Introduction to early Welsh literature

Photograph of a pen resting on a page of old writing

Last updated: 20 October 2009

Literature in Wales has an impressive history, ranging from poetry collections from the late sixth century to myth-filled prose tales of the Mabinogion.

Some of the earliest surviving works can be dated to the latter half of the sixth century AD. Poets whose work still survives from this time include Taliesin and Aneirin. They, along with anonymous others, are collectively called Y Cynfeirdd, or The Early Poets, and their work ranges from the late sixth century until around 1100. Their style of heroic praise poetry set a model that was used in Welsh literature for centuries afterwards.

Praise, or celebration, poetry honoured the patrons or subjects of poems, commending them largely on their supremacy in battle but later in Welsh literature also praised the family, home, lineage and hospitality of the poem's subject.

These early poems were composed in Welsh, or Brythonic, kingdoms in the Old North - in what is modern day northern England and southern Scotland - at a time when when Old Welsh or Brythonic was spoken in the north of country. The seventh century advance of the Anglo-Saxons was the driving force in separating the Celtic nations into the areas they inhabit in today's geography. The majority of Welsh poetry from the seventh century onwards was largely written in Wales.

Writers whose work exist from the 12th century to the late 13th and early 14th centuries are largely referred to as Y Gogynfeirdd, or the Fairly Early Poets. They are also known as Beirdd Y Tywysogion, which translates as the Poets of the Princes. They were poets by profession who typically wrote celebration poetry for their Welsh patrons, usually courtly princes and kings.

Poetry from the early 14th century to the 1600s is also largely praise poetry, though with the death of the last native Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in 1282, royal bardic patronage ceased. Instead, these poets were the patrons of men of the nobility or gentry, and are referred to as such: Poets of the Nobility, or Beirdd yr Uchelwy. Some of Wales' most famous medieval poets are from this era, including Dafydd ap Gwilym.

Early prose is dominated by the well known tales of The Mabinogion. Written by anonymous authors, it is believed the four branches of the Mabinogi originated in the 11th century with the remaining tales scribed somewhere between the 11th and the early 13th century. Lady Charlotte Guest coined the term Mabinogion when she translated the work; the first volume was published in 1838.


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