Wales’ reputation for… over-fondness for sheep rose out of their culturally cunning nature and not anything more skeevy.
Folklore tells us that when Wales became part of the United Kingdom and came under its broader laws the punishment for stealing a sheep (lopping off a hand) was more severe than for doing something far more intimate with the sheep (where you only lost a finger of your choosing). So a rash of sheep-stealers confessed instead to more amorous intent to keep both their hands. Naturally, this meant an over-representation in official records of Welsh sheep-fanciers and contributed to the now legendary (and totally unearned) reputation.
Sheep of Wales, you may now rest easy.
Latin was the written language in dark age Britain thanks to four centuries of Roman rule but only Monks and the very wealthy could read and write in Latin. The spiritual and political leaders of Britain shared their news, culture and business verbally in the tongue of the day – Brythonic. This made knowledge both equitable (even the poor could understand the common tongue) and accessible (and the role of Bards of fundamental importance and power in being the medium of communication).
Today, Welsh is the closest remaining language to ancient Brythonic and it still resonates with a very old, very Celtic feel quite distinguishable from Gaelic or Scots Gaelic. When the western peninsular we know as ‘Wales’ did finally succumb to the spreading Anglo-Saxons, they managed to hold onto much of their language, unlike the rest of the country. They have retained a distinct cultural identity (going through somewhat of a renaissance recently) and the country is officially bilingual, speaking both English and Welsh.
The words ‘Welsh’ and ‘Wales’ are of AngloSaxon origin from Wælisc (the people) and Wéalas (the land). The terms initially referred to anything or anyone that the Anglo-Saxons associated with the early Britons (Celts), but as the Anglo-Saxon culture subsumed the original cultures of what we now know as England (Angleland, land of the Angles) the ‘Wælisc’ and their unique culture congregated in Wéalas (Wales).
Of course, the locals didn’t call themselves that at all and they didn’t distinguish between the people and their constantly shifting lands. Both were called Cymry but in the 16th century Cymry became synonymous with the people and Cymru with the land. The language they speak is Cymraeg. This still stands today.
The Welsh weren’t the only ‘Wælisc’
Here’s an interesting little side fact. It appears the Welsh were not the only peoples that the Anglo-Saxons applied the term to. The phrase ‘Cornwall’ comes from ‘Wealas of the Horn’ (corn + weal) and the name Wallachia was applied to the natives of Roman Carpathia. This points to a much older useage and historian Edward Dawson posits that the Celts, themselves, may have used a phrase that informed the Germanic ‘Wal’.
While the Greeks called the Celts Keltoi and the Romans called them Celtae there are records of actual Celtic tribes called Galati and Galaci. In Celtic languages, G and K are interchangeable—in my book ‘Sacrifice’ you see this with Caer Gynyr being the stronghold of Cynyr Forkbeard—but Dawson goes a step further, explaining that the people we know as ‘Celts’ often put a ‘G’ in front of words that stared with ‘W’ (example: the Germanic word ‘wood’ becomes ‘gwood’ which with regional dialects within the Celts became ‘coed’ in Wales). Therefore, Dawson postulates, if the original name of the (Germanic) Celts was the ‘Walt’ then to the Celts it became Kwalt (koo-elt /kelt) but to the Angles and Saxons it remained Walt and then became Wal in time.
So Dawson speculates that the Welsh are not foreigners as such but were, literally, the Celts of Brython.
The Brythonic word kombrogos meant ‘land of the compatriots’ (brogi meaning territory) and this is believed to be the source of the term Cymry which still endures today in the country we know as Wales (see this post on why it was later named ‘Wales’)
Cymry (pron. cum-ree) referred to both the people and their land up until the 16th C. After that, the phrase Cymru (ie: the land of the Cymry) also came into use to describe the land but not the people. Unhelpfully, the two words are pronounced identically and its only context that creates the distinction.
Cymry and Brythoniad appear to be interchangeable in ancient Welsh literature referring to those people who inhabited the vast island prior to and immediately after the Romans but before the Anglo-Saxons swept through in the 6th century.
Because ‘y Ddraig’ is set in the sixth century, I have used the authentic ‘Cymry’ to describe the people and their lands, and I have used Brython to describe the greater island that those lands were in.
Cambria (pron. cahm-bree-ya) and Cumbria (pron. cum-bree-ya)
The Romans referred to the lands in Britain’s south-west as Cambria and in the north as Cumbria (note the very suble a/u vowel shift) while the lands in the middle were Cymry. The north came to be known as Cumberland and the people in it the Cumbers.
Thus, we have a vast area of post-Roman Britain being called (phonetically… You say it and see how long the ‘b’ lasts) Cum-ree, Cum-ree-a, or Cam-ree-a. This map at the turn of the 5th/6th century bears that out. The borders of the Cymry (shown in the Project Gutenberg map below as the Anglo-Saxon name ‘Welsh’) shifted and changed throughout the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries depending on where the people within them fled to or how hard they held on against invasion. The northern, southern and eastern parts of Cymry were subsumed by the Angles first and the west held on the longest. But not forever.
At the end of the 7th century, the Anglo-Saxons had overthrown the land known as Cumberland (the land of the Cumbers) and referred to it as North Cumberland (today’s Northumberland). The fact that Cumberland had a North means it also had a south (Cymry) but those lands were not the Anglo-Saxons to name for quite some time.
In 325BC, a Greek geographer first described the islands to the north of the main European continent as ‘pretanic’ (referring to the style of speech found there). This was later bastardised by the Romans into ‘Brittonic’ and then further bastardised into ‘Brythonic. The collected islands we know today as ‘Britain’ became known to them as ‘Britannia’ (Brython) and the native peoples living there as the Brythoniad.
When Rome abruptly abandoned the most northern point of its empire in the 4th century AD, rampant warring saw the island we know as Britain devolve from ‘Roman’ back into a heap of traditional tribal regions linked by related Celtic belief systems and languages. The dominant one was the Cymry which we’ll look at in the (next post).
The Mabinogion is a large (for its time) collection of myths/legends from Celtic Wales bundled together with some Arthurian tales and reasonably translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest in the 19th C. But they were translations of a more archaic pair of texts (The Red Book of Hergest, The White Book of Rhyddyrch) which were from the 12th C and which captured in writing much, much older stories that had been shared across the country via oral tradition.
There are three dragon-related tales in ‘The Mabinogion’.
One such tale (found in the Red Book of Hergest) is believed to be the oldest account of Welsh dragons and, itself, probably descended from a much older continental Celtic tale.
The Story of Lludd and Llevelys has one ancient Chieftain of Briton discuss with his brother (a Chieftain across the sea in Gaul) for help with a number of plagues affecting his kingdom. One of these turns out to be caused by two dragons (a local one and a foreign one) battling; they give such a fearsome sound every May Day (Beltaine) that pregnant women all over the country miscarry. To rid his country of them, he must imprison them beneath the earth at the exact centre of the island of Britain. To do this he lures them there, gets them drunk on mead and then traps the incapacitated dragons deep below the earth. The dragons are just one challenge of three in the story (Celts loved threes) and each is resolved by a combination of the wisdom of one brother and the courage and cunning of another. The story gives us a valuable insight into the traits that were desirable for the earliest peoples of Britain.
(It’s hard not to note that there is no warring in this story. All three challenges are resolved by clever brain work, not might, though either king was certainly warrior enough to accomplish the task.)
Another tale in The Mabinogion is believed to be a variant of the much older Lludd and Llevelys or even a sequel, if you like. In its first inception it included no Arthurian characters at all but, later, was modified to include Merlin, a character that, later, became integral part of the Arthurian pantheon.
In the story of Vortigern, this (disgraced) High King of Britain seeks to build a stronghold in the mountains of North Wales (a distant corner of his Kingdom which was all of Britain) to protect him from both his vengeful people (furious that Vortigern led to the invasion of the Saxons) and from the faithless Saxons who came at his invitation to fight for the Britons and then flipped teams and took over the country. But every time he tries to build walls they crumble. His wisemen tell him he has to sacrifice a boy with no father and soak the foundations in his blood. The search goes out, such a boy is found, and brought before Vortigern.
But the boy is clever (again, see the praising of wit over valour?) and a seer and he reveals to Vortigern two ancient dragons (red and white, just as in the earlier story) fighting beneath his foundations and disturbing them. Releasing them, he says, will mean he can build his stronghold uninterrupted. The dragons are found in an underwater reservoir, released, and free to go back to their battling. The boy goes on to become Vortigern’s heir for the stronghold and gets it much sooner than anyone expected. The earliest tales call this boy Ambrosius (which, in Welsh, is Emrys) and, to this day, the mount on which the stronghold is believed to stand is called Dinas Emrys—or Emrys’ Stronghold—a name that has endured one-and-a-half millennia.
The third dragon in The Mabinogion appears only briefly in the story of Peredur (Son of Evrawc)—which is one of many in which various adventures suffered by the protagonist are grouped together in long sequences presumably to aid in the retelling by bards and the comprehension by listeners—but it gives us a few themes that are most common to the modern reader.
This dragon is of the archetype most familiar to modern readers (see my post on Tolkien), the dragon who greedily hoards wealth. While out adventuring, Peredur comes across a shabby little house in the middle of nowhere made poor by the greed of a ‘serpent’ which is curled around a golden ring and maintains a seven mile exclusion zone to keep people away from it. For no reason more worthy than because it was there, Peredur battles the dragon serpent ‘desperately’, wins, and takes its ring.
‘Just because’ is not an uncommon theme in Welsh literature–remember, tales written and spread by bards were designed primarily to showcase the strength and courage of someone connected to their patron (or to showcase the cowardice and weakness of their patron’s enemies). The focus on those tales was the ingenuity and triumph of the protagonist, not their motivations or backstories.
Contrary to popular belief the phrase ‘dark ages’ doesn’t refer to some kind of absence of spirituality or enlightenment, though it’s true there was a LOT of warring and starving going on and the people of those times may have been a little busy surviving to give a lot of time and thought to their gods, but 5th-9th century Britain appears to have rich in culture and faiths.
The Romans had moved on, freeing the original Britons up to revisit their more traditional Celtic beliefs, early Christianity washed over the country in its first wave, then came the Angles, Saxons and Jutes with their own traditions and gods, and the Vikings with their complicated belief systems, until, finally Christianity took hold. It was a crazy busy time for enlightenment.
Neither was the Dark Ages just about the paucity of intellectual and economic progression, though that was probably a little bit true as Britain tried to recover from the abandonment of Rome who’d ruled for four centuries with such an iron glove. We have the most fastidious note-takers and observers in history to thank for what we do know of the other cultures in Britain from the time the Romans first started sniffing around until the last one flung his red cloak over his shoulder and stepped into a vessel bound for home.
The Romano-Britains (like the Celts they probably wanted to go back to being) didn’t write much down, at least not on anything more historically enduring than toilet tissue. Their tradition probably went back to being oral. A bunch of monks were writing stuff down—and that’s not insignificant—but they weren’t really writing about the affairs of the day and it was taking them a lifetime to write just one glorious tome. And because they were writing for contemporaries and not for posterity, they quite often didn’t take the time to put everything in context. The capturing of knowledge suddenly came to a shuddering, if beautiful, halt.
So, yes, the Dark Ages section in the museum isn’t going to be as comprehensive as, say, the Greek or Roman floors.
But the Dark Ages may well have come to be known that because they were…well…dark! Pretty much across the world. There’s mounting evidence from multiple cultures (documentary, tree rings, ice core studies) of the decade-long effects of a climactic crisis mid-way through the sixth century—constant crop failures, earthquakes, tsunamis and rampant famine and plagues that wiped out entire communities and the political instability that followed—most likely caused by a massive volcanic eruption (ie: a ‘volcanic winter’). The event cast so much debris up into the stratosphere that it literally blocked the sun and cast darkness over everything for two years and cycles took nearly a decade to get back to normal. One number keeps coming up in records—535AD. And the years after it, too. Whatever it was that triggered this ‘armageddon winter’ it was massive and comprehensive and had flow on for decades. Temperatures dropped. Natural cycles stuttered and in some cases stopped entirely. Food ran out. People died. And for the longest time a bunch of atmospheric litter kept the sun from reaching Earth in the way Earth really, really needs it to.
My thoughts on that?
There but for the grace of a God-like deity.
I sit here practically on the doorstep of the most volcanically active region in the world (Indonesia). I can only imagine the devastation that a massive eruption would cause to our own ability to live. And eat. And breathe.
Not sure I’d be stopping to write things down in the years that followed, either.
We know him as ‘Geoffrey’ and he hailed from the region in Wales today known as Monmouth. His name (in Welsh) was Gruffudd ap Arthur but his friends at the time would have known him as Galfridus Artur(us) though he chose to render it in his works in Latin (Galfridus Monemutensis) since he was a man of both education and God and since Latin spoke so clearly of both. Later, his peers have suggested that he chose the name Galfridus Arturus (Geoffrey Arthur) himself as a conceit to the fame he earned with his works. Which, as it turns out, was largely bollocks…
Geoffrey wrote a number of works purporting to be based on real (written or oral) history but which, it turns out, were greatly fictionalised. He does seem to have had a genuine interest in the early history of his country/s (Wales and England) and gone to town on some of the Welsh legends.
However…there is actually no evidence that Geoffrey was Welsh at all and, in fact, his Welsh language might have been quite poor. Monmouth was a Marcher (border) land and was overrun in the century leading up to Geoffrey’s birth there by Bretons forming the ‘wave’ part of the Norman invasion. Arthur and Galfridus are both Norman names, not Welsh.
Neither did he do most of his writing in Wales/Monmouth though he may well have trained in a Catholic priory there. As soon as he was of age he seems to have headed off to Oxford to be a canon there, situating himself at the epicentre of culture and learning of its day. He quietly rose through the ranks and in 1152 he was made Bishop of St Asaph (Wales) but probably never even travelled to his see given the warring going on in Wales at the time and, anyway, he only lived a few years longer, dying in 1155.
In fact, being Bishop of St Asaph appears to have been a pretty periolous affair as the Welsh locals rebelled against the English (Norman) rule being forced on them, so perhaps that’s a much better reason for him to have put off visiting. Regardless in 1155 he was replaced in the role, implying death, so perhaps he did finally decide to visit his see and it didn’t go well. The man who replaced him also died after only a year in the same role. All the ones before them lived long lives in the role. But they were Welsh. Hmm….
His works, at the time, were purported to be translations of obscure but actual histories of Britain, and were massively popular, publicly. But, though they may well have been inspired by some older written or oral tradition (while verifiable history in them is scant, it is enough to make that likely) it is now accepted that they are greatly embellished and dramaticised.
Not surprisingly their dissemination was like wildfire across Europe and, while Geoffrey’s contemporaries might have sneered at his works, the public gobbled it up like the popular fiction it was pretending not to be.
His works relating to a wiseman named Merlin and then, later, a bunch of kings including a brutal warlord called Arthur (though probably majority fictional) have endured across a millennia references to Arthurian works are known as pre- or post-Galfirdian depending on whether their content has been ‘tarnished’ by his creative brush.
Later in his life he produced the Vita Merlini (the Life of Merlin) which, though generally unattributed, is widely accepted to also be his work. He seems to have had a crack at capturing history in a slightly more ethical fashion though his late attempt at credibility was poorly rewarded with low circulation and little recognition.
So, really, Geoffrey was the Dan Brown of his age. A man so gifted of pen and slick of tongue that entire populations went on to read his works as fact and not the fabulous fiction they actually were. Or Shakespeare, who used the works of others (whether inspirationally or derivatively) including Geoffrey’s as the basis for his great works.
Part of a writer’s job is to mine out of truth the details that will make it fantastic and engaging and memorable and Geoffrey certainly did that. Perhaps too well. His works were filed under ‘history’ for centuries.
And that’s not good. But it is what it is.
We will never know for certain whether it was Geoffrey’s intent that his works be read as literal history or just as the speculative renderings that modern non-fic bookshelves are full of today. Heck, there is now a whole sub-genre dedicated to ‘alternative history’, everything from creatively amplified Tudors to gloriously impossible Steampunk. I had a ball doing the same in my own works, taking scant facts and weaving them into fleshed out stories that might interpret the facts.
But therein lies one difference between Geoffrey’s work and mine. Mine is card-carrying, out-and-proud fiction. It doesn’t pretend to be actual history. If for no other reason than its full of dragons!
But what if Geoffrey didn’t mean his to be either? What if he was, in fact, a marvellous satirist and social observer and the whole thing was meant to be art and not science. I see no reason to think that it’s only modern brains who enjoy reading amplified histories, perhaps he was more novelist than we know. At a time when fiction was either non-existant or frowned upon.
Not for serious men of god. Teachers and religious leaders.
So…based on that great unknown, I’m prepared to throw Galfridus Artur(us) a bone and give him benefit of doubt.
If nothing else, his works resulted in such widespread distribution that copies have survived to today in multiple languages, and that has given historians and linguists hundreds of leads on a time that was otherwise remarkable for its lack of survivable records.
That’s gotta be worth something, huh?
For more, check out the very excellent summary here.
If there’s one thing that struck me on my trip around Wales (and growing up the product of Welsh lineage) it’s that the Welsh love a good tale. They can turn the smallest thing into an evocative, resonating myth, for their own enjoyment and the enjoyment of others. Every stone in Wales has a story. Every lake. Every ford. I know this because I spent weeks driving around the country photographing them and coming to be as amused by the Welsh tales as I was entranced.
My Welsh father would have called such tales ‘porkies’ (from the rhyming slang ‘pork pie’ for ‘lie’) but ‘lying’ is such an unattractive, unequivocal word when really what they were doing was simply carrying on the age-old habit of their people in creating stories that help the make sense of the world around them. It’s in their DNA, this need to compose beautiful stories about the world around them.
To make sense of it. Interpret it.
And so turn a lump of sod in Wales and you’ll reveal something that has an ancient story. It could be something that features in the oldest and most traditional Welsh tales which were captured in The Mabinogion . Or it could be something from the Arthurian pantheon, something risen from the many Christian tales of the time, or something remembered from Wales rich bardic tradition.
It could be based in fact, or evolved over centuries out of a fiction. It could be an out-and-out fabrication (I’m looking at you Geoffrey of Monmouth and David Prichard). But even fabricated stories (like Prichard’s tale of the faithful hound Gelert) have their roots in much older cultural tales. They were a real tale once.
And so, I salute you, Welsh storytellers of old and of new. Wordsmiths, interpreters, magicians, bardds.
Without you, the fist of intrigue for all things Welsh would never have wrapped around my happy little heart.
For defensive purposes (and Celts were warriors first and foremost) each ‘day’ had eight defensive watches of three hours each.
Midnight 22.30 – 01.30
Dawn 01.30 – 04.30
Morning 04.30 – 07.30
Mist-rise 07.30 – 10.30
Midday 10.30 – 13.30
Rest 13.30 – 16.30
Dusk 16.30 – 19.30
Disappearance 19.30 – 22.30
The most evocative watch is ‘mist rise’ which, in the language of the Gaulish Celts was ‘anthert’ or absence of vapour (an=absence of, thert [presumably] vapour or mist). I can well imagine the Celts pottering around until well into our morning waiting for the overnight mist to clear so they could go about their business.
The most intriguing is ‘rest’ (13.30-16.30) which seems both a long and ill-timed place to have a few hours off. I don’t think the times are indicative of a three-hour-long siesta (a tradition from Southern Europe) but rather the watch came to be named after a shorter period of rest that happened in the middle of the working day. Our phrase ‘noon’ which we apply to ‘midday’ comes from the Old English non which means ‘the ninth hour from (6am) sunrise’. Or 3pm. Smack in the middle of the (older) Celtic ‘rest’. Given the possible late start to the day waiting for the mist to clear, I think it’s possible that Celts worked through until stopping for a meal and a break around our 3pm and then perhaps resumed again until the light started to run out toward the end of ‘dusk’.
The passage of broader time across months and years were tracked by the movement of star constellations across the heavens and by the moon respectively. Therefore, Celts are believed to have had a lunar/solar calendar with a very straightforward (but effective) way of countering for seasonal ‘drift’. Check it out in these posts about the Coligny Calendar, the Celtic Week, Celtic Month and Celtic Year.