The Ancient Books of Wales – Aberystwyth, Wales - Atlas Obscura

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The Ancient Books of Wales

National Library of Wales

Welsh literary history is preserved in the delicate pages of these medieval manuscripts.  

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There are over 6 million books to be found within the walls of the National Library of Wales, located in the city of Aberystwyth. Within the library’s vast collection, three well-leafed tomes stand out from the rest: the Black Book of Carmarthen, the Book of Taliesin, and the Book of Aneirin are three of what historian William Forbes Skene deemed “the four ancient books of Wales.” Written in Middle Welsh, these are some of the oldest and most important literary works to come out of Wales.

The Black Book of Carmarthen, named due to its black binding, is considered the oldest surviving complete Welsh manuscript in existence, likely more than 750 years old. Thought to be the work of a single scribe, the text includes a number of poems focused on the heroes of Dark Age Britain, especially the legend of Myrddin Wyllt, a Welsh bard who, having gone mad at the sight of war, lived as a wild man in the forest and gained the gift of prophecy.

The Book of Taliesin takes its name from the legendary Welsh bard who was active in the 6th century and is thought to have contributed a number of the poems that feature in the text. Most of the poems focus on epic battles, as well as, in the case of Armes Prydein, fantasies of Wales rising up to kick the Anglo-Saxons (the English) out of Britain. One of the book’s poems also references the heroic feats of Hercules, the earliest known recording in a British text.

Believed to have been written in a Welsh monastery around 1250, the Book of Aneirin features the oldest surviving version of the famous Welsh medieval poem “Y Gododdin” (which itself likely dates back to around 700, making it one of the oldest of all Welsh poems). The poem tells the story of a band of soldiers from the Brittonic kingdom of Gododdin who fell valiantly in battle against a much larger invading force. If not added in retrospectively, this poem also includes the earliest reference to the legendary King Arthur (of Camelot fame) in any written work.

“But what about the last of the four famous tomes?” you might well ask. The Red Book of Hergest, which contains some of the oldest prose stories in British literature (now known as the tales of The Mabinogion), is held in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. The book reportedly served as the inspiration for the Red Book of Westmarch, a fictional manuscript that records part of the history of Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings series. (For much of his life, Tolkein worked as a lecturer at Oxford University.)

All three of the books held in Wales are kept permanently at the National Library of Wales, but are only on show at specific times as part of events or exhibitions. Check the library’s website for details of when the texts will next be on display to the public.

Know Before You Go

The library is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday and 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturdays.

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September 27, 2022

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