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The Dream of Rhonabwy c. They were not original compositions, drawing as they did on pre-existing traditional material, whether from oral or written sources. But these traditions were reworked, often to reflect contemporary concerns.

We might read the Mabinogion as both an interpretation of a mythological past and a commentary on the medieval present. The two and half centuries during which the Mabinogion texts were being composed represent a threshold of critical transition in Welsh history and literature.

Here, in this little-known corner of the European Middle Ages, we find the thought-worlds of oral antiquity and literate proto-modernity face-to-face in curious proximity. The transition between the two can be traced as a literary process - which we can observe unfolding on the very pages of the Mabinogion.

By the end of the twelfth century, Middle Welsh narrative prose was in its second or third generation, and along with poetical and triadic material formed part of an expanding, self-referencing literary tradition. Vernacular literary self-confidence, as well as foreign influence, accounts for the gilded splendour of thirteenth-century works such as the Three Romances and the Dream of Macsen Wledig.

The conclusion of this tradition is marked by the Dream of Rhonabwy, where literary self-consciousness has come full-circle and finally turned in on itself — anticipating the sloughing of the medieval spirit that took place throughout Europe in the following centuries.

Far from being 'a ruin of antiquity' — as Matthew Arnold misunderstood the Mabinogion i — these texts are better understood as constituent parts of a complex and ongoing literary conversation.

Within this unfolding tradition, each name, motif and reiterated incident would have formed part of a cumulative constellation of meaning. To understand this intertextual culture, we need to taken in something of the broader historical development of Medieval Welsh literary prose: This introduction will consider a number of themes bearing on the early development of Medieval Welsh literature.

We will be looking at the role of the oral tradition — known as the cyfarwyddyd in Medieval Wales — which is especially relevant to the earlier Mabinogion texts.

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A clarification of the overlapping but distinct concepts of myth and storytelling will also be necessary to help us understand the primary elements of this prose ensemble. The social impact of literacy as a general phenomenon, and the specifics of the vernacular literary culture in Wales will also need to be considered, in particular the so-called Triads of Britain, and works of the mythical Taliesinboth of which have close links to the Four Branches and Llud a Llefyls.

It will be necessary for us to understand the cultural changes that were taking place in Wales in the thirteenth century — an infusing of Romance and other Continental influences within and beyond the literary world which did so much to define the quality and content of the later Mabinogion texts.

Finally, we will be looking at the manuscript tradition in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Wales: Binchy once described medieval Irish society as 'rural, tribal, hierarchical and familiar'.

The same might well be said to apply to much of western Britain in the early middle ages. Medieval Welsh society was organised around a network of tribal courts, each of which supported a 'household retinue' teulu of spear-carrying youths.

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Cattle-raiding and other forms of low-level conflict between and within these agnatic court communities were the norm rather than the exception. Tribal aristocracies of this type have thrived in a variety of contexts throughout the temperate world: It might be regarded as the characteristic social form of cattle-based economies at the 'Heroic Age' level of techno-cultural development.

In pre-modern societies such as these, the oral tradition is the medium of collective memory: Its constituent elements might take the form of genealogies, origin legends, hero-tales, topographic lore, wisdom literature proverbs and gnomic statementsanecdotes and agreements bearing on local law and custom.

Early Welsh literature contains examples of all of these genres, and we might assume that much of this material was informed, directly or otherwise, by the ambiant oral tradition.

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A Welsh term for this body of recitational learning was the cyfarwyddyd cer-var-with-ida word which in the modern language simply means 'information' or 'instructions', but in the medieval period probably had a meaning closer to 'lore' or 'testimony'. Occasionally we find examples of the cyfarwyddyd recorded in writing in a more or less unprocessed form.

Some interesting early examples, dateable back to the eighth or ninth centuries, are to be found inscribed onto the margins of an illuminated manuscript known as the Lichfield gospels, also known as the Book of Chad.

Despite its association with the West Midlands, this holy book seems to have resided in a Welsh-speaking context at some stage in its history, as indicated by the presence of a number of scrawled notes written into its margins in the Old Welsh language.

These marginal notices cover a variety of subjects, but one of the longer examples — the so-called Surexit memorandum — records what would appear to be resolution of a local land dispute: Tudvwlch, the son of Liwid and son-in-law of Tudri, arose to claim the land of Telich, which was in the possession of Elcu, the son of Gelhi, and the tribe of Judgored: Elcu gave afterwards a horse, three cows, three newly calved cows, provided only there be no hostility between them from this reconciliation thenceforth till the day of doom: Tudvwlch and his people will require aftewards no title for ever and ever.

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