AES DANA (Medieval Ireland)

Aes Dana (literally, "the people of skill, craft") is a collective term which identifies the practitioners of certain professions held in high esteem in medieval Ireland, while also distinguishing them from the farming community (aes trebtha). The aes dana comprised professions involving not only skills of artisanship, but also speech and knowledge. Examples of such people were doctors, lawyers, judges, harpists, and blacksmiths. Not so clear, however, is whether ecclesiastical scholars (typically called scribae and sapientes) belong in this broad category. In the hierarchical society that was early Ireland the aes dana enjoyed special status. Thus, for example, the law tracts stipulated stiffer penalties for offenses against such people and conferred greater weight on their sworn evidence. Likewise, early Irish literature attests to a prejudice in their favor over other classes, perhaps because that literature was composed by members of the aes dana. For example, an Old Irish proverb declares that "an art is better than an inheritance of land."

Within the aes dana itself there were hierarchies, to judge by the scale of honor-prices accorded them in native Irish law (Brehon Law). Lowest in status were artisans such as the turner and leatherworker; somewhat higher the chariot builder and the engraver; higher again the harpist; and at the high end as a group, such professions as blacksmith, carpenter, physician, and lawyer. The lawyer, in turn, could be either judge (brithem) or advocate (aigne). The former at the highest level of his profession served as the official judge of the people and the legal advisor of the king (brithem tuaithe).

But preeminent among the aes dana was the profession of poetry (filidecht). Just as the word dan had the specialized meaning of "poem," so too those who composed poetry, the filid ("poets"), were regarded as the aes dana par excellence. Alone among the secular aes dana they enjoyed the privilege of nemed, a quasi-sacred status that put them on a par with the king and the bishop of the people. To them was entrusted the preservation and transmission of senchas, the body of knowledge, usually transmitted in verse, which comprised the traditional lore of the tuath. It included such matter as the genealogies of the ruling family, dind-shenchas (the lore of places), and the origin legends of the tribe. In early Irish literature they were often credited with the power of prophecy (the word fili is etymologically connected with "seer"), the imbas foro-sna (literally, "encompassing knowledge which illuminates"). Thus, at the beginning of the Tain bo Cuailgne ("the Cattle-Raid of Cooley") a woman fili named Fedelm prophesies disaster for Queen Medb’s expedition into Ulster, declaring that she "sees" red on the army. This and certain other aspects of the fili’s functions may have been inherited from the druids, presumably another group of the aes dana, who died out after the introduction of Christianity.

The exalted status of the highest grade of fili, the ollam, depended in the first instance on acquisition of the necessary qualifications. An eighth-century Old-Irish legal tract, Uraicecht na Riar ("the Primer of Rules"), discusses the training of the fili. It required many years of education during which the aspiring candidate moved successively through seven grades (and three sub-grades) of learning, probably on the analogy of the ecclesiastical grades. The distinction between one grade and the next was a matter of learning, not office. Additionally, the profession was hereditary: A fili had to be the son and grandson of a fili. Once he acquired his position, he was expected to behave in a manner appropriate to a nemed person. It was his duty to eulogize the king and, where necessary, to satirize injustices within the tuath. By means of this role, he performed both a normative and corrective function which no one else (except perhaps the cleric) could dare undertake. Although not an entertainer as such, he was expected to be able to recite traditional tales when called upon by the king. His poems had to be competent in subject-matter, and technically without flaw. More broadly, as the repository of tribal sen-chas (which he had memorized), the fili was expected not only to conserve this lore in versified form but also to interpret it and make it relevant to his own time. In addition to the fili, there was another, inferior, type of poet, known as the bard. What primarily distinguished the two was the bard’s lack of professional training. He was someone with natural ability who had not studied in the poetic schools; he might, for example, perform compositions of the fili.

By the thirteenth century, control of the profession of filidecht had shifted to a group of literary families who trained candidates for the profession in what are commonly called the Bardic Schools. No doubt, the realignment was related to major ecclesiastical and political changes that occurred during the twelfth century: the demise of the older churches following ecclesiastical reforms and the introduction of the Continental religious orders; and the Anglo-Norman invasion. But how it was effected remains unclear; one suggestion is that the new learned families were the descendants of hereditary officials who maintained possession of monastic lands after the monasteries themselves, the original centers of learning, had disappeared. Their ability to adapt to the new political order meant that they maintained (and even enhanced) their special status by receiving patronage from the Gaelicized Norman lords.

Two other branches of the aes dana that thrived in the post-Norman period were law and medicine. Again, these were controlled by certain families, who trained suitable candidates in their schools and depended on the Gaelic and Gaelicized Norman aristocracy for patronage. For example, the Ua hIceadha (O’Hickey) family served as physicians to the Ua Briain rulers of Thomond, and the Ua Casaide (O’Cassidy) family to Mag Uidhir (Maguire) of Fermanagh. Since all of these professions, especially the poets, depended on the patronage of the ruling families, the collapse of the Gaelic order in the seventeenth century inevitably brought their demise.

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