Friday, February 25, 2011

Jewel of Welsh Manuscripts Goes Digital

By Nancy Mattoon

Image of The King From
The Laws Of Hywel Dda Manuscript.

(Images Courtesy of National Library of Wales.)

A manuscript which has been called "one of the jewels of Welsh civilization" has been digitized for the first time by the National Library of Wales. The 14th century volume, known as The Laws of Hywel Dda, is one of the earliest records of a system of native Welsh law named after King Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) whose reign began in approximately 920 A.D. Although the code was written prior to 950 A.D., there is no surviving manuscript dating earlier than the late 13th century.

Detail Depicting The Crime of Assault,
In This Case Hair Pulling.

The copy digitized in February 2010 is particularly rare, as unlike virtually all other Welsh manuscripts of this period, it is heavily illustrated. According to manuscripts librarian Dr. Maredudd ap Huw, "The monk who transcribed the text combined secular and devotional elements to 'decorate' his work, which makes it today one of our most interesting medieval manuscripts." This copy of the The Laws of Hywel Dda is also much larger than most other law books of the period, and was probably created for a library, rather than meant to be carried in the pocket of a lawyer. It was clearly made for a scholarly client, as it is written in Latin rather than in Welsh.

Detail Of A Hunting Dog,
A Valuable Commodity.

The Welsh library has speculated that this highly unusual volume may have been commissioned as a presentation copy of the Welsh laws for a foreign dignitary. The fact that it is written in Latin hints at an ecclesiastic end-user, rather than a lawyer, and very likely a non-Welshman. Textual evidence suggests that it was probably written in an ecclesiastical center located in south-west Wales. It is known that, by the beginning of the fourteenth century, the manuscript was at Saint Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury. The evidence for this comes from one of two pastedowns preserved at the end of the volume. It is also thought that this was the copy of the Welsh laws consulted by John Peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1279-92, when he sent his letter to Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282, denouncing the prince's morals and those of the Welsh people, and in which he makes two references to the Laws of Hywel Dda. Peckham had been sent to Wales as a mediator by English King Edward I, but instead his conservative nature caused him to offend the Welsh ruler, and his people, by declaring them "unchaste, idle, lazy, drunkards."

Another Highly Valued Animal, The Stallion.

The illustrations contained in the volume fall into two categories: those which portray the king, officials of his household, and other human figures; and those which depict birds, animals, and property of legal value. The representation of the king seems to be based upon a higher-quality archetype than the rest of the drawings, which lack sophistication. They are probably the work of the scribe, as they appear to have been drawn in the same kind of ink as the text. Apart from the black ink, he uses two main colors, green and red. The scribe's use of green rather than the more common blue used in the mid-thirteenth century, especially for the capital letters, is probably due to the limited number of inks available in Wales at the time.

Detail Of A Decorated Letter "C".

Cyfraith Hywel, the law of Hywel, was the name by which their native law was known to the Welsh in medieval times. The law of Hywel lost its primacy after the conquest of Wales by Edward I and the passing of the Statute of Wales in 1284, but it remained an important ingredient of the law administered in Wales until the Act of Union in 1536. The extent of its use is reflected by the survival of as many as forty law books dating from between 1284 and 1536. Hywel the Good died in 949 or 950. In the latter part of his peaceful reign he ruled over a greater part of Wales than any king before him, and almost any Welsh ruler after him.



  1. I have come to expect completely wonderful writing from you, Ms. Mattoon and this posting is no exception! In fact it is exceptional! Thank you! Sybil Blazej-Yee

  2. Cockalubeamimi cyble Blake a bo bo!


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