The Boston Manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda

Reference: NLW MS 24029A

This small Welsh manuscript dates from the second half of the 14th century, and contains the Dyfed version of native Welsh law. As the first medieval manuscript in the Welsh language to appear at public auction since 1923, it is one of the most important of recent accessions to the manuscript collections of the National Library of Wales

Contents

The manuscript was written on parchment by 4 individuals, with the main scribe writing in south-west Wales during the second half of the 14th century. The main legal text in the manuscript is a version of the Blegywryd redaction of Welsh law (ff. 1-93), to which was added a gathering from another legal manuscript (ff. 94-99). The volume thus exemplifies the evolution of a legal textbook, whilst in daily usage, during the late medieval period. A reference to the date 1401 on f. 97 shows that the last part of the manuscript was written at the beginning of the 15th century. Among other texts present is a copy of a prayer known as ‘Emyn Curig’ (Hymn to St Curig) (ff. 98-99v). The nature of the original binding is unknown, but it is likely that the leaves were protected by parchment wrappers as they were carried by an itinerant lawyer or judge on circuit in the Welsh Marches.

Decoration

There are no illuminations in the volume, but green, red and purple inks are used to decorate capital letters, and a fine red ink decoration is used to frame the text on each page. The use of acidic green ink had a detrimental effect by burning through, and creating holes in many of the parchment leaves. The use of purple ink in a medieval Welsh manuscript is unusual, and the standard of decoration throughout is high.

Antiquarian interest

By the second half of the 17th century, the manuscript was owned by the antiquary William Philips of Brecon (f. 101v), who died in 1686, and it was then owned by his son of the same name. It was the latter who showed the volume to Edward Lhuyd (1659/60?–1709), who foliated the leaves, and added some notes on ff. 2v and 6v. A few years later, during the 1720s, the manuscript was transcribed by an amanuensis for Moses Williams (1685–1742), and his transcript is now NLW, Llanstephan MS 75. When that copy was made, it appears that only 2 leaves were missing from the original manuscript, and other leaves were intact. The volume then vanished, only to re-appear in the library of the Massachusetts Historical Society in the city of Boston by 1831. The history of its trans-Atlantic crossing is a mystery, although it is probable that it was taken in the luggage of an emigrant.

Binding and physical condition

Alas, a number of leaves, many capital-letters, and one whole gathering were lost in the period between the transcribing of the manuscript in Wales at the beginning of the 18th century, and its re-binding in the United States around 1840. It is possible that the damage was caused by a combination of factors, including the disintegration of the binding, the cockling of parchment during changes in environmental conditions, and the practice of deliberate cutting by curious collectors.

Recent history

The manuscript was owned and preserved by the Massachusetts Historical Society for over 150 years, until it was sold at Sotheby’s, London, on 10 July 2012. It was purchased by the National Library of Wales with generous financial assistance from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Others who contributed to the purchase were the Friends of the National Libraries and the Welsh Government.

Re-binding the manuscript

Because of the unsuitability of the American binding, which jeopardised the long-term preservation of the parchment leaves, the manuscript was dis-bound at the National Library in October 2012. Subsequently, all folios were repaired using new parchment, and a number of capitals were strengthened. The leaves were fully digitised before being re-bound between oak boards early in 2013.

Bibliography

  • Brynley F. Roberts, ‘Rhai swynion Cymraeg’, The Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 21 (1964-66), 197-213 [in Welsh]
  • Morfydd E. Owen, ‘Llawysgrif Gyfreithiol Goll’, The Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 22 (1966-68), 338-343 [in Welsh]
  • Dafydd Jenkins & Morfydd E. Owen, ‘Welsh law in Carmarthenshire’, The Carmarthenshire Antiquary, 18 (1982), 17-27
  • T.M. Charles-Edwards, The Welsh Laws (Cardiff, 1989)
  • Christine James, ‘Tradition and Innovation in some later medieval Welsh lawbooks’, The Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 40 (1993), 148-156
  • The manuscript text is printed on the Cardiff University Welsh Prose 1350-1425 website

Related links

Short film - Unbinding of Hywel Dda Manuscript

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