The Growth of Law in Medieval Wales

How on earth does someone become interested in medieval Welsh law? Dead law doesn’t sound like the kind of subject that would excite a young child, and even scholarly adults may not find it too difficult to choose between a box set on Netflix and a lecture or even a book on the textual relationships of the manuscripts of medieval Welsh law.

The subject area is still waiting for its great moment in popular media, and its opportunity to shine in novels and films (with the exception of Brother Cadfael: in Monk’s Hood, Ellis Peters makes excellent use of the contrast between Welsh and English law for dramatic effect). Indeed, Welsh law has something of a reputation as being a difficult field: vague dating for the law as a whole, loads of manuscripts of the law presenting different versions and the impossibility of relating them to each other. Professor Sir Rees Davies described one aspect of the historiography of Welsh law as ‘the despair of the historian’;[1] and the academic Robin Chapman Stacey, herself a leading expert on the Welsh laws, went as far as to say that the field ‘suffer[s] from what must be one of the most com­plicated textual traditions known to any field of study’.[2]

            Tempting as it is to imagine myself as working on the equivalent of rocket science or brain surgery within the field of medieval Wales, some of these pitfalls, the aspects which make medieval Welsh law appear to be a very difficult and even scary subject, has more to do with the difference in the material: parallel fields such as medieval Welsh poetry or narrative prose do not have the same high number of manuscripts with many significant differences in the texts, and so medieval Welsh law requires a different working procedure. Getting to the Welsh legal material requires more background textual work, and this can sometimes be seen as an obstacle. The field has also been coloured by early editions of the Welsh laws, the main work and the best-known being Aneurin Owen’s great Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales (London, 1841). The Growth of Law in Medieval Wales is a new exploration of the textual relationships of the Welsh law manuscripts, looking at all of the extant manuscripts, but taking a different approach to Owen’s earlier magnum opus. Prof. Patrick Wormald, on the Old English laws, stated that ‘the texts have proved so baffling because they have been read with the expectation that a ninth- or tenth-century law-code would be like one of the twelfth or nineteenth. Codes must instead be approached as artefacts of their own time. That means so far as possible examining them through the eyes of their own time.’[3] This is the approach which I have attempted to take in my study, and while acknowledging the historiography, this new reading may open the subject area to wider study.

            So why work on old lawtexts? For me, the glimpses of everyday human life found in the legal texts are thrilling. These are not dry sets of rules: the lawtexts show what bothered people, the things that irritated them, upset them, and the things which they wanted to change or control. The preoccupations of people do not change, on the whole, and I am always awed by the descriptions of the familiar which I read in texts written more than 800 years ago. The harsh way in which liars and sneaks are treated may be expected, but the sense of community, and the attempt to restore people to the position they were in before they suffered loss or injury is very modern and familiar. Then there are the everyday things: I never fail to be moved when I read of the payments to the breastfeeding mother or wetnurse, giving her extra food, fabrics to make clothing and the provision of light, knowing that the woman will be feeding the baby in the cold and dark of night, as I did myself. In other situations, there are oblique acknowledgements of grief, and pain; but there is also humour – I still roll my eyes when I read the Co-tillage contract, especially the man who agrees to the contract but then ‘does not come readily to plough’, and the one who offers himself up as the ploughman but it turns out that he doesn’t actually know how to handle a plough. There are always, and have always been, those people!

            It is often easy to forget the humans behind the dry old manuscripts, but I love reading the words, and hearing the voices – of grief, of joy, or simply exasperation – which speak across the centuries. I also never fail to feel the thrill when I look at a manuscript written many centuries ago, and think of the scribe working on his text and creating this priceless record. I used to say that if I saw a manuscript and felt nothing, then it would be time to stop working on the manuscripts. I still have the thrill.

            So how on earth does someone become interested in medieval Welsh law? I may have explained the joy of working on the subject, of dealing with the manuscripts, the words, the people; but how did this start? In my case, it was a throwaway comment from my tutor when I was finishing my first degree: I was considering different research topics for the next stage in my studies, and he joked that nobody had been mad enough to work on medieval Welsh law for a long while. And so it began…


[1] R. R. Davies, ‘The Status of Women and the Practice of Marriage in Late-Medieval Wales’, in D. Jenkins and M. E. Owen (eds.), The Welsh Law of Women (Cardiff, 1980), 94.

[2] Robin Chapman Stacey, The Road to Judgment: From Custom to Court in Medieval Ireland and Wales (Philadelphia, 1994), 17.

[3] Patrick Wormald, The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century (Oxford, 1999), xii.


This guest post was written by Sara Elin Roberts; 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.

The Growth of Law in Medieval Wales, c.1100-c.1500
By Sara Elin Roberts
9781783277261, Hardcover, £45.50/$64.35

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