“A bard? How dare you? I’m don’t serve some puffed up peacock on a throne, telling him his own don’t stink for thirty in rhyming couplets, kissing my artistry and integrity on the cheek for thirty bits of silver. Call me not a bard, nor a skald, nor a scop. I am no minstrel, no troubadour, no jongleur. Nay! Call me gleeman, to rhyme with free man, for I work for a living and I love my art more than I love coin. Speaking of… five coppers for a song?”

D&D BardAh, the bard, the traveling singer, storyteller, and adventurer. The quintessential free-spirit. Beholden to no one. Master of his own fate. The bard is a D&D class you either love (like d20monkey who recently posted a preview of the new D&D 5E Bard class), or you hate (like any sane, rational person). Nobody is neutral about the bard. The trouble is, the bard in D&D isn’t really a bard at all. Neither is it a skald or a scop or a minstrel or a troubadour or a jongluer or a jester or a fool. Nor is it a druid.

Bards originated in the Celtic societies of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. Their first function was to compose and recite eulogies for dead rulers. According to one myth, if the bard was unsatisfied with his pay, he’d compose a satire instead to ridicule the cheapskate ruler and his cheapskate family. But that may be apocryphal. Over time, the bard’s role expanded. The ruling caste of Celtic society would retain bards to recount the histories of their families and their military conquests and just generally tell them how great they were. They were basically yes-men. Paid members of a ruler’s entourage.

And that’s where things get sort of complicated. See, there was actually a professional heriarchy in Celtic society and it varied a little from place to place. So, in some places, the word bard was used for an unemployed itinerant musician and a court poet was called a filidh, ollave, or derwyyd. This is further muddied by the fact that when Christianity spread into the Celtic lands, they may have purposely discredited bards because filidh became associated with the Faith. It also doesn’t help that the druids didn’t keep good written records, which is precisely why bards existed. In point of fact, the word derwydd (for a court poet) is the word that gave us the word druid. Bards were members of the druid hierarchy.

Although Records are Spotty from the Time, We're Fairly Sure Druids Did Not Have Horns

Although Records are Spotty from the Time, We’re Fairly Sure Druids Did Not Have Horns

The thing is, though, that the D&D depiction and the modern pop-culture understanding of the druid is a little off. The title “druid” simply referred to members of the educated, professional classes of Celtic society. It included Celtic priests, which is what we think of when we talk about druids, but it also included doctors, poets (like the bard), and Celtic lawyers. As a member of the druidic hierarchy and as bearer of news and a repository of knowledge, bards were protected under Celtic law. They could travel anywhere freely and say whatever they wished. Bards were also often experts in laws and customs and could be consulted on legal matters.

But that doesn’t change the fact that they were court poets paid by patrons to sing their praises.

Skalds and scops are the Viking and Germanic equivalents of the bard. Preservers of history, praisers of patrons, and sycophantic yes-men. Sorry about that. Interestingly though, they did have a very crude sense of humor and a quick wit as both societies were connoisseurs of crude, drunken humor. Skalds and scops would often be paid to mock a ruler’s enemies. It was said that the mockery of a skilled skald could cause boils to erupt on the face of their victims. From skald we get the word scold. And from scop, we get the word scoff. But still, they were basically just paid by rich kings to tell them how awesome they were and how much their enemies sucked.

Reason to Hate Bards #147: Listening to Ragnar the Red for the 4,000th F$&%ing Time!

Reason to Hate Bards #147: Listening to Ragnar the Red for the 4,000th F$&%ing Time!

What about a minstrel? Sorry. Minstrels were the late medieval French equivalent of bards, skalds, and scops. They were court entertainers, sometimes even retained as fools or jesters or jongleurs (which we call jugglers). All of them were tied down to wealthy, paying patrons. The word minstrel even comes from the same Latin root as minister and administration. No free spirits there.

Maybe the troubadour. Troubadours did indeed travel. But they weren’t entertainers so much as composers. But close enough, right? Well, sorry. While they DID travel from place to place, they often settled down for long periods of time and worked for… you guessed it… a wealthy patron, singing their praises and telling them how awesome they were.

So what do you want if you want to play a free-spirited chaotic-good adventuring entertainer, living by quick wits, a silver tongue, and whatever loot you can earn with your lute? Well, you sir or madam, are looking at the lowly cantabank or gleeman.

That's Right: These Guys Outranked Your Bard PC

That’s Right: These Guys Outranked Your Bard PC

Cantabank comes from the Latin meaning “to sing from a bench,” because that was often the best they could afford. Gleemen, cantabanks, circlers, or itinerant minstrels, were the lowest class of composer, singer, storyteller, and entertainer. They were even below professional fools and jesters. Why? Because they didn’t steady work. They wandered from place to place struggling to earn two coins to rub together.

And so, those are really your choices for your new bard. Are you a sellout, a nobleman’s lapdog, paid to tell your boss how awesome he is in iambic pentameter day after day? Or are you an unemployed medieval busker, wandering from town to town, looked down upon by the people who would someday invent the pie-in-the-face gag?

D&D Plot Idea: Jesters Twisted by Far Realm Aberrant Go on Rampage

D&D Plot Idea: Jesters Twisted by Far Realm Aberrant Go on Rampage


4 thoughts on “Bard

  1. That description of the skald is a bit of from what I’ve heard. The Viking skald as I have been told was indeed a part of a king’s or chieftains retinue. However, they were not as much entertainers as warriors, nobles and bodyguards who happened to be really good poets. So in D&D terms: fighter or barbarian with proficiency in performance. Still mostly not bard however.

  2. Your aversion to bards is palpable. 🙂
    I am interested though what your sources are, not because I think this is not true, but because I wonder how or where you can find that all out. They don’t really teach that much about Druidic lawyers in history class.

    Also fun fact: there is a Hungarian poem about the legend of the Bards of Wales: how some hundreds of bards were burnt at the stake for denying the conquering king Edward any praise. You may even draw some inspiration for some eerie adventure or something.
    A very good translation can be found here

    • A bit of how the sausage is made…

      Since I’m not actually writing a scholarly work for publication, I’m bad with sources and citations. But I try to find reliable sources for whatever information I put forth and I try to find more than one source for anything. But the process makes is hard for me to say where something came from…

      See, I start researching for the word a few days or a week early. And often, I don’t know what the word will actually be. I start by researching a topic. I begin with a google search and a wikipedia search, but I don’t trust anything directly from Wikipedia. I write down anything that looks interesting there, follow a few internal wikipedia links, and read more for a general overview until I find something interesting to make a topic out of. Then, I start to follow the outside references and wikipedia citations. Likewise, on google, I search for the word and related ideas and try to confirm interesting wikipedia facts from other sources. I bounce around, I follow whatever links look interesting, and gradually build up the bits of information I want to include. I check the word derivations and look for interesting connections and so on. When something is unclear, confusing, or contradictory, I try to share that in the article so I’m not misrepresenting anything (like the lack of written records from early Celtic societies and the weird convoluted titles between different regions and the influence of the church discrediting bards and so on). The trouble is, after several days of wandering links whenever I have a few free minutes, I lose track of where I learned what from.

      That said, most of the Bard/Druid/Celt stuff came from a summary of a PBS documentary that had been written up and annotated specifically for SCA members to peruse. A sort of “dispel the rumors” thing. There were a few other sources that filled in the blanks here and there, but that was the main one. Of course, that was written with a particular slant in mind (guys, stop doing bards wrong) so I didn’t take too much from it.

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