In This Article Medieval Welsh Poetry

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies and Translations
  • Journals
  • Historical Background
  • Critical Approaches
  • Meter and Performance

British and Irish Literature Medieval Welsh Poetry
by
Helen Fulton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0094

Introduction

The surviving corpus of medieval Welsh poetry ranges in date of composition from c. 900 CE to the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1543 and was the product of a class of professional poets or bards. Bardic activity in Wales is conventionally divided into three main periods marked by the key dates of 1066, when Norman settlers colonized much of south and east Wales, and 1282, when Edward I conquered north Wales and brought the whole of Wales under English administration. Extant poetry which can be dated before 1066, the period of the cynfeirdd or “early poets,” is composed in Old Welsh and is largely anonymous, apart from the works attributed to Taliesin and Aneirin. This early corpus, sometimes referred to as hengerdd, “early poetry,” constructs a historical context of political and military struggle between Welsh and Saxons and among the Welsh themselves. Between 1066 and 1282, the gogynfeirdd or “quite early poets” practiced an elite tradition of court poetry composed in Middle Welsh by named poets retained at the courts of the Welsh princes. After 1282, when Edward I defeated Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last independent prince of Wales, poets lost their patronage from the native aristocracy and became increasingly dependent on a newlyempowered class of Welsh gentry, the uchelwyr, who emerged to take leading roles in the government of Wales. The poets of the later Middle Ages, known as “poets of the nobility” or cywyddwyr after the cywydd meter they favored, were paid on commission and sought patrons among the clergy and urban households as well as the gentry. None of the extant poetry survives in manuscripts earlier than the middle of the 13th century. Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin (Black Book of Carmarthen; Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth 1), c. 1250, and Llyfr Aneirin (Book of Aneirin; Cardiff, Central Library, 2.81), c. 1280–1300, are the earliest collections of medieval Welsh poetry to survive, while Llyfr Coch Hergest (Red Book of Hergest; Oxford, Jesus College 111), c. 1400, contains the largest single collection of poetry composed from before the Norman conquest up to the late 14th century. Llawysgrif Hendregadredd (Hendregadredd manuscript; Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS 6680B), c. 1282–1330, is the earliest and most significant witness of the poetry of the gogynfeirdd. Llyfr Taliesin (Book of Taliesin; Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth 2), c. 1300–1350, contains a wide selection of poetry relating to the historical figure of Taliesin, his later folktale persona, and other legendary and prophetic material. These five manuscripts together comprise the “five ancient books of Wales,” which are described in detail in Huws 2000 (cited under Reference Works). The poetry of the cynfeirdd attracts particular critical attention due to the challenges presented for accurate dating, editing, and linguistic explanation. Other key areas of research in all periods of the poetry include the production of reliable editions and the detailed examination of individual poems, authors, linguistic practices, and historical events. Many journal articles and some monographs are published in modern Welsh, and, although the focus of this article is on scholarship in English, serious researchers are advised not to ignore the Welsh-language research as it is often the most up-to-date.

General Overviews

There are two single-volume surveys of medieval Welsh poetry considered separately from the prose literature, Williams 1953 (in English) and Thomas 2012 (in Welsh; first published in 1976). Both are written in an accessible and literary style and can be read with enjoyment from cover to cover. Bell 1936 (in English) surveys the bardic tradition from the medieval to modern periods and includes several chapters on medieval poetry which are quite detailed. All three books are somewhat out of date in their references but remain useful introductions to the poetic tradition in Wales for nonspecialists. Bell 1955, first published in Welsh by Thomas Parry in 1945, was the first modern history of Welsh literature up to the year 1900 and includes five substantial chapters on medieval poetry, which provide a comprehensive and still-relevant overview. Johnston 1994 provides a brief but comprehensive survey of medieval Welsh literature, both prose and poetry, in a very readable book published in both Welsh and English. Perhaps the most useful introduction to the whole field of medieval Welsh poetry, especially for undergraduates, is the literary guide Jarman and Hughes 1992 (Vol. 2 published in 1997), which contains specific chapters on individual poets and their literary contexts. The first volume covers the cynfeirdd and the “poets of the princes,” while the second volume covers the cywyddwyr, with separate chapters on the more important poets. Davies 1995 offers a specialist approach to some of the poetry from the point of view of Latin influences, an important reminder of the place of Welsh learning within a European tradition. Evans 1986 focuses on the religious writing of medieval Wales, both prose and poetry, and provides a starting point for further work on medieval Welsh religious poetry.

  • Bell, H. I. The Development of Welsh Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936.

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    Though dated in some respects, this survey locates medieval Welsh poetry diachronically in the context of the whole poetic tradition up to the 20th century. There are chapters on the cynfeirdd, the poetry of the princes, the later medieval poetry of the cywyddwyr, and a separate chapter on Dafydd ap Gwilym.

  • Bell, H. I., trans. A History of Welsh Literature. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 1955.

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    A translation of Thomas Parry’s Hanes Llenyddiaeth Gymraeg hyd 1900, first published in 1945. An early but important literary history of Welsh writing in Welsh from the earliest texts through to the beginning of the 20th century, including five substantial chapters on medieval Welsh poetry.

  • Davies, Ceri. Welsh Literature and the Classical Tradition. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 1995.

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    A survey of the influences of Latin language and intellectual traditions on Welsh writing up to the modern period. It includes two chapters on medieval Welsh literature, with particular reference to the Book of Taliesin and Dafydd ap Gwilym, and a third chapter on the rise of Welsh humanism in the 15th century.

  • Evans, D. Simon. Medieval Religious Literature. Writers of Wales. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 1986.

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    A useful survey of religious writing from hengerdd to the late Middle Ages. There are introductory discussions of religious poetry by gogynfeirdd and cywyddwyr located in the context of contemporary doctrine. The book includes generous quotations in Welsh and English. Recommended as preliminary reading for newcomers to the field.

  • Jarman, A. O. H., and Gwilym Rees Hughes. A Guide to Welsh Literature. Vol. 1. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 1992.

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    Originally published as separate volumes in 1976 (Vol. 1) and 1979 (Vol. 2), these volumes were reissued as part of a seven-volume introduction to Welsh literature, which is now the standard work of reference. Volume 2 was published in 1997. Covering the medieval centuries, with detailed descriptions of a wide range of texts and authors, these two volumes are indispensable.

  • Johnston, Dafydd. The Literature of Wales. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 1994.

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    Designed as a “pocket guide,” this is a brief (145 pages) but comprehensive account of Welsh literature up to the 20th century, also published in Welsh as Llenyddiaeth Cymru (1998). It includes three chapters on medieval poetry and is an excellent introduction to the subject and a starting point for further work.

  • Thomas, Gwyn. Y Traddodiad Barddol. Cardiff, UK: University of Wales Press, 2012.

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    First published in 1976, this book provides a detailed survey of medieval Welsh poetry, including the lesser-known early pieces such as the “Myrddin” (Merlin) poems and nature poetry. There is also a useful introduction to bardic craft and close readings of individual poems, drawing attention to patterns of imagery.

  • Williams, Gwyn. An Introduction to Welsh Poetry From the Beginnings to the Sixteenth Century. London: Faber and Faber, 1953.

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    An accessible survey of medieval Welsh poetry, which includes appendices on meter and the sources of the Arthurian legend. There are useful discussions of individual manuscripts and poets with a generous selection of quotations in Welsh with English translations by the author.

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