Yny Lhyvyr Hwnn (1546): The Earliest Welsh Printed Book1

R Geraint Gruffydd

The Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, Volume XXII Part II, May 1969, pp.105-116

Most of the papers read at these Congresses - on subjects other than linguistic - deal with the medieval period or earlier. This is as it should be, since from the point of view of the elucidation of our common Celtic heritage, the earlier the better. But it may not be amiss occasionally to examine later periods, so that we may consider how that heritage has been variously modified by developments which are thought of as characteristically modern. Among the most important of these developments is the advent of printing. The philosopher of typography, and of communications media in general, Professor Marshall McLuhan, has characterized both Wales and Ireland as ‘backward oral areas’: the implication being that we have yet to come to terms with print 2. And Professor Denys Hay, a distinguished historian from this city's university, has suggested that the printed book, together with the radio set, must necessarily mean the death of the Celtic languages.3 This is a large assumption, but the fact that it can be made illustrates the importance of these media from the point of view of what we may call Celtic cultural history.

It would be interesting and fruitful to consider how each of the Celtic countries in turn responded to the challenge of the printing-press, and then compare their responses and draw one's conclusions. I am afraid, however, that I have neither the time nor the equipment to undertake that task this afternoon. I propose rather to concentrate on the point of breakthrough into print in the case of Wales alone. But perhaps first I should mention briefly the chief facts of the matter regarding the other Celtic countries. Brittany produced the only Celtic incunable, the Catholicon of 1499; after that there followed some five books (all religious) in the sixteenth century and rather more than a dozen in the seventeenth. Of Ireland it was said in 1575 that the art of printing was ‘nothing frequented’ there;4 this was not strictly true, since in 1571 a Protestant catechism and a broad-side poem had been printed in Dublin with type paid for by Queen Elizabeth:5 these were followed by the New Testament in 1603 and Book of Common Prayer in 1608, to which were added a further dozen books or so before the end of the century. As you know, Gaelic Scotland had her Book of Common Order 400 years ago this year [1967], but more than sixty years were then to elapse before the next Gaelic book was printed. Manx had nothing until the eighteenth century, neither did Cornish. By contrast, some thirty books were printed in Welsh during the sixteenth century, and rather more than 150 in the seventeenth. This may appear to be a quite respectable total, but of course compared with the output of any of the major printing countries it is very small indeed, for reasons which Professor Glanmor Williams has recently most illuminatingly explored.6

The earliest of the Welsh books is known as Yny lhyvyr hwnn (‘In this book’), the first words of the title. The book is anonymous, but Bishop Richard Davies, in his preface to the 1567 New Testament, says its author was Syr Siôn Prys (Sir John Prise).7 Even if Bishop Davies had not told us this, it would not have been too difficult to deduce from the book's contents and orthography. Sir John Prise was born c.1502 into a Brecknockshire gentle family.8 He was educated at All Souls College, Oxford, and the Middle Temple, graduating B.C.L. and possibly B.Can.L. as well. By 1530 he was in the king's service, perhaps already under the aegis of Thomas Cromwell whose wife's niece he married in 1534. His advance in office was rapid: notary public, registrar-general in ecclesiastical causes, registrar of Salisbury, a visitor of the monasteries and later of the chantries, secretary of the King's Council in Wales and the Marches from 1540 onwards. With office came affluence, based mainly on acquisitions of monastic lands in Brecon, Gloucester, and Hereford. No wonder the poet Lewis Morgannwg was able to rejoice with him in 1548, a year after he had received his knighthood, Y mae dygynnydd fal hirddydd haf:; ‘Your progress is like a long summer's day’.'9 He died in 1555, after a quarter of a century or more of arduous but not ill-rewarded public service.

John Prise, however, was something more than a successful civil servant and speculator in land, a typical New Man (as we might think) of the Tudor era. For one thing, he does seem to have had a genuine concern for religion, although his precise position in this respect is extraordinarily difficult to determine. The treatise by him on the Eucharist, which John Bale apparently saw, would probably have enlightened us on this point, but as far as I know it has been lost without trace.10 In his commonplace book, Balliol MS. 353 (on which our chairman has written a very informative essay),11 Prise has a short tract in Latin on the deplorable state of morals in his day, in which he sharply criticizes the clergy and also places great emphasis on Scripture as a purifying agent (incidentally attacking those who opposed the translation of the Bible into the vulgar tongue);12 but I myself am doubtful if the standpoint of this essay can be described as fully Protestant. The same book contains a transcript of the notorious Protestant will of William Tracy of Gloucestershire, on which William Tyndale (among others) wrote a commentary,13 but whether Prise copied it as an example of virtue or of perfidy it is impossible to say. Similarly difficult to interpret as evidence for Prise's religious position is the following ‘merry tale’ from the same commonplace book:

A woman was praying at length before an image of Mary. And she had a son of the New Way, who was unwilling to see saints adored, who said to her: ‘Get up, woman, she was only a woman like yourself’. ‘If that were so’, she answered, ‘there is too great a difference between our two sons.’14

By the reign of Mary, Prise was clearly committed to the full Roman Catholic position. In a treatise on the restitution of the coinage, probably by him and dedicated to the queen in 1553, she is twice praised for beginning to restore Christ's true religion.15 And in his will of 1555 he commends his soul to the Virgin, and asks for prayer on its behalf.16 In his middle period, however, he was most probably an Henrican Erasmian, one of those whose position has recently been described by Professor James Kelsey McConica as combining ‘orthodox doctrine in essentials (papal supremacy being defined as an error) with sweeping changes in other spheres: in vernacular Scripture and liturgy, in education, and in the popular observances of late medieval religion’.17 In Prise's case this position appears to have been compounded with a strong tendency to anti-clericalism - perhaps he really was a priest who had renounced his orders, as some have alleged.18 But the innovations of Edward VI's reign seem to have been too much for him to stomach, and he probably welcomed the return to the Roman obedience under Mary.

Even more important than Prise's religious views are his activities as a scholar. He was in fact the first Welsh humanist, or rather the first humanist to devote his attention to the history and literature of Wales. ‘From my youth’, he says in one of his dedications, ‘I have been exercised in the old language and antiquities of the British.’19 In 1530, as Professor R. B. Gottfried has shown, he bought for 1s. 6d. a copy of the 1517 edition of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, and this may well have been a momentous purchase.20 Four years later, Geoffrey's veracity was impugned by the Italian humanist Polydore Vergil in his Anglica Historia, and thereafter Prise, together with his friend John Leland and others, devoted much energy to defence of the ‘British glory’: the royal line founded by Brutus the Trojan, and especially such movers and shakers of the earth as Brennus and Arthur. ‘[He] would not’, said Thomas Fuller of Prise, ‘leave a hoof of his country's honour behind, which could be brought up to go along with him.’21 A first draft of his Historiae Brytannicae Defensio was ready some time before 1545 and was revised for publication in the early fifteen-fifties.22 It was eventually published in 1573 by Prise's son, Richard, and has been called by Sir Thomas Kendrick ‘the first of the great books on the subject of the antiquity of the British’.23 In the Defensio Prise makes extensive use of the large collection of manuscripts, both Latin and Welsh, which he had amassed over the years - largely, it may be assumed, in the course of his duties as visitor of the monasteries. He is one of the most important collectors of manuscripts at work during the crucial second quarter of the sixteenth century. Mr Neil Ker has listed more than a hundred manuscript books which once belonged to him or were annotated by him, and this figure includes no more than a handful of the Welsh books which he owned.24 It seems that he well deserved John Leland's sonorous tribute: ‘Ioannes Rhesus antiquitatis amator, atque idem sedulus illustrator.’25

But to return to Yny lhyvyr hwnn. It is a small quarto of seventeen leaves; probably consisting of two single sheets and one double, together with an inserted errata leaf. The title-page has the printer Edward Whitchurch's device and a title-page border belonging to him;26 and it is dated 1546. The only copy extant is that of the National Library of Wales,27 but a careful typographic reproduction was published by Principal J. H. Davies in 1902.28 There has been some discussion about the exact date of the book. In 1932 Sir Ifor Williams argued that its true date (from our point of view) was 1547, on the grounds that 1547 is thrice referred to in the almanac material as ‘this year’, and that the date 1546 on the title-page could be interpreted as Old Style dating which would have included 1 January to 24 March 1547;29 this argument has been generally accepted.30 Recently, however, it has been shown that sixteenth-century printers almost invariably used the calendar year (beginning 1 January) rather than the legal year (beginning 25 March) for dating their books:31 that is, for Edward Whitchurch, 1546 was our 1546. And the references to 1547 as ‘this year’ in the almanac material can plausibly be accounted for on the supposition that the book was compiled fairly late in 1546 (or at least after Easter) so that it was assumed that this particular material would first be used in connection with the Easter of 1547.32 One further point may be worth considering: on 8 July 1546 a Royal Proclamation was issued requiring printers to identify the authors of all books produced by them, as well as themselves as printers, and the date of publication - and I see no reason why Edward Whitchurch should have disobeyed this order.33 To sum up, I think it may safely be assumed that Yny lhyvyr hwnn did appear in 1546, and that it was in fact the earliest Welsh printed book.

Apart from the author's preface, the contents of the book are fairly well indicated by the title.34 In this book are set forth the Welsh alphabet (including a note on spelling and pronunciation); the calendar (which includes monthly directions for farmers and also rules for finding Easter); the Creed, or Articles of the Catholic Faith; the Paternoster or Lord's Prayer; the Ten Commandments; the Seven Virtues of the Church (that is, the seven sacraments); the virtues to be practised; and the vices to be shunned, together with their branches. On the face of it, this is merely a handbook of elementary religious instruction in the vernacular, and it certainly is that. In the preface Prise states that the king, having already granted the Welsh temporal benefits (by which he means the Acts of Union), is now pleased to extend to them spiritual benefits as well. Prise therefore thinks it fitting to put some portions of Holy Scripture into print for the benefit of his monoglot fellow countrymen, and particularly those portions which every man needed to know for his soul's health. He attacks the Welsh clergy bitterly for failing to teach these to their flocks, at the same time acknowledging his own responsibility to do what he could to remedy the situation, and appealing to his fellow countrymen to respond to his efforts on their behalf. It is tempting to connect all this with the ‘forward frame of mind’ regarding Protestantism in which Henry VIII is generally said to have been during the final months of 1546,35 but the whole thesis of the ‘forward frame of mind’ has recently been hotly contested by Professor Lacey Baldwin Smith36 and it is anyway unnecessary to appeal to it in order to explain the appearance of such books as Prise's. Henry VIII always encouraged the teaching of the elements of the Faith - the Creed, Lord's Prayer, Ave Maria, and Ten Commandments - through the medium of the vernacular, even when he actively discouraged indiscriminate reading of the English Bible. His own Royal Injunctions of 1536, and the Episcopal Injunctions which followed them, are full of concern that these basic Christian texts, in English, should be properly taught to the laity: in this, of course, they merely represent the heightening of a tradition already established in 1281 by Archbishop Peckham's Provincial Constitutions. Of Henry's bishops, two are of particular interest to us. In 1538 Bishop Voysey (or Vesey) of Exeter stipulated that the Creed and other texts could be taught 'either in the English tongue or in the Cornish tongue where the English tongue is not used'.37 And in 1542 Bishop Arthur Bulkeley of Bangor ordered his clergy 'every second Sunday [to] read the Pater Noster and Ave Maria after the Creed at Mass time, in English or in Welsh, treatably and distinctly, and cause all their parishioners which can already say that in English or Welsh, young and old, to rehearse it, and every article and part thereof, to the end, every one by himself, to the intent that they may perfectly learn their Pater Noster, Ave, Creed and Ten Commandments'; similar orders were given to heads of households and to schoolmasters.38 These are the only Welsh injunctions for the period 1534-46 known to me, but it is likely that there were others and that their gist was the same. That there was a real demand for a publication like Yny lhyvyr hwnn cannot be doubted.

The corresponding demand in England was adequately met.39 ABC's, Primers, and similar publications used in the petty schools all included the basic Christian texts (as I have ventured to call them). In 1541 - perhaps even earlier - Henry VIII decreed which English versions of the Creed, Pater Noster, Ave, and Decalogue were to be regarded as official. In 1545 he went further and published his own revision of both ABC and Primer, forbidding the use of all others. The privilege to print the new Primer he granted to Edward Whitchurch and Richard Grafton, who were already privileged to print the service books, and this may explain why Whitchurch printed Yny lhyvyr hwnn. The Welsh book, however, is more of an ABC than a Primer, since it does not include the canonical hours. But it is not really an ABC either, since ABCs did not usually include a calendar or a detailed discussion of the sins. Perhaps the English publication which corresponds most closely to it is a little eight-page pamphlet printed by Richard Pynson about the year 1520: a pre-Reformation document, therefore, and deriving from the Peckham Constitutions rather than the Henrican reforms. It is entitled In this book is contained the Articles of our Faith, the Ten Commandments, the Seven Works of Mercy, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Principal Virtues and the Seven Sacraments of Holy Church which every curate is bound for to declare to his parishioners four times in the year.40 The similarity between it and Yny lhyvyr hwnn, with regard to contents as well as title, can hardly be fortuitous.

This similarity, however, is in the last analysis superficial. Yny lhyvyr hwnn is not only a handbook of elementary religious instruction in the vernacular. It is also, in its humble way, a humanist document. This is apparent, for example, in the well-organized and mature prose of the preface, and even more obviously in the discussion of Welsh orthography and pronunciation which follows. It is likely that this was at least partially inspired by the controversy about the reform of English orthography which has just been started by Sir John Cheke and Sir Thomas Smyth, probably as a by-product of the great Cambridge debate about the proper pronunciation of Greek (brought summarily to an end, you will remember, by the Chancellor, Bishop Gardiner, with the decree that ‘none should philosophize at all in sound, but all use the present’); it should be added, however, that French scholars had for over a decade been pondering the problem of how best to spell their own language, and of course in the background there was always the high example of Erasmus and his work on the pronunciation of classical Latin.41 Prise was in general well satisfied with the Welsh orthography, as appears not only from Yny lhyvyr hwnn but also from the parallel discussion in the Defensio.42 But he was not averse to a measure of rationalization: for example, he disliked oferlythyrau, ‘superfluous letters’, as much as most of the English reformers. He would personally have liked to have seen the introduction (or reintroduction, as he thought) of the Greek alphabet into Wales, but he recognized that to break yr hen ddefod, ‘the old custom’, was in practice impossible. In linguistic matters, as in religion, Prise seems to have been a reforming conservative. He was rather contemptuous of English (and French) orthography, and in the Defensio he tells the story of an experiment he had conducted in which four practised writers (royal clerks, no less) took down the same short piece of English from dictation and found their spellings hopelessly at variance.

However, the chief justification for calling Yny lhyvyr hwnn a humanist document is the method which Prise adopted in compiling the book. He did not simply translate the Pynson booklet, or any other similar collection of material for the edification of the laity. Rather did he take most of his material, as he himself implies in his preface, directly from old Welsh manuscripts: [y mae] y rhain, gyda llawer o bethau da eraill, yn ysgrifenedig mewn bagad o hen lyfrau Cymraeg. What he did was merely to take advantage of the new medium of the printing-press in order to make this ancient material more readily available. To appreciate fully the significance of this, we must turn to the important first chapter of the Defensio. There Prise expounds his notion of the Welsh or British learned tradition. He believed this tradition had been inherited in the first place directly from the Greeks (hence his liking for the Greek alphabet), that it had been nourished by the Romans and by the early church, and that it had found its chief representatives in the long line of Welsh professional poets. He believed that there was no kind of learning of which the Welsh had not the elements and general principles set forth in their own language, and he instances in this connection not only the trivium and quadrivium (except music) but also poetry, cosmography, medicine, law, history, genealogy - and sacred letters, or theology:

In theology also they have several selections in the form of an anthology, which were thought sufficient either for the knowledge of history [presumably sacred history] or for the regulation of morals.43

Yny lhyvyr hwnn may plausibly be interpreted as an attempt, on a very modest scale, to make generally available a small portion of the ancient deposit of Welsh learning, in this case the ancient theology, according to the Aristotelian precept so beloved by the humanists: Bonum quò communius, eò melius, ‘good, the commoner it is, the better it is’.44 Even the calendar may partially exemplify this point, since it is basically a hagiological document: the calendar in Yny lhyvyr hwnn is almost certainly taken from a medieval manuscript, although use may have been made also of a contemporary English calendar such as that printed in the King's Primer of 1545.45 The B.M. MS. Cotton Vespasian A xiv, that famous collection of saints' lives which once belonged to Prise, did have a calendar, but Yny lhyvyr hwnn has a number of saints which are not in Vespasian A xiv, nor in any other Welsh calendar that I have so far looked at.46 I should add that the agricultural instruction for each month and the almanac material which follows the calendar are probably not medieval. The instructions may well be Prise's own work, since there is nothing that corresponds at all closely to them either in the Welsh Walter of Henley47 or in John Fitzherbert's ‘Book of Husbandry’ of 1523,48 the only two likely sources. But there may have been similar material in early almanacs which have not survived,49 and this would have been a likely source also for the astronomical lore which follows the calendar.

But to move on to the religious texts proper, which after all constitute the core of the book. Most of the shorter ones - including the Creed, Lord's Prayer, Ave Maria, and Ten Commandments - are again almost certainly taken from medieval Welsh manuscripts (although some attempt may have been made to revise them in accordance with the authoritative English versions of the same texts).50 None of them, however, can be exactly matched with any surviving Middle Welsh texts known to me, with the exception of the Ave Maria, which is virtually the same as that at the beginning of the Welsh Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Gwasanaeth Mair.51 The bulk of the religious material, more than five pages out of eight, is made up of a version of the Tree of Vices, that is, the Seven Deadly Sins with their branches.52 This comes from the first part of the third book (known as Ymborth yr Enaid, ‘The food of the soul’) of the Middle Welsh mystical treatise Cysegrlan Fuchedd ‘Holy Life’: the ultimate source of this part is thought to be Hugh of St. Victor's De Fructibus Carnis et Spiritus.53 Apart from the order in which the Vices are taken in Yny lhyvyr hwnn, which follows that of the Pynson booklet of c.1520 rather than that of the ‘Food of the Soul’, Prise's version can be accounted for wholly in terms of the Middle Welsh text. He tends at times to curtail and simplify the wording of his original, presumably for the sake of greater comprehensibility: the style of the ‘Food of the Soul’ is somewhat diffuse, and Prise himself may indeed have misunderstood or misread it at one or two points. A particularly drastic example of curtailment is the fourteenth branch of the Sin of Pride, which Prise reduces from ‘Trallafariaeth neu drallyfrder yw arddangos ysgafnfryd meddwl drwy ormod ollwng traorwagion ac ynfydion barablau’ to ‘Trallafariaeth: gormodd ollwng tra orwagion barablau’; but few of the other instances are as extreme as this. One significant feature of Prise's mode of editing is his omission of all reference to obedience to ecclesiastical superiors or prelates, preladiaid: preladiaid neu hynafion or preladiaid neu uchafion in 'The Food of the Soul' became simply hynafion or uchafion in Yny lhyvyr hwnn. There are extant four medieval manuscripts which now include the text of ‘The Food of the Soul’: NLW Llanstephan 27, NLW Peniarth 15 and 190, and Jesus College, Oxford, 23.54 None of these is the immediate source of Yny lhyvyr hwnn: Jesus 23 is definitely closer than the others, but material missing from it (a few lines, not a whole leaf) is supplied in the printed book. It is possible that Prise had before him a manuscript which is now lost, an anthology of religious prose similar to ‘Llyfr Ancr Llanddewibrefi’ and ‘Llyfr Coch Talgarth’, and containing all the medieval material included in Yny lhyvyr hwnn: the calendar, the scriptural passages and Creed, and the Tree of Vices from ‘The Food of the Soul’. If such a manuscript existed and formed the basis of Yny lhyvyr hwnn, Prise would have regarded it as the repository of part of the ancient learning of the Britons, a fragment of which he was now privileged to set forth in print. The appearance of the first printed book in Welsh may thus have been motivated not only by the Reformed Catholic (or incipient Protestant) desire to instruct the laity in the elements of their faith through the medium of the vernacular, but also by the humanist vision of the glorious British past and the confidence in the Welsh language and its literary capabilities which that vision engendered.

There may also have been a third motive, which may loosely be described as political. The most prominent Welshman about court during the final years of Henry VIII's reign was undoubtedly Sir William Herbert, brother-in-law of Queen Catherine Parr; in 1551 he was to become the first Earl of Pembroke of the second creation.55 Herbert was a thorough Welshman, was more at ease to the end of his days in Welsh than in English, and was consequently dismissed by his English detractors as illiterate. The Welsh naturally thought highly of him: a considerable number of eulogies were composed in his honour by the Welsh professional poets; he was chosen to receive the dedication of the first humanist Welsh grammar, Gruffydd Robert's Dosbarth byrr ar y rhann gyntaf i ramadeg Cymraeg, published at Milan in 1567; more surprisingly, he was the subject of a warm tribute by Thomas Wiliems the lexicographer in the preface to his dictionary of 1604-7, more than thirty years after Pembroke's death.56 The final version of Prise's Defensio was also dedicated to Pembroke, and it is clear that he gave Prise much encouragement in his studies. In 1546, the year of Yny lhyvyr hwnn, there appeared a doggerel poem in English by a Welsh Salopian, Arthur Kelton, entitled A Commendacion of Welshmen, in which Henry VIII's descent from Brutus and Cadwaladr is celebrated and his administrative reforms praised - particularly the Acts of Union and the provision of a vernacular Bible;57 the only surviving copy of the book is imperfect and does not include the dedication, but John Bale says it was dedicated by Kelton to his master William Herbert.58 The following year there appeared another poem by Kelton, A Chronycle with a Genealogie, in which the argument of the earlier book is elaborated and Polydore Vergil expressly attacked: this was unfinished when Henry died and was consequently dedicated to his son, Edward VI.59 Is it possible that Sir William Herbert at this time, perhaps partly to further his own advancement, was anxious to revive esteem for the British history and the Welsh antecedents of the Tudor dynasty in the minds of both the monarchs themselves and their courtiers, and that he therefore gave positive encouragement to both Kelton and Prise?60 And is it possible also that, as part of the same campaign, he encouraged the appearance of printed books in Welsh: not only Prise's Yny lhyvyr hwnn but also William Salesbury's Dictionary and ‘Book of Proverbs’ which probably appeared fairly early in the following year?61 Prise implies in his preface that he had the king's support in what he was doing, and Salesbury (together with his publisher John Waley) was able to secure a royal patent, dated 13 December 1546, to protect his dictionary: was this because William Herbert interceded at court on their behalf? Unfortunately, no evidence has so far come to light to indicate a connection between Salesbury and Herbert. The only hint of the possibility of such a connection known to me is that Salesbury in his book on the pronunciation of Welsh (1550; second edition, 1567) shows that he is familiar with the speech of southern and south-western England - Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon - and he also mentions, it seems, the small Dorsetshire village of Ibberton.62 Now Wiltshire, and to a lesser extent Dorset, was Herbert country, and I cannot think why Salesbury should have gone there except to serve Herbert. If a connection between Salesbury and Herbert could be demonstrated, it would lend substance to the possibility that, behind the appearance of the first Welsh printed books, there was not only the urge to provide religious instruction in the vernacular, not only the confidence in the language which the humanist vision of the Welsh past had inspired, but also the discreet patronage of a powerful friend at court.

R Geraint Gruffydd, Bangor

Gregynog Gallery

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