Llawysgrif Boston of Gyfreithiau Hywel Dda | The Boston Manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda [NLW MS 24029A]

On Tuesday I was fortunate enough to be permitted to attend a benchmarking meeting at the National Library of Wales, organised to determine the digitisation process of the Boston Manuscript. It was an amazing opportunity to see the manuscript up close, and to learn a little more about the journey this little book has taken across the centuries to its present home in the National Library. 

Cyfraith Hywel, the Law of Hywel, was the name by which the native laws of the Welsh were known during medieval times. After the conquest of Wales and the passing of the Statute of Wales in 1284 (under which Wales was brought into the English legal framework) the laws lost their pre-eminence, but remained in use until the Act of Union in 1536 (when Henry VIII enforced his sovereignty throughout his kingdom).

Hywel Dda, or Hywel the Good (c.880-950), ruled over a greater part of Wales than any king before him, and almost any Welsh ruler after him. He probably gained the epithet “Good” (Dda) as a result of his promotion, reform and unification of the laws of Wales, the traditional use of which was long but the written evidence of their use less well-established. None of the surviving books of the Laws of Hywel Dda date to any earlier than the second quarter of the thirteenth century, and the laws they contain are of roughly that same period.

The Library already has a copy of the Laws, known as Peniarth 28, in their collection: written in Latin, the recipient may have been an ecclesiastic rather than a Welsh lawyer. Its illustrations set it apart from all the other manuscripts, and those illustrations may have been included so that the book could be presented to someone of importance.

The Boston Manuscript is a different creature. Written in medieval Welsh, it is a pocket-sized book annotated with handwritten additions, which mark it out as a text for use by an itinerant judge in South Wales. It probably left Wales in the hands of Welsh settlers in the 1700s, and ultimately ended up with the Massachusetts Historical Society of Boston, who sold it this summer at Sotheby’s auction house in London.

Such an important Welsh manuscript obviously needed to be acquired by a public body in Wales, and the National Library of Wales, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, purchased the document in July of this year. The book is now at the National Library of Wales and in the care of the Library’s conservators, who are well into the work of rebinding and digitisation. 

The first stage of work with the book is the conservation of the item. Analysis by Iwan Bryn James (the Conservation Manager at the National Library of Wales) during the bidding process established that the binding was in a good condition and not suffering from any infestation, and appeared to have been rebound some time during the 19th and 20th centuries, with the old spine overlaid on top of the new leather. The binding, whilst strong, was too tight, only allowing the book to be opened to a 45 degree angle and thus causing the vellum leaves to split or tear. There were also missing leaves (32 in total) which had been replaced with 19th century paper. The whole manuscript, therefore, is in need of some repair and consolidation, despite its overall stable condition. 

The preferred treatment of the book was for it to be unbound, with conservation cleaning and flattening of the distorted vellum leaves, the repairing of tears, consolidation of fragile initials and the rebinding of the volume in a more flexible, sympathetic and compatible style, with the work “conforming to the BS 4971 recommendations for the repair and allied processes for the conservation of documents.”

My attendance at the National Library on Tuesday was to see where the next stage of the conservation and digitisation process would go. Until now the book has been kept in secure storage, with the conservation process (undertaken by very experienced and qualified NLW conservation staff) almost complete, and the digitisation process now underway before the volume is rebound. The timescale for digitisation is swift, with continued quality control to ensure that the images and leaves remain in the correct order (and following the foliation of Edward Lhuyd).

My own project (working with the Hengwrt Chaucer manuscript, also held at the National Library) will hopefully be informed by the work I’m observing on the Boston Manuscript, and I will therefore be blogging fairly regularly on my meetings at the Library; I hope you’ll accompany me on my journey through this aspect of my research. 

Pictures re-published with kind permission of Iwan Bryn, National Library of Wales.