Saturday, June 2, 2007

‘Black book of Carmarthen’ on exhibit

‘Black book of Carmarthen’ on exhibit

IT LOOKS very old inside its protective security case and can only be handled by people wearing silk gloves.

It’s also valued at £10,000 but the Black Book of Carmarthen on display in the National Library of Wales stand on the maes is an electronically produced copy, bound by conservators at the Library who dyed the leather to look exactly like the original.

“We were asked to bring the original down here but for obvious reasons the library declined,” said NLW senior education officer Rhodri Morgan. “There were issues of security and insurance and we just couldn’t risk it. The original is priceless, but this is the next best thing.”

No one knows for sure where the small book of 108 pages was originally written. Nothing is known about it before the 17th century when it was owned by the antiquarian Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt near Dolgellau, who collected some of the most important books written in Welsh.

In 1859 the Hengwrt manuscripts were bequeathed to William Watkin Edward Wynne of Peniarth, near Tywyn, and became known as the Peniarth manuscripts. The Black Book was given pride of place and designated Peniarth One and was valued at £400 when the whole collection was bought for a total of £5,000 in 1904 by Sir John Williams and donated to the National Library.

It is a poor companion to many of the better known medieval manuscripts like the Book of Kells or the Lichfield – or Llandeilo – Gospels, with none of their elaborate illustrations and using only black, red and green ink with some inconsistency in the handwriting.

“Whoever wrote it was not a scribe or specialist who would have written all day most days,” said Mr Morgan. “The parchment is not the best quality – the last few pieces of vellum have holes in them which he has written around – and he drew lines on the paper before writing on it and doodled in the margins and at the bottom of some of the pages to fill in space. It was just somebody writing down his favourite 39 poems and one piece of prose for his own use.”

And it is precisely the content of the book that makes it important, on a European level as well as for the Welsh language.

The poems were old when they were written down. Experts believe they date from three or four centuries before the Black Book was compiled, and contain the earliest references to King Arthur, Merlin and some of Arthur’s knights. There is also the earliest version of the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod, the fabled land lost beneath the Irish Sea...