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[WELSH LITERATURE
CELT

IV. Welsh Literature.—The oldest documents consist of glosses of the 9th and 10th centuries found in four MSS.—Oxoniensis prior and posterior, the Cambridge Juvencus and Martianus Capella. These glosses were published Early MSS. by J. Loth in his Vocabulaire vieux-breton (1884), but their value is entirely philological. In addition, we possess two short verses, written in Irish characters, preserved in the Juvencus Manuscript in the University Library at Cambridge (printed in Skene’s Four Ancient Books of Wales). This manuscript is a versification of the Gospels dating from the 9th century. The value of these two verses is threefold: they give us, in the first place, a specimen of the Welsh language at a time when the modern laws of euphony were in a comparatively elementary stage; secondly, they are of the utmost importance to the historian tracing the development of Welsh versification, and, in future research, they must be taken into account by the historian of modern metres in other languages; and, thirdly, the similarity of their form and diction to other verses, attributed to Llywarch Hen, and preserved in a much later orthography, will be a serious consideration to the higher critic in Welsh literature.

All the prose and verse of the succeeding centuries, that is to say from the 10th to the beginning of the 14th, is preserved in four important manuscripts, written during the latter half of the period. The first of these manuscripts is “Black Book of Carmarthen.” the Black Book of Carmarthen, a small quarto vellum manuscript of fifty leaves, written in Gothic letters by various hands during the reign of Henry II. (published in facsimile by Gwenogvryn Evans, Oxford, 1907). This book belonged originally to the priory of Black Canons at Carmarthen, from whom it passed to the church of St David; at the suppression of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. it was presented by the treasurer of that church to Sir John Price, one of the king’s commissioners, and from him it passed eventually into the hands of Sir Robert Vaughan, the owner of the famous “Book of Aneirin.” Hengwrt collection. It is now among the Peniarth Manuscripts, undoubtedly the most valuable collection of Welsh manuscripts in the United Kingdom. The second manuscript is the Book of Aneirin, a small quarto manuscript of nineteen leaves of vellum, written about 1250. It was at one time in the possession of Sir Thomas “Book of Taliessin.” Phillips of Middlehill, and now belongs to the free library of the city of Cardiff. The third is the Book of Taliessin, in the Hengwrt and subsequently in the Peniarth collection. It is a small quarto manuscript containing thirty-eight leaves, written in Gothic letters, about the early part of the 14th century. The fourth manuscript, and in some respects the most important, is the Red Book “Red Book of Hergest.” of Hergest, so called from Hergest Court, one of the seats of the Vaughans. It is a folio volume of 360 leaves written by different hands between the beginning of the 14th and the middle of the 15th century. This manuscript, which is the most extensive compilation of the medieval prose and verse of Wales, is now in the possession of Jesus College, Oxford, and is kept in the Bodleian Library of that university. The main body of the poems contained in these four MSS. was printed by W. F. Skene with a tentative English version in his Four Ancient Books of Wales.

The other Welsh manuscripts, ranging down from the 15th to the 18th century, are far too numerous to notice, and it is outside the scope of this article to deal minutely with the original sources of the text of Welsh writings.

We will now only endeavour to sketch the history of Welsh literature from these early centuries down to our own times, and to show how the Celtic people of Wales have developed a literature true to their own genius, and how that literature stands to this day both a minister to the culture of the Welsh people and a sure indication of it.

1. Early Latin Writers.—The works now known as those of Gildas (q.v.) and Nennius (q.v.) are written in Latin; they throw considerable light on the origin of Welsh romantic literature and on the history of the earlier poems. Gildas was born at Ailclyd, the modern Dumbarton, that part of Britain which is called by Welsh writers Y Gogledd, or the North. Several dates have been assigned for his birth and death, but he probably flourished between 500 and 580, and his book, De Excidio Britanniae seems to have been written about 560. This work is Gildas a sketch of British history under the Romans and in the period after their withdrawal from the country, and includes the period of the wars of the Britons with the Picts, Scots and Saxons. Mr Skene suggests very reasonably that the well-known letter of the Britons to Aetius, asking for Roman aid, is misplaced, and that if put in its own place some of the anachronisms of Gildas will disappear. This work, which contains some spirited attacks on the leaders of the Britons for their sins, is strangely full of contradictions. It seems to be the work of some person well versed in the facts of that part of British history, to which he had an easy access, but who supplemented them with traditional details and with dates which were mere guess-work. Mr Skene thinks that the work of Nennius was originally written in Welsh in the north and was afterwards translated into Latin. To this nucleus was added the genealogies of the Saxon kings down to 738. Afterwards some person, called Marc in the Vatican manuscript, appended probably about 823 the life of St Germanus and the legends of St Patrick, which were subsequently incorporated with the history. Some South Welshman added to the oldest manuscript of the history in these countries, about 977, a chronicle of events from 444 to 954, in which there are genealogies beginning with Owain, son of Hywel Dda, king of South Wales. This chronicle, which is not found in other manuscripts, has been made the basis of two later chronicles brought down to 1286 and 1288 respectively. It is consequently not the work of one author. A learned Irishman named Gilla Coemgin, who died in 1072, translated it into Irish and added many things concerning the Irish and the Picts. The Historia Britonum is more valuable for the legendary matter which it contains than for what may be accepted as history, for it gives us the British legends of the colonization of Great Britain and Ireland, the exploits of King Arthur and the prophecies of Merlin, which are not found elsewhere before the 12th century. The date of the book is of the greatest importance to the history of medieval romance, and there can be no doubt that it is earlier than the Norman Conquest and that the legends themselves are of British origin.

2. The Epic Period, 700-950.—The higher criticism of the early poetry of Wales contained in the four ancient manuscripts already mentioned has undergone a good many changes since their contents first excited the curiosity of English scholars. In turn Welshmen, with more zeal than discretion, have displayed an amazing charlatanism in the extraordinary theories which they put forth, and Englishmen have shown an utmost meanness in belittling what is undoubtedly a most valuable monument of the past. But now the labours of Zeuss and others who have made a study of Celtic philology furnish us with much safer canons of criticism than existed in 1849, when even a learned Welshman, the late Thomas Stephens, who did more than any one else to establish the claims of his country to a real literature, doubted the authenticity of a large number of the poems said to have been written by Taliessin, Aneirin, Myrddin and Llywarch Hen, who are supposed to have lived in the 5th century. A great service was done to Welsh literature by the publication of the texts of those poems from the four ancient manuscripts by W.F. Skene. In addition to the text, translations of the poems were furnished by Dr Silvan Evans and the Rev. Robert Williams, but the translation, though on the whole a very creditable work, is full of mistakes which few men, writing at that time, could have avoided. The publication of the text of the Black Book, with notes by Dr Gwenogvryn Evans, will be of great service towards clearing up the mist which envelops this older literature.

Most of the poems in these four manuscripts are attributed to four poets, Aneirin, Llywarch Hen, Taliessin and Myrddin, who are said to have lived and written in Cumbria or Y Gogledd, where the actors in the events referred to also lived. The greater part of this region enjoyed substantial independence down to the end of the 9th century, with the exception of the