The Book of Aneirin

Reference: NLW Llyfr Aneirin, Cardiff MS 2.81

Llyfr Aneirin (‘The Book of Aneirin’) is one of the Four Ancient Books of Wales. It is a relatively small medieval manuscript of 38 pages containing an unique text of what may be the earliest surviving Welsh literature. Historically, it may testify to the former existence of Welsh-speaking peoples beyond the territory that we recognise today as Wales, during the post-Roman period.

The Manuscript

This incomplete parchment book was written in Wales around 1250-1300. Welsh manuscripts of the time were written in monasteries, and the two individuals who wrote this work were probably monks. One was copying an archaic text written between the late 8th and the late 11th centuries, and the second copied a later-dating version, adding four additional poems. The handwriting of the first monk can also be seen in two other manuscripts (Peniarth MSS 14 and 17), now at the National Library of Wales. Decoration in the manuscript is largely confined to red and blue-green initial letters.

What were they copying?

It is possible that the work was undertaken at the Cistercian abbey of Aberconwy, North Wales. The monks were writing against the backdrop of strife and warfare during the turbulent last decades of Welsh independence. Appropriately, they turned their attention to a long poem or series of stanzas, apparently commemorating the heroic attempt by warriors sponsored by the Gododdin tribe to re-capture the strategic site of Catraeth (?Catterick, Yorkshire), around the year 600.

Sir Ifor Williams’s Interpretation

In a ground-breaking volume, published in 1938, Ifor Williams interpreted the poem as follows: following the 5th century Roman withdrawal from Britain, the north of ‘England’ became a collection of Brythonic- or Welsh-speaking kingdoms, gradually losing territory to the advancing Angles, or English-speaking warriors. Around 590-600, Mynyddawg Mwynfawr, the Brythonic king of Manaw Gododdin (based at present day Edinburgh), sent a choice band of 300 mounted warriors to repel the Angles at the strategic site of Catraeth. However, they were vastly outnumbered, and nearly all perished in battle.

Payment for their mead

Mynyddawg Mwynfawr had given hospitality and sustenance to his retinue for a year before they travelled to Catraeth, and one of the main themes of the poem is that the warriors ‘paid for their mead’, i.e. that they re-paid the debt to their host for his hospitality. This is part of one stanza:

The men who fought, they leapt forward together,

short-lived, drunk over their strained mead –

the retinue of Mynyddawg, famed in battle.

They paid for their feast of mead with their lives.

Who was Aneirin?

One of those who survived the battle of Catraeth was the poet Neirin (or Aneirin), who is said to have composed this series of short stanzas in Welsh, not describing the battle, but rather praising the heroic dead Brythonic warriors, who had died faithful to their lord. The name of the tribe became the title of the poem, and it is as ‘the Gododdin’ that the Aberconwy monks wrote the work nearly 700 years later. This is the only surviving early copy of the poem, and Ifor Williams argued that its original form was composed 1400 years ago.

Later history of the manuscript

Welsh poets Dafydd Nanmor and Gwilym Tew owned the Book of Aneirin during the 15th century, by which time it had reached Glamorgan. A century later, it was back in North Wales, and eventually found a home in the library of Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt, alongside treasures such as the Black Book of Carmarthen, and the Book of Taliesin. During the 1780s, the Book of Aneirin was stolen from the Hengwrt library, and returned to South Wales. It eventually came into the hands of historian Thomas Price (‘Carnhuanawc’), after whose death it was sold in 1861 to the eccentric collector of manuscripts, Sir Thomas Phillipps of Middle Hill, Worcestershire. After a sojourn in England, the Book of Aneirin was purchased by Cardiff Free Library in 1896. It was repaired and re-bound at the National Library of Wales in 1986, and since 2011, the original manuscript has been deposited at Aberystwyth.

Use of Images

The National Library of Wales has digitised and published the Book of Aneirin by kind permission of Cardiff Council. Rights relating to the use of these images are retained by Cardiff Council: permission for copies for commercial research, or for publication in any form, must be obtained from Cardiff Central Library, The Hayes, Cardiff CF10 1FL, localstudieslibrary(at)cardiff.gov.uk