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Voices from early medieval Wales (AD 400s -1070s)

Introduction

Inscription on 9th century monument from Glamorgan
Latin inscription on a 9th century monument from St Illtud's Church, Glamorgan. The cross was erected by Houelt (Hywel) for this father Res (Rhys).

Many different languages were heard in Wales during the early medieval and medieval periods. People from other countries invaded, came here to work or had prolonged contact through trade.

These passages were recorded in 2007 for new archaeology galleries at National Museum Cardiff. These modern recreations of what these lost voices may have sounded like illustrate differing degrees of linguistic exchange in Wales, and further perspectives on creative thoughts, words and deeds from these early periods.

Old Welsh

Wales is the only part of the British Isles in which a version of the Brythonic language has been spoken without a break down to the present day. Brythonic is the mother language from which Welsh, Cornish and Breton evolved. It developed into Old Welsh during the 500s and 600s.

The example of Old Welsh which you can hear on this page is an extract from a series of englynion, or three-line verses, written down in the 800s and known as the Juvencus poems. It is the lament of a lone soldier, whose only companion is a mercenary from the Continent who does not speak his language. While they can fight together, communication is limited.

Professor Ifor Williams thought the word franc denoted a 'foreign mercenary soldier', comparing it to the Irish francamais for the same. If the word refers to someone originally from the Carolingian Empire, he would have spoken a form of Gallo-Romance (or if from the eastern areas, perhaps Germanic).

Transcription of the audio passage:

Niguorcosam nemheuaur    henoid
Mitelu nit gurmaur
Mi am [franc] dam ancalaur.

Nicanãniguardam nicusam    henoid
Cet iben med nouel
Mi amfranc dam anpatel.

Namercit mi nep    henoid
Is discirr micoueidid
Dou nam riceus unguetid.

English translation:

I shall not talk even for one hour tonight,
My retinue is not very large,
I and my Frank, round our cauldron.

I shall not sing, I shall not laugh, I shall not jest tonight
Though we drank clear mead,
My Frank and I, round our bowl.

Let no one ask me for merriment tonight,
Mean is my company,
Two lords can talk: one can only speak.

English translation after Ifor Williams. Source: R. Bromwich (ed.) 1980, The Beginnings of Welsh Poetry. Studies by Sir Ifor Williams D. Litt., LL.D., F.B.A. (University of Wales Press), 89-121; Old Welsh reading by Peter Wynn Thomas

Latin

Most educated Romano-British were bilingual. Latin was the language of law, government, business and literature in Roman Wales. Latin remained the international language of the highest status throughout the early medieval and medieval periods. It was the language of Christian texts, liturgy and education.

The audio track is a reading of the Vulgate version of the Lord's Prayer, read by Beatrice Fannon.

Transcription of the audio passage:

PATER noster, qui es in caelis,
Sanctificetur nomen tuum.
Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra.
Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie,
Et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.
Et ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a malo.
Amen.

English translation:

Our father, who art in heaven,
Halloed be thy name,
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
Amen.

Old Irish

Old Irish was probably brought to Wales by settlers from Ireland while Britain remained a Roman province. The Irish were especially numerous throughout west Wales.

It is likely that spoken Irish came to an end in Wales during the 600s but the language has left its mark on many Welsh place-names and on the Welsh language.

This example of Old Irish is from The Scholar and his Cat, a poem scribbled on a manuscript in Austria in the early 800s. The scholar reflects on his life; Pangur is his cat's name.

Transcription of the audio passage:

Meisse ocus Pangur Bán,
Cechtar nathar fria shaindán;
Bíth a menma-sam fri seilgg
Mo menma céin im shaincheird.
Caraim-se foss, ferr cach cló,
Oc mo lebrán léir ingnu;
Ní foirmtech frimm Pangur Bán,
Caraid cesin a maccdán.

Ó ro biam, scél cen scís,
I n-ar tegdais ar n-oendís,
Táithiunn díchríchide clius
Ní fris tarddam ar n-áithius.

English translation:

Myself and White Pangur are each at his own trade; he has his mind on hunting, my mind is on my own task.

Better than any fame I prefer peace with my book, pursuing knowledge; White Pangur does not envy me, he loves his own childish trade.

A tale without boredom when we are at home alone, we have — interminable fun — something on which to exercise our skill.

English translation by D. Greene and F. O'Connor (D Greene&F. O'Connor (ed and trans) 1967, A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry A.D. 600-1200 (Macmillan, London, Melbourne and Toronto), 81-3; Old Irish reading by Dr Diarmait Mac Giolla Chríost, Reader, School of Welsh, Cardiff University.

Old Norse

Norse was the Scandinavian language of the Vikings. It was still quite similar to English, and these two languages assimilated in the Viking-settled areas of northern and eastern England. There are many place-names of Norse origin around the coasts of Wales.

The audio extract is from a Norse skaldic poem by Þorkell hamarskáld celebrating the victory by Magnus Barelegs at the Battle of the Menai Straits (AD1081). In 1081 a combined Welsh and Norwegian force defeated the Normans at the Battle of the Menai Straits. Viking court poet Þorkell hamarskáld celebrates the victory, in particular the role of Norwegian king Magnós berfœttr (Magnus Barelegs). The poem would have been composed and performed orally around or soon after AD1100.

Transcription of the audio passage:

Dunði broddr á brynju.
Bragningr skaut af magni.
Sveigði allvaldr Egða
Alm. Stọkk blód á hjalma.
Strengs fló hagl í hringa,
Hné ferð, en lét verða
Họrða gramr í harðri
Hjarlsókn banat jarli.

English translation:

Arrow drummed on mail-coat. The chieftain shot forcefully. The mighty ruler of the people of Agder bent his bow. Blood sprayed on helmets. Bowstring-hail flew into ring-mail, the troop fell, and the prince of the people of Hordaland caused the earl to be slain in a hard fight for land.

English translation by Judith Jesch. Source: J. Jesch 1996, 'Norse historical traditions and the Historia Gruffudd vab Kenan: Magnós berfœttr and Haraldr hárfagri' in K. Maund, Gruffudd ap Cynan. A Collaborative Biography, 117-47.

Old Norse reading by Professor John Hines, Cardiff University.

Old English

The Anglo-Saxons who settled in England after the end of Roman rule spoke the Germanic language, which gradually diverged from its Continental relatives. The Anglo-Saxon period saw frequent military raids from England into Wales and vice versa. However the long border marked by Offa's Dyke also saw more constructive relationships and shared interests.

This example of Old English comes from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (the Worcester Manuscript. British Library MS Cotton Tiberius Biv, ff. 3-86). A cleric records the consequences of a Viking raid on Wales in AD 915.

Transcription of the audio passage:

Her on þissum geare wæs Wæringwic getimbrod; ond com mycel sciphere hider ofer suðan of Lioðwicum; ond twegen eorlas mid, Ohtor ond Hroald; ond foron þa west abuton þæt hi gedydon innan Sæfan muðan; ond hergodon on Norð Wealas aeghwær be þam staðum þær hi þonne onhagode; ond gefengon Cameleac bisceop on Iercingafelda; ond læddon hine mid him to scipe; ond þa alysde Eadweard cyning hine eft mid feowertigum pundum.

English translation:

Here in this year Warwick was built, and a great raiding ship-army came over here from the south, from Brittany, and with them two jarls, Ohtor and Hroald, and then went around west until they got into the mouth of the Severn, and raided Wales everywhere along the banks where it suited them, and took Cameleac, bishop of Archenfield, and led him to ship with them; and then King Edward ransomed him back for forty pounds [of silver].

English translation/source: Michael Swanton 1996, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London: Dent, J. M.).

Old English reading by Professor John Hines, Cardiff University.

Article Date: 15 March 2010

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