Monmouthpedia and the Fable of Borges’ Map.

The fable of Borges’ Map is probably familiar to a fair few people. It is the story of an empire where cartography becomes such an exact science that the map measures the country it portrays exactly in every detail.

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography. | Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

The story elaborates on a concept in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded: a fictional map that had “the scale of a mile to the mile”. One of Carroll’s characters notes some practical difficulties with this map and states that “we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well”.

The ambition displayed in the tale was for the whole world to be rendered accurately in map form. One can understand the desire to present the world in as great a detail as possible: isn’t that what all academics do, in their own small ways? Create their own maps of the territories they occupy, seeking to enlighten, to explain? I first encountered the fable in Jean Baudrillard‘s Simulacra & Simulation, and was very struck by his idea that we have become so reliant upon our maps of the world that we have lost touch with the reality behind them. Whilst I believe that this deep-seated fear is one which has ramifications for the Digital Humanities, in particular I saw how Borges’ Map might be applied to the case of Wikipedia, and in particular its work with the town of Monmouth.

Monmouthpedia is touted as “the world’s first Wikipedia town”. The aim of the project is:

“…to cover every single notable place, person, artefact, plant, animal and other things in Monmouth in as many languages as possible, but with a special focus on Welsh. This is a different scale of wiki-project. The project is jointly funded by Monmouthshire County Council and Wikimedia UK, Monmouthshire County Council intend to install free town wide Wi-Fi for the project.”

Basically, a vast number of objects within the town have a QR code placed upon them (or a QRpedia code, as they are termed here – not your traditional black and white codes but plaques appended to properties), which lead you to a Wikipedia page containing information about the thing you’re looking at. As Monmouth is particularly rich in archaeology, there are now over a thousand QRpedia codes in Monmouth leading the visitor to Wikipedia. The walls of the museum are dissolved completely here – the learning experience can be found on every street corner, and every tree, and to a certain extent, it could be claimed that this learning experience is liberated from the bounds of cultural hegemony, being available to all and directing the user to a democratically edited website, where the knowledge is supplied by the user, for the user. (Of course, the user is not completely liberated: one has to be in possession of a smartphone, and the Wikipedia articles and artefacts endorsed with QRpedia codes have to be chosen by someone.) But I confess, I love the idea of Monmouthpedia, and intend to visit soon in order to experience it fully for myself. And QRpedia codes are popping up in cities all over the world – Johannesburg, Bremen, to name but two. We are slowly, and inexorably, mapping the world around us, “the scale of a mile to a mile”, providing us with all the information we might require about a specific object.

And yet.

The heritage sector are keen to use QR codes. They’re inexpensive to produce and the user can be directed to wherever the organisation using the code chooses to send them. But anecdotal evidence during my time on placement at the National Library of Wales suggested their use was limited, and they are increasingly being supplanted by augmented reality, image-recognition applications or near-field communication (NFC).

And what are the theoretical implications of mapping the world around us? Are we in danger of recreating Borges’ map digitally – creating a map which encompasses every surface, point for point? And if that is the aim, to map everything, are we in danger of losing ourselves within the QR code: where nothing outside of it is acknowledged as real?

Once again, I must say that the idea of removing learning from the cultural hegemony is a marvellous thing to me, and that is why I adore the idea of Mounmouthpedia. But in the back of my mind lingers Borges’ fable, the tale of the map which became the world.


Combining Curatorial and academic perspectives for a better understanding of medieval manuscripts | Dr Susan Davies & Dr Maredudd ap Huw – Images

Dr Susan Davies examines a manuscript.
Dr Susan Davies examines a manuscript.
Drs Maredudd ap Huw and Eva de Visscher examine the Latin of one particular text.
Drs Maredudd ap Huw and Eva de Visscher examine the Latin of one particular text.
The workshop participants examine an artefact.
The workshop participants examine an artefact, accompanied by Dr Julie Mathias.
Dr Maredudd ap Huw exhibiting a manuscript, formerly a sheet of religious music, which had been re-used within another manuscript.
Dr Maredudd ap Huw exhibiting a manuscript, formerly a sheet of religious music, which had been re-used within another manuscript.
The group examine some leaves from a book of Psalms.
The group examine some leaves from a book of Psalms, under the watchful eye of Dr Susan Davies.

Archives, Artefacts & Literary Culture | National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth

For the last two days I have been in attendance at the National Library of Wales/Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, at a fantastic Aberystwyth and Bangor Universities workshop in medieval studies. I was fortunate enough to not only participate in the event as an attendee but also as a speaker on the first day. Entitled Archives, Artefacts & Literary Culture, the intent was for the workshop to be discursive and interactive, and that was certainly the case.

The first paper of the day was presented jointly by Dr Elizabeth New of the Department of History & Welsh History at Aberystwyth, and Dr Julie Mathias, of the Department of Information Studies. Their discussion, entitled Deeds, Seals & Archival Collections, set the tone for the day. Dr New opened the session discussing the Penrice & Margam Estate Records, which are held at the National Library. This reasonably complete archival collection from Margam Abbey, in Glamorgan, contains material from the 12th century through to the Reformation. The collection is rich, and extensive, and fortuitously survived the fate of many other monastic collections, which were lost, destroyed and scattered during the dissolution of the monasteries. The Margam collection went wholesale into the hands of Rice Mansel, through intermarriage to the Talbot family of Penrice, and thereafter on deposit to the National Library, who finally took full possession of the collection in lieu of death duties.

Dr Mathias then took over the talk, showing the audience the National Register of Archives website. She told us that if you’re interested in a particular family or a collection, it is not safe to assume the records are all kept together. The Margam family, as an example, had thirteen collections, with papers scattered with organisations around the country. It is therefore always worth checking the National Archives website.

We then moved on to the Penrice & Margam Charter 20, the manuscript of which was circulated around the group. The handwriting, a Carolingian Minuscule (an 8th to 12th century handwriting, named after the Emperor Charlemagne) is made up of carefully formed letter shapes, with plenty of space between the words, and is an ancestor to our modern handwriting. Dr Mathias identified specific letters within the manuscript in order to determine a date: for example, a capital W, which didn’t appear until after the 12th century. Carolingian Minuscule eventually evolved in Anglicana, a cursive business script which allowed for the faster production of manuscripts. Charter 20, said Dr Mathias, had no date attached, but there was a place date, which put the manuscript as having been created either in Cardigan or Cardiff. There was some discussion of this point amongst the group, and Dr Mathias told us that if one is ever in doubt as to a particular abbreviation it was always best to consult Trice-Martin’s book of abbreviations and place names, to make doubly sure.

Dr New then moved on to examining the seal appended to the manuscript. She noted that the seal was much larger than the actual document, and that without the seal, the document is invalid – there was a shift to the use of seals as a form of validation. Seals from the middle ages would have been made of beeswax or tree resin, and quite often coloured – the seal on this particular Charter was a dark brown, and the seal of William, Earl of Gloucester. The seal would not have been this colour at the time of its creation: the belief is that seals of this sort were varnished, possibly with a varnish that was quite rich in colour, and used to preserve the wax and make it look fancier. This painting over of the wax fell out of fashion in the mid-13th century: elements of the seal, therefore, also assist in dating a manuscript, and are an integral part of the identification process.

We then moved to another manuscript, Penrice & Margam Charter 198, where the writing becomes, as Dr Mathias put it, “a little more laterally compressed”, as we move into the Anglicana era. Dr New mentions the sealing clause included within the text of the manuscript, an identifying factor in manuscript studies that we don’t see until the early 13th century, and usually comes before the witness list within a document (although this is not always the case, so caution should be taken when searching for it). In the case of Charter 198 it is an unusual clause: it states “My seal is appended”, but there are two seals attached to the manuscript, one being the communal seal of the burgesses of Kenfig in South Glamorgan (now, apparently, buried by the sand dunes, but once a small and thriving town) and the other being the seal of Alice, widow of John Prevat. “My seal”, she states rather forlornly in the sealing clause, “is to many unknown.” Alice probably hadn’t needed to use a seal until after the death of her husband, and no doubt needed the seal of the burgesses of Kenfig as further validation of her own, new seal.

Dr Mathias took us through some of the aspects of Penrice & Margam Charter 443. A 15th century manuscript, written in Anglicana despite the rise during this period of the Secretary hand, there is a sealing clause contained within the text and two seals (those of Hugh Kene and Agnes, his wife), which are attached to one tag. There were obviously two separate seal matrices, with different designs – one is made up interlaced letters, H&K (presumably a monogram of his initials) and the other is endorsed with male and female heads, and a phrase relating to love and loyalty, but Agnes herself is not specifically referenced on the seals. Hugh Kene is clearly identified by his initials, but we only know that Agnes used it because she is mentioned in the sealing clause.

Penrice & Margam Charter 17 has a sealing clause which, quite shockingly, has writing on it in pencil, where someone during the 20th century has made a note of the Abbey the manuscript mentions in the text. Aside from this transgression, the manuscript is interesting because the sealing clause mentions the fact that a seal has been loaned for the purpose of validating the document. The seal, that of the Prior of St Michael of Ogmore, shows an ecclesiastical figure. A similar seal can be found at the National Museum Wales: the photograph below is an image of that seal, and not the one at the National Library, but I have included it to give you some idea as to the beauty of this fragile artefact.

ImageWhat’s also interesting about this manuscript is that the sealing clause appears to have been added at a later date to the manuscript: presumably a space for a name was left until such time as someone willing to lend their seal could be found. The witness list in this manuscript is particularly long, possibly because the person providing the gift to Margam, the seal-less Ketherech, son of John Du, needed more than one witness because without a seal, he lacked validity.

There were many other manuscripts and seals shown to the group: Penrice & Margam Charter 54, Caradog Uerbis to Margam, in which Uerbis makes it clear in the document that the document, and he himself, is “under the seal of my lord”; and Penrice & Margam Charter 72, Ifor Fychan and sons to Margam, which has only one seal which represents Fychan and his sons, the matrix being made to represent the whole group. There was also Penrice & Margam Charter 84, the Papal Bulla of Innocent III, and Penrice & Margam Charter 1978, endorsed with the seal of Geoffrey Sturmi of Stormy Down. The image on the seal is that of a man dressed as a hunter or forester. I have included an image of Geoffrey’s seal, taken from an artefact held at the National Museum Wales.


Dr New said that the academic Robert Patterson, working from photographs, thought that the monks of Margam forged the seal to get themselves more land, but Dr New believes that it is genuine. Patterson thought the contents of the manuscript and what is being gifted within it doesn’t seem right, but it is probably almost impossible for them to have forged the documents, and the seal was used several times thereafter with no question as to its validity. In this case, Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s opinion that “The monks of Margam are not to be trusted” seems false.

I have included here several other images of seals, in this case seal replicas which Dr New passed around the group, the images of which are reproduced here with her kind permission. One was the Great Seal of Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror:






And this wonderful seal, which I think is a seal of Henry VIII but I may be very incorrect on this as I didn’t make a clear note, so if anyone out there has the knowledge and can attribute this correctly, please do!



We were astonishingly privileged to be able to get access to so many rare and beautiful manuscripts, and to have the expertise of Dr Mathias and Dr New on hand to take us through these objects. You’d be pretty hard pressed to get a better opening session at a conference: I’ve certainly yet to find it.

Professor Andrew Prescott at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth | 16th April 2014

Professor Andrew Prescott at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth | 16th April 2014

At the conference “Syrffio’r silff: hynt a helynt llawysgrifau Chaucer/From glass case to cyber-space: Chaucerian manuscripts across time” held at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth on the 14-16th April 2014, the keynote speech on the final day was given by Professor Andrew Prescott, Head of Digital Humanities at King’s College, London. The talk, entitled, “Manuscript Digitisation: some retrospective thoughts”, was recorded on an iPhone 5s and covers the talk and the questions thereafter.

Please click on the link above to access the Soundcloud recording of Andrew Prescott’s keynote. His excellent blog Digital Riffs can also be accessed here:

From Glass Case to Cyberspace: Chaucerian manuscripts across time | Day 2

The second day of the conference at The National Library of Wales dawned but due to a comedy of errors I missed the first lecture, given by Dr Roberta Magnani of Swansea University and entitled “The Queer Margins of Chaucer’s Manuscripts” – such a shame, as I was really looking forward to hearing her interpretation of Chaucer’s work. I was, however, there in time to hear Professor Helen Fulton of York University on “English Prophecy in Welsh Manuscripts: Authors and Anthologies”.

Professor Fulton took Chaucer’s use of prophecy as a jumping-off point, and looked at “examples of Middle English prophecies found in multilingual Welsh manuscripts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries”, describing a shifting boundary (the Marcher lordships) occupied by the descendants of Norman lords and the old Welsh royalty. Many of the most important manuscripts of the medieval age came from within Marcher Wales, such as Gawain and the Green Knight. On this basis, MS Peniarth 392D’s presence in Wales isn’t an anomaly, given Wales’ importance within medieval literature. Fulton suggested that Hengwrt (MS Peniarth 392D) was in Chester by the late 16th century and with Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt in Meirionydd (1592-1667); by the 19th century it was with the Wynnes of Peniarth. Chaucer was obviously thought of as an author worth collecting, and the Marcher lords were seen as the guardians of language, with a multilingual border environment and a readership which, even in the 15th century, would have been familiar with different languages. Professor Fulton’s talk was fascinating, because it allowed us to envisage Wales as a thriving cultural hub, with Oswestry “the London of Owain Glyndwr’s land”, and prophecy used as a comment on the age.

After Professor Fulton came Holly-Jane Maddocks, a doctoral researcher at York University, discussing the illuminator of Chaucer’s Roumant of the Rose (Glasgow University, Hunter MS 409) and the context of its production. As Holly-Jane explained in her abstract, the manuscript “exists uniquely in Glasgow, Hunter MS 409)” but the manuscript “has received little attention from book historians, possibly because it is incomplete, messily-translated, and perhaps only partially by Chaucer himself”. The Roumant’s illuminator, however, can be tracked across many manuscripts, “and these indicate that this illuminator was active in London from the 1430s until at least the end of the 1450s”. Holly-Jane showed how illuminators can offer a starting-point for exploring a vast range of manuscripts, and were highly collaborative within their own communities, and suggested that Paternoster Row was the scene of work by William Abell, “a member of the London mistery of Stationers”, and an implied centre of activity for the production of many manuscripts. Abell seemed to rely on a specific group of border artists: this can be seen, said Maddocks, in specific, repeating features across manuscripts, and she gave some examples of the Roumant limner’s work.

After Holly-Jane came Professor Helen Phillips, of the School of English, Communications & Philosophy at Cardiff University with her talk entitled: “Chaucer’s unstable Wife of Bath in the manuscripts”. The Wife, said Professor Phillips, has been variously described as a Whore of Babylon, a parodic Virgin Mary, and the carnal old Eve; these representations come from the Wife’s Prologue primarily, and in fact the Hengwrt’s marginal label describes her as “The goode Wyf of bisyde Bathe”. There are, however, multiple scribal descriptions of her. Phillips suggested there were two main lexical sets: the Wife of Bath, a title destined to become popular even during Chaucer’s life and the “goode Wif”, corresponding to “goode Man”, which can mean a woman running a business, and also a female citizen of a particular town name, thus expressions like “the goode Wif of Barcapple”, etc. This rich multilayered interpretation was meant by Chaucer, Phillips claims, to have links to the Clerk of Oxenford, and the good man of religion, and whilst Chaucer might have meant there to be a socio-economic portrait of the Wife in the Prologue as a businesswoman her sexual and marital revelations have leached into our full readings of both the Tale that follows and the portrait that comes before it. The notorious, misogynistic display of a bad wife might have been ramped up for comedic effect, and the phrase Wife of Bath became a lexicological term designed to raise a giggle even during Chaucer’s time. The Wife is used, suggests Phillips as a misogynistic icon, and has come to represent a form of masculinist containment. But we should, she says, be careful how much we buy into this sort of belief. There has come to be a conceptualisation of women as wives only, despite their presence in business, and despite the fact that 80% or more of the words in the Wife’s Prologue describe her business state and the confidence her socio-economic status provides her. Chaucer’s time was “a golden age for widows”. We shouldn’t, says Phillips, substitute the notion of the good wife for a businesswoman, but we must recognise the instability in her representation.

After Professor Phillips’ fascinating lecture, and a short break for coffee and biscuits, Dr Liv Robinson of Brasenose College stepped up to define the Chaucerian manuscript through the spectrum of the Roumant of the Rose, the same work focused on by Holly-Jane Maddocks. Dr Robinson also highlighted the way in which the work has been sidelined, possibly because of it’s potential identification as being part of the “counterfeit canon of Chaucerian apocrypha”, and suggested that the way we describe something forms the way we respond to it. Therefore, if we describe something as being marginal, or fragmented, this erodes our sense of its authority. (There are parallels here, of course, to digitised manuscripts: it is so important to determine the words we use to describe our artefacts). The ubiquity of the term “fragment” when describing the Roumant, says Dr Robinson, perpetuates the negative way the work is perceived. The text is generally divided along Chaucerian or non-Chaucerian lines, with anything perceived as not Chaucer assumed to be derivative. Dr Robinson’s lecture was followed by questions and then lunch, and thereafter came Dr Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan as the afternoon session’s keynote speaker. The afternoon, chaired by Professor Lorna Hughes and included talks from Dr Barbara Bordalejo of the University of Saskatchewan and Dr Malte Urban of Queens University, Belfast. The content of their lectures can best be shown through the tweets from the second day, which are incorporated within this Storify (and includes tweets from attendees at the conference over the first two days).

What is fantastic about this sort of conference is not just the opportunity to meet new people (I spoke mostly to Malte, with whom I shared the back row of the Drwm in order to reduce the annoyance to everyone else that might have been caused by our laptops), but the possibility of allowing you to see your own work in a new way or, better yet, (for me at least) to reinforce the ways in which you’re already working. What I was most particularly struck by was the passion everyone brought to their own corners of Chaucerian research, and how interesting everyone made it seem to me. That’s as much a testament to the various speakers as it is to the work of ol’ Geoff himself, who still manages to resonate all this way down the centuries.

From Glass Case to Cyberspace: Chaucerian manuscripts across time.

Aberystwyth has done its usual trick of putting on some fantastic weather to greet the participants at this week’s Chaucer conference at the National Library of Wales, and although it was difficult going from the warmth and sunshine into the darkness of the Drwm it was nevertheless well worth the sacrifice. Today was Day 1 of a fairly intimate affair at NLW: a gathering of several big names in the world of Medieval literature and the digital humanities congregating at the home of the Hengwrt Chaucer manuscript to discuss Chaucer’s work in a variety of forms. Today’s speakers were Sheri Smith of Cardiff University, discussing the Man of Law’s Tale; Dr Elisa G. Pastorello of the University of Padua on the use of rhyme royal and the reception of Chaucer in the fifteenth century, and Sarah Gorman, an MA student at Bangor University, providing a reconsideration of Chaucer’s The House of Fame. All of these talks were interesting but the one which struck me most particularly was Sarah’s work. She talked about the materialisation of the spiritual, and I felt there were connections to be made from the ephemerality of Chaucer’s glass temple containing the images of the famous, and the digitisation process: the perceived volatility of the digital domain compared to the content it contains, or to put it another way, great cultural artefacts being rendered in digital form. Sarah’s work made me think about my own in a new way.

After a short break we returned to hear Estelle Stubbs’ keynote lecture entitled The Canterbury Tales: “a half-assembled kit with no directions”, billed as “An exploration of Chaucer’s half-assembled kit in the light of new contexts for the earliest manuscripts”. She talked about John Manly‘s work for the military during WW1 and how the decoding he conducted together with Edith Rickert and others proved to be an excellent basis for his work with the Canterbury Tale witnesses. As Stubbs pointed out, Manly & Rickert’s experience of working for the military also brought them into contact with new forms of technology, and as such they were particularly open to the use of such technologies within a field not traditionally associated with them (technologies such as the photostatic image, which meant they could assemble full or partial copies in order to interrogate the sources). Manly & Rickert’s work shifted the dating of the earliest extant manuscripts of the Tales: the potential unleashed by the use of the photostatic image transformed the research process, and created stepping-stones to new areas of research. Manly is also credited for being amongst the first to identify the use of ultraviolet light as important for the reading of ancient manuscripts.

Stubbs pointed out that new technology allows us to ask new questions, and provides a plethora of new contexts within which to explore a text. The sheer bulk of research and accuracy of the work by Manly and Rickert is “humbling”, particularly when we consider that it was before the era of computers, and they were truly interdisciplinary in their work to find the perfect text. Stubbs also commented on the fact that digital images have now replaced photostatic images and even microfilm, and as such future research agendas need to take on a creative approach to the data being gleaned (in some cases truly huge amounts of information: we are, after all, in the realm of Big Data).

Stubbs went on to describe the exploration of the “manuscript hinterland” through the identification of scribal hands, and reflected upon the idea of the Hengwrt manuscript being the first attempt to piece together Derek Pearsall‘s kit: a fresh attempt by Chaucer to compile his Tales. Certainly knowing the identity of the earliest scribes of the Tales has major repercussions, but during a time of increasing professionalisation of the roles of the scrivener and the secularisation of the writing community (perhaps as a result of increased literary ability amongst the general population), scribal hands become ever more difficult to identify. Manly & Rickert identified five manuscripts that they suspected were the earliest, all of which show co-operation between the scribes in a relatively short timeframe. Hengwrt and Ellesmere are amongst the five, and Stubbs asserts that the scribe Adam Pinkhurst was probably responsible for work on them both, together with other works on behalf of Chaucer: indeed, Stubbs suggests that Pinkhurst probably worked with Chaucer for at least 20 years before the copying of the Ellesmere manuscript.

There was also a “tight network of intermarriage” which seems to provide connections between the various manuscripts and the scribes who worked upon them: this network was dense, and I confess to not being able to make complex notes during this part of the lecture. The end of the talk was very interesting, however. Stubbs posited the theory that the reason for the fragmented nature of the Tales could be due to Chaucer’s relationship with John of Gaunt, and the latter’s illness and eventual death being the timescale to which the Ellesmere was created. Certainly if the Ellesmere was was presented to Katherine Swynford, John of Gaunt’s mistress and eventual third wife, this might explain its earliest recorded ownership as being with the Drury family of Suffolk: linked by marriage to Swynford.

At the end of the day’s sessions we all retired to the warmth of the Council Chambers, where the Head Librarian Aled Gruffydd Jones gave a short speech welcoming everyone to the day and Helen Wilcox gave thanks to the organisers of the event. We were then given access to the exhibition itself, where the Hengwrt sat alongside other Chaucerian manuscripts and some artefacts gifted by the National Museum of Wales, including pilgrim badges and a beautiful gold ring (replicas of which are on sale in the National Library shop). The Hengwrt manuscript is tattered and worn around the edges of the pages, but it is a thing of great beauty and (this might sound odd, I confess) a really warm, friendly thing. It is an old friend to us, and greeting it again was a lovely way to end the day.

The Legend of the Drowned Hundred: The Kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod.

“Seithennin, saf-di allan, ac edrychwyr-di faranres môr. Maes Gwyddnau rydöes.” | Boddi Maes Gwyddno,  Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin

When I was a little girl, I adored the Mabinogion, and the works of Susan Cooper. I loved the hints of the supernatural: the moonlit nights, the connections to an ancient land where magic was a reality. One could condemn a cheating wife to an eternity as an owl, or discover on their 11th birthday that they’re the last of an ancient line of guardians fighting a battle against the Dark. One of the most powerful stories I read, and which was included within Susan Cooper’s book Silver on The Tree, was the story of the Drowned Hundred, or the Kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod.

“Sure,’ Bran said. He chuckled. ‘From the Drowned Hundred, no doubt.’ Barney said blankly, ‘Whatever’s that?’ ‘Haven’t you heard that old story yet? About where the Bells of Aberdyfi ring, all ghostly out at sea on a summer night, over there?’ Masked by the dark glasses that covered his pale eyes once more, Bran got to his feet and pointed out at the mouth of the estuary, all of it sunlit now beneath wider patches of blue. “That was supposed to be Cantr’er Gwaelod , the Lowland Hundred, the lovely fertile land of the King Gwyddno Garanhir, centuries ago. The only trouble was, it was so flat that the seawater had to be kept out by dykes, and one night there was a terrible storm and the sea-wall broke, and all the water came in. And the land was drowned.” | Susan Cooper, ‘Silver on The Tree’

The story of the Drowned Hundred has several different versions, as a story so old is prone to do. But the simple outline is that the land of Cantre’r Gwaelod was a beautiful, fertile part of the realm. This land was protected from the sea by sluice gates, which were opened at low tide and closed again when it returned. However, one night a huge storm rolled in and the watchman, Seithennin, was too busy partying at King Gwydnno Garahir‘s palaces near Aberystwyth to shut the gates. Anybody remotely acquainted with the nightlife of Aberystwyth will understand how the unfortunate Seithennin could have been caught out in this manner, but the result of his night of frivolity was the flooding of Cantre’r Gwaelod, jewel of the land of Wales, which was drowned during the storm. Only a few members of the Royal Court managed to escape the deluge: over sixteen villages were drowned, and the people living within them. In other versions of the story, Seithennin is a visiting monarch and drunkenly seduces Mererid, the fair maiden in charge of the sluice gates, allowing the storm to do its worst to the lands and people of Cantre’r Gwaelod. Today, on still nights, it is said that one can still hear the bells of the old city tolling beneath the waves: tolling to remind the people of Borth and Aberdyfi of the loss of Gwydnno Garahir’s ancient kingdom.

This version of the legend is contained within the Black Book of CarmarthenLlyfr Du Caerfyrddin, which is held at the National Library of Wales/Llyfrgel Genedlaethol Cymru in Aberystwyth. The manuscript is not only one of the oldest known works written in the Welsh language, it is designated one of the Four Ancient Books of Wales, and was written by a single scribe. The manuscript has been digitised by the National Library and is therefore available online via their website, where you can view folios from it, or access an image gallery. It is also part of the Library’s 4 Books exhibition, which unites for the first time the Black Book of Carmarthen and Book of Taliesin, also held at the Library, with the Book of Aneirin from Cardiff Central Library and the Red Book of Hergest from Jesus College, Oxford.

The recent storms in the UK, and the damaging effect on the Aberystwyth seafront and surrounding coastline, has done several things. It has allowed the story to take on another layer of resonance: we understand, now, the power of the sea and the inconsistency of nature: how it can turn on us, and take away something we thought was permanent. It has also physically returned Cantre’r Gwaelod to us, by stripping away the layers of sand and peat bog that have covered the area for over 4,000 years. Legend is made real once more.



The photographer Keith Morris has captured the haunting beauty of this prehistoric landscape, and you can find those images (and many more) on his Flickr account.