Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 June 2021
ONE OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT aspects of Welsh as a vernacular is its long continuity as a prestige language in Wales. While Middle English endured an extended and often painful struggle with Norman French before emerging triumphant as a relatively high-status language towards the end of the fourteenth century, Welsh never ceded its position as the prestige vernacular of the elite. Consequently, medieval literature in Welsh has an antiquity, a variety of registers and functions, and an awareness of its own long literary history that are unusual among the vernacular literatures of Europe.
This is not to say, however, that medieval Welsh literature was parochial or insular. The early conversion of Wales to Christianity in the fifth century nurtured a strong cultural tradition of Latin writing, mainly of a religious nature but also in the form of annals, chronicles, and philosophical works. From the twelfth century, the rapid foundation of a chain of priories and abbeys around Wales, particularly those of the Benedictines and Cistercians, enabled the keeping of substantial libraries which were shared among the various foundations and borrowed by noble families. Like England, Wales was subjected to conquest and colonisation by the Normans after 1066, with the crucial difference that Welsh literature retained its pre-eminence as a literary language alongside French. This was due in part to the politics and topography of Norman settlement in Wales, which divided the land into Marcher lordships held by the Normans (mainly in the east and south of the country) and independent patrimonial territories held by Welsh princes where the Welsh language retained institutional power.
In 1282, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, prince of Gwynedd in north Wales, fell at the hands of the English army of Edward I and his entire territory, along with others ruled by Welsh princes, was annexed to the Crown. From 1284, Wales was divided into two different kinds of political unit, the Marcher lordships which operated separately from the king, and the Crown lordships, former Welsh princedoms, which were governed by a combination of English and Welsh administrators. The old Welsh aristocracy was brutally disposed of, by murder, imprisonment, or claustration, and the gentry class immediately below it in the hierarchy, the uchelwyr (literally ‘high men’), found itself called upon to serve the English monarchy.