An extract from the White Book of Rhydderch, mid 14th century
An extract from the White Book of Rhydderch, mid 14th century

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.


Letter of John Peckham to King Edward, describing the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282. Anglo-Norman reading by David Trotter

Anglo-Norman was written and spoken by a small elite following the Norman invasion.

After the conquest of Wales by Edward I, Anglo-Norman was introduced as the language of the incoming ruling class in Wales. It survives in a small number of literary texts and in administrative and legal documents. There is some influence, too, of Anglo-Norman on the Welsh language.

This example is from a letter of John Peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury (about 1230-92) to King Edward I, describing the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282.

Transcription of the audio passage:

Sire, sachez ke cues [ceus?] ke furent a la mort Lewelin truverent au plus privé lu de sun cors menue choses ke nus avoms veues; entre les autres choses il i out une lettre deguisé par faus nuns de traysun. E pur co ke vus seyez garni, nus enveyum le transcript de la lettre a le eveske de Ba, e la lettre meymes tient Eadmund de Mortemer, e le privé seel Lewelin, e ces choses vus purrez aver a vostre pleysir, e ço vus maundum pur vus garner, e nun pas pur ce ke nul en seyt grevé, e vus priums ke nul ne sente mort ne mahayn pur nostre maundement, e ke (s) ce ke nus vus maundums seyt secré.

English translation:

Lord, know that those who were at the death of Llywelyn found in the most secret part of his body some small things which we have seen. Among the other things there was a treasonable letter disguised by false names. An that you may be warned, we send a copy of the letter to the bishop of Bath, and the letter itself Edmund Mortimer has, with Llywelyn's privy seal, and these things you may have at your pleasure. And this we send to warn you, and not that any one should be troubled for it. And we pray that no one my suffer death or mutilation in consequence of our information, and that what we send you may be secret.

Source: R. Griffiths (ed.) 1986, 1282. A Collection of Documents (National Library of Wales), 12-13; English translation by Charles Trice Martin.

Anglo-Norman reading by Professor David Trotter, Anglo-Norman Dictionary, Aberystwyth University.

Middle Welsh

Old Welsh developed into Middle Welsh around 1100. Spoken Welsh included a variety of dialects, such as Gwyndodeg (the speech of Gwynedd) and Gwenhwyseg (the speech of Gwent). The written language was used for religious literature, legal texts, works on medicine, heraldry and farming as well as prose sagas and romances. Medieval Wales remained overwhelmingly Welsh speaking.

We have here an example of Middle Welsh taken from one of three cywyddau by the professional bard Iolo Goch (about 1320-98) praising Owain Glyn Dŵr. This one praises his court at Sycharth.

The cywydd (plural cywyddau) is one of the most important metrical forms of Welsh poetry, consisting of a series of seven-syllable lines in rhyming couplets, using a form of harmony known as cynghanedd. It was the favourite metre of the poets of the nobility.

Iolo's patrons included high-ranking churchmen as well as Anglo-Welsh and Welsh noble families.

Transcription of the audio passage:

Llys Owain Glyn Dŵr

Naw neuadd gyfladd gyflun,
A naw gwardrob ar bob un,
Siopau glân glwys cynnwys cain,
Siop lawndeg fal Siêp Lundain;
Croes eglwys gylchlwys galchliw,
Capelau â gwydrau gwiw;
Popty llawn poptu i'r llys,
Perllan, gwinllan ger gwenllys;
Melin deg ar ddifreg ddŵr,
A'i glomendy gloyw maendwr,
Pysgodlyn, cudduglyn cau,
A fo rhaid i fwrw rhwydau;
Amlaf lle, nid er ymliw,
Penhwyaid a gwyniaid gwiw,
A'i dir bwrdd a'i adar byw,
Peunod, crehyrod hoywryw;
Dolydd glân gwyran a gwair,
Ydau mewn caeau cywair,
Parc cwning ein pôr cenedl,
Erydr a meirch hydr, mawr chwedl;
Gerllaw'r llys, gorlliwio'r llall,
Y pawr ceirw mewn parc arall;

English translation:

... nine symmetrical identical halls,
and nine wardrobes by each one,
bright fair shops with fine contents,
a lovely full shop like London's Cheapside;
a cross-shaped church with a fair chalk-coloured exterior,
chapels with splendid glass windows;
a full bakehouse on every side of the court,
an orchard, a vineyard by a white court;
a lovely mill on flowing water,
and his dovecot with bright stone tower;
a fishpond, hollow enclosure,
what is needed to cast nets;
place most abounding, not for dispute,
in pike and fine sewin,
and his bord-land and his live birds,
peacocks, splendid herons,
bright meadows of grass and hay,
corn in well-kept fields,
the rabbit park of our patriarch,
ploughs and sturdy horses, great words,
by the court, outshining the other,
stags graze in another park...

English translation by Dafydd Johnston (D. Johnston 1993, Iolo Goch: Poems, Gomer.

Middle Welsh reading by Professor Peter Wynn Thomas, Cardiff University.

Middle English

The Norman Conquest destroyed the literary high culture of Anglo-Saxon England. The Middle English that was increasingly widely used again after about 1200 was grammatically much changed from Old English, and had absorbed many Norse and Anglo-Norman words. English was the usual language of most of the towns founded by Norman and English rulers in Wales. Large numbers of Middle English words passed into Welsh.

This example of Middle English comes from the medieval romance 'Sir Cleges'. Sir Cleges is the tale of a spendthrift knight reduced to poverty and restored to prosperity, against a background of Christmas festivities.

It was composed in the late 1300s/early 1400s, probably in the north-west Midlands.

Transcription of the audio passage:

Sir Cleges and his son gent
The right waye to Cardiffe went
Uppon Cristemas Daye.
To the castell he cam full right
As they were to mete dy?t,
At noun, the soth to saye.
In Sir Cleges thow?t to goo,
But in pore clothyng was he tho
And in sympull araye.
The portere seyd full hastyly:
"Thou chorle, withdrawe þe smertly,
I rede the, without delaye —

'Ellys, be God and Seint Mari,
I schall breke thyne hede on hig?t!
Go stond in beggeres row?t.
Yf þou com more inward,
It schall þe rewe afterward,
So I schall þe clow?t.'
'Good sir,' seyd Sir Cleges tho,
'I pray you lat me in goo
Nowe, without dow?t.
The kynge I have a present brow?tt
From hym þat made all thynge of now?t;
Behold all abow?t!'

English translation:

Sir Cleges and his fine son took the road straight to Cardiff on Christmas day. He went directly to the castle, as they were sitting down to eat, at noon to tell it true. Sir Cleges meant to go in, but he was poorly dressed then, and in simple costume. The porter very quickly said 'You churl, take yourself off smartly, I tell you, without delay, or by God and Holy Mary I'll break the crown of your head. Go and stand in the crowd of beggars. If you come further in, you'll regret it afterwards. I shall hit you so hard'. 'Good sir', said Sir Cleges then, 'I pray you, let me go in now, without doubt. I have brought the king a present from him who made everything from nothing. Look all around.'

Source: D. Speed (ed) 1987, '4. Sir Cleges', Medieval English Romances Part One (Department of English, University of Sydney), 169-92.

Middle English reading and translation by Professor John Hines, Cardiff University.

Flemish (Middle Dutch)

Flemings came to England with the army of William the Conqueror, and during the 1100s as merchants and colonists for new towns. The most famous group of colonists are the Flemings of south-west Wales (Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion). Flemings retained their identity as a group and their language for several generations until the early 1200s. By then they had transformed the character of areas of Dyfed.

This example of Flemish comes from the 'Roman van Walewein'. Roman van Walewein is an Arthurian story which appears to be a Flemish invention and in which Walewein (Gawain) is the main character. The central theme in the story is the quest for a flying chess-board which appeared at Arthur's court (and disappeared again).

Transcription of the audio passage:

Die koninck Arthur zat t'enen male
Te Carlioen in zine zale
Ende hild hof na konink zede
Alzo hi menigwerven dede
Met een deel zire man
Die ik niet wel genomen kan:
Ywein ende Percevaal,
Lanceloot ende Duvengaal
Entie hoofse Walewein;
Zijn gezelle was daar negein.
Ook was daar Keye, die drussate.
Daar die heren aldus zaten
Na den etene ende hadden gedwegen
Alzo hoge liede plegen,
Hebben zi wonder groot vernomen;
Een schaak ten veinstren inkomen
Ende breedde hem neder uptie aarde.

English translation:

King Arthur once was seated
in Caerleon in his hall
and held court as kings do
and as he did frequently
with a number of his men
who I cannot name all.
Yvain and Perceval,
Lancelot and Duvengal
and the courtly Walewein;
who was there without peer.
Also Kay was there, the steward.
When these lords sat there
after a meal, and had washed (their hands)
as gentlemen use to do,
they witnessed a great wonder:
A chess-board came in through the window
and alighted on the floor.

English translation/source: D. F. Johnson and G. H. M. Claassens (eds) 2000, Roman van Watewein. Arthurian Archives. Dutch Romances. Vol. 1 (Cambridge); Flemish reading by Lauran Toorians.

Text by Mark Redknap with Peter Wynn Thomas, Diarmait Mac Giolla Chríost, John Hines, David Trotter, Lauran Toorians

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