Why did the author of the first Welsh book omit the eighth of the Ten Commandments (‘thou shall not steal’) from his volume? Was the conscience of John Prise, author of Yny lhyvyr hwnn, troubling him? Is this a deliberate mistake?
Yny lhyvyr hwnn was the first book to be printed in the Welsh language, in 1546. Between its covers, John Prise shows the main priorities of Welsh humanists and their concern for the future of their language. It includes the alphabet, a calendar, horticultural tips, and the basics of the Christian faith. But why omit the eighth of the Ten Commandments?
John Prise had a prominent role in the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, and it is thought that he used his position as a civil servant to amass a substantial and rich library of manuscripts and printed books, including the famous Black Book of Carmarthen. Could he have paid honestly for these volumes, or did they mysteriously fall into his pocket so that he could ‘preserve them for posterity’ in his home at Hereford? Was John Prise a national benefactor or an unscrupulous thief?
Some of his treasures are displayed in a new exhibition – ‘Publisher and plunderer? Sir John Prise and the first Welsh books’ – at the National Library of Wales between the end of January and the end of June, amongst them four manuscripts from Hereford Cathedral, volumes which came originally from the monasteries and priories of Brecon, Hereford and Gloucester.
According to Aled Gruffydd Jones, Chief Executive and Librarian of the National Library: ‘This is a rare opportunity to see volumes which have been chained to their shelves at Hereford for centuries, and to see them side-by-side with treasures preserved here in Wales. It is an opportunity to question the motives of a Welsh hero, and one of the giants of the Renaissance.’
Yny lhyvyr hwnn has been digitised anew for this exhibition, and published online, and a number of events, including a conference and day school, is part of the season of events at the Library.
On Wednesday, 4 February, at 1.15 in the Library’s Drwm, Dr Eryn White from Aberystwyth University’s Department of History and Welsh History will be looking anew at ‘Syr Siôn Prys, y Dadeni, a’r diwylliant print yng Nghymru’ [Sir John Prise, the Renaissance, and print culture in Wales], an event held in Welsh with simultaneous translation.
The exhibition ‘Publisher and plunderer? Sir John Prise and the first Welsh books’, can be seen at the National Library of Wales from 31 January – 27 June 2015.