Great Works of Medieval Welsh Literature

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., Catholic University of America

Two manuscripts represent a majority of the Welsh literature available today: The White Book of Rhydderch, written around 1350, and The Red Book of Hergest, written after 1382. They are called White and Red because the first one is bound in white leather and the second one in red leather.

The photo shows 'The Red Book of Hergest', columns 240–241.
The Red Book of Hergest was written after the year 1382. (Image: Hywel Fychan fab Hywel Goch of Buellt/Public domain)

The oldest literary texts belonging to the corpus of Welsh literature are poems lamenting the loss of love and youth. Also, the epic poem The Gododdin, which is a part of the literary legacy of the Celtic-speaking Old North, belongs to this corpus.

The literary corpus from the 11th century onward primarily consists of poetry written to praise the Welsh princes. To improve their status among their people and other rulers, Welsh princes commissioned flattering literary works, including poems and historical texts. Although this kind of literature was not uncommon in non-Celtic speaking regions, in Welsh literature, it is excessive. These kinds of texts are abundant even for minor rulers, like the one who controlled a valley.

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Mabinogi, the Most Remarkable Medieval Literary Text

The most significant works of Welsh literature in the Middle Ages are the tales related to King Arthur and the Mabinogi, which are four anonymous prose tales. These tales that continue to influence popular culture first gained popularity in France and then in entire Europe.

The Mabinogi can be vague for people who do not know what it discusses. The four tales, which are interrelated with recurring characters, are called the four branches. But the relationship between these characters is not very close.

The first branch, called “Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed”, depicts the story of Prince of Dyfed, Pwyll. He receives a reward from Arawn, the lord of the underworld, after he does a service for him. The reward is a supernatural bride called Rhiannon, who is mysterious and rides a horse nobody can catch up with, even when it walks. After a lot of adventures, Pwyll and Rhiannon get married and have a son named Pryderi. Most of the story centers on the incident of Pryderi’s disappearance. At first, Rhiannon is blamed for it, but he is finally found and becomes Pwyll’s successor.

The second branch is called “Branwen, daughter of Llyr”, with no characters the same as the first one. Brân the Blessed, king of Britain, has a sister named Branwen, who marries Matholwch, King of Ireland. Unlike Brân, his half-brother Efnisien is not consulted on the marriage. So he mutilates the horses of the Irish group, creating a long-lasting hostility. When Branwen goes to Ireland, she gives birth to a son, Gwern. But both of them are treated badly, and the king forces her to work in the kitchen. She sends a message to King Brân, and he attacks Ireland to support her. Finally, Brân is killed, and his cut-off head is buried at the site of the later Tower of London. Branwen, whose son was killed by Efnisien, returns to Britain and dies of grief.

The other two branches contain similar drama and supernatural themes. There have been various theories about the nature and purpose of the Mabinogi. Many theories hold that Arawn and Rhiannon represent some gods, and these stories are supposed to preserve original Celtic mythology.

But scholars believe that no matter where these tales originate from, they are sensible and sophisticated in terms of literary elements. The four branches are subtly related to each other, which is not discoverable at first glance. Besides, the prose has a highly polished style that makes it a historical masterpiece.

Learn more about Medieval Irish literature.

Dafydd ap Gwilym, Significant Welsh Poet

One of the greatest Welsh literary figures is Dafydd ap Gwilym, a poet who lived after the English conquest in the mid-14th century. His work depicts love and nature with great enthusiasm. Here is an excerpt from one of his poems:

Sculpture of Dafydd ap Gwilym by W Wheatley Wagstaff at City Hall, Cardiff.
Dafydd ap Gwilym was a prominent Welsh poet in the Middle Ages. (Image: Seth Whales/Public domain)

“I always deemed my features bright / And beautiful and fair / Until yon mirror met my sight /When, Lo! An ugly face was there / Thou blue round moon—thou drear delusion! / Thou magnet fashioned sorceress! / Thou world of dreams and dire confusion / Ice-like in hue and brittleness! / let hell consume the hateful, thin, bent-lipped mirror!”

These poems show the poet’s personal problems and delights in a tangible way. The political turmoil did not stop the Welsh from creating a brilliant literary tradition that formed the basis of today’s strongest surviving Celtic language.

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Common Questions about Great Works of Medieval Welsh Literature

Q: What are the oldest Welsh literary works?

The oldest literary texts we have are poems from the early Middle Ages. They include laments for the loss of love and youth, as well as the epic poem the Gododdin, which is a part of the literary legacy of the Old North, the regions of northern Britain that had once been Celtic-speaking areas.

Q: Who was Dafydd ap Gwilym?

Dafydd ap Gwilym was one of the most significant Welsh literary figures in the Middle Ages. He lived in the middle of the 14th century, and his poems are mostly about love and nature.

Q: What stories are in the Mabinogi?

The Mabinogi contains four interrelated prose tales. Some of the characters have repeated appearances in all stories, but the relations are subtle. They first became popular in France, and then their popularity spread throughout Europe.

Q: What is the Mabinogi about?

The stories, or branches, of the Mabinogi are mostly a mixture of supernatural and human drama. There are different theories about the subject matter of the Mabinogi. Some scholars believe they are supposed to preserve original Celtic mythology.

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