In the introductory chapters to his radical reconstruction of the Old Welsh poem Y Gododdin John T. Koch suggested that the sixth-century battle of Catraeth, described in the poem as a defeat for the warriors of Gododdin (Lothian), was a victory for their fellow-Britons of Rheged. Koch believed that a poem known as Gweith Gwen Ystrat (The Battle of Gwen Valley) attributed to Rheged’s court-bard Taliesin was composed to celebrate the event from the victors’ perspective. He suggested that Catraeth and Gwen Ystrat were different names for the same place. In adopting this radical stance he challenged the conventional view of the Gododdin defeat which has long seen it as a triumph by the English kingdom of Bernicia over one of her British neighbours.
I was sceptical about Koch’s theory as soon as I saw it, not least because I don’t see any need to conflate the two battles. In Y Gododdin, Catraeth is clearly stated to be the location of the Gododdin defeat: there is no mention of the Gwen Valley. In Taliesin’s poem, Catraeth is mentioned as a territory associated with Rheged but is not described as the site of a battle. My unease about these and other aspects of Koch’s vision (or revision) of sixth-century history prompted me to discuss his book in the first issue of The Heroic Age back in 1999.
Recently, I looked again at a 1998 paper by Graham Isaac in which the Catraeth-Gwen Ystrat conflation was subjected to detailed linguistic scrutiny. When I first read Isaac’s analysis some years ago I welcomed his rejection of Koch’s theory – having no expertise myself in the complex field of Old Welsh literature I was glad to see a scholar from this area putting the theory under the microscope. Since returning to this topic in the past few weeks I was reminded of something I had forgotten, something quite significant for anyone with an interest in Rheged, namely Isaac’s belief that Gweith Gwen Ystrat should not be regarded as a poem composed in sixth-century North Britain.
In his paper Isaac questions the long-held view that the poem contains archaic linguistic features indicative of an early date of composition. Instead, he proposes that it was composed not by the northern bard Taliesin but by a Welshman of the period 1050 to 1150. If Isaac is right, the implications could be very severe, not just for Koch’s conflation of the two battles but also for conventional perceptions about other poems attributed to Taliesin. As Isaac observes near the end of his analysis: “It may be regarded as regrettable in some quarters that Gweith Gwen Ystrat in particular probably tells us nothing about sixth-century North British history” (p.69). If the poem is a product of eleventh- or twelfth-century Wales, then how confident can we be that any of Taliesin’s poetry about Rheged was composed in the sixth-century North? If one or more of these poems were composed centuries later by a Welsh “antiquarian” poet, how much of their political and geographical information about sixth-century Rheged can be trusted?
John T. Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin: text and context in Dark Age North Britain (Cardiff, 1997)
G.R. Isaac, “Gweith Gwen Ystrat and the northern heroic age of the sixth century” Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 36 (1998), 61-70
My review of Koch’s book for the online journal The Heroic Age can be found here.
Additional note: The place Gwen Ystrat has never been satisfactorily located, nor (in my opinion) has Catraeth. I am unconvinced by the conventional identification of Catraeth as Catterick in Yorkshire, which I believe is too far south to be considered part of the Gododdin borderlands. Similar techniques of “sounds like” etymology have been employed to identify Gwen Ystrat with places in northern England such as Wensleydale, Winster, etc, but these are nothing more than wild shots in the dark.
Some of my early doubts about the Catterick hypothesis can be found in an article published sixteen years ago:
Tim Clarkson, “Richmond and Catraeth” Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 26 (1993), 15-20