The Black Book of Carmarthen, so called because of the colour of its binding and its connection with the Priory of St John the Evangelist and Teulyddog, Carmarthen, is now thought by modern scholars to be the work of a single scribe writing at different periods of his life before and about the year 1250. This makes it one of the earliest surviving manuscripts written solely in the Welsh language. It was designated one of the 'Four Ancient Books of Wales' by William Forbes Skene (1809-92), although he believed it to have been written much earlier in the twelfth century.
The manuscript came into the hands of Sir John Price of Brecon (1502?-1555), a man with antiquarian and literary interests. He had been appointed chief registrar of the crown in ecclesiastical matters and in this capacity undertook the task of searching the monasteries dissolved by Henry VIII. He found the 'Black Book', it is said, in the possession of the treasurer of St Davids Cathedral, the manuscript at the time reputed to have come from Carmarthen Priory.
Little is known of its history after its rescue by Sir John until its acquisition by the seventeenth-century antiquary Robert Vaughan (1592?-1666), who put together a vast collection of printed books and manuscripts of primary importance in Welsh and other languages at Hengwrt, his home near Dolgellau, Merionethshire. However, at some former period it seems to have been owned by another scholar and book-collector, Jasper Gryffyth (died 1614), warden of Ruthin Hospital, who has written in the 'Black Book' both his name in Hebrew characters and a note on its contents. William Salesbury (c. 1520-1584?), translator of the New Testament into Welsh, has also written a note at the bottom of one of the pages. Robert Vaughan himself says in another manuscript (NLW MS 5262, p. 167) that the poet Siôn Tudur (died 1602) of Wigfair, St Asaph, also owned the manuscript at one time.
When Robert Vaughan's great-great-great-great grandson, Sir Robert Williames Vaughan, 3rd baronet, died in 1859, the books and manuscripts at Hengwrt passed by bequest to his friend William Watkin Edward Wynne (1801-80) of Peniarth near Tywyn, Merionethshire. While at Peniarth, the Welsh manuscripts were catalogued by J. Gwenogvryn Evans for his Report on Manuscripts in the Welsh Language published by the Historical Manuscripts Commission in 1899. Since then, the collection has been known as the Peniarth Manuscripts. Gwenogvryn Evans gave priority of place to the 'Black Book', designating it Peniarth MS 1. The Black Book of Carmarthen together with the rest of the Peniarth collection of manuscripts is now housed among the Special Collections of the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, the collection having been purchased in 1904 for the proposed National Library by its primary founder and foremost benefactor, Sir John Williams, baronet (1840-1926), physician to the Duchess of York. The price he paid for the collection was £5,500; the Black Book of Carmarthen was valued at £400.
The manuscript is made up of eight gatherings of stout vellum sewn together and bound to form a volume of 54 folios (108 pages). It is not complete for there are a number of folios missing. What strikes the eye of the reader most is the scribe's lack of uniformity, both in the way he has ruled each page before writing and in his handwriting itself, inconsistencies not generally found in manuscripts of the period written by professional scribes. He writes the first twenty folios in large letters, but from folio 21 onwards his letters are much smaller. This variance in the size of script means that the number of lines per page also varies. All this adds weight to the opinion that the scribe was working at different periods of his life. Maybe he intended to compile more than one volume, but instead the various gatherings of vellum were brought together at some stage and bound to form the book now known as the Black Book of Carmarthen.
Apart from a small group of triads relating to the horses of legendary Welsh heroes, the 'Black Book' is essentially a poetry manuscript. The verse it contains falls into a number of categories. There are poems with religious subjects such as the 'Dialogue between the Body and the Soul', and odes of praise and mourning such as the 'Elegy to Madog ap Maredudd' (died 1160), anonymous in the 'Black Book' but, according to another manuscript, written by the court poet, Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr (floruit 1155-1200). But most remarkable are the poems, which have as their themes stories relating to heroes of Dark Age Britain, and especially those connected with the legend of Myrddin.
There are three poems definitely relating to the legend, 'Yr Afallennau', 'Yr Oianau' and 'Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin'; a fourth poem 'Y Bedwenni' is also thought to be relevant. However, it is only in the 'Ymddiddan' that Myrddin is named, although the place-name Caerfyrddin occurs once in 'Yr Oianau'. In the first two poems, we find an unnamed man living alone in a forest addressing an apple tree in the former poem and a pig in the latter, and prophesying the success or failure of the Welsh in forthcoming battles with the Normans in South Wales, prophecies that were fulfilled during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The lines containing these prophecies were obviously composed after the events they purport to foretell and must be regarded as additions to a nucleus of lines composed much earlier, probably in the ninth or tenth century. This small core refers to a legend concerning a warrior who goes mad during the Battle of Arfderydd fought c. 573 between Rhydderch Hael and Gwenddolau, two rival kings of British tribes in the 'Old North' and who, on the defeat of his master Gwenddolau, flees to the Caledonian Forest where he lives as a wild man and acquires the art of prophecy. Later, this story was relocated in Wales. However, it was Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (1136) who first gave this prophet of Welsh tradition the name of Myrddin and connected him with the town of Carmarthen (Caerfyrddin). In 'Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin', we encounter Geoffrey's Myrddin in conversation with the poet Taliesin, who was also credited with prophetic powers.
Other legendary verse in the 'Black Book' includes the poem which begins 'Pa ŵr yw'r Porthor?' in which Glewlwyd Gafaelfawr, the gatekeeper, confronts King Arthur and his companion Cai, and in which Arthur is portrayed more as a folk-hero than the great emperor-king created by Geoffrey of Monmouth; verses (englynion) to Geraint son of Erbin, who achieved fame as one of Arthur's knights; 'Englynion y Beddau', a series of verses recording the graves of dead heroes of Welsh tradition; a dialogue between Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd, lord of the Other World; verses relating to Seithenyn and the drowning of Cantref Gwaelod; and a poem concerning the story of Ysgolan and the burning of the books.