Illegitimi Non Carborundum

“I am a bastard, too. I love bastards! I am bastard begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in valor, in everything illegitimate.” William Shakespeare, Troilus & Cressida

Today I began my long-term volunteer position at Gwent Archives, based on the old Steelworks site in Ebbw Vale. The regeneration of this vast area of land continues apace, and it currently hosts a brand new FE college and sports centre. The Archive, based in the impressive Grade II listed former General Office, are a lovely juxtaposition of old and new. My positive experience was no doubt greatly enhanced by the fact they’re not stingy in turning the heating up, which was particularly welcome on such a cold day, but seriously: it’s a great place, and the staff are really friendly.

The Archives, formerly the Monmouthshire Record Office and the Gwent County Record Office, have been running since 1938 and today serve the five unitary authorities encompassed within the modern-day Blaenau Gwent. They have a dedicated conservation department and a broad collection that holds, amongst many other things, lists of applications for exemption from military service (given 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1, this alone is a potentially interesting item).

My task today was to assist in transcribing some old Court ledgers, listing petty crimes committed in the Tredegar, Blackwood and Ebbw Vale areas throughout June and July of 1933. Some of the entries were quite mundane: a whole page dedicated to persons who had fallen foul of “Bye Law” [sic], for example, but there were some really stand-out entries in the ledger: a gentleman fined for “being in possession of two cigarettes”, and another for not keeping his lamp maintained (these were probably important issues down a mine, and warranted some form of punishment). Maintenance of wife and child(ren) was another common feature, but the most interesting to me were the cases involving bastardy.

The status of a bastard (or whoreson) was different in Wales before conquest: a bastard child, so long as they were acknowledged by the father, was still equal to a legitimate child insofar as the law was concerned, but after Wales was incorporated into England the status of the bastard changed considerably: some parishes in England, like Edgmond in Salop, even had a special register for them. The blame was placed, rather predictably, on alcohol:

It is suggested the increase in illegitimacy in the 18th century was caused by the rapid growth in ale houses 1730s to 1780’s. Peter Laslett in The World We Have Lost (1965) states “Our ancestors, by this test of bastards born and registered as such, were rather more moral sexually than are we ourselves.”

Fathers of illegitimate children were required by the parish to support their children financially: in one entry in the record, a fine in the sum of £44 was laid against the child’s father – given that the average weekly salary at the time was £3.60 a week, and the average house would have set you back £60, this was a phenomenal sum.

This isn’t an advertisement for the Archive per se, but it is fascinating what you can find amongst its records. Past lives rendered in a simple line, distant relatives perhaps forgotten even by their families; their inclusion in the public record their last remaining link to the living. The fines were rather sad little entries in the record, and I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to them all: the little bastards of Blaenau Gwent, stigmatised from birth in both blood and ink.

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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.