Medieval Welsh Genealogy

Ben Guy’s new book addresses the difficulties of medieval Welsh genealogies and offers a framework for their interpretation. As such it will doubtless be valued by all who have combed genealogical texts looking for reliable facts and dates. Here Dr Guy introduces the main issues his book tackles; in June’s Medieval Herald (subscribe here) we’ll learn more in an exclusive interview.

‘The Welsh genealogist may as well pray, “From all facts and dates, good Lord, deliver us!”’, fumed the historical genealogist J. Horace Round in 1903. Round, confronted with a morass of dodgy Welsh pedigrees about his medieval subjects, had no option but to wield the most fearsome weapon in his positivist arsenal: he banished Welsh genealogy from respectable scholarly discourse. What else can be done with sources that so obviously lack facts and dates?

To be fair to Round, he would have primarily encountered Welsh genealogies of the early modern and modern periods, created long after the lifetimes of the medieval people who populate them. But Round’s doubts might equally be applied to Welsh genealogies written in the medieval period, which are no less conspicuously lacking in the date department. A programme of publication in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, culminating in Peter Bartrum’s Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts (1966), succeeded in laying the major medieval Welsh genealogical texts before the public. But what can be done with them? For many years, scholars had no choice but to approach the genealogical texts of medieval Wales in the manner that one approaches a nineteenth-century edition of Burke’s Peerage: you look up the person of interest, take note of the alleged family relationships, and add a caveat somewhere about the potential unreliability of the information.

The problem is especially acute for the early Middle Ages, where sources of any kind are thin on the ground. It is true that early medievalists, following the lead of scholars like Donnchadh Ó Corráin and David Dumville, have developed nuanced ways of reading genealogies, enabling an understanding of how they deliberately foreshadow their own time of writing through the way that they represent the past. But this only gets you so far without a framework of interpretation in which to contextualise those readings

Medieval Welsh Genealogy: An Introduction and Textual Study is intended to provide exactly such a framework of interpretation. The reader is introduced to the basic parameters of the corpus, including the relationship between genealogical writing and society, the formal and structural conventions of written genealogy, the stake held by various members of society in written genealogy (especially rulers, poets and churchmen), and the chronological development of the corpus from its beginnings in a seventh-century Insular tradition to its rapid propagation in Tudor Wales. Individual chapters address the three major medieval collections of Welsh genealogy, all of which evolved between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. Especial attention is paid to the basic questions of where, when and why the genealogical texts were written and rewritten, hopefully equipping historians and literary scholars with the tools for understanding the texts’ contents. The texts themselves are rendered available as never before through eleven new critical editions, some of them granting access to texts that were previously unknown or misunderstood.

Despite all this, medieval Welsh genealogy remains singularly free of dates, even if a few more ‘facts’ might be found here or there than Round had anticipated. But there’s no need to conduct future debate on Round’s terms. It’s far more exciting to ask why the weird and wonderful genealogies of medieval Wales should have proved so popular and pervasive in their own context.

This guest blog is written by Dr Ben Guy, a Junior Research Fellow at Robinson College, Cambridge.

Medieval Welsh Genealogy is due to be published in May 2020.

Medieval Welsh Genealogy
By Ben Guy
Hardback, 9781783275137, 24 line illus., £90 or $160

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