celtic world, a bard underwent many years of study at a college, slowly progressing through various levels of aptitude until becoming a master. (Not unlike our modern education system, with undergrads, grad students, doctorate students, and so on.) These ranks and titles were achieved as the bardic students learned new responsibilities and new material. This material not only covered song and poetry, but medicine, law, history, genealogy and philosophy.

According to Master Garraed Galbraith, these ranks were bardagh (under three years of study), fildidh (who had completed between seven and nine years of study and would have been able to judge most crimes) and Ollagh (who had studied for nine years since becoming a fildidh and were held in very high esteem, and were allowed to speak before kings and were considered equal to princes when it came to blood prices).

According to the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the ranks went as follows: Principle Beginner [Ollaire] to Poet's Attendant [Tamhan] to Apprentice Satirisist [Drisac] all within the first year, Pillar [Cli] (after six years), Noble Stream [Anruth] (between seven and nine years), and finally Ollamh (after about twelve years total).

The exact course of study varied from country to country (and, I would imagine, from college to college).

The Scandinavian Skald

The Norse skald was similar, though I have not found any evidence of such a structured training environment. Their duties though were the same as the Celtic bards: to preserve oral tradition, praise the worthy, heap scorn on the low of character, track family trees and record history. Unlike their Celtic counterparts though, skalds could not act as judges in matters of law (unless they were elected to the Thing or Althing).

Primarily, skalds were poets who recited poetry unaccompanied by music.

The Anglo-Saxon Scop

Scops seem to have been essentially a Germanic version of the Norse skald: a poet (usually attached to a court but sometimes itinerant) who performed poetry and preserved culture and history through an oral tradition, who were well known for chastising the ill behaved. Unlike the skald, the scop did recite poetry accompanied by a lyre.

Bards within the SCA

In the Society, the term bard is often used as a blanket term for entertainers and includes activities that might more accurately belong to the traditions of the minstrels [1], troubadours [2], trouvère [3], joglars [4], trobairitz [5], jesters [6] or cantabanks [7]. In fact, when someone in the SCA says they are a bard it could mean they are a singer (and most people who identify as bards do seem to be singers), but they may also be a poet, storyteller, actor, chronicler, historian, musician, chorister [8], mummer [9] or a combination of any or all of those things.


Bards (and especially skalds and scops) were often attached to a specific court or patron, whose exploits they recorded and whose praises they sung. This arrangement is often mirrored in the SCA with kingdoms, baronies, cantons, households and even individuals having their own bard (or bards). These bards may have specific duties such as opening a feast hall through song or story, performing first at a bardic circle, preserving the history of their patron(s), writing SCA genealogies (such as tracking who was squired to who), introducing their patron(s) at tourneys or inspiring troops on the field.

Patronage will likely work different from group to group, so if you are interested in this subject, I suggest you speak to your local bardic college.


If you want a helping hand with your bardic pursuits there should be bards out there willing to help you. Some may even have grant-level or peerage-level awards for their own bardic work. You can talk with your fellow bards through Facebook groups, Yahoo groups, email lists, or even—horrors—approach them in person at an event. If that specific bard doesn’t know the answer to your questions, it’s a good bet they know someone who does.

And, who knows, maybe you get along really well with that bardic Laurel. You may become their apprentice. Apprentice or not, I have found that those inducted into the Order of the Laurel for the Bardic Arts are more than welcoming to anyone who wishes to speak to them on the subject. Don’t be shy; reach out. Send an email; approach them at an event or meeting when they don’t look busy. You may not just get that information or nudge you’ve been looking for; you may make a new friend.

Disciplines of an SCA Bard

From my personal experience, these seem to be the disciplines I most often see bards performing:

  • Songs
  • Poetry
  • Stories
  • Music
  • Plays
  • Histories

All of these disciplines are very broad categories. A poem from 10th century Sweden will have been written differently from one written in 15th century Spain. Some bards may specialize within a certain timeframe (such as pre-Christian Scandinavia) while others will perform and write forms from any medieval place and time. This choice is completely left up to the individual bards. You as a bard should feel free to study, learn and recite from any place or time you want. (That said, your local area may have customs that favour certain forms and you may want to tap into that.)


While some bards in the SCA will write in period fashion (such as writing Norse dróttkvætt [10] or Welsh cywydd deuair hirion [11]) many engage in what is known as filk (or contre-fait). Filking is a modern term for taking the tune from a song and writing new lyrics for it. Outside of the SCA, filks usually make references to science-fiction, fantasy, video games and other ‘geek’ culture. Usually with filk, the borrowed tune is from a modern song. If you’re using a tune from a period song, that is more accurately called contre-fait [12]. Like filk, contre-fait is the practice of taking the tune from an existing song and writing new lyrics for it. This often happened in period, with regional lyrics popping up for the same songs.

So, while if you write a song about your local baroness to the tune of an Abba song, you won’t be making a period piece, you will still be engaging in a period process. As Drottin Gunnar Hlidskijalfsson once remarked to me, “The singing we do is not necessarily to ‘entertain people in a period manner’, but to entertain people ‘as they would have done in period’.”

Both the filked song about your king’s prowess and the correctly smithed sonnet about the queen’s beauty have their place. It is often easier for a new bard to start out by filking and singing the popular patriotic songs of their kingdom, and then to learn authentic practices as they become more comfortable in their roles as bards. Do what seems natural to you.

Duties of an SCA Bard

Alright, so by now let’s say you have decided that, yes, you want to be a bard. You’ve learned what a bard was in period, and have chosen certain disciplines and forms to focus on. You may even have a patron. Now that you are a bard though, what is expected of you?

Well, really, nothing. This is a game after all. You do what you can when you can. That said, listed below are several opportunities for you to practice your bardic talents and try to emulate the behaviour of our poetic ancestors.

First, you can praise the worthy and spread word-fame. If you are at an event and you see something you think is really cool (a great and honourable fight on the lists, a person serving selfless for hours, someone making something awesome) then praise them! Write a poem, a story or a song about that person and spread it far and wide. Post it online in appropriate forums; perform it at feats or fires. One of the coolest aspects of being a bard is getting to praise the worthy acts of others.

A great time to write praise is to mark someone’s achievements, like Master Hector did here:

For Sir Pendaran Glamorgan,
Master of the Pelican, Lion of Ansteorra, Baron of Bryn Gwlad, poet vigilant for the Order of the Laurel, on the eve of his elevation to that Order

You are a Peer, you wear the belt of white,
You wear the splendid spurs and weighty chain;
You also grace the Pelican by right
Of service rendered, time and time again.
You are a Lion, conscience of a King
And keeper of the land you love so well.
Your merits glow in manner poets sing:
What is there left a distant voice may tell?
Beyond the lists, beyond your constant drive
To help, there is the need we two do share.
Without your art, how can a Knight’s heart thrive?
Your service? Poetry beyond compare.
You’ve learned your art brings out from you the best:
Now learn a Laurel is not made for rest.

 Of course, the opposite side of that coin is bards can vituperate the shameful. When someone does something wrong (such as blatantly cheat in a fight) we can, if we wish, write a piece that calls out that person for that behaviour. Be cautious if choosing to do this though. This is our hobby, and no one wants to make enemies in their hobby. If you do feel a need to write something chastising, you can be oblique. Many years ago, I felt that a local monarch had slighted someone who didn’t deserve it, and wrote a poem about it without mentioning any details. Whether the target ever even saw it, or knew it was about what they had done, I have no idea. It was cathartic for me though.


A yawning hole below his feet,
the bard is offered no retreat.
Within lay broken bloody bones
of his patron, amongst the stones.
A call from king to come attend,
his hearthguard to the call contend;
they fought with valour 'gainst the foe
but by the sword was lord laid low.
The king in victory now feasts,
his army to his health now eats,
while in a lonely churchyard stand
a lowly disenheartened band.
No praise from lips of Majesty,
no sign of thanks are given free,
no man of His in rain attends,
no act will this dark error mend.
Singing low the bard offers praise
by reciting proud the unheard lais
that show his master's former might--
his love, his pride, his skill in fight.
The lord's few men together cry,
confine him in the earth to lie,
forgotten by the high born crown
who left him in the mud to drown.

As mentioned earlier, bards in period kept track of genealogies, and SCA bards can do so too. In the Kingdom of Ealdormere, Master Hector of the Black Height maintains ‘The Line of the North’ which tracks the reigns of the kings and queens of the kingdom (and the princes and princesses of the Principality of Ealdormere before them). In a like vein, Baron Cynred Broccan keeps a similar list of the Barons and Baronesses of Septentria. This is a project you as a bard could do for your kingdom, barony, household or peer.

As an example of an SCA genealogy, here is Baron Cynred’s Line of Septentria (which is now slightly out of date):

Hearken Septentria and ne'er forget
For before the Wolf, Ram and Keep,
The Hare and Cup, There was the Bear.
Swift in battle, gifted in arts,
Guardian of hearth, Ealdormere's heart.

And many are the Names held high in our past,
But this, Your Excellencies, is your Lineage.

First came Gillian D'Uriel, Wise foundress of Love's Court
In days of misty past.

Then came Kaffa Murriath, second of that line,
Mother of tradition, true spirit of the land.
And Aeden o Kincora, First of the Patrimony,
Heart of the Bear, Lord Lieutenant of yore.

Then came Diane de Arnot, third of her line,
Hearth keeper, future foundress.
And Cordigan de Arnot, second of his line,
Bardic lord, founding father.

Then came Adrielle Kerrec, fourth of her line,
Flame haired, one true daughter.
And Ieuen MacKellmore, third of his line,
Hearth's shield, called to Crusade.

Then stood Adrielle alone,
Flame's guardian, 'til the next are chosen.

Then came Gaerwen of Trafford, fifth of her line,
People's servant, legend's weaver.
And Cynred Broccan, fourth of his line,
Sure spear, traditions remembered.

And then came Domhnail Galbraith, sixth of her line,
Art's Mistress, fierce sword.
And Corwyn Galbraith, fifth of his line,
Deadly axeman of quiet wisdom.

This then is your heritage, wrapped in legend made truth,
Burden and joy, the High seats of Septentria

Bards can also teach our culture and history to newcomers to our society. And to long time members too. There is always something new to learn. As a bard you can not only recite songs and stories of events that happened long ago, but you can document events as they happen so future generations of Ealdormereans will know of them. Perhaps the most famous piece of bardic work about Ealdormere’s history is Mistress Marian of Heatherdale’s song “The History of Ealdormere: Part 1”. In these opening lyrics she tells us how Sir Finnvarr de Taahe (whose arms feature a star) arrived in what would become Ealdormere, and the founding of the first group in the northlands (the Royal Citie of Eoforwic):

First was the wolf and the wilds and the will
And the rule of the mid-realm king
Long was the night when the wolf pack was still
in their wait for the gathering spring

Soft was the face of the deep-hidden flower
that bloomed in the whispering wood
Strong was the sight of the heaven's red eye
when the dawn was the scarlet of blood

Then came the ship to the ice-ridden shore
that carried the northern star
Proud indeed was the banner they bore
that flew from the uppermost spar

Many a back built the citadel wall
that grew on the banks of the mere
Loud was the sounding of destiny's call
for those with the wisdom to hear.

(The entirety of these lyrics are too long to reprint here, but they can be found online. Note that if you are unsure of the events described in this song, you can read Marian’s notes in the Call the Names Songbook, which you can purchase off her website. I have included a link in the bibliography.)

Whatever duties you may want to take on are between you and any patron(s) or mentor(s) you may have. You may have no delegated duties; you may have many. It all depends on your personal situation and what you are comfortable with doing.

Speaking of comfort, I will note that working in the bardic arts can be a great way to increase your comfort zone. When I was named Bard of Septentria (jointly, with THL Þorfinna gráfeldr), I had only been in the Society for a year. I had never performed publicly before. These were my thoughts on the matter at the time I was stepping down from the office, as related in my article “The Role of the Ursine Bard”:

However, as fairly introverted individuals for a time we dreaded attending Septentrian events. Neither of us wanted to get up and perform. But we did. We were honour bound to Cynred and Gaerwen, to the people of Septentria to fulfill our duties. So we sang at Snowed Inn (me very poorly). At Bad in Plaid I told my first story (‘The Tale of the Badger Broccan,’ which broke the Thegn and earned me my second ever token). As each event came we became more comfortable and now I am rarely nervous when I perform. (Outwardly anyway. My hands still shake, but I don’t dread the act anymore. In fact, I like it now.) Being made Ursine Bard forced me to participate, instead of just observing. It has been one of the greatest gifts I have been given.

I hope that your pursuits of the Bardic Arts are likewise as rewarding.


"Anglo Saxon Scops,", 09 Jun 2014 

The Bardic Sourcebook, John Matthews, ed., Blandford, London, 1998.


Gararred Glabraith, OL; personal correspondence.

The Call the Names Songbook, Mistress Marian of Heatherdale,

“For Sir Pendaran Glamorgan”, Master Hector of the Black Height.

“Forgotten”, THLaird Colyne Stewart,

“The History of Ealdormere”,, Mistress Marion of Heatherdale,

Itinerant Poet, Wikipedia,

“The Line of Septentria”, The Ursus May 2008, Baron Cynred Broccan, page 4,

“The Line of the North”, Master Hector of the Black Height,

Mummers Plays, Wikipedia,

“The Role of the Ursine Bard”, THLaird Colyne Stewart,

Royal Genealogy of the Known World,

Welcome to the Skald’s Corner, The Vikings World,

What is a Bard, The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids,


The Bardic College of Ealdormere,

The Bardic College of Ealdormere (Yahoo group),

THLaird Colyne Stewart is a student of the written word. He is the Curator of the Atheneaum Hectoris, the Precentor of the Scriptorium, the Royal Historian of Ealdormere, the Baronial Historian of Septentria, a chronicler and a member of the Bardic College of Ealdormere. He is a past Bard of Septentria and one of the founders of the now defunct Septentrian Performing Arts Troupe. In the modern world he holds a degree in English and Creative Writing and has studied writing, storytelling and folklore.

[1] A minstrel was a European traveling entertainer, usually a singer and musician. They would create their own material, and perform that of others.
[2] A troubadour was a composer and performer of Old Occitan lyric poetry between 1100 and 1350. As opposed to the itinerant minstrels, troubadours were sponsored by aristocrats, or were aristocrats themselves.
[3] A trouvère was a troubadour from northern France who composed in their local French dialects.
[4] A joglar was an itinerant entertainer who sang songs, recited poems and engaged in acrobatics and juggling.
[5] A trobairitz was a female troubadour.
[6] Jesters were not only poets and story tellers, they were also acrobats, jugglers and musicians.
[7] Cantabanks were traveling poets and singers who were considered to be low class. They usually did not compose their own works. Sometimes also called gleemen or ciclers.
[8] A chorister is a member of a musical chorus.
[9] A mummer is a folk performer who took part in folk plays.
[10] Dróttkvætt is a Scandinavian poetic form used between 900 and 1400.
[11] Cywydd deuair hirion is an ancient Welsh poetic form.
[12] This is a term I read in an SCA paper many years ago, that I can no longer find.


  1. Congratulations to THLaird Colyne Stewart for an extremely well written article! Though I'm new to our SCA organization, I am a "Bard" so to speak in our world, being that I'm an author (Middle Grade Fantasy). So I found this article very interesting, informative, and well researched. Thanks for the great post, Cynthia Berst, Shire of Bronzehelm, Montana.

    1. Very glad you found it useful! Thank you for the kind words!