Sunday, 19 December 2010

Rachel Bromwich

It is with great sadness that we learn Rachel Bromwich passed away on December 15th at the age of 95. An emeritus reader at Cambridge's Department of of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, focusing on Old and Middle Welsh literature where her impact cannot be underestimated; she influenced generations of Arthurian scholars, her works quickly became the standard reference texts in the discipline.

Bromwich began specialising on medieval Welsh literature in the 1930's when in 1934 she attended Newnham College, Cambridge, studying the Anglo-Saxon language before shifting departments to focus on Middle Welsh, moving to the University College of Wales, Bangor in 1938 and studied under the tutelage of Ifor Williams. Indeed, it was Williams that encouraged her most important contributions to the study of Welsh literature; Trioedd Ynys Prydein, (1961). The Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) went into a second edition in 1978 and quickly became a standard resource for the study of nearly all Old Welsh literature with the appendix of Notes on Personal Names became the reference source for most historic and legendary figures of Old Welsh literature.

In 2006, a substantially revised Third edition demonstrated her continued mastery of the subject at age 90, and proved to be essential reading for Celticists and for those interested in early British history and Arthurian studies.

Early Welsh literature shows a predilection for classifying names, facts and precepts into triple groups, or triads. ‘The Triads of the Isle of Britain’ form a series of texts which commemorate the names of traditional heroes and heroines and which would have served as a catalogue of the names of these heroic figures. The triads are of course 'threes', groups of three names and in some cases three somewhat longer texts devised by the Welsh bards. The names are grouped under various imprecise but complimentary epithets, which are often paralleled in the esoteric language of the medieval bards, who would have used the triads as an index of past history and legend.

The Introduction discusses the significance of the Triads in the history of Welsh literature, and examines their traditional basis. The Third edition contains 97 triads in the original language and in English translation, 46 of which are already attested in manuscript Peniarth 16 from the third quarter of the thirteenth century, together with copious notes and commentary. In addition to the 246 page Notes on Personal Names, further Appendices include The Names of the Island of Britain, The Descent of the Men of the North, The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain and The Twenty-four Knights of Arthur’s Court.

This monumental work has long won its place as a classic of Celtic studies, being the standard edition for scholars of Welsh, but historians and non-specialist Celtic literary scholars will find here a wealth of material, presented in accessible form, giving an insight into the oral culture and poetry of medieval Wales and certainly providing essential reading for Arthurian studies.

In 1971, Bromwich produced an English translation of Sir Ifor Williams' Armes Prydein (The Prophecy of Britain from the Book of Taliesin), and in 1978 was co-editor with R. Brinley Jones of Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd (Studies in Old Welsh Poetry), a volume prepared in tribute to Sir Idris Foster on his retirement as Professor of Celtic in the Jesus University of Oxford, containing significant articles such as 'The authenticity of the Gododdin: a historian's view' by Thomas Charles-Edwards and 'Early Stages in the Development of the Merlin Legend' by AOH. Jarman

In the significant Arthurian article 'Concepts of Arthur', (Studia Celtica, No 10/11, pp. 163-181, 1975/1976), Bromwich discusses the “magical meaning” of Arthur, quoting from The Early Evolution of the Legend of Arthur, (Nottingham Medieval Studies #8, 1964) by Thomas Jones:

“How exactly did it come about that a figure about whom we know nothing with certainty, and whose historical existence we cannot prove, should have grown into the centre of so many tales throughout the whole of Europe, and how was it … used, both orally and in writing, not only as a medium for social entertainment, but also as a means of giving literary expression to some of the deepest aspirations and highest ideals of humanity”.

Bromwich follows Jones in questioning how a figure that may or may not have existed could have inspired such depth of literary interest that spanned far beyond the original sphere of the legend both geographically and over the generations. Bromwich continues, stating that by the seventh century, Arthur had become the great national hero of the entire British people “...a defender of his people against witches, monsters, giants, and external invaders”. No doubt her article became the inspiration behind articles such as 'The Nature of Arthur' by O J Padel, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 27 (1994), and Thomas Green's book 'Concepts of Arthur', (2007).

Bromwich's long-standing interest in Arthurian literature produced authoritative editions of the major medieval Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen in both Welsh (1988) and English (1992) along with D. Simon Evans.

Bromwich was also a co-editor, with A.O.H. Jarman and Brynley F. Roberts, of The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature (1991), an anthology of scholarly essays on the major Arthurian works from medieval Wales, launching a series by Wales University Press containing later works such as Arthur of the English (2001), Arthur of the Germans (2002), and Arthur of the French (2009).

Perhaps best viewed as a continuation and update of Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, edited by R S Loomis which first appeared in 1959, Arthur of the Welsh contains a collection of essays by such eminent scholars as Thomas Charles-Edwards, Patrick Sims-Williams, O J Padel, presenting an account of Arthurian literature produced in Wales, in both Welsh and Latin, during the Middle Ages. Essays include 'The Arthur of History', 'The Early welsh Arthurian Poems', 'Culhwch ac Olwen: The Triads, Saint's Lives' , Geoffrey of Monmouth' and the 'The Merlin Legend'. Other chapters include a discussion of the Breton connection and the first transmission of the legend to the non-Celtic world in England and France. Essential reading for anyone attempting to trace the origins of the Arthurian legend.

Eloquent and authoritative, Rachel Bromwich's works will continue to provide superior reference for anyone studying the Arthurian legend. We have reaped the benefits of her generosity in sharing her vast knowledge on the subject. She will be sadly missed by all students of Arthuriana and Welsh literature but right now our thoughts are with her family.

Rachel Bromwich
1915 - 2010