The Black Book of Carmarthen or Llyfr du Caerfyddin, is one of the earliest examples of surviving manuscripts containing Welsh poetry. It is the earliest manuscript written in Welsh and dates from around 1250 AD (Huws, 1993; Jarman, 1982). First transcribed circa 1250, and now in the National Library of Wales [Catalogue: NLW Penarth MS1] it contains many poems from the 9th to the end of the 12th century. Its title is associated with being bound in black and the Priory of St John the Evangelist and Teulyddog at Carmarthen (McKillop, 1989; Evans, 1907).
Facsimile of a page from The Black Book of Carmarthen. Source: public domain.
The collection of poems are in several categories and laud the praises of the Welsh heroes. Included is a poem about Gwynn ap Nudd and some are supposedly in the words of Myrddin. Other poems are on religious subjects, salutary odes to the Welsh heroes who were associated with the Hen Ogledd – legends surrounding Myrddin and Arthur. One of the poems is the Elegy of Gereint son of Erbin, about the Battle of Llongborth (Pennar, 1989). The poem concerning Gwyn ap Nudd, which means ‘gwyn’ or ‘white’, ‘holy’, or ‘fair’, is about a king of the Welsh mythological tradition ruler of the Otherworld called Annwfn (Evans, 1906). Gwyn ap Nudd is attributed with having a ferocity of fiends and demons. He is depicted with a blackened face, at the head of the cwn annwfn – a pack of fury dogs. Gwyn became king of the fairy folk known as the tylwth teg after the 16th century (Rowland, 1990).
The White book of Rhydderch or Llyr Gwyn Rhydderch is one of the greatest surviving notable and celebrated set of medieval Welsh manuscripts. Copied in 1325 most of it was written and complied during the mid-14th century circa 1350. Written mainly in south west Wales it is not only a collection of early Welsh prose but also of early Welsh poetry. Some of the collection is held in the National Library of Wales, and bound as Peniarth MS 4 and Peniarth MS 5. The White Book of Rhydderch contains religious texts as well as versions of the Mabinogion.
A page from the White book of Rhydderch. Source: Public domain.
The Red Book of Hergest or Llyfr Coch Hergest is an important manuscript in medieval Welsh from around 1382 to 1410, which contains the text of the Mabinogion (McKillop, 1998). Within the manuscript there are also seven other narratives which includes the poetry of the Gogynfeirdd. The Red Book does not contain religious tracts or laws but does include proverbs, histories, and grammar. The original Welsh poets are known as the Gogynfeirdd, and include in the number Aneurin and Taliesin (Clancy, 1970). The book was sourced by Lady Charlotte Guest for her translation of The Mabinogion of 1846. Taliesin lived during the second half of the 6th century AD and his Book of Taliesin has its oldest copy dated circa 1275. The collection comprises a variety of poems, sacred verse, analogues and heroic tales. The book includes the Armes Prydain or the ‘Prophesy of Britain’ (which is attributed to Myrddin), and the Cad Goddeu or ‘Battle of the Trees’. Manuscript now in the National Library in Aberysthwyth.
The Book of Aneirin or Llyrfr Aneirin was transcribed during the mid-13th century, and is now in the South Glamorgan County Library. Aneirin or Neirin, the Welsh Honorius, was a Welsh bard who lived around 600 AD in the Old Welsh lands now the lowlands of Scotland. The Book of Aneirin comprises 80% of Welsh 13th century orthography, and 20% of 9th to 10th century manuscripts. The work is called the Canu Aneirin or The Poetical Works of Aneirin (Evans, 1908; Huws, 1989; Annyl, 1910). The best known work in the collection is the Gododdin. This poem is an elegy for the chieftains of the Welsh who were killed at the Battle of Catraeth against the Saxon invaders. Another tale is “The Spirit of Annwn” relating the journey of Arthur’s followers to the Welsh Underworld. Some tales are incorporated into The Mabinogion.
Facsmile of column 579 of the Red Book. Jesus College MS 111. Source: Public domain.
The White Book of Hergest or Llyfr Gwyn Hergest is mid-15th century Welsh manuscript complied around 1450 containing many Welsh poems and prose (Huws, 2000). It was destroyed in a fire during the 19th century. Included in The White Book were the Laws of King Hywel Dda who died in 950 AD. Hywel Dda ap Cadell, which in Welsh means hywell as ’eminent’ or ‘prominent’, and dda as a guard, was an historical king. He was the grandson of Rhodri Mawr and established a System of Laws, dated prior to the 16th century, and contained 70 manuscripts (Owen, 1841; Richards, 1954).
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