Meer en meer geleerden richten zich op het vergelijken van middeleeuwse literatuur in verschillende talen. Dit artikel poogt de meer productieve gebieden aan te wijzen die bestudeerd kunnen worden wanneer middeleeuws Engelse en Welshe literatuur samen worden gebracht. Hiertoe worden een aantal mogelijke invalshoeken besproken, waaronder het potentieel voor een nadere bestudering van de vroegmoderne en moderne Welshe bewerkingen van middeleeuwse Engelse teksten, zoals Troelus a Chressyd en de Welshe versie van Mandeville's Travels. Ook worden de mogelijkheden die contrastief onderzoek voor ons begrip van zowel de vroeg als laat middeleeuwse literatuur uit beide taalgebieden bekeken, waarbij moet worden benadrukt dat er nog veel filologisch werk gedaan moet worden op het gebied van de invloeden en uitwisselingen tussen middeleeuws Engels en Welsh.
Recent years have seen a great increase in work on medieval multilingualism. There is a renewed focus on how texts in different languages can throw light on one another and also how individual works and genres can cross and complicate perceived linguistic boundaries. This raises all sorts of questions for us Celticists. How do we define and divide our field? What are its limits? How important is vernacularity? Where do we put all these Latin texts that have come down to us? And what do we do with those familiar texts which happily criss-cross between one language and another? Here, from Wales, I aim to turn my attention eastwards, and explore some of the ways in which we might bring medieval English and Welsh literature into discourse with one another, and what new things this might tell us about the respective literatures and medieval Britain. Why compare Welsh and English? Personally, I got into comparative literary studies through a mixture of pragmatism and careerism. I had spent most of my bachelor's degree studying Old and Middle English with a few other odds and ends thrown in, and during that time I also learnt Welsh. And at a graduate level I thought that it might be useful to bring the Welsh and English texts together: it would be something I could do that not everyone else could, and who knows, it might be critically productive. And given the scarcity of jobs in Welsh departments, I thought I might as well make myself employable in an English department context if they were looking for a comparatist.
Now, this last factor I think is significant. Because of the scarcity of jobs in Welsh and Celtic Studies (and generally), more and more young scholars who might primarily research Welsh or Celtic literature seek to become comparatists beyond the comparative Celtic model sometimes in order to increase their range of employment options. So it is a particularly important time to be thinking about how we might most productively approach medieval Welsh in a comparative context. Practically speaking, this will inevitably involve an emphasis on Middle English, due to its dominance in medieval studies in the United Kingdom and the United States. This is not really justified by the Welsh material pre-1400, where French and especially Latin influence is far stronger. If one is interested in source studies for pre-1400 Welsh texts, the most relevant sources are usually, if not always, in Latin or French. There is a great need for more comparative scholarship on Middle Welsh and Old French, and Middle Welsh and Medieval Latin literature: scholars with that comparative expertise are desperately rare and generally getting rarer. The Netherlands thus does Wales a huge favour in producing Celtic scholars also able to read a wide range of other languages, and it is more important than ever that Celticists are trained who are also able to read Latin and Old French.
Beyond pragmatism, I think there are still many ways in which comparing English is productive. Indeed, the great quantity of scholarship on Old but especially Middle English literature can be highly informative and productive when brought into conversation with lesser studied neighbouring literatures. Even before 1400, there is much to be learnt by studying the often contrasting ways Welsh and English texts engaged with shared sources, and I am only scratching the surface with this here: there are far more potential comparative approaches to medieval Welsh and English literature than I could possibly hope to cover in one article.
There is geographical proximity, but great difference in the literatures, particularly in the poems, which stylistically are often so far apart. Looking at why shared sources are changed in different ways, and what this can tell us about trends within the literature more broadly, I have found to be a particularly productive approach to comparing early and high medieval Welsh and English texts. When we turn to the period post-1400, English texts have an increasingly large influence on Welsh texts and translations from English grow in number and certainly by the seventeenth century become dominant, so there is plenty to be done in terms of source study in this later period.
My main topic here is literature, but I will start by looking at language. It is well known that Welsh influence and Celtic influence more broadly on medieval English is relatively tiny and arguments continue as to why that is the case and whether Brittonic substrate influence can be detected in English syntax. But the point I would make here is that there is still plenty of philological work to be done looking at the influence of medieval Welsh and English on one another.
As regards lexical loans, the standard work in this area was published by the Celtic-interested anglicist Max Förster in 1921, namely Keltisches Wortgut im Englischen: Eine Sprachliche Untersuchung. The four-volume series The Celtic Englishes published in the late 90s to early 2000s tends to focus more on syntax and on post-medieval dialects. Förster’s book, as the title suggests, is very broad, covering Goidelic and Brittonic languages, and personal names of Celtic origin as well as loan words. As regards loan words, Förster focuses mostly on Old English, with very little discussion of Middle English, and obviously nowadays far more Middle English is available to us as ever more texts are transcribed and edited. So Welsh lexical influence in Middle English has not been subject to much investigation. Slight as this influence doubtless is in the surviving corpus, I think there is still more to be done here.
Indeed, there are still more Welsh loan words in English waiting to be discovered! A number of years ago I published a short note looking at the rare Middle English word cusky, which crops up in two fifteenth-century texts. In the Middle English Dictionary the word cusky is defined as ‘to quiet down, to rest’ and presented as a potential Old Norse borrowing, comparison being made with a form of the Old Norse verb kūga ‘to cow’, kūgask. But semantically cusky seemed much more similar to Middle Welsh kyscu ‘to sleep’. The only problem, as my (rightly) skeptical supervisors pointed out at the time, is the stressed vowel. We would normally expect ‘u’ to represent something like /ʊ/, like the vowel in Modern English book, in this context in Middle English, whereas the ‘y’ in Middle Welsh ‘kyscu’ here represents a stressed schwa. Alas, the facts were getting in the way of my good argument.
But hope was not lost. A number of years later, Dylan Foster Evans pointed me in the direction of a fascinating text. This is a fifteenth-century brass inscription surviving in Usk church in south-east Wales. It is a metrical epitaph using the medieval Welsh cywydd verse form to commemorate Adam Usk, the Welsh chronicler who died in 1430. The cywydd verse form uses cynghanedd, a well-known Welsh metrical device combining rhyme and consonance. The critical line is ‘Adam Wsk, yna yn kwsky’ (‘Adam Usk, sleeping there’). Here kwsky, a dialect form of kysgu, is used. The type of cynghanedd found here (cynghanedd lusg) requires an internal rhyme with the penultimate syllable, so Wsk rhymes with kwsk-y. The stressed vowel here is thus similar to what we would expect in Middle English cusky and indicates the existence of something similar to /kuskɨ/ as a Middle Welsh dialect form. Thus the phonological difficulty is overcome, and we find both the Middle Welsh and Middle English forms in fifteenth-century Marcher contexts.
Now, this is all still far from certain. The word only has two known attestations in Middle English, so there is little that we can say for sure, but I think this is an example of how the issue of Welsh lexical influence on Middle English still needs further examination. And this is true in the other direction too. The standard study of English lexical influence on Welsh is Parry-Williams’ The English Element in Welsh: A Study of English Loan-Words in Welsh (1923). This study is quite broad and does not differentiate the medieval material from lexical items attested only in later periods. So there is much more to be done now with far more editions and transcriptions of Middle Welsh texts at our disposal, looking at when and perhaps where particular lexical items may have been borrowed.
The Celtic Devil
Now to return to my main topic of literary comparison. A wide range of different avenues have been followed in comparing medieval English and Welsh, some of which are more familiar to me than others. Some prominent examples of comparison of canonical Middle English literature with Celtic material are not unproblematic. So let us take a look at an example in the notes to the Friar’s Tale in the Riverside Chaucer, the standard edition of the works of medieval England’s most famous poet.
There the summoner meets a devil disguised as a yeoman, and this is initially described thus:
A gay yeman, under a forest syde.
A bowe he bar, and arwes brighte and kene;
He hadde upon a courtepy of grene
An hat upon his heed with frenges blake. (Lines 1379–83)
His green courtepy or short coat is explained thus in the notes: ‘The green garb here may hint at the yeman’s origin. The color was traditional in Celtic mythology for underworld spirits who walk the earth’, citing an article which itself does not cite anything. Needless to say, this entirely unsupported claim is not unproblematic given how little we know about Celtic mythology, let alone any potential connection that might have with a fourteenth-century English author. Elsewhere, in the introductory notes to the Franklin’s Tale, commonly described as a Breton lay, it is said ‘Though the Franklin gives his tale an authentically Breton setting, it is an unusual Breton lay: it has no clear Celtic antecedents’.What exactly do we mean by ‘Celtic antecedents’ here?
Do we mean texts with parallels in terms of events or motifs with the vast array of medieval Irish prose literature, which are also the source for the elements of ‘Celtic mythology’ just noted? If so, why should we assume these to be similar to non-extant works of medieval Brittonic literature composed in languages long mutually unintelligible with Irish? The Irish influence on medieval Brittonic literature was relatively minor, as Patrick Sims-Williams has highlighted.
Now, I do not mean to say that such motif comparison is wrong, and I am not qualified to say that. But nevertheless there are some obvious difficulties in some of the scholarship, perhaps illustrated by the notes in the Riverside Chaucer. There is a problem of equating Irish and Celtic material if Brittonic influence is ultimately expected, and there is always a danger that such comparison may make our literary criticism less rather than more effective: it can be a means of explaining away difficulties and paradoxes rather than pursuing them fully on their own terms.
Welsh literary influence on medieval English
To move to the other end of the spectrum then, how about the direct influence of extant texts or at least genres in the two literatures on one another? Just as with language, the Welsh literary influence on medieval English literature appears fairly slight, particularly in the earlier period. The normal starting place for the study of Welsh influence on Old English poetry is in the Old English elegies, where the cuckoo present in The Seafarer and The Husband’s Message has been thought to have flown over from Wales, given the appearance of the cuckoo in early Welsh poems like Claf Abercuawg and Cyntefin Ceinaf Amser. I have tried to kill these cuckoos before, and I will not start here on the problems of the relative dating of these texts, but, simply put, the critical tradition of blaming the Welsh for miserable cuckoos is based on the shakiest of foundations, making some problematic assumptions about the nature of the Germanic peoples and the miserable Celts.
Ernst Sieper in Die altenglische Elegie, published in 1915, was keen to offer an explanation for the Old English elegies. He viewed them as having ‘einen solch ernsten, grüblerisch weichen, um nicht zu sagen sentimentalen Charakter’ (‘such a solemn, pensively soft, not to say sentimental character’). Thus they did not fit in with the rest of early Germanic literature in his (problematic) opinion, and must have been subject to some foreign influence. But which foreign influence? ‘Unser Blick wendet sich natürlich zu der Literatur der Kelten, und zwar desjenigen Zweiges der Kelten, mit dem die Angelsachsen in der engsten Beruhrung standen: der Walliser.’ (‘Our sight naturally turns towards the literature of the Celts, and indeed of that branch of the Celts with which the Anglo-Saxons were in the nearest contact: the Welsh’).
Sieper went on to conclude that certain features in the Old English elegies, particularly the lamenting cuckoo, are of Welsh or Celtic origin and was followed in that by a number of other scholars. I argued that the role of the cuckoo actually differs in the Old English and early Welsh poems. In the Welsh poems, the coming of the cuckoo is associated with the joys of spring, causing the speaker to lament that those companions who heard it in previous years are no longer there to hear it now. In the Husband’s Message and The Seafarer, the cuckoo itself is explicitly lamenting and is in both cases associated with sea-voyages, something overlooked in the quest for traces of Welsh or Celtic influence. As cuckoos are very noticeable birds in Britain with their distinctive call who migrate each year, it is quite possible that they might come to be associated with transience in different literary traditions. Perhaps it is contrasting their varying depictions which can prove most critically productive, an approach I will get on to more below. So there is little evidence for Welsh literary influence on Old English, although Latin texts written in Wales like Historia Brittonum certainly did make it to England and had an influence there.
There is much more to work with in the later Middle English period: there is the famous Middle English awdl (a Welsh poetic form) the Hymn to the Virgin, written in English but in Welsh metre, attributed to fifteenth-century poet Ieuan ap Hywel Swrdwal as well as the bilingual Ymddiddan Cymro a Saesnes (‘Dialogue of a Welshman and an Englishwoman’) attributed to fifteenth-century poet Tudur Penllyn. There are also English texts which were copied in Wales, in multilingual anthologies like NLW Peniarth 50, NLW Peniarth 26, and NLW Peniarth 326, all fifteenth-century manuscripts, which can betray the influence of Welsh orthography. As Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan has highlighted, there are at least two examples of fifteenth-century manuscripts copied by scribes in English and Latin with little Welsh content, namely NLW Peniarth 356 and NLW MS 423, both from north-east Wales. Somewhat earlier, the locus classicus for Welsh or Celtic influence on Middle English literature is the Harley Lyrics, a collection of short poems found in the trilingual fourteenth-century manuscript BL Harley 2253, as discussed by Ann Matonis and Helen Fulton among others. There is some Welsh lexical influence but most of the stylistic evidence adduced is ambiguous and inconclusive. So I think that it is towards the end of the medieval period that most work remains to be done on Welsh influence on extant English texts.
The other direction
But in terms of influence and particularly source study, the influence of specific extant texts on others, our attention could most productively turn the other way and look at English influence on Welsh literature. In the early period, there has not been a great deal of work done, although there is more evidence for English linguistic influence on early Welsh poetry than vice versa. Rebecca Thomas and I argued, for example, that the poet of Armes Prydein Vawr, a tenth-century Welsh prophecy heralding the expulsion of the English from Britain, was likely familiar with Asser’s Life of Alfred the Great. In the section of the work the poet used, Asser is translating the Old English Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. So, a text composed in Old English is translated into Latin in a different context and through that reaches Wales. Perhaps this is a more realistic (or at least more traceable) model than early English poets consciously imitating the supposed misery of Welsh ones, and I think there is certainly more to be done on English influence on Welsh literature with Latin as a potential bridge language, and later French.
Moving to the later period, Aisling Byrne has recently published a brilliant article, which provides a survey of possible translations from Middle English into languages other than Latin and French before 1550, and lists the relevant texts with editions in an appendix. In most of the instances, like the Welsh Life of Saint Katherine and Legend of Ipotis, an English source is possible but not proven. So this in a way is a great invitation for further study of these works using the latest advances in research. We might also look for wider trends in the translations: Byrne identifies two phases, one associated with political prophecy in the fifteenth century (as highlighted by Victoria Flood’s work) and, in the sixteenth century, translations of religious and instructional texts, especially those which had been printed. One might also look at medical texts, an area in which Diana Luft has done a huge amount of work.
Byrne’s survey runs to 1550, but there is much further work which could be done on the later reception of Middle English literature in Welsh. The famous medieval travel text Mandeville’s Travels was certainly known in later medieval Wales and there are two early modern Welsh translations of Mandeville’s Travels from English: one a prose translation of the 1568 English printed text, and another poetic rendering. These have attracted little attention, but are fascinating. The Welsh verse translation is inventive in a number of ways, framing Mandeville’s Travels as a dialogue between the questioner and a raven, asking the raven about its travels, so only the bird actually travels here, and Mandeville stays at home! It is also interesting and new in being a verse translation, if we can call this broad adaptation a translation: prior to this, the norm was for all extended narrative sources, including poems, to be turned into prose when translated into Welsh, but here the English prose is versified. Very little work has been carried out on the Welsh versions of Mandeville’s Travels, the prose and the earliest witness to the verse have not even been edited.
Slightly better known, although still largely unknown, is Troelus a Chressyd, the Welsh dramatization of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid. It survives uniquely in a rather beautiful copy by John Jones, Gellilyfdy, in NLW Peniarth 106, which was copied in two main stints in 1613 and 1622. Some material is completely new like a scene depicting Cressyd’s trial, but a lot of the text follows Chaucer and Henryson fairly closely. It has been suggested that the play was never performed, but there are indications in the text that it was. This is most obvious in the stage directions, including a tantalizing reference to a stage ‘Diomedes ar yr ystaeds, a Chressyd yn dyfod yno’ (‘Diomedes on the stage, and Cressyd coming there’) but there are other more subtle examples. In the section equating to Book 5 of Troilus and Criseyde when Diomedes asks for Criseyde’s hand and pledge he asks ‘Arnoch chwi y deisyfaf, am y boen a’r drafael ymaf, y ngŵydd y rhain fy henwi yn wasanaethwr ufydd i chwi’ (‘I entreat you, for this pain and toil, to name me in the presence of these, as an obedient servant to you’). ‘Y ngŵydd y rhain’ (‘in the presence of these’) makes the audience complicit witnesses to Diomedes’ action and emphasizes Cressyd’s isolation. So we can ask where, then, might this play have been performed and to whom? Although it is clearly based on a printed edition of Chaucer’s works where Troilus and Criseyde and the Testament were combined (in the tradition of Thynne’s edition), the exact source is still unknown.
Continuing with Middle English influence on Welsh literature and moving even closer to the present time, we might look at the modern Welsh reception of medieval English literature. There is a significant amount of work done the other way round to look, for example, at the reception of medieval Welsh literature in nineteenth- and twentieth-century English writing, but it is far less common to look at nineteenth- and twentieth-century Welsh reception of medieval English literature.
In reading Hazel Walford Davies’ wonderful new biography of the important Welsh figure O.M. Edwards (1858–1920), I was fascinated to find out the detail in which he had studied Old and Middle English, and this was true for many Welsh writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We might examine manifestations of this such as Bryan Martin Davies’ metrical translation of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, thinking of issues like the motivation behind this translation. Somewhat closer to the Welsh literary canon, the influence of Middle English poet William Langland on modern Welsh poet Waldo Williams has been noted, but there is room for broader comparative study here, studying Waldo’s Langlandian vision of y perci llawn pobl ‘the fields full of folk’.I think, given the current interest in multilingualism and cross-linguistic exchange, as well as the post-medieval reception of medieval literature, the time is ripe for more study of Welsh texts influenced by medieval English ones.
Now I come finally to stylistic comparison of medieval English and Welsh literature, which has been the focus of most of my research. For the early period, the key work is Sarah Higley’s Between Languages: The Uncooperative Text in Early Welsh and Old English Nature Poetry — my own book Dissonant Neighbours is very much in the Higlean tradition.Higley’s work has been criticized for containing large numbers of literal errors, but these do not undermine its lasting value: I think it is perhaps the most radically fresh literary approach to early Welsh poetry since the work of Saunders Lewis.
Rather than searching for similarities, Higley looks for what is different and distinctive, and what this tells us about early Welsh and English poetry. As she writes, ‘I offer various new ways of examining these texts that I hope will incorporate both the traditional and the innovative. Exposing Old English and Welsh together to more contemporary hermeneutical approaches, we might see how each tradition throws into sharp relief quirks of the other that are normally taken for granted; hearing both together we might detect harmonies or dissonances that go unheard in isolation. We also understand something about the values we attach to clarity, obscurity, imagery, and difference.’ She also makes some really insightful comments about early Welsh and English poetry, about the far greater use of chronological and locational markers in the English works and how that can shape our reaction to them.
I would recommend Higley as the starting place for contrastive studies of early Welsh poetry and a useful work for all comparatists, especially Celtic ones. My own work moved to compare and contrast narrative style in early Welsh and Old and early Middle English poetry. By comparing them, I aimed to highlight what was distinctive, such as the emphasis on past-reference narrative in Old English and non-past-reference narrative in Welsh verse, and the use of direct speech to create narrative in Welsh whereas it slows narrative down in Old English poetry.
This contrastive approach, using the Welsh and English traditions as foils for one another, is also relevant in the later Middle English period. Texts such as Latin saints’ Lives easily crossed between Wales and England and were translated and adapted into both Middle Welsh and Middle English. Here again, the Netherlands has provided great help to Wales, in the form of Dutch anglicist Erik Kooper, who produced the editio princeps of the Middle English Life of Saint Teilo. This is a Middle English versification of a Latin Life of this Welsh saint, produced in south-east Wales. We can ask all sorts of questions. Why translate his Life outside Wales? What sort of changes does the translator make? Are there general trends in the transformation of such texts from Wales in Middle English, to cater for a different audience?
The Middle English Life of Teilo is not unique. There is also a Middle English Life of Saint David and there are a wide variety of Lives for the border-crossing saint Winefride (or Gwenfrewy in Welsh). Winefride’s remains were literally carried from Wales to Shrewsbury in England in the twelfth century, and thus she gained important cults in both Wales and England. These led to a proliferation of texts in Latin, Welsh, and English. New editions of all the Latin and Welsh hagiography of medieval Wales will soon be published as part of two recent editorial projects. Sometimes the same Latin text is adapted in both Middle Welsh and Middle English and we can look at the sort of changes the authors make. Who was the Winefride that people in fifteenth-century London wanted to see? How did she differ from the Winefride(s) of fifteenth-century north Wales?
Comparison allows us an insight into the dynamic, border-crossing traditions of these Welsh saints. They provide a perfect opportunity for contrastive criticism, which uses the shared influences and connections between Welsh and English literature to highlight how, where and why they diverge. This can teach us more about broader trends within the literatures, which we might miss if we looked at just one literature in isolation. Likewise, only through cross-linguistic comparison can we build a fuller picture of the saint’s cult, which can also shine light on potential lost sources in Latin.
With this Latinate border-crossing example I finish, but it illustrates some of the avenues of contrastive study also with the potential to make cross-linguistic connections that can be pursued in the comparative study of medieval English and Welsh literature. In the multilingual Middle Ages, we have such a wealth of material and languages to deal with, particularly us lucky Celticists, and we can undertake such comparison in all sorts of different contexts. Our work is just beginning.
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—, and Flood, Victoria, (eds.), Crossing borders in the insular Middle Ages (Turnhout 2019).
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