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Oral Tradition and Welsh Literature: A Description and Survey

Brynley F. Roberts 

The earliest Welsh literary tradition was, of necessity, an oral one. Written Welsh, in its extant forms, appears fi rst in marginalia, explanatory notes, and glosses in the eighth century A.D. in an orthography which is obviously derived from Latin. This and similar material, representing the Old Welsh period of the language and found in Latin manuscripts of the eighth to late eleventh centuries, has an ecclesiastical and scholastic context (Jackson 1953:31-75; Evans 1982). The glosses are on familiar texts, there are extended explications of technical treatises on weights and measures and a fragment of a translation of a Latin computus, but records of grants and transfers of lands and gifts, made in accordance with Welsh customary law, serve to remind us that writing in the vernacular was not restricted to non-native, or Latin, matters. The Latin-based orthography of Old Welsh is also used for the earliest records of Cornish and Breton and refl ects the interests and needs of a common “Celtic” church attempting to use the vernaculars in a written form not only for technical or book-learning but also for the recording of native oral culture for whatever purpose. Haycock (1981:96) rightly observes that the existence of an orthographic model in Latin which could be adapted to the vernaculars must have considerably facilitated their writing. The measure of literacy in monastic circles coming into contact with forms of native culture is the fountain-head of Welsh written literature. It reveals itself not only in book-learning and snatches of religious poetry but also in a fragment of a speech poem which probably derives from an oral tale (Williams 1933a), though the evidence does not suggest that the contact between the two cultures was as deep or as fruitful as was the case in early Ireland.

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