As an increasing number of people, including poets, learnt to read and write during the Middle Ages, the practice of recording Welsh poetry in manuscripts began to develop alongside the well-established oral tradition of composition, performance and dissemination. Many manuscripts were the work of semi-professional copyists, but from the fifteenth century onwards, some of the poets also became scribes. A few, in addition to recording examples of their own compositions, also transcribed the work of their contemporaries or predecessors, concentrating mainly on the cywydd (a strict-metre poem).
It was largely the work of Dafydd ap Gwilym (fl. 1320-70) that was responsible for the increased popularity of the cywydd from the middle of the fourteenth century onwards, and it is possible that Dafydd himself copied one of his poems in the Hendregadredd Manuscript (NLW MS 6680B). Other poets who recorded either their own compositions or the work of others were Gwilym Tew (fl. 1460-80) in Peniarth MS 51, Hywel Dafi (fl. 1450-80) in Peniarth MS 67, and Huw Cae Llwyd (fl. 1455-1505) in Peniarth MS 54. Some, such as Dafydd Epynt (fl. 1456-1515), found it difficult to handle the pen, as is evident from the quality of his handwriting in Peniarth MSS 54 and 55. On the other hand, Llywelyn Siôn (1540-?1615), who wrote Llanstephan MS 47, can be regarded as a professional scribe. However, many transcribers of Medieval Welsh poetry remain anonymous, and it is difficult to ascribe definite dates to these manuscripts, especially as many volumes often contain several hands, spanning many years.
Each manuscript presented here - the earliest dating from the fifteenth century, and the latest from the seventeenth - contains one or more poems attributed to Dafydd ap Gwilym, although they also contain examples of the work of a substantial number of other cywyddwyr. The antiquary's eagerness to preserve the bardic tradition was the prime motivation of many of the collectors and copiers. With some exceptions, such as the few poems on the three supplementary leaves preceding the main section of Llanstephan MS 27, these are relatively small and inconspicuous paper volumes, mainly created for practical purposes.
References to individual poems within these manuscripts may be found in J. Gwenogvryn Evans's Report on Manuscripts in the Welsh Language (Historical Manuscripts Commission: London, 1898-1910) and in the online Index to Welsh Poetry in Manuscript database. A new edition of Dafydd ap Gwilym's work is currently being prepared at the Departments of Welsh of the University of Wales, under the direction of Professor Dafydd Johnston, University of Wales Swansea. This new edition is to be published in printed form, and on a dedicated website that will contain images of the relevant manuscripts.