The Growth of Law in Medieval Wales

Sara Elin Roberts

Dr Roberts, welcome to the Medieval Herald! To kick things off, can you please provide a brief overview of your book?

Thank you! My book is a full study of the medieval manuscripts of Welsh law, Cyfraith Hywel, the legal system which was current in Wales in the middle ages, up to the Acts of Union in 1536, officially. There are over 40 manuscripts, most of them in Middle Welsh, but a handful in Latin, and most of those manuscripts are unique. The mss do divide into groups, where they are very similar in order and content, and they also form sub-groups within those larger groupings. In the book, I look at all the manuscripts, focusing on the Welsh ones although the Latin mss are discussed too, and I look at the textual relationships between those manuscripts. I also give a detailed historiography for the subject area: the manuscripts and texts within them have traditionally been divided into Main Text + Additional Material, largely because of editorial decisions made by Aneurin Owen in his Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales (1841). I challenge those divisions, and instead suggest a new way of looking at the law manuscripts and the texts within them: they should all be considered in their own right, in their own context, rather than attempt to fit them into a textual construct which may not be accurate. The context of the creation of the manuscripts is crucial to all of this too. 

But despite not agreeing with all of Aneurin Owen’s decisions, I still respect why he made those choices, and the book is in many ways a tribute to his work, an appreciation of everything that he did!

You must have found some pretty interesting things in your research! What stood out to you?

First of all, I absolutely adore manuscripts. I never fail to get a thrill, butterflies in my tummy even, when I go to a library (usually the manuscripts room at the BL or NLW) and when a manuscript is delivered to me, and I have on the desk in front of me a small book, written hundreds of years ago, on parchment…I can’t describe it. I think of those men, labouring away – law texts are long and hard work! – copying their texts, in Wales, in the winter, fighting the dying light. It is amazing, and a privilege to me.

The other bit which stands out to me is the text. People might assume that looking at dead law is boring, that the texts are heavy-going, dry lists of rules, like watching paint dry, but this is not so. What we have is a picture of human life, and the way the texts are written are not at all like legal documents today. Apart from the fact that the lawtexts are often written in what could be called creative prose, setting out situations and even dramatic scenes: there’s the woman who has just given birth and she assigns the son to the father (only known to her), with a ritual, swearing on relics and dramatically naming the man who is the father of her child; then there are the cruel burlesques, where a girl who has claimed to be a virgin but actually is not is publicly humiliated. And the description of the case for claiming land, where the legal court with all its personnel gathers to sit on the land under dispute, including the king who gets to sit with his back to the sun so that the weather doesn’t impair him. These aren’t legal rules, and the scenes may never have been followed to the letter (certainly, in the case of the false virgin, the scene was probably symbolic and created as a warning) but they show us what really mattered to people.

What we have is human beings. The lawtexts present human life: the texts deal with people, sometimes bad people, often people who have been hurt or have lost something valuable, and then we get a way of dealing with those things. To me it is as close as I can get to people who lived centuries ago, and their stories are not dull. There’s life in there, sadness, challenges, and even humour. The striking thing in all of this is that nothing changes – the same things still bother people today. In the lawtexts, we get the sense that people wanted to live their life without having others stealing their stuff, or damaging their possessions, and if it happened, they wanted to know what the consequences were. (The quick answer is compensation, in medieval Wales.)

I also see and sympathise with the human beings behind the texts. The discussion on pregnancy loss is heart-rending and clearly something which many people had experienced. The payments to the wetnurse or breastfeeding mother are amazing – whoever wrote the text clearly had intimate knowledge of the needs of a breastfeeding woman, and I am certain that he had been awake with a crying baby at night! 

Another favourite is the short sentence, an emphasis sentence in middle Welsh, which states ‘There is not, in the Law of Hywel, castration of a man for raping a woman’. A fact, perhaps, but reading between the lines, there is the sense that this law doesn’t have the provision, but another law somewhere else, nearby, may well do; I imagine the writer raising his eyebrow, because we all know where he’s referring to (England) and this law is better than that – despite plenty of other negative aspects!

I also love the passages which unintentionally hold some humour, because the situations are all-too-familiar. The joint-ploughing contract, Cyfar, sets out all the procedures for collaborative ploughing where everybody brings something for the work – tools, animals, labour – and then every man in the contract has his land ploughed. On the whole, the section is business-like and practical, but towards the end the possible snags are discussed. I can’t help but smile when I read about what to do when someone is very keen to take part but doesn’t turn up to do the work yet still expects to get his land ploughed (answer: bad luck, no ploughed land for him) and the man who promises a certain ox but brings another ox instead, assumed to be less good. And my favourite: the man who enthusiastically volunteers to be the ploughman but doesn’t mention that he actually can’t plough at all… People don’t change! I imagine the writer rolling his eyes and groaning!

What prompted the ‘Golden Age’ of lawmaking in Wales?

The ‘Golden Age’ actually goes wider than simply the laws: thirteenth-century Gwynedd was also a golden age for written culture in general. The earliest extant manuscripts in Welsh date from the mid-thirteenth century (and some of those are law manuscripts!) but poetry also flourished, as did historical writing, and so forth. While it’s impossible to pinpoint a single factor, by the mid-thirteenth century, the political situation in Wales – throughout Wales, not only in Gwynedd in the north – had stabilized, and it was a peaceful period on the whole (with some exceptions, of course!) Gwynedd was by that stage ruled by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, who was a strong ruler, and the whole of Wales had in many ways (again, with caveats!) emerged from the previous centuries of war and struggle for land and dominance. This period of relative stability created the conditions for culture to flourish. The big Cistercian monasteries – and other orders too, of course – were also well established and were centres of manuscript production. Another interesting factor is that Llywelyn ab Iorwerth was married to Joan, the daughter of King John, and this brought the wider European culture to north Wales. So there are a multitude of factors, as well as a bit of lucky timing, coinciding with a general flourishing of culture across Europe. Of course, some would argue that this was not the first time for Wales to be in this situation: the whole debate about Hywel ap Cadell (Hywel Dda) being the originator of the Welsh laws also depends on the peaceful circumstances during his reign in the tenth century which allowed law and legal culture to flourish in his kingdom. 

Who practiced law in medieval Wales?

The most difficult question! The easy answer is that it was lawyers. The problem is defining exactly what is meant by ‘lawyers’ – or even by ‘legal practice’! In the book, I discuss different types of lawyers: the learned men who created the lawbooks; the ones who worked in the courts – as detailed in the lawbooks – and what they did. But different men did different things. While we get an outline in the lawbooks of the professional trained lawyer in north Wales, we also get references to landowners in south Wales who were expected to sit in judgement – but we don’t get a detailed picture of what they were supposed to do or how they were supposed to do it. There are also enigmatic references to other men who seem to have practiced law: the cyngaws and the canllaw, who were legal advisors, perhaps very important, but not given the title of judge or justice. It is also clear that the role of the lawyer, or the men who practiced law, changed with time, and also different things were done in different regions. 

Has law and Medieval Wales always been of interest to you? How did you decide to begin this research?

Well, I guess I would be lying if I claimed that as a primary school student I was fascinated by medieval Welsh law…who is?! But, now, I would say that medieval Welsh law is the perfect subject for me. In (secondary!) school, medieval literature really captured my imagination, and I loved it. I absolutely adored studying Chaucer and Shakespeare for my English A Level, but also Dafydd ap Gwilym, the Hengerdd (early poetry) and without a doubt the prose tales, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, for my Welsh A Level. I went to Bangor and was accepted to study Welsh, and my main interest was medieval literature. However, I took the history modules to make up my module count – they used to be called ‘subsidiary’ modules where you take a set number of subjects in the first year and then specialize – because I had also done A Level history. The A Level history syllabus did not cover medieval Wales (although interestingly I did study the history of Crime and Punishment for GCSE!) but discovering medieval Welsh history was a big eye opener: I loved it so much I switched to doing joint honours for my BA. That meant that I could mostly focus on the medieval side of things, which is what I did. From there, I crossed both disciplines and still do: my Masters was in medieval history, my doctorate in Celtic, and I have lectured in Welsh departments and also in history departments.

Law has always been an interest of mine. When I was doing my A Levels I was certain that I wanted to be a lawyer and I filled out my UCAS form to study Law. An unfortunate stint of work experience at a solicitor’s office put me off – I decided that I would only really be interested in being a barrister, and that would mean moving to London in my mind, which I didn’t want to do – so I scrapped the form and applied to study Welsh or Celtic instead. I knew I could always do a conversion course later, and it was still an option until I was well into my doctorate. I only finally gave up on the idea of a career in law after I got together with my (now) husband, who was a barrister, and I moved to London…!

I came to Welsh law and this research partly as a result of a joke. When I was considering options for my Masters, I had a chat with my tutors in both the Welsh department and also the History department, to look at subject areas. I had a plan to study the Hengerdd through the Welsh department, and my history tutor – himself an expert on Welsh law – said something along the lines of ‘nobody has been mad enough to work on Welsh law for a while’. I went to the library, did some reading, and decided that that was the path I wanted to take in my research.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Never underestimate the importance of law. It is central to all of life; there is nothing that we can do that is untouched by law in one way or another, and there is nobody at all who will not be exposed to law. 

Also, medieval Welsh law is one of the best sources possible for looking at society – it takes into account ALL of society, from the very lowest to the very top level. It is incredibly rich as a source, although perhaps difficult to use, since the lawtexts tell us what they think ought to happen, but it might not be what actually happened in real life. Even so, we get to see what bothered people hundreds of years ago, the things they wanted to control, and the way they wanted society to run, and to me, that is amazing. 

The Growth of Law in Medieval Wales, c.1100-c.1500

Sara Elin Roberts

£70.00 / $105.00

9781783277261, Hardcover, August 2022


Studies in Celtic History

Boydell Press


£42 / $63


Also Available

from the
Studies in Celtic History series

SARA ELIN ROBERTS is a historian specialising in the law, literature and culture of Wales and the March from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. She has been working on medieval Welsh lawbooks for more than two decades.