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Literature in Medieval Scotland
Medieval literature, the kind Niall and Allene, in Blue Bells of Scotland, would have known, would have involved religious writings, folk stories, allegories, and tales of adventure and romance. They lived more than a century before the Gutenberg press, when books were produced by monks, copying by hand, and education was not as widespread as it is today. Most stories would have been passed on by traveling bards, or told in the great hall during meals.
Among the stories Niall and Allene, living in the early 14th Century Highlands, might have known, would be that of King Herla, the king who disappeared into the earth to spend three days at a Dwarf King’s wedding, and emerged three hundred years later, or the true story of Thomas the Rhymer, a thirteenth century Scottish laird from Earlston, then known as Erceldoune, in Berwickshire. Like King Herla, Thomas the Rhymer is said to have disappeared, in his case with the Fairy Queen whom he kissed and followed to Fairyland for seven years. In some versions of the story, he claims to have been gone only days.
It is possible Niall and Allene were familiar with Arthurian legends. The Roman de Fergus, believed to be written in the early 13th century, tells of the battles and romance of Fergus, a farmer who sees Arthur and his knights hunting a stag, and is inspired to follow them and become a knight. Some believe it was written in the Scottish court of William I, and it features a number of Scottish locations.
Along the same lines of adventure, larger than life characters and great romances, the Fenian Cycle was popular. These were tales of the great Celtic heroes, Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors, the Fianna Éireann.
They may also have been well-versed in religious literature, such as the Vita Columbae,which tells the stories of one of Scotland’s great saints, Columba; the Elegy for Columba by Dallan Forgaill in the 6th century; or In Praise of St. Columba by Beccan mac Luigdech of Rum in the 7th century. Tales of the Bible would have been re-told, especially on feast days, and The Dream of the Rood, an example of a unique genre called dream poetry, was centuries old by Niall’s time. It is the story of a man speaking to the Cross on which Christ was crucified, learning Christian truths.
Compared to our millions of books in multitudes of genres and cross-genres, this may seem like a small world, but these stories were told, loved, and embellished perhaps, and re-told, over and over.