To the Boston Manuscript: Welcome home.

Yesterday, a very old Welsh manuscript came home. (Or at least, was marked to come home.) This is exciting! There aren’t that many medieval Welsh manuscripts of any kind out there–the Vikings take a lot of blame for this, what with the pillaging and burning, but actually most of it was the weather. Nothing ruins a book like being stuck somewhere damp for centuries. When the Hendregadredd manuscript was found in a ‘disused gentleman’s wardrobe’ in a north Wales house in 1910, it made a huge impact on the study of medieval Welsh poetry, especially the gogynfeirdd. I don’t know if this is quite the same (sadly, it’s not like I’m amongst the people who first get to look at exciting books), since this is a copy of the Laws of Hywel Dda, of which we do have various copies in existence, but of course it’s not just the primary text that is interesting in these things. If there are exciting glosses, even one good remark scribbled in a margin can shed so much light–when you have so few sources, any new information is huge.

For instance, this line from the library’s press release:

Unlike most other Welsh medieval manuscripts, the Boston Manuscript has handwritten additions demonstrating its use as a working law text. It is much closer to the reality and practice of the law at the time, and offers plenty of scope for important new research.

That? Could be awesome.

The Laws of Hywel Dda formed the basis for the Welsh legal system from at least the tenth century until 1284. Much like modern concepts like ‘double jeopardy’ or ‘the smoking gun’ show up in entertainment all the time, the Laws are ubiquitous in medieval Welsh literature. Manawydan, in the Third Branch of the Mabinogi, invokes ‘the law of the thief’ when he makes arrangements to hang the mouse he’s caught spoiling his grain. The wicked knight at the beginning of Peredur grabs Gwenhwyfar’s cup from her and then strikes her, the two specific things necessary for her to be considered legally insulted. Things that characters do that would make no narrative sense in a modern context are rendered logical simply because of the way the law of the time would be applied. So it’s not just legal historians who have reason to be excited–all us literature people can be frothing at the mouth, too.

I admit that I’d daydreamed about how when the next medieval Welsh manuscript was found, it would be by me, and I would get to see it first. This is more realistic, so I’ll still take it. Congratulations to the Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, on managing to bring it home.

National Library’s press release
BBC on the sale of the manuscript
BBC discussion on the manuscript and historical context with Dr Sara Elin Roberts (BBC Radio Cymru, in Welsh)

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