Llyfr Coch Hergest
Red Book of Hergest
Jesus MS 111
The grandest of medieval Welsh manuscripts. Written on vellum, 13 3/8" x 8 1/4", 362 folios. Bicolumnar, numbered 1--1442. Mostly written between 1375-1425, it is mostly the work of Hywel Fychan fab Hywel Goch of Fuellt, for his employer, Hopcyn ap Tomas ap Einion of Ynys Tawe, a fact apparently revealed not in the Red Book itself, but in Philadelphia MS 8680, also scribed by Hywel. It is named for the red leather binding, rebound again in moroccan leather added in 1851, and for the house of Hergest, Herfordshire, where it was compiled.
After the death of Hopcyn, he was succeeded by his own son Tomas, followed by his grandson Hopcyn. This Hopcyn unfortuntately backed the Lancastrians in the War of the Roses, and lost his possessions to the Vaughans in 1461. The manuscript then entered the library of Roger Vaughan, then passing to his son Thomas at the court at Hergest. At some point, the manuscript found its way into the hands of Thomas Wilkins (1625/6-1699), and was later presented in 1701 to Jesus College, Oxford, by his son, Rev. Thomas Wilkins, of Llanbleithain, Glamorgan in Wales.
It is best known as the source of the Mabinogion, as well as having much of its poetry reproduced in The Four Ancient Books of Wales.
Its contents mark it as one of the most comprehensive collections of early Welsh literature; the first section is made up of histories, from the Dares Phrygius which chronicles the fall of Troy, followed a Welsh version of Geoffrey's History of the Kings of Britain, a version of the Brut y Tywsogion, and later in the volume the history of the Saxons. A version of the triads, nearly identical to that found in the White Book of Rhydderch, is also present.
It also contains numerous prose romances, from the well-known contents of the Mabinogion, two continental sagas of Charlemagne,Welsh versions of French (Amis and Amile, Chanson de Roland) and Latin ("The Seven Sages of Rome") literature, and a Welsh version of a lost Anglo-Norman romance on Bevis of Hampton.
There is some early poetry, with particular focus on the sagas of Llywarch Hen and Heledd and some selections from Taliesin and Myrddin, but the overall focus of the poetry is of the Gogynfeirdd. The book contains five awdlau to Hopcyn, probably composed around 1380.
Finally, there are also a few miscellaneous items, such as the herbal of the Physicians of Myddfai, a grammar, and collections of proverbs. The only other major peice of Welsh literature which is not included are the laws of Hywel Dda.
Ultimately, it is believed that the nature of the works contained reflects a rather conservative taste of Hopcyn; of the court poets, Dafydd ap Gwilym's work (greatly influenced by Provincal troubadors) is completely ignored, as are the rest of the Beirdd yr Uchelwyr. It could have been that Hopcyn was uninterested in the new style of cywydd poetry.
The contents of the manuscripts are detailed here; images of the manuscript can be seen here.
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Mary Jones © 2006