"When one turns to observe the Welsh situation one is struck by the very different profile presented by the vernacular literature before approximately the end of the twelfth century. On the one hand there is a relatively substantial series of verse texts, assigned more or less securely to certain historical and chronological settings and beginning with the north-British compositions attributed to the sixth-century poets Aneirin and Taliesin; on the other hand, there is a total absence of narrative prose before the tales of Culhwch ac Olwen and the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, which are preserved in later manuscripts but are generally dated - very approximately it should be said - to the early and late eleventh century respectively." 1
In the previous article Culhwch’s World: Giant Boars, Gatekeepers and Werewolves it was noted that the composition of the Medieval Welsh prose tale ‘Culhwch and Olwen’ consists of several archaic episodes brought together as an extended narrative in the well-known folklore theme of ‘The Giant’s Daughter’. Culhwch and Olwen is the longest and the earliest of the surviving native prose tales written in medieval Welsh preserved within the Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest) and the White Book of Rhydderch (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch). The closeness of the texts indicates that these variants represent a single recension.
The Red Book manuscript (Oxford, Jesus College, MS 111) was copied in the last quarter of the 14th century and contains a complete version of Culhwch and Olwen with a modernised text. The White Book manuscript was copied in the mid-14th century and contains a compendium of Welsh prose texts, now divided into two volumes, Peniarth MS 4 and Peniarth MS 5. The first volume contains the earliest copies of Middle Welsh tales collectively known as the Mabinogion in modern usage, consisting of 'The Four Branches’, 'The Dream of Macsen Wledig', 'Lludd and Llefelys', 'Peredur', ‘Owain, or The Lady of the Fountain', 'Geraint and Enid' and an incomplete version of Culhwch and Olwen (here-on referred to as ‘CaO’).
Brynley Roberts argued that these stories are generally assumed to derive from traditional oral narratives recited by professional story-tellers to audiences in courts and aristocratic houses. However, he added that in their manuscript versions “none can be regarded simply as written, almost verbatim, copies of an orally performed text, and in every case, though to different degrees, they are literary compositions based on antecedent traditional narratives and reflecting some of their conventions”.2
Although the dating of these manuscripts is relatively secure within a margin, the dating of any work of literature can be problematic. The work may have been updated by copyists when the manuscript was rewritten, errors produced during copying are often evidence of this; accordingly, the work rarely shares the same date as the manuscript. But we must apply caution as some later poets have been known to use archaic language to purposefully mimic an ancient period or tone.
As Proinsias Mac Cana states, "The criteria for dating these Middle Welsh tales are far from being clear-cut or decisive, and inevitably one must have regard to their relative as well as their absolute dating. In view of its older linguistic usage and vocabulary it is generally accepted that Culhwch ac Olwen was composed - in its extant form, as the provisio goes - some time before the Four Branches. Ifor William concluded that the latter were written c. 1060, but .... many scholars would prefer a less precise date, such as ‘the second half of the eleventh century’.....[one] assigns Culhwch to c. 1100. However, even if there is less than unanimity concerning the dating of the individual tales, there is, I think, universal agreement that Culhwch is the earliest of them in the form in which we have them."3
The French historian and Celtic linguist Joseph Loth argued for a composition date for CaO of the later 11th or early 12th century. In The Legendary History of Britain2 John (JSP) Tatlock claimed that Loth’s case was based on a weak argument, stating that on linguistic matters Loth rejected "several ancient-looking forms as without significance" and mentioned others such as the "archaizing of Welsh poetry in the 12th century" and offered only a single example which Tatlock considered convincingly of very early date.4
In their magisterial work Culhwch and Olwen: The Oldest Arthurian Tale5 Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans assert that all the evidence points to the last decades of the 11th century as the most likely date for the redaction of CaO in a form approaching that in which we now have it. Following Idris Foster they reaffirm the significance of the landing of Gruffydd ap Cynan at Porth Clais in the late 11th century in the dating of the prose tale.
Cantref of Cemais
A revival of interest in the countries past witnessed the cultivation of a new genre of prose which seemed to influence a cultural renaissance in Wales during the 9h -11th centuries. Bromwich and Evans claim this is reflected in CaO which shares a similar tone with more than one of the Lives of the Saints indicating a similar date, arguing that the language of CaO is archaic and belongs to the end of the Old Welsh (OW) period, showing a similar language to early poetry.6
Conceding that the text of CaO cannot be dated precisely, a composition date of c.1100 is certainly possible although it must be accepted that the tale has certainly received minor alterations and additions by later copyists since that date; as stated above, the version in the Red Book manuscript has been somewhat modernised in relative terms. There are even arguments for an earlier date, mid-11th century or even 10th century.7
This date of c.1100 has been accepted for the last hundred years or so without being seriously questioned. Recently this dating has been challenged and the early composition questioned, with the suggestion that these texts reached their current form in the late-12th or early-13th centuries, with revisions occurring up to the early-14th century.8
Simon Rodway of Aberystwyth University argues that the approximate date of 1100 has achieved “almost canonical status” perhaps, he adds, because it was the conclusion of Welsh and Celtic scholar Idris Foster of Oxford University who spent much of his professional life working on the text.9 Foster’s work forms the basis of the standard edition by Bromwich and Evans.10
St David's Cathedral
King William’s Visit to Wales
Rodway continues, claiming that the early date seems to have been influenced by historical events in Pembrokeshire in the second-half of the 11th century; it was Foster who initially suggested that two deliberate points in the text of CaO refer to events in 1081. In that year Gruffydd ap Cynan landed at Porth Clais and William the Conqueror made a well known pilgrimage to St David’s, an event that probably influenced the inclusion “Gwilenhin, king of France” in the text.
There are three kings of France listed in CaO: Iona king of France (otherwise unknown); Paris king of France, (whom the author claims ‘Caer Paris’ is named); and Gwilhenin king of France. The Breton Duke Alan Fyrgant (or Fergant) who both Loth and Tatlock identify as the 11th - 12th century Duke of Brittany Alan Fyrgant also appears in CaO as ‘Ysperni son of Fflergant, king of Armorica’.
Tatlock argues that there is every reason why Alan Fyrgant should have been known in Britain as his was son-in-law of William the Conqueror (Gwilhenin king of France) and ally of Henry I in 1106. The close association of the two seems to confirm that in CaO Gwilhenin is meant to represent William I. As Tatlock asserted, while some of the personal names used in CaO are merely traditional and some invented others are clearly historical.
Evidently Alan Fyrgant was well-known in Welsh tradition and is named in the Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) in the Three Faithless / Disloyal War-Bands of the Island of Britain. This Triad records how the war band of Fyrgant deserted him during the night and left him to fight with only his servants at Camlan where he died. This may be an allusion to the so-claimed Breton retreat at the battle of Hastings. Significantly, neither Arthur or Modred, who both fell at Camlan according to the 10th century Welsh Annals (Annales Cambriae), appear in this Triad from the earliest series found in the Peniarth 16 manuscript.
The reference to Alan Fyrgant may be significant in dating of the composition of the Triad and although this could post date Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia, the absence of Modred certainly suggests it is free of Galfridian influence; the tangle of Modred, Gwenhyfar and Camlan is completely absent from pre-Galfridian sources.11
This supports Simon Rodway’s argument that a text that post dates Geoffrey can be free of his influence. However, Loth offered only one French word in CaO believing that the absence of French customs and manners indicated a date of no later than the beginning of the 12th century. Tatlock suggested to Loth’s single occurrence we could add the French names of France, Iona and Gwilenhin (Jehan, or Johan, and Guillaume). He also argued for the content and spirit of the text being relatively modern and less archaic than in the Four Branches, which Loth dates later.12
In CaO one of the tasks stipulated by the chief giant is that Culhwch must obtain the aid of Gwilenhin to hunt the boar Twrch Trwyth. Gwilenhin does indeed join the hunt but was killed by the boar at Aber Tywi. Who knows, perhaps the inclusion of an allusion to King William just to have him killed by the giant boar shows the author’s disdain for the Normans who were encroaching into Wales around this time.
In the same year that William visited St David’s, Gruffudd ap Cynan's returned from exile in Ireland landing at Porth Clais on his way to victory at the battle of Mynydd Carn. This is the exact same landing place as the giant boar Twrch Trwyth made on his arrival in Wales from Ireland in CaO.
Gruffudd ap Cynan was a descendant of the rulers of Gwynedd and seeing himself as the rightful heir had previously made an attempt to take the kingdom but was defeated by Trahaearn ap Caradog in 1075 and went into exile in Ireland. Gruffudd assembled an invasion force of Danes and Irishmen and sailed from Waterford in Ireland in 1081. He landed at Porth Clais and joined forces with Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of Deheubarth at St David’s making a pact to regain his territories.
The exact location of the battle of Mynydd Carn is unknown but is said to have taken place about a day's march north of St David's. Gruffydd and Rhys won the battle with Gruffudd taking control of Gwynedd and Rhys regained Deheubarth securing his position as the dominant Welsh ruler in South and West Wales. Gruffydd and Rhys would later take an active role in Welsh resistance to the Normans. King William acknowledged Rhys as ruler of Deheubarth, but he was required to pay the Norman monarch an annual tribute. Gruffudd was captured by Hugh the Fat of Chester and imprisoned for 12 years, but eventually escaped and reigned until 1137 becoming one of the most successful rulers of Gwynedd.
Bromwich and Evans consider the route of the Trwch Twyrth through south Wales similar to that of Gruffudd after he landed at Porth Clais; after landing at Porth Clais the Twrch Trwyth made for the Preseli Hills, which is "about a day's march north of St David's".
However, as stated above, the site of the battlefield of Mynydd Carn remains undetermined, although all the sources appear to agree that the battlefield was located on high ground marked by a prominent cairn. The battlefields inventory states that “the location of the battle somewhere in northern Pembrokeshire within the Cantref of Cemais (possibly in the vicinity of the range of hills between the north Pembrokeshire coast and the Afon Gwaun represented by Mynydd Carningli, Mynydd Llanllawer and Mynydd Dinas).”13
Gruffudd ap Cynan’s landing at Porth Clais in and the route to Mynydd Carn does seem remarkably similar to the route of the Twrch Trwyth, and may well have provided inspiration for the author of CaO, but this does not necessarily confirm a composition date around the end of the 11th century. Commentators have also noted archaic-looking features in the language of the text. Bromwich and Evans claim that the language of CaO belongs to the end of the Old Welsh period - considered to extend to the mid-12th century.
Brynley Roberts argues for the White Book version containing many linguistic and syntactic archaisms, which sits well with Welsh saga englynion and early court poetry suggesting that the final written version of the CaO does indeed belong to the same period as this poetry, that is around 1100. Roberts adds that “crudity of tone and archaic social and legal customs may be further evidence of an early date as none of the other mabinogion stories lacks so completely conventional signs of civilized relationships.”14
The orthography of the White Book version has certain ‘quirks’ as Rodway calls them, (largely removed from the Red Book version) but, he argues, there are very few Old Welsh orthographical features or errors as such that would suggest a misreading of an Old Welsh exemplar. However, Rodway concedes that the language of the text is certainly archaic when compared to other prose tales which postdate it. He continues, that when the language of the tale is compared to datable poetry it is apparent that it could have been composed as late as the second-half of the 12th century.
Rodway reminds us that the orthographical revolution which marked the transition from Old Welsh to Middle Welsh was at least partly triggered by contact with the Old French orthography of the Norman-sponsored Cistercian abbeys such as Tintern (1131) and Whitland (1140) that were quickly adopted by the native princes.
Rodway contends that there is nothing in the language of the text of CaO which demands its date to be determined as the turn of the 11-12th centuries, indeed, he sees nothing in the language which would push it back conclusively to the 11th century and argues there are "convincing orthographical arguments" for pushing its date forward by some fifty years at least. Rodway believes that there is convincing orthographical evidence for a date in the second half of the 12th-century. If Rodway is correct and the tale was composed as late as the mid-12th century it would of course postdate Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. However, even with an uncertain date it is significant that most scholars are in agreement that the text of CaO is free of Galfridian influence.15
The Historia Regum Britanniae, a work that traced the descent of the Britons back to Brutus the Trojan and changed Arthurian literature across Europe, was published around 1138 and immediately became what we would term today as “a bestseller”. Its influence on subsequent Arthurian literature in Wales and further afield was so prevalent that, as Rodway argues, there has been a reluctance to accept that an Arthurian text composed in the post-Galfridian period, that is after 1138, would be free of its influence.
Geoffrey’s work was immensely influential in Wales with adaptations of his Historia, known as Brut y Brenhinedd (Chronicle of the Kings), produced from the mid-13th century. The Brut was so popular that over sixty versions survive. However, these were not straight forward translations of Geoffrey’s work into Welsh; they largely followed the original Latin but contained additional information by way of marginal glosses and extra commentary, name and geographic corrections.
Although Foster came to the conclusion that CaO was composed c.1100, he argued that there is no perceptible influence from Geoffrey of Monmouth in the portrayal of Arthur and his court. And there has been very little dissension since.
Tatlock, considered an authority on Geoffrey’s Historia, cites several themes in CaO that may have derived from influence of Geoffrey.16 Bromwich and Evans have applied a more cautious approach but concede that Geoffrey’s influence may be detectable through the Welsh Brut.17 Although these versions first appeared in Wales around a hundred years after Geoffrey’s Historia, the earliest versions of the Brut are dated about a hundred years prior to the White or Red Book versions of Culhwch and Olwen.
Dating potential for Galfridian influence on Culhwch and Olwen:
c.1100 - composition of Culhwch and Olwen (Foster, Bromwich and Evans)
c.1138 – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae
1150 – composition of Culhwch and Olwen (Rodway)
1250 - Earliest Brut composed
1350-80 – composition of White and Red Book manuscripts respectively.
Notes and References:
1. Proinsias Mac Cana, On the early development of written narrative prose in Irish and Welsh, Etudes Celtiques, vol. 29, 1992, pp. 51-67.
2. Brynley F. Roberts, Culhwch Ac Olwen, The Triads, Saints’ Lives, in The Arthur Of The Wel Sh: The Arthurian Legend In Medieval Welsh Literature, Edited By Rachel Bromwich, A.O.H. Jarman, Brynley F. Roberts, University of Wales Press, 1991, pp.73.
3. Proinsias Mac Cana, On the early development of written narrative prose in Irish and Welsh
4. JSP Tatlock The Legendary History of Britain, University of California Press, 1950.
5. Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen: The Oldest Arthurian Tale, University of Wales Press, 1992.
6. Bromwich & Evans, CaO, UWP, 1992, Introduction pp.lxxxi-lxxxii.
7. D Edel, The Arthur of 'Culhwch and Olwen' as a figure of epic-heroic tradition. Reading Medieval Studies IX, 1983.
8. Simon Rodway, The Date and Authorship of Culhwch and Owen: A Reassessment, CMCS 49, Summer 2005, pp.21-44.
9. Rodway Ibid.
10. Bromwich & Evans, Culhwch & Olwen, UWP, 1992.
11. Rebecca Shercliff, Arthur in Trioedd Ynys Prydain in Arthur in the Celtic Languages: The Arthurian Legend in Celtic Literatures and Traditions, Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan & Erich Poppe (editors), UWP, 2019, pp.175-76.
12. Tatlock, Legendary History.
13. RCAHMW, Battlefields Inventory, Jan 2017.
14. Brynley F. Roberts, Culhwch Ac Olwen, The Triads, Saints’ Lives, in The Arthur Of The Welsh: The Arthurian Legend In Medieval Welsh Literature, Edited By Rachel Bromwich, A.O.H. Jarman, Brynley F. Roberts, University of Wales Press, 1991, pp.73-74.
15. Simon Rodway, Culhwch ac Olwen, in Arthur in the Celtic Languages: The Arthurian Legend in Celtic Literatures and Traditions, Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan & Erich Poppe (editors), UWP, 2019, pp.67-79.
16. Tatlock, Legendary History.
17. Bromwich & Evans, Culhwch & Olwen, UWP, 1992.