Cymru Illuminating Manuscripts

Today’s itinerary: morning workshop, talk on illuminated manuscripts at the Roderic Boewn Library by Ruth Gooding, hike to Iron Age fort, reading by Menna Elfyn

Incredible collection here, and you get to turn the pages…very exciting. (The chick on the side in the red dress is probably one of the family who owned this book–like how she just gets to hang with the Virgin Mary now because her family commissioned the book? And how Jesus has a parrot?)

Today started with a Welsh history lesson, which was useful for someone studying Celtic traditions (both “real” and folkloresque) of the eighteenth century. In 1750, there were definitely more people speaking Welsh in Wales than there were speaking Gaelic in the Scottish Highlands (the same is true today). Tons of Welsh folks were bilingual, although Bethan Mair Jenkins puts it beautifully: Welsh was the language of the hearth and English was the language of learning.

The two men I really came over here for (there’s a promising beginning to a sentence) stand at the crossroads between insider and outsider, between homegrown and cosmopolitan, between bard and scholar. Most academics would tell you they were unsure of which way to turn–they were conflicted, trying to live in two worlds–evoking the Celtic hearth and determined to compete on an English/British academic footing. James Macpherson and Iolo Morganwg, in Scotland and Wales respectively, both stand accused of promoting and inventing Celtic history. They both mimicked popular (new) styles of writing, both insisted on the importance of old stories, both had run ins with the famously irascible Samuel Johnson (who often becomes a stand-in for England herself in these narratives of conflict) and both had to handle with issues of translation and the written versus oral tradition.

The fire at Notre Dame came up tonight at dinner–it has already featured once in this blog, connecting history, music, empathy and the imagined past. This song is a good fit because it asks us to look for manipulation in cultural institutions and it encourages individual exploration. Has anyone noticed that once I started writing the blog with my kids in mind, the musical selections have changed dramatically?

Today’s post is called Illuminating Manuscripts for a number of reasons. The first is that we saw eight illuminated manuscripts today, from all over Europe and over a range of time, and, if I may be very technical, they were all hella old.

All of what we saw brought the Bible into everyday life, which was an excellent tie-in for the day’s research because if it hadn’t been for Queen Elizabeth (I)’s insistence on having the Bible translated into Welsh after dad (Henry VIII) did everything he could to stamp out the language, there might not be the resurgence of Welsh that we have today and Aran Jones would have had to write books about one of the many other languages he tried to learn how to speak. Had he done so, I doubt we would have paragraphs like:

“That’s one of the odder things about recapturing the language that’s part of your lost heritage–miles from anywhere you can remember being before, miles from anyone you know, you can quite suddenly feel strangely but distinctly at home.” (Jones, 90).

Back to the library: images, marginalia, construction (of covers, of paper)–all were of interest and we got to handle all of these amazing documents, coming into contact with history in unique and beautiful ways. Random list of things that were unique and beautiful to me: one of the manuscripts was in a woman’s hand (and the Roderic Boewn library has bunches of them), I found manicules in another text (that’s a pointy finger that draws the reader’s attention to something and this looked like it was drawn in by a different hand), musical notation made me want to play the notes of service, color–such rich colors made every word feel alive.

So those are the real manuscripts. But to return to my two gentlemen: Macpherson is famous for declaring that he wrote Gaelic translations of third century stories—from manuscripts. Those manuscripts never materialized properly, which is partly because they didn’t exist. Morganwg, publishing a few decades later but working on his schemes at the same time Macpherson was publishing, tended to play up how much more important the oral tradition was than the written word, yet he still found himself creating fake manuscripts. ***Can you see why I decided to take a creative writing course to start to understand them better?

Macpherson was called out from his first moments as a published author and Morganwg was not discovered in his deception until after he died. Both of them are writing these authentic ancient stories (and there is authentic stuff to be found with both of them, despite their truly terrible reputations). On the Welsh side of things, Morganwg also created cultural traditions. Hang on to your hats: The Gorsedd, a key part of the national Eisteddfod (or a gathering of poets, an important part of a yearly festival celebrating Welsh history and traditions), is largely due to an invention of Morganwg’s–an invention of his that sounded Celtic enough to hold on for nearly three centuries. This, to me, sounds an awful lot like Michael Dylan Foster and Jeffrey A. Tolbert’s formulation of the “folkloresque”–a term for new, hybrid forms of ancient culture that don’t come from a corporate money-making entity and resonate with everyday people because they feel connections to a culture and a past.

No matter how rigorous scholarship is, we don’t actual have a portal to get back to the past. I think most of us are aware that we are just trying to get as close as we can. And “close” means very different things to different people. Perhaps that’s some of the reason people take to the paths around here and wend their way up the hills to where an Iron Age fort once stood.

A little hobbity, no? “The road goes ever on and on?” Also reminds of Menna Elfyn’s: “Home is where we leave from.”

This photo was taken up there–or just below it. On top there are no trees, as in “Wales has no trees…” and you can see for miles. It is a place for contemplation and hunting for lost cell phones in the long grass. You can imagine what people thousands of years ago were doing and still be very aware of the people next to you. That’s the thing about standing on the spot anywhere, you are using the space, not just peering at it from a distance. Arguments about use versus preservation are, I think, important when talking about tradition. My two gentlemen knew that and came down very firmly on the “use” side of the equation, they didn’t mind the hunt around for the proverbial cell phone. What’s funny (and I think they might find funny) is that they actually ended up preserving traditions that were being forcibly stamped out. All of their pretending and sarcasm (and I will definitely talk more about those things because they are cool) aside, they understood people’s need to go wandering. To approach standing stones. To try to get a sense of perspective. Those feelings cannot be contained in the pages of a book, no matter how many miracles that book contains. A book can only be a gateway to that kind of exploration, only a spur to the imagination. I’m still a ways to go to the “illuminating” part, but walking and reading, hearth and school, real life and fiction–these related binaries might just light the path.

Aran Jones talks about love being the driving force of the Welsh language’s survival, “can’t you see we’re all a part of some eternal plan” could relate to those beautiful Bibles and orders for service, or it could relate to the impulse that carries us up hills. Either way, these people can sing and they remind me of my childhood, they are part of my folkloresque.

(Zoe and Ryan, I did not forget you–as I know, because I keep texting you and all you will tell me about your day is that you ate rice and that the bus was late….here goes. Someone in our class wanted to pet sheep today, so I got to see sheep run away very fast. There is a Starbucks after all, about two feet from my room, and Zoe, it was mostly girls your age who were frequenting it. And I keep falling asleep right before you call, so it is very much like home with people waking me up too early in the morning.)

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