Acerbic Annotations: the Brusque Reviewer of a Sixteenth-Century Welsh Manuscript

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From the British Library Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog

As I open this BL Additional MS. 14866 , I am greeted by a stamp on its paper flyleaf that reads ‘presented by the governors of the Welsh School, 1844’, which gives a clue to the ownership, and past readers, of the manuscript. The ‘Most Honourable and Loyal Society of Antient Britons’, I found out from the National Library of Wales Journal, was established in 1718 ‘for the instructing, clothing, and putting forth apprentices, poor children descended of Welsh parents, born in or near London, having no Parochial Settlement within ten miles of the Royal Exchange’.  It then became the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion in 1751, a society that still exists today for the promotion of Welsh literature, arts and sciences. Part of this society was a ‘Welsh Charity School’, which was located in Grays’ Inn Lane at the time that this manuscript was donated. The Welsh School was  home of a considerable body of Welsh manuscripts, but in 1843 it was decided that, ‘the Manuscripts & printed Books belonging to the private Library of this Institution be placed in the British Museum for their better security & for the public advantage where access to them may be at all times easily obtain’d’. And so they came to the British Library.

Additional MS. 14866 was compiled in 1587, three centuries before its presentation to the BL, by a reverend named David Jones. It was relevant to the Welsh School because it is a book of medieval Welsh poems, which contains work by too many Welsh bards to name here! It is not so much David Jones, or the book’s medieval texts, that piqued my interest in this manuscript. Rather, I was interested in the annotations that were made by Lewis Morris of Penbryn in Cardiganshire, who was given the book to read by its owner in 1744.

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Penbryn, near Cardigan

Morris, pictured below, was an antiquarian who was an expert in Welsh literature and history. He was the founder member of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorionm which gives a big clue to how this manuscript ended up at the Welsh School: Morris must have left it to the institute that he founded upon his death. Before this, though, the man took the liberty to inscribe the following on this book’s first original flyleaf:

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Lewis Morris by Llewellyn Ddu o Fôn, The National Museum of Wales / Amgueddfa Cymru

I observe that David Johns the collector of it was not a master of the languages, though it is a better transcript than are Commonly met with. The Elegy on Queen Mary by Mr Edward Lloyd of the Museum is a piece of great Curiosity which shews how little that Great man knew of the…Poetry… Cicero’s attempt in Poetry cannot be more a Joke than this of Mr Lloyds, a proper caveat for every man to keep within his own Sphere of Knowledge’ Soon after Morris made this inscription, the book’s owner died, and Morris inherited it, despite his apparent disdain for some of its contents.

    The annotations that appear throughout the manuscript are consistent with this disparaging tone, and I will give a few examples here. Eighteenth-century palaeography is not my strength, so I have not identified which hand is which yet. I think they are all by Lewis – though it is possible that the book had another disapproving reader. Suffice to say, though, that this person/these persons did not approve of what they read, especially the  poems that were copied into the book in the Seventeenth Century!

     On folio 302 of the manuscript, there is a poem that annotator read patiently, making no mark until the final stanza was over, when he wrote: ‘I am sorry to see Mr Ed. Lloyd’s name to such a piece of supposed poetry when it is nothing but a heap of ill chosen words and those ill placed and ill wrote’. Ooh err! On folio 299, the gloves really come off, and he writes: ‘John Rees Roynaut as Cant not fit for a poets footboy’. On the folio preceding, another Welsh poem gets the same treatment, with not a word written by the annotator until the poem ends, then the annotator spits out: ‘Intolerable Poetry not one good line’.

Fans of eighteenth-century poetry will appreciate the powerful bite of this note to a poem on folio. 285: ‘Poor enough God knows. Colly Cibber is a better Poet’. Cibber was much derided by critics, and was the infamous inspiration for Alexander Pope’s poem The Dunciad, which pokes fun at Cibber’s susceptibility to the goddess ‘Dullness’, who brings decay, imbecility, and tastelessness to Britain. Great damnation indeed!

Condescension was the order of the day when the annotator read the poem on folios 290-1, prompting him to comment: ‘Poor Stuff! A mere Jargon of sounds. But the poor man means well and could do no better’. Then, perhaps the most damning words come on folio 294 after the annotator criticised the writer’s rendering of Welsh, concluding: ‘Fools and Ignoramus’s ought not to meddle with the sacred weapon of Poetry for they’ll certainly cut their fingers’. OUCH.

Near the end of the manuscript, on folio 306, the exasperated reviewer writes no more than these three words: ‘fie upon it’. He’d obviously had enough.

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