Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

English and Latin Texts in Welsh Contexts: Reflections of a Multilingual Society in National Library of Wales MS Peniarth 12

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

English and Latin Texts in Welsh Contexts: Reflections of a Multilingual Society in National Library of Wales MS Peniarth 12

Article excerpt


This article examines literary activity in the multilingual society of Denbighshire using evidence from a trilingual composite manuscript, National Library of Wales MS Peniarth 12. The collection was assembled in the sixteenth century, but contains some fifteenth-century texts, notably two versions of the Elucidarium (one in English, one in Welsh). A codicological study of the manuscript is followed by an analysis of key texts, raising questions about the compiler's community, and the uses of his book. The essay concludes by profiling some important book-producers and collectors, demonstrating that a polyglot literary milieu was flourishing in late-sixteenth-century Denbighshire.

Scholars of the late medieval period in Britain have been increasingly aware of the need to acknowledge the multilingual nature of society at the time. In his introduction to a recent volume of essays on this subject, for example, David Trotter argues that 'those whose interest lies in language find that one language alone is not sufficient if they wish to examine a period and society where one language was emphatically not enough. The monolingual approach makes it impossible to apprehend this world'. (1) Trotter does not limit his argument to linguists, but argues strongly for an interdisciplinary approach to the study of late-medieval British culture. I would add that the study of multilingual society can be profitably extended beyond the artificial barriers of 'Medieval' and 'Renaissance' as well. Although the demise of Anglo-Norman as a vernacular by the end of the fifteenth century is not in doubt, it would be naive (and Anglocentric) to assume that the days of polyglot culture in Britain were over as a result. There were still areas of England, Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall where more than one vernacular language was in use alongside Latin well into the early modern period. In order to explore some of the issues associated with multilingual culture, this essay will focus on a case study from Wales that traverses the perceived boundaries between the Medieval and Renaissance periods, looking at evidence from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Documentary sources from this period provide plenty of evidence that sophisticated multilingual communities were using three (sometimes four) languages on a daily basis and in a number of different contexts. (2) The literary activities and interests of polyglot compilers, readers, and collectors can often be traced in the manuscripts produced in these communities. For example, work on multilingual manuscripts from Wales by Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan has demonstrated that Welsh scribes had for centuries been accessing an abundance of literary material in various languages, including Old French and Anglo-Norman. The extent of such access can, on occasion, be recovered in some detail, often with surprising results. Lloyd-Morgan argues that one of the scribes of National Library of Wales MS Peniarth 50, a fifteenth-century trilingual manuscript, was able to draw on a wide range of textual sources, from Latin prophetic traditions to the French Vulgate cycle when he was copying, and probably compiling Darogan yr Olew Bendigaid (the Prophecy of the Blessed Oil):

[The] opening section appears to be based not on one single source but to have been concocted from a staggering array of varied odds and ends of Arthurian material and other traditions, culled from sources in Welsh, Latin and Old French. All of these sources could, however, have been available to a redactor in Glamorgan in the first half of the fifteenth century. (3)

The survival of multilingual manuscripts from different regions and contexts bears witness to the sophisticated linguistic capabilities of the communities in which they were produced. But many other individual case studies remain to be made before we can talk more generally with regard to the circulation and reception of Latin, French, Welsh, and English material among similar polyglot readers and copyists. …

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