Middle English Texts and Welsh Contexts

  • William Marx
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


A berystwyth, National Library of Wales MS Peniarth 39, is a fifteenth-century manuscript of the Welsh language Law of Hywel Dda [The Law of Hywel the Good]. Texts of the medieval Welsh laws are central to Welsh history; recognizing Welsh law was one of the definitions of being Welsh in a politically fragmented country.1 This manuscript is not, however, entirely in Welsh; one folio, fol. 74r, contains a Middle English text “The Letter of Pope Leo to King Charles,” that is, to Charlemagne:2

Seynt Leon, þe Pope, wret his letter and send hit to Kyng Charlis and seid, “He bat berith his letter on hym ne dare he no{t drede of hys enemys to be overcom neyber felle to be ydamnyd ne with be fend to ben overcome & “

This is a charm: whoever bears this letter will be free of dangers and evils. This is the only piece of Middle English writing in the manuscript. It was added in a later hand and has no explicit or implicit connection to the Law of Hywel Dda. This kind of later, seemingly random, addition is a familiar feature of medieval manuscripts. In this instance, it is linguistically different from the main text, and it is probable that the copyist did not consider the context as anything more than a convenient place to record this English language text. There was a blank space in the manuscript that could be used for this purpose.


National Library Minority Language Fifteenth Century Language Text Latin Text 
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  1. 1.
    The manuscript is described in J. Gwenogvryn Evans, The First Portion of the Welsh Manuscripts at Peniarth, Towyn, Merioneth, Report on Manuscripts in the Welsh Language, vol. 1, part 2 (London: Historical Manuscripts Commission, 1899), 373–74. See also Dafydd Jenkins, ed. and trans., The Law of Hywel Dda: Law Texts from Medieval Wales, The Welsh Classics (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The full text of the charm in Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales MS Peniarth 39 is printed in William Marx, The Index of Middle English Prose, XIV: Manuscripts in the National Library of Wales/Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, Aberystwyth (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), 30. The text is item 54 in R. E. Lewis, N. F. Blake, and A. S. G. Edwards, Index of Printed Middle English Prose (New York and London: Garland, 1985), but the occurrence in MS Peniarth 39 is not noted.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    On the issue of the nature and extent of the use of English in medieval Wales, see Llinos Beverley Smith, “The Welsh Language before 1536,” in The Welsh Language before the Industrial Revolution, ed. Geraint H. Jenkins, A Social History of the Welsh Language (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1997), 15–44, and Alan R. Thomas, “English in Wales,” in The Cambridge History of the English Language, vol. V: English in Britain and Overseas, ed. Robert Burchfield (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 94–147, at 94–98, 107–10.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards, A New Index of Middle English Verse (London: British Library, 2005).Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    For a summary of the history of the foundation of the National Library of Wales/Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru and its manuscript collections see the Introduction to Marx, Index, XIV, xiii–xx, which draws on a range of work published by members of the staff of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru. See also Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, “Medieval Manuscripts in the National Library of Wales,” in Sources, Exemplars, and Copy-Texts: Influence and Transmission, ed. William Marx, Trivium 31 (1999): 1–12.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Daniel Huws, Medieval Welsh Manuscripts (Cardiff: University of Wales Press and the National Library of Wales, 2000; repr., 2002). See also Chaps. 1 and 2 by Huw Pryce and Daniel Huws respectively, in Philip Henry Jones and Eiluned Rees, eds., A Nation and Its Books: A History of the Book in Wales (Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales, 1998), 1–39.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    The Elucidarium and Other Tracts in Welsh from Llyvyr Agkyr Llandewivrevi A.D. 1346, ed. J. Morris Jones and John Rhys (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894), 5–76.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    William Marx, “An Abbreviated Middle English Prose Translation of the Elucidarius,” Leeds Studies in English 31 (2000): 1–53. The linguistic profile along with a discussion of language and localization appears on 3–5. Angus McIntosh, M. L. Samuels, and Michael Benskin, A Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English, 4 vols. (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1986). (Henceforth LALME.)Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    Marx, “Abbreviated Middle English Translation of Elucidarius,” 3–5. On “Ergyng,” see Smith, “Welsh Language before 1536,” 17–18; Geraint H. Jenkins, Richard Suggett, and Eryn M. White, “The Welsh Language in Early Modern Wales,” in Jenkins, Welsh Language before the Industrial Revolution, 45–122, at p. 56; B. G. Charles, “The Welsh, Their Language, and Place-Names in Archenfield and Oswestry,” in Angles and Britons, ed. J. R. R. Tolkien, T. H. Parry-Williams, Kenneth Jackson, B. G. Charles, Nora K. Chadwick, and William Rees (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1963), 85–110, at 87–96; Simon Meecham-Jones, chap. 2 in this volume.Google Scholar
  10. 15.
    Marx, Index, XIV, 31–34. The manuscript is described in Evans, First Portion of the Welsh Manuscripts at Peniarth, 389–99. There is a useful discussion of Peniarth 50 in Manon Bonner Jenkins, “Aspects of the Welsh Prophetic Verse Tradition in the Middle Ages: Incorporating Textual Studies of Poetry from ‘Llyfr Coch Hergest’ (Oxford, Jesus College, MS cxi) and ‘Y Cwta Cyfarwydd’ (Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 50)” (Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 1990), 225–45.Google Scholar
  11. 16.
    Jenkins (“Aspects of the Welsh Prophetic Verse Tradition”) does not specifically suggest Neath Abbey as the original home of the manuscript, but accepts arguments for its association with the region in which the abbey is situated. Evans (First Portion of the Welsh Manuscripts at Peniarth, 389–99) was the first to suggest Neath Abbey, and Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan reports evidence that tends to support this view; see Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, “Prophecy and Welsh Nationhood in the Fifteenth Century,” Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (1986): 9–26, at 20 and note 26.Google Scholar
  12. 17.
    On Neath Abbey see David M. Robinson, The Cistercians in Wales: Architecture and Archaeology 1130–1540 (London: Society of Antiquaries, 2006), 261–67; on the Cistercians in Wales see Robinson, Cistercians in Wales, 19–36, and Janet Burton, “Homines sanctitatis eximiae, religionis consummatae: The Cistercians in England and Wales,” Archaeologia Cambrensis 154 (2005): 27–49. On the Cistercians as patrons of Welsh literature see Smith, “Welsh Language before 1536,” 23 and note 28.Google Scholar
  13. 18.
    Margaret Enid Griffiths, Early Vaticination in Welsh (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1937), 195–213; Lloyd-Morgan, “Prophecy and Welsh Nationhood,” 10; Glanmor Williams, “Prophecy, Poetry and Politics in Medieval and Tudor Wales,” Chap. 3 of Religion, Language and Nationality in Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1979), 71–86. Also Elizabeth Schoales, “Praise and Propaganda: Prophetic Poetry in Wales to 1400” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wales, Lampeter, 2003).Google Scholar
  14. 23.
    On Jones see Nesta Lloyd, “A History of Welsh Scholarship in the First Half of the Seventeenth Century, with Special Reference to the Writings of John Jones, Gellilyfdy” (D.Phil. diss., University of Oxford, 1970).Google Scholar
  15. 24.
    Marx, Index, XIV, 38–39. The manuscript is described in J. Gwenogvryn Evans, The Second Portion of the Welsh Manuscripts at Peniarth, Towyn, Merioneth, Report on Manuscripts in the Welsh Language, vol. 1, part 3 (London: Historical Manuscripts Commission, 1905), 1036–38.Google Scholar
  16. 25.
    Ralph Higden, Polychronicon, 9 vols., ed. Churchill Babington and Joseph Rawson Lumby, Rolls Series (1865–86), 5: 215, 421, 329–37; 8: 61–65.Google Scholar
  17. 30.
    W. D. Brie, ed., The Brut or the Chronicles of England, EETS os 131 and 136 (London: Trübner, 1906, 1908; repr., in one volume, 2000). Lister Matheson, The Prose Brut: The Development of a Middle English Chronicle (Tempe, AZ: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1998). Prose Brut, 290–93 has comprehensive details on NLW 21608 and its place in the textual tradition of the Brut. The manuscript is described in William Marx, ed., An English Chronicle 1377–1461, Medieval Chronicles 3 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 2003), xv–xxii.Google Scholar
  18. 31.
    The first edition of an Anglo-Norman version of the Brut has recently been published: see Julia Marvin, ed., The Oldest Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle: An Edition and Translation, Medieval Chronicles 4 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 2006).Google Scholar
  19. 32.
    On the additions to the version of the Brut witnessed in this manuscript see William Marx, “Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS 21608 and the Middle English Prose Brut,” Journal of the Early Book Society 1 (1997): 1–16.Google Scholar
  20. 34.
    NLW 21608, fol. 8v; see Marx, English Chronicle, xviii. The reading in the inscription “wythout the preiudyce” is a legal term with the sense “without causing harm to persons or property.”Google Scholar
  21. 38.
    R. Ian Jack, “Welsh and English in the Medieval Lordship of Ruthin,” Denbighshire Historical Society Transactions 18 (1969): 23–49.Google Scholar
  22. 42.
    The importance of this legislation and Llwyd’s role in securing its passage through Parliament are referred to a number of times in Jenkins, Welsh Language before the Industrial Revolution; see Jenkins, Suggett, and White, “Welsh Language in Early Modern Wales,” at 81–83, Peter R. Richards, “Tudor Legislation and the Political Status of ‘the British Tongue,”’ 123–52, at 141–45, and Glanmor Williams, “Unity of Religion or Unity of Language? Protestants and Catholics and the Welsh Language 1536–1660,” in Jenkins, Welsh Language before the Industrial Revolution, 207–33, at 213.Google Scholar

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© Ruth Kennedy and Simon Meecham-Jones 2008

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  • William Marx

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