Law and the Imagination in Medieval Wales explores the idea of law as a form of political fiction: a body of literature that blurs the lines generally drawn between the legal and literary genres.
2018 | 344 pages | Cloth $89.95
History / Cultural Studies,Law / Women's Studies/Gender Studies
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Table of Contents
Introduction. Reading Law
PART I. IMAGINED LANDSCAPES
Chapter 1. Britain and Wales
Chapter 2. Court and Country
PART II. BODY AND BAWDY
Chapter 3. Bodies and Nobodies
Chapter 4. Humor and the Household
Chapter 5. Sex and Marriage
PART III. VIOLENCE
Chapter 6. Dogs in the Nighttime
Conclusion. Law and the Imagination
List of Abbreviations
Some years ago, I found myself teaching a class on medieval law. This was a seminar intended for history majors, many of whom were planning ultimately to enter the legal profession, and the students were both bright and curious. We were discussing a text I knew well, the Welsh Laws of Court, when a student raised her hand to ask about a passage that appeared to limit the sanctuary (nawdd) a female baker was allowed to grant an offender to the distance she could throw her baking scraper. I started in with an explanation of how nawdd worked and why persons of greater status would have been able to extend more protection had they been approached. She looked confused, so I dramatized the event for her, imagining a scenario in which a wild-eyed offender with pursuers hot on his heels bursts into a prince's kitchen searching for someone to help him. He rushes over to the baker, who is there scraping flour into a bowl, and hurls himself at her feet begging for sanctuary. Taking pity on him, she throws her baking tool into the air, and he then becomes safe from arrest as long as he stays within the space defined by her throw, remaining amid the pots and pans for several days while the terms for his release are negotiated. The questions that ensued were completely predictable. Even to me, the scene I was imagining sounded perfectly ridiculous. Would a person in trouble really seek out a kitchen servant for protection? What if she had hit someone with her scraper? And above all, why would something so incredibly silly be written into the law? Law was supposed to be true, not funny, and this sounded more like a joke or an excerpt from a story than anything else. Didn't medieval people know the difference?
The discussion that followed was lively, though ultimately inconclusive, not least because several students immediately pointed out that exactly the same privileges were extended to the laundress and her washing dolly, which for various reasons struck them as even more absurd than the baker's scraper. Inconclusive or not, silly or not, our dissection of these passages did lead me to two different realizations that in the end have proven crucial for this book. The first was that, on some level, I too had nourished a largely unexamined belief in law's essential "truthfulness," and that, indeed, so deeply ingrained was this point of view that I had developed the habit as a reader of simply skipping over things that did not make sense. I also had been amused by the bakeress and her kind on my initial reading of the text, but that had been many years earlier, and they had over time become virtually invisible to me. My tendency now when I saw something odd or humorous in my sources was to chalk it up to "archaic ritual, no longer understood," and move on. In effect, the sources had become for me more of a mirror than a lens, reflecting back to me what I had expected to see rather than sharpening my view of what was actually there.
The second was that the questions my students had posed about story, humor, and law were ones that I could not answer myself. In this, I suspect, I was and am not alone. Scholarly perceptions of historical legal systems are almost inevitably shaped by our knowledge of the law as it functions in the modern world. Imagination has long been a quality associated much more with fiction and poetry than with law; law is often presumed to be sober and practical in ways that literature is not. It is one thing for historians to know intellectually that law in the past was not always written, did not always derive from legislation or the state, and is often extant in stylized and artificial forms. However, it is quite another to refrain from investing the texts in which it is preserved with many of the same qualities—and with much the same level of trust—that we accord to our own law, giving special credence to their descriptions of social institutions and personalities. For all their warts and wrinkles, legal texts seem still somehow reliable and objective in ways that works of literature or poetry are not. And yet there are many indications that historical ideas about the law differed significantly from our own, and many aspects of the extant texts that cannot be explained within the parameters of our own experience.
In fact, even at the time I was teaching my seminar, the notion of written law as an objective and factual genre had been under fire in both academic and practitioners' circles for more than thirty years. From the mid-1970s on, works heralding a new "intellectual field or movement"—known variously as the law and literature "enterprise," "subdiscipline," "project," or "trope"—had begun to appear in great numbers. The stances taken in these works varied enormously; however, what they shared was the probing of traditional assumptions about the objectivity of law and, particularly, its relationship to overtly fictional genres. Over time, two approaches emerged that still continue by and large today to demarcate the parameters of the field. The first is the study of "law in literature"—in other words, the exploration of the manner in which legal conundrums, processes, and personnel are depicted in fiction or poetry. Medievalists have been in the forefront of these studies, in part because of the "peculiar linguistic, rhetorical, and generic affinities between medieval law and literature." Howard Bloch's oft-cited 1977 work on medieval France, for example, heralded the advent of a series of works using fictional sources to give added depth to the (relatively) bloodless proclamations of the lawbooks. William Ian Miller, in his study of Icelandic blood-feud, argued on the basis of the saga literature that what was written in the lawbooks did not always correspond with what would probably have happened in real life. Similarly, Stephen White's examination of the chansons de geste and romances not only revealed a multitude of competing ideas about treason in twelfth- and thirteenth-century France, but underscored the need for scholars to proceed with caution in using them, given the textual relationships often obtaining among the texts themselves. Other scholars since have used tales and poetry to explore still more areas of the law, such as wardship and hunting.
The second, and more controversial, category of law and literature studies is that of "law as literature"—the idea that law itself ought to be regarded as a form of literature, and that the legal and literary genres, whatever their differences, would thus profit in being read in similar ways. Behind this argument lies the belief that these two genres share common goals and are similarly grounded in the manipulation of words and images. As Paul Gewirtz observed, both law and literature attempt "to shape reality through language, use distinctive methods and forms to do so, and require interpretation." Peter Goodrich was even more explicit:
Law is a literature which denies its literary qualities. It is a play of words which asserts an absolute seriousness; it is a genre of rhetoric which represses its moments of invention or of fiction; it is a language which hides its indeterminacy in the justificatory discourse of judgment; it is procedure based upon analogy, metaphor and repetition and yet it lays claim to being a cold or disembodied prose, a science without either poetry or desire; it is a narrative which assumes the epic proportions of truth; it is, in short, a speech or writing which forgets the violence of the word and the terror or jurisdiction of the text. Law, conceived as a genre of literature and as a practice of poetics, can thus only be understood through the very act of forgetting, through the denial, the negation or the repression by means of which it institutes its identity, its life, its fictive forms.To put matters more simply: "Law is an institution that has tended to imagine its language as univocal and authoritative" (implication: even when it is not). Of course, as several scholars then and since have been at pains to point out, the consequences of creatively reinterpreting a modern statute can be considerably more serious than those for misinterpreting a poem. Subsequent studies have broadened the notion of law as literature still further to include the importation of literary critical theoretical movements into the study of law, which also has the potential to dramatically reshape judicial practice; law as or in performance; the cross-fertilization of genres; and the "legal storytelling movement," which examines the manner in which storytelling and narrativity themselves form part of the practice and thus also the study of law.
There are obvious differences among these approaches, and in truth many would question the extent to which these authors are actually engaged in a common enterprise. Kieran Dolin very deliberately speaks of law and literature (emphasis his) in order to underscore the very wide range of viewpoints at play here. In general, the law as literature approach has seemed to speak more to modern law and jurisprudence than to the study of the Middle Ages. Dolin, for example, chooses not to include any substantial discussion of medieval texts or scholarship in his otherwise excellent introduction to the field. And Richard Firth Green devotes only two scant pages of his essay for the Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature to the study of "legal texts as literature" because, he argues, so many of the extant legal sources do not lend themselves well to such questions. Moving from the study of law as literature to law in literature was for him like progressing "from famine to feast." On the other hand, some medievalists clearly have found the law-as-literature approach to be productive. Noël Menuge, for example, characterizes law texts in his study of wardship as "related fictions with consciously constructed narratives and ideological agendas." For him, the lawbooks ascribed to Glanvill and Bracton might present themselves as objective, but are in truth "highly ideological, polemical and positioned" as sources. Similarly, Kathryn Gravdal in her work on rape decries "the way in which scholars privilege certain documents by assuming they are more objective than literary works." As she points out, "The authority of a legal text, although different from that of a literary text, is nonetheless established through writing."
One very productive set of questions for medievalists has been the nature of the rhetorical and ideological exchange obtaining between the legal and literary genres, especially in England, where the intersection seems to have been unusual in scope. Instead of treating law and literature as more or less stable categories, each borrowing from the other without being significantly altered in the process, scholars who take this approach emphasize the often transformative give-and-take between what they describe as two "parallel forms of discourse." Thus, Emily Steiner and Candace Barrington highlight the significance of the side-by-side development of these two genres for the "re-formation of a vernacular literary tradition in England." William Perry Marvin examines the commonality of tropes used by authors in both genres to respond to the violence and injustice inherent in the law of the hunt—the idea of the king as a father who loves game more than he loves his subjects, for example, or the notion that political tyranny is fed by the bloodlust of the chase. And Gravdal's study of the "writing of rape" in medieval France shows that sometimes this exchange was quite literal, as with the Régistre Criminel de la Justice de Saint-Martin-des-Champs à Paris, which drew directly on the rhetoric and imagery of the French pastourelle. This may have been a literary borrowing, but it dramatically reshaped the judicial experience of women in real life. One could also point to connections among legal and literary practitioners, especially in England. Chaucer was a justice of the peace, Gower a lawyer, and Usk an undersheriff of London. Piers Plowman contains court scenes, legal maxims, and even charters that reveal its author to have been someone highly conversant in the law. And the Inns of Court were frequently the site of law-themed theatrical productions into the early modern period.
It is these two latter points—the sense of connection (dialogic, literal, transformative) between the legal and literary genres and, most particularly, the idea that law constitutes a form of literature, a purposeful, "consciously constructed narrative"—that have, in the end, most directly informed my approach in this book. It is certainly the case that one does not want to reify the nature or purposes of either genre. Even within the scholarship surveyed above, there is no one exclusively "legal" genre. Some scholars are focused on Glanvill or Bracton, and others on case narratives; some are using court records and others legal treatises. Gravdal and Menuge are working primarily from ecclesiastical records, while Marvin concerns himself largely with forest law and eyre records. Moreover, law can take many forms, including penitential texts, gesta, homilies, and the like, and even when medieval law texts look like law as we understand the term, their larger purposes can vary considerably, from positioning peoples with regard to biblical or Roman ancestors, to evoking Carolingian precedents or advancing the claims of a particular king or dynasty. The popularity of the twelfth-century Leges Edwardi, for example, was likely due as much to its "literary" vision of the past and its presentation of the Norman Conquest as an agreed-upon "accommodation between peoples" as to any peculiarly legal virtue. As Patrick Wormald has argued, in medieval England—but surely, we are invited to believe, not merely there—"law books . . . were always primarily about something else."
Moreover, "literature" itself is also a less than transparent term, encompassing as it does a wide variety of narratives, venues, and genres, some of which are quite evidently as political, historical, or spiritual as they are artistic or entertainment-driven in nature. Robin Hood's forest can be approached as a real-life wood. However, it can also be read as a reflection of the ethics of the life posited for its outlaw inhabitants: a realm of perennially soft, warm air and fallow deer that is, in its very essence, natural, free, and uncorrupted by injustice. No matter that in reality the forest of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was highly developed, meticulously managed, and even in some places verging on urban. No matter either that life as an outlaw was likely one of hardship and privation rather than good-natured comfort, or that the chief audience for the Robin Hood ballads may have been yeoman fraternities dissatisfied with their exclusion from the governance structures of late medieval towns rather than hardy, ale-swigging foresters. In Robin's greenwood, all is eternally spring, a sign—wistful, nostalgic, or pointedly political—that things might be other than how they currently are. And then there are texts in which the literary and the historical are so admixed that it is impossible even to label them in terms of genre. Such, for example, are the works of Gerald of Wales, in which the physical and political geography of twelfth-century Wales is presented side by side with episodes from early British history, dubious animal lore, and a report on the prognosticative habits of Flemings. Another is the Bible: to my mind, one of the most intriguing and imaginative works in the law and literature field is Mary Douglas's exploration of Leviticus.
Partly as a result of this blurring of genres, scholars addressing the relationship between the legal and literary have often tended either to dissolve the boundaries between categories altogether (as Goodrich arguably does) or, more commonly, to adopt a sort of common sense, "know it when you see it" type of approach. The latter almost always involves appeal to adjectives of a particular type. The Welsh lawbooks, for example, have been characterized as "functional literature," more akin to bardic grammars and medical texts than to poetry, and as a "technical" and "practical" form of prose intended primarily to preserve and explain as opposed to literature, which aims mainly to please and amuse. Even specialists in law and literature studies often speak of the sources in this way. Another constant in the scholarship—one that has had a significant impact on my own thinking—is the use of the term "imaginative" in implied (or directly articulated) opposition to whatever qualities law is perceived to possess. Thus, Firth Green contrasts the "comparatively more formal analysis of the lawyer" with the more allusive technique of the "imaginative writer." Marvin defines his main body of sources as "imaginative literature (and other kinds of texts)," while Wormald explicitly distances himself from the idea that legal texts might constitute "exercises in creative imagination." Even Steiner and Barrington, whose excellent work on the literary aspects of medieval English law has done so much to open our eyes to the dangers of positing a stark divide between these two genres, speak in terms of a contrast between "the legal," on the one hand, and "the imaginative," on the other.
What characterizations like these have in common is an implicit, and often unarticulated, belief that law is utilitarian and pragmatic while literature is free-spirited and inherently less factual. It has proven difficult to find a way to characterize the differences between the legal and the literary that does not end up reifying the very stereotypes one seeks to question. And in truth, the attempt to draw a stark line between the two genres may not, in the end, repay the time invested. Every text has its own singular story, its own ways of speaking the truth. But the questions posed by my students were nonetheless perceptive. Many historical societies did distinguish between legal and literary narratives, even if we ourselves cannot always find the language to describe how that was done. Our difficulties in this respect are yet one more indication of how challenging it can be to step outside our own preconceptions. Embedded in adjectives like "practical" and "imaginative" is a host of modern assumptions that may not be appropriate for our historical texts. It is, for example, entirely possible that the practical authority of a medieval legal source may once have resided at least partly in its literary qualities." What I hope to demonstrate in this study is that, for at least some medieval jurists, legal writing was an intensely imaginative form of literature, one acutely responsive to practical concerns and capable of reproducing them in sophisticated symbolic form.
A Land of Law
The focus for this study is the legal tradition of medieval Wales, a venue that might at first seem an unusual choice for such a work. Wales in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was a land of scattered farmsteads, drafty (and relatively small by European standards) native castles, and intensely regional loyalties. To a sophisticated European traveler of the period, it would likely have appeared to be an undeveloped and relatively backward land: sparsely populated, politically fragmented, a society the economy of which, while changing, was nonetheless still centered as much on barter and pillage as on coinage and trade. Ecclesiastical reforms that had, from the late eleventh century on, been radically reshaping other churches in Western Europe in matters such as marriage and divorce, had yet to make much headway in Wales. Political loyalties were centered on kindred and region rather than on anything resembling a state, and there was as yet no centralized kingship, although not for want of trying, as Welsh lords and princes, particularly from the northern kingdom of Gwynedd, warred constantly among themselves in order to deepen their rule over those whose loyalties they commanded, and extend their power over those whose loyalties they did not. As historian Rees Davies has remarked, a worldly-wise Englishman looking at Wales in this period would have seen a land the "barbarous rudeness" of which marked a sharp contrast with the "sweet civility" of his own.
And yet Wales was also a society steeped in law, possessed by the late twelfth century of an extensive written legal tradition. This fact might well have surprised our hypothetical traveler considerably, not least because Wales was also in this period so visibly a land of conflict—between armies, traditions, and even identities. The basic political reality of the period was of course the back-and-forth hostility between the Welsh and the English Crown that was ultimately to result in the final conquest of Wales in 1282-83. Whenever the English monarchs were distracted by problems at home or abroad—the disaster at Bouvines, Magna Carta, the baronial revolt against Henry III—the Welsh rallied and thrived. Whenever English monarchs felt secure on the throne—or, as with Edward I, needed a good war somewhere other than on English soil in order to feel secure on the throne—war became inevitable. Even more destructive for most native Welshmen were hostilities among the Welsh themselves. By 1218, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, prince of the northern kingdom of Gwynedd, had made himself master of native Wales. However, his supremacy was not easily won, and was constantly having to be reasserted, often by military means, and often in a way that generated rebellion and resentment among his Welsh contemporaries. Violence was endemic, and disunity within the principality a serious threat. As anyone conversant with the chronicle evidence will know, no one seriously in the power game was immune to the constant murders, feuds, mutilations, and imprisonments described in their pages.
Equally divisive were external attacks on Welsh custom and tradition. Outside critics were numerous. John Pecham, archbishop of Canterbury from 1279 to 1282, is perhaps the best known; his intemperate remarks make clear that he saw Hywel's laws on inheritance, marriage, and personal insult as ultimately diabolical in origin. But attitudes were changing rapidly even within Wales in the thirteenth century. The Welsh princes, under pressure from outside, began to turn away from native traditions of rule in their efforts to increase their own power internally and stave off encroachments on their territories by Marcher lords and English kings. For many of them, the prospect of bringing Welsh custom into conformity with European norms in order to enhance their own authority was an enticing one—and they were not the only ones. The sources reveal that many lesser Welshmen were also beginning to have recourse frequently to legal procedures from English Common Law. Inheritance practices were particularly susceptible, but other aspects of Welsh law also began to lose ground in the thirteenth century, as individual Welshmen started making use of English Common Law procedures like the inquest and jury in preference to native procedures in situations where it seemed strategically advantageous to do so. To the Welsh lawyers and judges charged with preserving and protecting native law, defections of this kind were of particular concern: not merely their authority, but the integrity of the tradition of which they were the primary custodians, seemed suddenly to be under fire.
The lawbooks have long posed something of a conundrum for historians of medieval Wales. No other prose genre exists in as many redactions and manuscripts; no fewer than forty manuscripts, ranging in date from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, remain extant today, both in Welsh and in Latin. The textual complications posed by the legal manuscripts are considerable, and the study of these issues can sometimes seem like a field unto itself. Moreover, even the most accessible of these could fairly be characterized as stylized and anything but legislative in appearance. To scholars approaching the Welsh corpus from a knowledge of other contemporary legal texts, these laws can seem unusually discursive and old-fashioned. To historians looking to flesh out the brief narratives offered them by the chronicle sources, they often appear so static and idealized as to be unusable. Indeed, despite the centrality of the legal evidence to nineteenth- and early twentieth-century histories of medieval Wales, the lawbooks nowadays are often marginalized by historians in favor of sources better grounded in "reality." At the very least, the question of the extent to which the lawbooks actually do or do not reflect reality—or even which period of reality they might reflect, if any—is now regarded as a topic for exploration rather than something to be taken for granted. As the late professor Sir Rees Davies remarked, the "chronological uncertainty" of the legal texts is "the despair of the historian." The lawbooks are thus, in his view, "best left to the ingenuity of linguistic experts, social anthropologists and antiquarian-minded lawyers. . . . We will never square our conventional historical evidence completely with the legal and textual studies of the law-texts, for they are based on different genres of material and often relate to different periods." Davies concludes that such uncertainties ought not to prevent scholars from utilizing both types of sources whenever possible (although he himself showed a marked preference for nonlawbook sources in his own work).
Another challenge posed by these sources is the manner in which they should be read. Early approaches to the Welsh lawbooks tended to use them either as authoritative sources for the early history of Wales, or as potential sources of information on archaic Celtic or even Indo-European customs and institutions. Implicit in the latter approach were the basic premises of Indo-European historical linguistics, by which the descent of a variety of medieval and modern languages can be traced back to a single distant and no-longer-extant mother tongue, Proto-Indo-European. By comparing written and oral data pertaining to historical and modern Indo-European languages, scholars identified rules of linguistic change that allowed them to reconstruct aspects of these languages in their earliest stages. This comparative methodology originated with specific respect to language; soon, however, it began to be applied outside the linguistic sphere to mythology, religion, institutions, and, almost inevitably, to law. Seen from this perspective, the medieval Celtic lawbooks took on special importance. Not only were the professional poets and jurists to whom the laws were ascribed widely believed at the time to be the direct descendants of the ancient Gaulish druids described by Caesar, but portions of the Irish corpus at least seemed also to be written in an archaic form of the language or, in some cases, even in verse.
Priority in such studies has traditionally been given to the early Irish sources rather than to those extant from Wales. The majority of Irish legal texts can be linguistically dated to between the seventh and ninth centuries ce—in other words, to a period significantly earlier than most of the Welsh legal sources—and two of them are found in an early twelfth-century manuscript (the earliest Welsh lawbook manuscripts date to the thirteenth century). However, both traditions seemed consciously to preserve passages pertaining to outmoded or no-longer-contemporary practices. The tendency to retain archaisms, coupled with the many institutional and terminological similarities between the Welsh and significantly earlier Irish sources, suggested to scholars like Rudolf Thurneysen and Daniel Binchy that the lawbooks might offer insight into Common Celtic, and possibly even into Indo-European institutions. Among the practices they singled out as potentially archaic were the importance of honor and face; the shape of the kindred; the designation of the royal heir; practices like distraint, suretyship, witnessing, and the maintenance by children of their aged parents; and the nature and authorship of the lawbooks themselves. Subsequent historians took these techniques of comparative history even further, using Irish law as something of a baseline so as to explore the evolution and development of Welsh custom over time into the thirteenth century and beyond. More recently, however, the comparative method has fallen somewhat out of favor among historians, reflecting, at least in part, concerns that have been voiced of late about the helpfulness of the term "Celtic" in anything other than a linguistic context. Not everyone is happy with the focus on the archaic that the comparative method seems to encourage, nor are scholars uniformly comfortable with the idea of using texts from the eighth century to explicate twelfth- and thirteenth-century materials. As Patrick Sims-Williams has argued, the "linguistic family-tree" is only one of the possible models for the relationships among the various Celtic traditions.
Consequently, most modern studies of the Welsh lawbooks center now less on Common Celtic institutions and comparisons with Irish law than on the nature of the Welsh sources themselves and the context within which they should be read and interpreted. The texts of all the main Welsh lawbook versions trace the beginnings of written law in Wales to a law-making council summoned and presided over by the tenth-century king Hywel Dda. Some historians accept this attribution as quite possibly correct and argue that the lawbooks as we have them today may go back to a now-lost text of the tenth century. Others regard the story of Hywel's involvement as a myth intended to reassert native identity in the face of the growth of English law within the historical borders of Wales in the century and a half before the end of native independence. For the latter, the lawbooks are less a reflection of the early Middle Ages than the Welsh reflex of the general resurgence in law taking place in Western Europe as a whole in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. At stake in this debate is not just the specific issue of Hywel, but our general understanding of the nature of the extant texts and the extent to which the lawbooks can be drawn on as evidence for early Welsh history. There are good arguments on both sides, and it is unlikely that the question of Hywel's contribution will be definitively resolved anytime soon.
What all scholars do agree on, however, regardless of their views on Hywel, is that there are extant several different versions (also called redactions or traditions) of the lawbook customarily attributed to him, each represented by a number of different manuscripts. (There are other legal texts as well dating to the thirteenth century, such as the Llyfr y Damweiniau, "Book of Eventualities," and the Llyfr Cynghawsedd, "Book of Pleadings," but the focus in this book, as in most scholarship on Welsh law to date, will be on the principal lawbook versions.) It would be difficult to summarize the nature and divergence of these versions more clearly and succinctly than T. M. Charles-Edwards has done in his recent (2013) discussion:
The most fundamental division in the textual history of the laws is between one tradition associated with Gwynedd and another associated with Deheubarth. The former is represented by Llyfr Iorwerth, attributed to Iorwerth ap Madog ap Rhawd, and there is good reason to think, first, that Iorwerth really was the author of the text in the form we have it, and, secondly, that he himself belonged to a kindred of lawyers and poets in Arfon and that his floruit belongs to the first half of the thirteenth century. The second tradition is represented by several distinct textual families, by Llyfr Cyfnerth, the Latin redactions of Welsh law, and by a Welsh offshoot of the Latin tradition, Llyfr Blegywryd. (In the cases of Llyfr Cyfnerth and Llyfr Blegywryd the ascriptions to named persons are found within the texts but have little or no authority, unlike the ascription of the principal northern lawbook to Iorwerth ap Madog: never the less they remain useful titles.)Scholars generally use the abbreviations Ior, Cyfn, Bleg, and Lat A, B, C, D, and E as shorthand for these various traditions, although they do so realizing that such abbreviations cannot entirely capture the complexity of the situation. Additionally, individual manuscripts of these traditions are usually known by the sigla given them by Aneurin Owen in his 1841 edition of the Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales. Typically, in scholarly discussions, these sigla will be joined to the standard abbreviation for the tradition in question: thus Ior A refers to the National Library of Wales Peniarth MS 29 version of the Iorwerth text, while Cyfn U refers to the National Library of Wales Peniarth MS 37 version of Cyfnerth.
Unfortunately, the textual and geographical difficulties involved in assessing these manuscripts and traditions are even more challenging than the summary above might indicate. Redactors of manuscripts associated with one tradition had little hesitation in borrowing from manuscripts of another; moreover, individual tractates within the legal tradition could circulate independently, so the textual tradition of one tractate might not always be the same as that of its fellows. For example, Daniel Huws (here, following Charles-Edwards) suggests that what we are seeing in the court tractate from Lat B is a substratum of elements deriving from southwest Wales in a manuscript that itself derived from Gwynedd. Lat C is also associated with the north (Gwynedd) rather than the south (Deheubarth) as might be expected for a Latin redaction text; similarly, both MSS X and Z of Cyfn (British Library Cotton Cleopatra B v and National Library of Wales Peniarth 259B respectively) are northern in their orthography and vocabulary. MS Y (National Library of Wales 20143A) is for much of its length a Cyfn version manuscript, but also contains material pertaining to the Bleg tradition. And Llyfr Blegywryd itself is regarded largely as a translation of Lat D, although Paul Russell's recent study of the Three Columns tractate has complicated this considerably, at least for this tractate. In short, paradoxes abound: southern redactions are preserved in northern manuscripts, northern redactions are preserved in southern manuscripts, and some manuscript versions defy easy categorization. In fact, so complex are the interrelations between tractates, traditions, and individual passages that one possibility for manuscripts that are unique or unusually intricate is to edit and discuss them individually, as Dafydd Jenkins did with Llyfr Colan (in essence a substantially revised version of Ior) and Sara Elin Roberts has recently done with Cyfn Z.
If it is difficult to pin the lawbooks down to one particular region or locale in Wales, then it is even more difficult to localize their content and composition to a particular time and set of circumstances. This is partly because the versions themselves were constantly being revised over time, some more than others (e.g., Cyfn, which is the loosest of the principal versions, more than Ior). Again, paradox is the byword here. Scholars are generally agreed that Cyfn is probably the earliest of the extant versions in terms of when it was initially composed, likely during the reign of Rhys ap Gruffudd of Deheubarth, who died in 1197. However, Cyfn is also the latest in terms of the manuscripts in which it is preserved: none of the Cyfn manuscripts are earlier than the fourteenth century. As just mentioned, Ior dates to the reign of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, who died in 1240. However, its oldest manuscripts date to the thirteenth century and are therefore earlier than those of Cyfn; moreover, the phrasing of some of its constituent passages seems to reflect a legal situation older than and separate from that reflected in Cyfn. The earliest of the Ior manuscripts is likely Ior C; the earliest of the Latin redactions is Lat C, which is probably also the earliest of all the northern Welsh versions (Latin and vernacular), dating as it does to between 1226 and 1240. Most of the Bleg manuscripts date to the late Middle Ages, and Charles-Edwards has shown that there is a marked shift over time away from Ior toward Cyfn and Bleg and even, within the Ior manuscripts themselves, away from Gwynedd and toward Deheubarth as a place of origin. In the thirteenth century, Ior was probably the most procedurally sophisticated of the versions—not surprisingly, as Gwynedd seems to have been widely acknowledged as the most important center for jurisprudence and legal study in Wales. However, as Charles-Edwards remarks, it was the south, "the old Deheubarth," that "was the last home of Welsh law."
Despite the fact that none of the versions as they exist today are likely to have been compiled before the twelfth century, it is generally agreed—even by those who are skeptical about the ascription to Hywel—that some sort of Model Lawbook underlies our extant texts that probably predates the composition of Cyfn in the late twelfth century. The similarities among the extant principal redactions are too significant and numerous to be explained in any other way. What scholars do not agree on, however, is the probable nature and date of this Model Lawbook. It is certain that some of the individual passages found in the texts as we have them today go back to the early Middle Ages. These include the short passage on the "Seven Bishop-Houses of Dyfed"; excerpts from an early (possibly sixth- or seventh-century) Continental text called the Excerpta de libris Romanorum et Francorum; and provisions from an early eighth-century collection of Irish canons, the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis. Likely very old as well is the marriage list known as the Nau Kynywedi Teithiauc, which Charles-Edwards has argued corresponds to lists in early Hindu sources. Some of the terms for officers discussed in the court tractate represent borrowings from early English law: the edling, "heir," from Old English aetheling, and the distain, "steward," from Old English disc-ðegn, "dish-thane." And there are institutions like dadannudd, a highly performative method of claiming land, and briduw, a form of suretyship in which God was taken as a surety, that are undoubtedly also ancient, although that does not, of course, mean that the sources in which they are described are necessarily pre-Norman in their extant written form.
The existence of these early passages in the extant redactions makes clear that the lawbooks as we have them today do not, as Huw Pryce has noted, "mark the beginning of written law in Wales." However, this fact does not in itself resolve the issue of the dating of the Model Lawbook, not least because none of the above passages can be shown to have actually been included in the Model Lawbook—all of them seem to have been added to the redactions in which they are found at a later date. Charles-Edwards is the most eloquent proponent of the idea that the Model Lawbook derives from the pre-Norman period. Its early origin, he says, is demonstrated not only by the consistent ascription, across all versions, to Hywel, but by the similarity between some of the practices detailed in it to those of early Irish law—similarities which indicate "that the surviving content of that part of the law is the outcome of a long development very probably older than the tenth century." For example, the section on the sharing of the patrimony among male heirs gives one a sense not only of what the original law might have been, but of how much development has occurred in the meantime and thus how remote in time the Model Lawbook and, by extension, some of the practices detailed in it might be. In fact, he suggests, comparing extant versions is a good way to determine what sections might ultimately derive from the Model Lawbook: "if a particular 'tractate' is found both in Llyfr Iorwerth and in the southern lawbooks it passes the first test for supposing that an earlier form of the text may go back to a pre-Norman lawbook that might possibly be the outcome of Hywel's reform." Among the tractates he singles out as passing this test (or at least likely to possess a pre-Norman core) are the Prologue, the Laws of Court, The Three Columns of Law, the Nine-Tongued Ones, the dadannudd section of the tractate on land, and the tractates on suretyship and women.
Not everyone would agree, however, that the Model Lawbook ought to be dated so early. Pryce raises the possibility of an early twelfth-century origin, situating its composition within the context of changes taking place in that period in native patterns of rule. I have argued similarly that legal professionals may not have even emerged as a specialized intellectual class from within the broader body of custodians of native learning until the twelfth century, and then in the context of and concomitant with the composition and dissemination of the lawbooks. Much depends on how we imagine these early works, and on what we imagine this Model Lawbook as modeling. For even if Hywel had presided over the compiling of a written lawbook, there is no guarantee that it and the Model Lawbook were one and the same. Many early medieval kings initiated lawbooks, and it only stands to reason that Hywel might wish to imitate contemporaneous English example, as has been suggested by Charles-Edwards among others. However, had Hywel issued a book in imitation of what he would have seen around him—the laws of Alfred, Edmund, or Aethelstan, for example, or the capitularies of the late Carolingian kings—it seems unlikely that that work would have looked like the texts as we have them today. The nature, content, and wording of the extant Welsh lawbooks are just too different from what we see in their English and European predecessors for the latter to have served as obvious models. Moreover, to say that the structure of a given tractate or lawbook version is old, possibly even pre-Norman, is not necessarily to say that its contents as extant are equally venerable. To take just one example: the fact that the extant suretyship tractates of Ior and Cyfn share a structural pattern that seems to go back to a common source, and that the type of suretyship they describe closely coincides in nature and terminology with what is known about eighth-century Irish suretyship practices, does not prove that either reproduces some or all of the actual content of their common source or even that the source originally took lawbook form. Indeed, the Cyfn manuscripts vary so widely in their order and basic content that even the notion of a common structural core may be more complicated than it otherwise appears.
Happily, it is not necessary to decide all of these complicated issues here. What matters most for the present work is not the nature and date of the Model Lawbook but, rather, the nature and function of the lawbook redactions as they are extant today. Even if one were to concede both the matter of Hywel's involvement and the idea that behind the existing versions (perhaps at several degrees of removal) lies a now-lost tenth-century original, questions would still remain about why lawbooks patterned in this way were still being produced, revised, and reworked in such great numbers in the high and late Middle Ages. The fact that a given lawbook has a long history does not in itself guarantee that someone centuries later would choose to reproduce or revise it; nor does it tell us what that latter-day scribe or redactor's aspirations might be for that lawbook in his own milieu. Texts can be reused and reworked in support of objectives quite different from those that originally inspired them. Pryce terms the late twelfth century onward "as an important turning-point in Welsh legal writing," and attributes the flowering of native law in this period to contemporary concerns among the uchelwyr (members of the free landholding class) about changes in native practices of kingship. As he points out, native princes, desirous of consolidating their power both within native Wales and outside, were stretching the traditional boundaries of rule to accomplish their goals. Faced with these threats to the legal tradition of which they were the acknowledged guardians, the authors of the lawbooks—themselves likely uchelwyr—looked for ways to reaffirm both the authority of their tradition and the prerogatives they had historically enjoyed. The lawbooks they produced were intended to remind innovating rulers of what governing practices had traditionally looked like. One might also point out that lawbooks would have been needed in the Welsh Marches beyond the thirteenth century, and that this too might have been an additional venue for production.
Such ideas bring Welsh traditions of legal writing much more closely into line with those of England and the Continent than is sometimes emphasized. The revival of Roman law in the late eleventh century and the consequent spread of legal thinking all across Europe had a profound impact on political life at every level. Liber de arte honeste amandi et reprobatione inhonesti amorisiber de arte honeste amandi et reprobatione inhonesti amoris The parameters of European rulership generally were very much in flux, and Wales was not the only place where law functioned to define the limits of princely power or recall errant kings to "traditional" norms. Rulers embraced written statements of traditional law when it served their interests to do so, but they were perfectly capable of ignoring or repudiating them outright when they did not. The existence of a lawbook, particularly one ascribed to an authoritative ruler of the past, could function as a visible reminder of the long historical tradition within which those who exercised power claimed to do so. Moreover, implicit in the lawbook genre, especially in texts with claims to have originated in some variety of popular (albeit noble) assembly, was an emphasis on the collaborative and consultative aspects of rule, a hotly contested topic not only in Wales but across Europe as a whole in this era. In Wales, the height of the lawbook tradition was ultimately to correspond with the final century of native independence, but the authors of these texts could not have known this. For them, as for many of their European counterparts, this deliberate evocation of a (putatively) less autocratic past was likely intended more as a summons to a more prosperous and equitable future than a wistful expression of yearning for bygone days.
Equally critical, of course, was the larger cultural and political context within which the production of written law was occurring. English kings and lords were constantly intruding into Welsh political affairs in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, if they were not actually on the move within Welsh borders, and law seems to have functioned as one of the primary means by which native identity could be reasserted in the face of such ongoing threats to Welsh sovereignty. Nor did legal writing stand alone in this respect. If the lawbooks were evidence of an honored legal tradition stretching back into the distant past (or at least such was the claim implicit in the association with Hywel), they were also part and parcel of an assertive literary culture comprising works in a variety of genres. In many ways, the lawbooks are perhaps most profitably seen against the larger backdrop of the literary renaissance taking place in Wales in this period, an era of intense cultural production that would ultimately encompass saints' lives, triad collections, prose tales, poetry, and historical works. This renaissance was, like most, grounded in tradition, but the impetus behind it belonged very much to the present. As Pryce notes, the fact that "the content of the Welsh texts was archaic in some respects does not weaken the case for their having been intended as contemporary statements of native law in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, indeed . . . it was precisely their emphasis on the archaic and traditional which made them so relevant at the time of redaction."
The Legal and the Literary in Medieval Wales
One of the most visible causes and consequences of the proliferation of law as an intellectual discipline and object of study across medieval Europe was the development of a professional legal class—in most regions, for the first time since Late Antiquity. James Brundage and Paul Brand have traced the development of the legal profession in various European venues, secular and ecclesiastical, beginning in the twelfth century with what Brundage calls "pre-professional lawyers" and evolving to a more fully professionalized status from the 1230s on. However, Ireland and Wales are generally viewed as exceptions in this regard. Professional jurists clearly existed in Ireland in the seventh and eighth centuries if not before. Their most visible legacy was the enormous corpus of written law that helps make Ireland the locus of the most extensive vernacular tradition extant from anywhere in Western Europe. Similarly, the traditional biography of the Welsh ynad, "judge," identifies him as a figure of the early Middle Ages. I have suggested elsewhere that the emergence of a specialized judicial class might also have occurred later than this in Wales, possibly concomitant with the spread of the written lawbooks themselves. However, judges and jurists are not necessarily the same things, and the more usual scholarly understanding is still that specialists in law existed earlier than in most other European realms in Wales as they did in Ireland.
In any case, there can certainly be no doubt of the increasing professionalization and curial nature of law in the thirteenth century. Cases that might once have been performative affairs resolved in the presence of members of the community, moved into assemblies or courts presided over by lords. In some of the so-called "Anomalous Laws," for example—legal texts like the Llyfr y Damweiniau, "Book of Eventualities," and the Llyfr Cynghawsedd, "Book of Pleadings," that exist alongside the lawbook tradition attributed to Hywel—one can see clear parallels between Welsh pleading procedures and those in English sources of about the same (or even later) date. There are other aspects also of the growing curialization of justice visible in these texts, including signs of borrowing back and forth among the Welsh and English and other European traditions, and the enhancing of what appear to be in origin early medieval legal procedures with the trappings of a more lord-centered age. Even the lawbooks attributed to Hywel show evidence of such changes, like the pleading procedure outlined in the Ior tractates on suretyship and land claims, and the reimagining of the archaic and highly performative ritual of dadannudd as a formal plea in court. Legal personalities closely associated with the precurial age are visibly integrated into an increasingly curialized world—the mach, or enforcing surety, for example, who is actually termed a "living pledge" (or even "hostage") in one passage.
Despite this increasing emphasis on the curial, however, the Welsh lawbooks might still not look like law to those familiar with contemporary legislation from the developed world. Indeed, there is nothing legislative about them—scholars largely agree that they were private compositions, instructional texts for jurists who, while professional in the sense of belonging to recognized legal families and acting within the community as jurists and judges, nonetheless did not as a rule work for state or king. As Charles-Edwards has observed, the Welsh texts are clearly more "royalist" in character than the early Irish lawbooks are, not least in their asserted connection with Hywel. However, they were not commissioned by kings, nor do they consist of royal decrees. Rather, these are books authored by experts in the law who themselves could fill a variety of roles depending on the circumstances—educating, advising, and arbitrating (in some cases) or judging (in others) disputes brought to them by litigants. The books they created appear to have been correspondingly broad in nature and focus, functioning both as textbooks and as histories: the writings from which budding lawyers were instructed in the fundamentals of a native legal tradition that claimed to derive from ancient days. Not surprisingly, many of them display distinctly literary qualities. Like the De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae (traditionally attributed to Bracton) and Eike von Repgow's Sachsenspiegel (1235), texts with which the most sophisticated of the Welsh redactions, Llyfr Iorwerth (c. 1230), is roughly contemporary, there are lengthy passages of description side by side with prescriptive clauses forbidding particular behaviors. Similarly, one can see in the Welsh laws the influence of other narrative forms such as poetry, historical biography, and myth, just as one sees it in contemporary European lawbooks. Indeed, the prologues have a visibly literary quality to them. Lat B's prologue quotes Horace twice, once the Epistles and once the Satires, and all prologues follow the well-known European literary trope of emendation and reform.
It is this latter intersection between the legal and the literary that is of particular interest in the present work. That there existed close links between these two in Wales cannot seriously be doubted. Jurists and poets often hailed from the same families, and some persons even functioned in both roles, making an overlap in content and modes of expression nearly inevitable. One of the most moving of medieval poems, an elegy for Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last prince of independent Wales, killed in 1282, was penned by Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch, "Gruffudd, son of the Red Judge." Gruffudd himself may have been a third cousin to Iorwerth ap Madog, perhaps the most famous of Welsh jurists and the person to whom the principal northern lawbook Llyfr Iorwerth has plausibly been ascribed. Einion ap Gwalchmai practiced both poetry and law, while Rhydderch ab Ieuan Llwyd, for whom the prose tale collection Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch was likely written, was an expert in native law and deputy-justiciar under the Crown. Law was considered part of the corpus of traditional learning known as cyfarwyddyd, a term encompassing a wide variety of types of cultural learning, from history to genealogies, to poetry and prose tales. Persons called cimarguitheit (singular cyfarwydd), "experts in cyfarwyddyd, traditional learning," appear as experts on local legal dues and renders in Chad 3 of the late ninth century. We do not know for certain what import cimarguitheit has in this context; Morfydd Owen and Dafydd Jenkins argue that the word is likely being used here in a general sense to refer to persons who are knowledgeable about local conditions rather than to legal experts per se, and that is certainly possible. However, it is at least suggestive that we find here the term for traditional learning associated with persons acting in a legal capacity. If law did develop originally as an independent discipline with a textual corpus and professionals out of this larger body of traditional cultural learning (much as it may have done in Ireland), then a significant degree of overlap would be expected.
As with law and literature studies elsewhere, the links between the legal and literary in Wales have largely been studied in two principal ways. Most common in the scholarship to date has been a focus on law in literature: in other words, the manner in which law and legal knowledge figure in contemporary (or near-contemporary) Welsh poetry and prose. As is well known, several episodes in the four medieval stories known collectively as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi (Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi, usually referred to as either the Mabinogi or the Four Branches) display an intricate knowledge of Welsh law, from the hunting scene in Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet with which the Mabinogi begins, to the gold-and-silver regalia of Branwen uerch Lyr, to the footholder of Math uab Mathonwy. Most famous is the story of the thief disguised as a mouse and captured by Manawydan in Manawydan uab Llyr. As Charles-Edwards points out, not only was Manawydan completely within his rights under Welsh law to hang the thief as he threatened to do, it was precisely because he was familiar with these rights that he was able to stave off disaster and avert the threatened vengeance of Llwyd uab Cil Coed. There are other parallels as well. Many of the offices mentioned in the lawbooks are also mentioned in the prose tales, and the social conventions regarding etiquette that feature so prominently in prose tales like Culhwch ac Olwen, Chwedyl Gereint vab Erbin, and Historia Peredur can often best be explained with reference to passages in the laws. Indeed, with respect to certain subjects such as, for example, the hunting scene in Pwyll, one may even need both types of text to make sense of what is going on. Sometimes legal terms or concepts are better explained in the nonlawbook literary sources than in the laws themselves.
Serious scholarship on the relationship between the legal and literary genres began with T. P. Ellis's 1928 study of legal terms and practices in the body of prose tales known collectively as the Mabinogion. Ellis began with the Laws of Court, focusing in depth on the king and the various officers of his household. This analysis led him next to consider a variety of social practices and institutions: homage, military organization, the organization of territories, social class, dues and renders, criminal law, contracts and exchanges, marriage and the greater "law of persons," succession and inheritance, fosterage, and judicial procedure. In each case, his methodology remained the same—the gathering together of legal references from the tales and the laws followed by brief historical speculations about the workings of the office or practice in question. The primary value of his work today lies in its encyclopedic nature and value as a reference tool rather than its specific analytical insights. However, Ellis established in his study a scholarly framework that would be followed to some degree by almost everyone who wrote after him. The paradigm he established of placing legal and literary side by side, and of using one body of sources to flesh out the other when details might otherwise be lacking, continues to shape scholarship on both genres to this day. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a study of the dating, nature, or purpose of the Mabinogi that did not in some way make appeal to the laws, or a study of certain topics in the laws such as hunting or theft that did not reference the literature.
The extent of the parallels between legal and literary led Ellis to also raise in his work the issue of authorship, which continues to be a focus for scholars today. At this point, most would agree that either the Mabinogi author was a lawyer himself, or that legal knowledge was so widely disseminated in the culture that both author and audience must be considered, in a sense, to be experts in the field. Glenys Goetinck, in her study of the Four Branches, remarked on the surprising extent of the legal knowledge displayed by the author, while Michael Cichon argued further that "the redactor of the tales actually had specific laws in mind when he set these tales down." Robert Humphries concluded that, "given the close ties between law and literature, the author, or redactor of the Mabinogi could easily have come from a legal or a clerical background, familiar with the cyfarwyddyd . . . not only well versed in the laws but also a keen observer of the social and political order, quite possibly attached to a royal court." Meinir Elin Harris was even more specific. Noting that there are more legal parallels in the Mabinogi than in other contemporary prose tales and that the testimony of each type of narrative closely parallels the other, she concluded that it may have been Iorwerth ap Madog himself, or one of his poeticolegal family members, who was responsible for the Mabinogi as we have it today. Indeed, she suggested, the Mabinogi might even in this sense be read as an enghraift chwedlonol o'r gyfraith, "a story version of the law," with episodes acting as legal precedents or leading cases, somewhat as cwynion, "plaints," did in the late medieval period.
Agreement was equally uniform on another important point, albeit one more often quietly presumed than directly articulated. For all these scholars, law functioned as a fixed reference point vis-à-vis the prose tales rather than the other way around. That is to say, tale authors were imagined as shaping their stories around the laws as extant in the lawbooks—laws they were presumed to know by virtue of being lawyers themselves or being closely related to a lawyer—rather than lawbook authors shaping their material around the stories. This led Harris to endorse Ellis's conviction regarding the "genuine nature of the Welsh codal survivals"; where the two traditions disagree, such as in the gender of the footholder, she hypothesized that either the Mabinogi author had gotten it wrong, was reflecting the custom of the (presumed to be later) society in which he lived, or had adapted the legal material to his own purposes. Humphries similarly imagined the author of the Mabinogi selecting "the legal material carefully to give the tales a realistic social setting." Indeed, he argued further, the tales provide a "critical commentary" on the system of justice described in the laws: "the author of the Mabinogi," he suggested, "recognise[d] the practical limitations of Cyfraith Hywel" and responded to them accordingly. Cichon's 2009 monograph on violence and vengeance spoke of scenes from Peredur "being derived almost verbatim from the Laws of Court," and referred to the author's "deliberate framing of the narrative material to conform to Welsh law" as "height[ening] the import of the offence" for both author and audience. Cichon acknowledged elsewhere the possibility of the borrowing going the other way, but he was clearly bothered by the "symbolic or mythic sensitivity on the part of the jurist" that such an exchange would seem to presume. Harris similarly dismissed the idea that the laws might have drawn on the literary tradition.
The parallels to which these scholars point are unquestionably real. However, their reluctance to accept that the laws might have borrowed from the tales or, indeed, as seems most likely, that both the legal and literary genres might have been part of a common and constantly evolving narrative tradition is rooted, I would suggest, on unspoken and largely unexamined presumptions about the nature of law. As I have argued earlier, these are presumptions that derive from our own experience with contemporary legal statutes that do not reflect what is known either about medieval law or about the nature of the medieval Welsh narrative tradition, in which the sharing back and forth of ideas, images, genres, and pseudohistorical "realities" was demonstrably quite common. Paul Russell has shown this with respect to the regalia in Branwen; other examples might include the idea of the sovereignty of the isle of Britain, which appears in a wide variety of genres, legal and literary, and the story of Dyfnwal Moelmud, who figures in the laws, the genealogies, and Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. Similarly with respect to the Laws of Court: whereas Cichon spoke of the tales drawing directly from the actual legal tractate of this name, Manon Phillips's more nuanced picture imagined the relationship more in terms of "cross-referencing," a "common milieu," and "drawing on the same traditions." A similar interchange between legal and literary traditions is envisaged in the fifteenth-century verse Canu i Swyddogion Llys y Brenin, and still other examples will emerge in the course of this study.
That both law and literature might be part of a common narrative tradition should not surprise us, given what we know about the connections between legal and literary families and individuals in medieval Wales. And, of course, not all elements are shared equally across genres and traditions. As far as we know, for example, the story of Hywel himself as lawgiver is found only in the legal sources and works deriving from them. However, this does not mean that Cyfraith Hywel ought to be treated as an immutable monolith against which to measure elements of a tale tradition assumed in its very nature to differ from law in being vital, imaginative, and ever changing. Indeed, on some level, we have long been aware of this. The idea that Welsh law constituted a form of political literature (law as literature) has in fact been current in legal scholarship for some years now. It would be difficult to improve on Huw Pryce's formulation of this relationship, which is worth quoting at length:
The lawbooks can themselves be seen as works of literature conveying their own perceptions of the past as well as the present, and thus defy categorization as purely pragmatic texts in implied contrast to literary compositions such as prose tales. While the law-texts undeniably form a distinctive genre of writing, a point underscored by their status as the sole or principal text in nearly all the extant medieval manuscripts, their contents are not reducible simply to what we could consider "law." In common with other medieval compilations of customary law, they also contain traditional lore and pseudo-history. . . . Above all, the Welsh law-texts resemble other coutumiers in presenting what Alan Harding has called "mirrors of society," in the Welsh case idealized pictures of a unitary Wales, under a single ruler and a single law, encapsulated in the "myth of political unification" already achieved in the time of Hywel Dda. In other words, irrespective of their purpose as accounts of native law, the lawbooks make powerful ideological statements about Welsh identity, projecting an image of a purely Welsh Wales (the Marcher lordships never come into the picture), as well as about Welsh kings, whose status is emphasized by the precedence given to the section on the royal court.David Stephenson has similarly remarked on the admixing of legal, literary, and historical in the legal sources, questioning whether the "Laws of Court" should be regarded as reflecting more the past reality of Wales or, rather, its twelfth- and thirteenth-century ideal. Morfydd Owen hailed the lawyers as "propagandists" in the "struggle for Welsh independence," connecting the stories in the lawbooks to the aggrandizing ambitions of the princes." I have also written in a similar vein. In other words, the idea of the Welsh lawbooks as complex sources that push against modern boundaries of genre rather than sitting neatly enclosed within them is one with which many scholars now find themselves quite comfortable.
It is precisely such observations that this book both picks up from and seeks to extend. Law was an important form of political literature in medieval Wales—indeed, along with the narrative prose tales, which recent studies have shown to have an important political component of their own—one of the most influential forms of political writing in the period, which may explain why legal texts are extant in so many manuscripts and forms. Recent scholarship has helped us appreciate the artificiality of a stark divide between the legal and the literary and significantly expanded our understanding of the complex relationship between the two. For the Welsh jurists at least, and perhaps for other European legal specialists as well, legal writing was very much a work of the imagination. That fact must have implications for how we read these texts. If the lawbooks were indeed part of a vital and evolving literary tradition, then we can no longer treat them as inevitably objective and eschewing of the fictional or funny. The old understanding of law as a type of source the "truth value" of which "varies inversely with how much pleasure it gives the reader: no pain, no gain," no longer obtains. Rather, we must read the laws in the same manner in which we read the tales: with close attention to setting, symbolism, narrative structure, and voice. And should we come across a bakeress throwing her scraper into the air, we should not look away or consign her actions automatically to the bin of quaint and colorful customs of yesteryear. As we will see, even that which seems ridiculous can have meaning if we are willing to look for it.