In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Welsh Writing Before 1500

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Welsh Writing
  • Latinity and Literacy
  • Diplomatics
  • Geography

British and Irish Literature Welsh Writing Before 1500
Georgia Henley
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0176


Welsh writing before 1500 consists of a rich tradition of writing in Latin and the vernacular, in a range of genres including literary prose, poetry, chronicles, law, medicine, grammar, wisdom literature, genealogy, and religious writing. The earliest extant Welsh-language writing is epigraphy (on, for example, the Tywyn Stone) and Old Welsh glosses and marginal texts in 9th-century Latin manuscripts. Use of Latin in early medieval Wales, continuous from the Roman period, is attested in works of history, poetry, and record keeping. Early medieval writing is poorly served by the manuscript record, with only twenty pre-12th-century manuscripts extant, and only eleven before c. 1100. The early books that do survive display technical skills of manuscript production and handwriting on par with elsewhere in Europe, and studies of surviving Latin texts, Old Welsh glosses, and later copies of Old Welsh texts reveal a rich, varied written practice grounded in careful study of Latin classics. Wales is also the birthplace of three significant 12th-century Latin authors, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gerald of Wales, and Walter Map. The use of Latin for recording Welsh law is also very well attested. A group of vernacular codices survive from the 13th century onward, preserving a proliferation of prose literature, poetry, dozens of texts translated or adapted from Latin and French, and a cache of technical prose writing—law, medicine, and grammar—characterized by a vast technical vocabulary and mnemonic devices indicative of oral transmission. Orality is an important dimension of Welsh writing, with several genres displaying interplay between oral and written transmission. The oral medium of knowledge transmission, often referred to as cyfarwyddyd (oral lore), is attested in the prose style that frequently uses mnemonic devices and oral formulae. This oral literature was composed and transmitted by a professional class, and then written down and rewritten in successive phases. Another major area of Welsh writing is bardic poetry, which represents a longstanding tradition of professional poets composing mostly panegyric, eulogy, and elegy for royal patrons from the early medieval period until the Edwardian conquest of Wales in 1282, at which point patronage shifted to a new gentry class. Alongside this native practice, Welsh writing was also influenced by imported Latin and French texts, including romance, geography, history, apocrypha, and devotional literature. Historically, scholarship has prioritized vernacular compositions over Latin, and original texts over translations, but this has shifted in recent decades.

General Overviews

Most overviews focus on vernacular literature, with the exception of Jarman and Hughes 1976 and Roberts 1999, which survey nonliterary genres. Lloyd and Owen 1986 provides samples of texts. Bell 1955 and Williams 1992 offer chronological overviews, while Padel 2000 surveys Arthurian literature. Evans and Fulton 2019 provides succinct surveys.

  • Bell, H. Idris, trans. A History of Welsh Literature. By Thomas Parry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955.

    Translation of Thomas Parry’s Hanes Llenyddiaeth Cymru (1953). Chronologically surveys canonical vernacular literature.

  • Evans, Geraint, and Helen Fulton, eds. The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    Short summaries of earliest Welsh writing, The Mabinogion, history writing and court poetry, Dafydd ap Gwilym, and manuscript patronage.

  • Jarman, Alfred O. H., and Gwilym Rees Hughes, eds. A Guide to Welsh Literature. Vol. 1. Swansea, Wales: Christopher Davies, 1976.

    Essay collection by experts of the time surveying Welsh literature, with chapters on Cynfeirdd, Gogynfeirdd, Mabinogion tales, and historical writing. Particularly useful is the overview of “functional prose” used for religious, scientific, grammatical, and legal writing (Owen).

  • Lloyd, Nesta, and Morfydd E. Owen, eds. Drych yr Oesoedd Canol. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1986.

    Selection of texts that, drawn together, provide a picture of medieval Welsh society. Organized by genre, including religious writing, history, law, science, geography, medicine, agriculture, and hunting, with introductions to each and glossary.

  • Padel, Oliver J. Arthur in Medieval Welsh Literature. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000.

    Introductory survey of Arthurian literature, covering a range of genres. Concludes that Wales had pre-Galfridian Arthurian tradition, but no singular Welsh Arthur.

  • Roberts, Brynley F. “Writing in Wales.” In The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. Edited by David Wallace, 182–207. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Overview of literature, religious prose, and Latin writing in social and political context, discussing interplay between oral and written traditions.

  • Williams, Gwyn. An Introduction to Welsh Literature. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992.

    Concise overview of vernacular literature in historical context, emphasizing continuity.

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