The `Stanzas of the Months': Maxims from Late Medieval Wales

By Jacobs, Nicolas | Medium Aevum, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The `Stanzas of the Months': Maxims from Late Medieval Wales


Jacobs, Nicolas, Medium Aevum


The late medieval Welsh text known as Englynion y Misoedd (`The stanzas of the months') comprises twelve stanzas, one for each month of the year, the name of each month forming the first two words of its stanza. The subject matter, like that of the larger body of gnomic poetry in three-line stanzas, consists of a mixture of natural observation, details of human activity, proverbial wisdom, and moral instruction: (1) a sample is given below in the appendix. The stanzas each consist of eight monorhymed heptasyllabic lines without formal cynghanedd, and thus bear no resemblance to englynion properly so called, (2) but they have gone by that title since at least the sixteenth century. Formally, the sequence bears a superficial resemblance to other medieval Welsh catalogue-poems: Englynion y Beddau (`The stanzas of the graves') from the Black Book of Carmarthen and other manuscripts, (3) and two poems by Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr (fl. 1157-95), Gwelygorddau Powys (`The tribes of Powys') and Breintiau Gwyr Powys (`The privileges of the men of Powys'), (4) together with a curious poem listing the properties of the regions of Wales. (5) Functionally, however, it is quite different from any of these. It neither serves a mnemonic purpose like the first and last of the poems mentioned (and those cited from Old English) nor is it celebratory or polemical as the two poems by Cynddelw appear to be. It provides comparatively little information about the months themselves, and that not of a kind that might need to be remembered; it is thus much closer to the rest of the corpus of Welsh gnomic poetry, in which the initial line of each stanza is used merely as a peg on which to hang two or more gnomic observations which for the most part are not closely connected with it. The nearest parallels are thus the sequence in Englynion Duad beginning `Calan tachwedd' (`First of November') and running through all but one of the following months, and the gnomic sequence beginning `Gnawt gwynt or deheu' (`Usual is the wind from the south'), and continuing with east and north, then sea and mountain, before abandoning the pattern altogether. (6) The first of these, like Englynion y Misoedd, provides some information about the ostensible subject; the second virtually none. A parallel outside Welsh might be the Old English and Norse runic poems, which offer brief accounts of the objects to which the rune-names refer; (7) here, however, there is a clear mnemonic function regarding the runic alphabet, whereas few would wish to argue that either of the Welsh month-sequences was intended to remind the ignorant of the order in which they fall.

The text, which was printed in the Gorchestion Beirdd Cymru in the eighteenth century and in the Mjvyrian Archaiology in the nineteenth, was first made available in a scholarly edition by T. H. Parry-Williams in Canu Rhydd Cynnar in 1932, and then, independently, by Kenneth Jackson in Early Welsh Gnomic Poems in 1935. (8) Jackson used twelve manuscripts, which date from 1545 to the late eighteenth century; Parry-Williams lists fifteen others, the earliest of which was written in 1527. Some forty others have since come to light, (9) though none of these appears to be earlier than 1500 and few add much to our understanding of the text or of its transmission, whatever their interest from the point of view of the history of Welsh literary scholarship from the Renaissance onwards.

Even with allowance made for the number of copies which are the product of antiquarian activity (given the tendency of antiquarians to take in one another's washing) the text is, at least in some respects, fairly stable. Apart from eccentricities of spelling and word division, whose effects in one or two manuscripts are bizarre without in any serious way obscuring the text, we may distinguish three main areas of variation: in ascending order of significance, at the level of word, line, and stanza. The text includes a number of rare or poetic words (10) which seem to have been obscure to many or in some cases all of the copyists, who responded sometimes by writing another attested word of similar shape whose meaning was familiar to them, but on other occasions by writing something else just as obscure to subsequent scholarship as the original word evidently was to them. …

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