By Marina Storino Holderbaum
The fili, or poet, has an essential role in the maintaining of the power in the Irish Celtic world. Not only, his was the function to add value and fame to his patron King, but he has the power of satire, which depreciates the image of the parodying and devalues his honor. In Medieval Celtic society, in which the value of honor is still the ruler of the power and social status, the office of the fili is regulated by the legal tracts so that there were no abuses in the exercise of these tools so culturally powerful, as Liam Breatnach comments in Satire, Praise and the Early Irish Poet.
“In a society where honour was so valued, the weapon of der ‘satire’ was especially to be feared. Moreover, it is to be expected that the law would be concerned with controlling the use of this weapon and with laying down the proper procedure for its lawful use, whether on behalf of the poet himself or on behalf of others. Although it is clear that a certain amount of relevant material has been lost, the surviving law texts still provide a remarkably detailed source of information on the uses of satire in early mediaeval Ireland.”
The praise poem is the legitimate office of the fili, only in this form is based his occupation and just for this he may be paid. This form of poem was the core of the contract of patronage and if the fili did not produce according to the demand of his King he could fall in their esteem and be replaced, but above all, Liam Breatnach tells us that if he did not produce what is necessary to meet with his office, he could lose his status in society.
If the fili had as the obligation to praise his patron producing poems in his honor and spreading their virtues and achievements, his function and power certainly not restrict only to diplomacy and praise poems. It’s his connection with the jurisprudence that reveals his greatest asset, for he owned other two forms of poems, the satire and the trefocal, which act as legal proceedings, as Liam Breatnach mention, reviling the real extent of the power of this officer.
“Although our sources frequently pair satire and praise, they do not always present a binary opposition, and a third category, which combines both of the former two, is also recognised. A composition combining elements of praise and satire served a particular purpose-namely that of warning a person of an impending full satire, was known as a trefocal and formed an essential part of the process of lawful satirising”
The trefocal was a middle term between the satire and the praise poem and had the role of warning the aforementioned that his actions were leading him to a legal sanction, the satire. The satire was already a form of lawful settlement that would bring shame and loss of value of honor to the defamed. The power of the fili finally appears, as we discovered him as the legal agent responsible for warnings and sentences in fulfilling its obligations as a poet. He is not only able to add value of honor through the praise poem, but he also can take it through satire, which in a society based on honor often meant the death penalty, as exposed by Francis Byrne.
“Conversely, this was the terrible sanction which gave venom to the áer or poetic satire. Satire could raise blisters on the face, and comparative anthropology gives us no reason to doubt that in pre-Christian times the effect could be literally deadly. A person who was justifiably satirized forfeited his honour-price and therewith his franchise and kings were not exempt.”
Liam Breatnach, however, says that the satire was not a final condemnation, it could be neutralized with a praise poem, though not cite cases in which it was possible, certainly not in the case of satire produced while legal sanctions.
“The positive nature of praise is underlined by the fact that it can serve as an antidote to satire. The sole surviving copy of Bretha Nemed Dédenach, which is acephalous and breaks off incomplete, now begins with a palinode to the river Modarn intended to undo the effects of a previous satire, and this is described as molad do-nig-air ‘praise which washes away satire’.”
The legal tracts tell how should be the conduct of the fili. It established that he could not use satire as a form of extortion or be excessive in their praise. His behavior was regulated by law for the huge power he had in his hands, and failing in some way to their function could cost him his position in society.
BYRNE, Francis J. Irish Kingship and High-Kingship. Four Courts History Classics, Four Courts Press, 2001.
BREATNACH, Liam. Satire, Praise and the Early Irish Poet in Ériu, vol 56. Royal Irish Academy, 2006.
BREATNACH, Pádraig A. The Chief’s Poet in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, vol. 83C. Royal Irish Academy, 1983.