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Text resources for ‘Dark Age’ history | Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

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Text resources for ‘Dark Age’ history

This page acts as an index to the texts of primary sources for the fifth to seventh centuries in Britain. Some of them are maintained on site, others are links to texts held elsewhere. Gradually, I’d like to see all the available material for this period indexed here, though I realise that’s over-ambitious. But at least it’s a start.

I’ve sorted the resources into ‘narrative sources’ (effectively histories such as Bede’s or lengthy documents such as Gildas’s de Excidio et Conquestu Brittaniae), ‘annalistic sources’ (such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or the Annales Cambrię) and, finally, ‘miscellaneous sources’ (such as the Pictish king-list or the Welsh genealogies). Not all these sources are yet online, but eventually I hope to have reliable texts available (or at least links to reliable texts).

Narrative sources


The de excidio Britonum (‘The fall of the Britons’, otherwise known as de excidio et conquestu Brittanniae, ‘The fall and conquest of Britain’) was written by a British cleric known as Gildas some time during the peace following the first war against the Saxons settled in the east. Traditionally, this was the first half of the sixth century, although estimates for his floruit have varied.

There are two well known texts of Gildas widely used today; that of Theodore Mommsen in the Monumenta Germaniae Historia and that of Michael Winterbottom, which is basically a revised version of Mommsen’s. I have made a few changes for my version.

The Historia Brittonum

The Historia Brittonum is a well-known textual and critical minefield. It exists in a variety of versions, some of which claim to be the work of Nennius, some of which claim to be the work of Gildas, while the majority are without any ascription whatsoever. The ‘standard’ text is that of Theodore Mommsen in the Monumenta Germaniae Historia series, but it is a conflation of different versions without regard to the complex history of development.

My attempt to work out the archetype, insofar as it can be reconstructed from the different versions as recorded by Mommsen, is given here.

Annalistic sources

The Annales Cambrię exist in three very different versions. Only one text has been published in an adequate format, that of Version A, by Egerton Phillimore in Y Cymmrodor 9 (1888), 141-83. For Versions B and C, we are dependent on the frequently inaccurate transcriptions of Rev J C ab Ithel, published in the Rolls Series.

The popular publication of ‘Nennius’s’ Historia Brittonum (edited by John Morris) includes a version that conflates the earliest text (Harleian MS 3859, otherwise known as Version A) with the others, but only up to the point at which Version A stops recording events. The text of Version A posted here is based on the much better text printed by Egerton Phillimore.

Version B was written on the fly leaves of an abridgement of Domesday Book in a hand of the late thirteenth century. The final entry in the text, for the year 1286, is probably the year of writing. It begins with a section based on Isidore of Seville’s Origines and influenced by Bede. It contains some entries otherwise omitted by Version A in the period covered by both versions. Before 1097, each year is marked simply by the word annus, but thereafter by the date in years AD.

Miscellaneous sources


The Canu Heledd, a set of Middle Welsh poems generally treated together with those of Llywarch Hen, describe the fall of the British Cynwydion dynasty of Midland England. The literary conceit is that they are the laments of Heledd, the sister of the defeated Cynddylan, who weeps for her brother, her brother’s hall and her homeland, which has fallen to the English of Mercia. The texts as they survive are in ninth-century form, although they have been thought by some to be genuinely seventh-century creations.

Covering the same subject matter as the Canu Heledd, the Marwnad Cynddylan (‘Death-song of Cynddylan’) only survives in a seventeenth-century manuscript. The start of the poem appears to be mutilated, but again its origins have been thought to be ancient and some have argued that it is actually an older composition than the Canu Heledd. If that is true, then it contains one of the earliest literary mentions of Arthur.

King Lists

According to the Venerable Bede, there were regum tempora computantibus, ‘people computing the times of kings’ in seventh-century Deira and Bernicia. Some of their computations have survived and for a number of kingdoms, they provide the firmest basis for establishing a chronology. The frame-based pages linked here give the principal texts used in this way.

Old English genealogical collections

The Anglian Collection of Anglo-Saxon royal genealogies was defined and printed as a group by David Dumville in Anglo-Saxon England 5 (1976), 23-50. He recognised that the genealogies incorporated into the Historia Brittonum derived from an earlier version of this collection, but did not include them. I have combined all four versions in tabular form to make comparisons easier.

A fragmentary collection in British Library Additional Manuscript 23211, written in the reign of Ælfræd the Great. It is clearly related to the so-called Genealogical Preface attached to manuscripts A and B of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, it is unique in preserving three East Saxon genealogies.

Old Welsh genealogical collections

The Harleian genealogies are the earliest surviving group of lineages for Welsh princely families. They are preserved in a single manuscript (the same as that containing the A version of the Annales Cambrię), daing from around 1100 and printed in a diplomatic edition by Egerton Phillimore in Y Cymmrodor 9 (1888), 141-83. My text reproduces Phillimore’s version. [Bracketed] letters indicate ommissions: those at the head of each genealogy were intended to be written in later, using red ink, but this was never done. The attributions of individual lineages is not always as secure as it might be, but I have put in the ‘traditional’ identifications. The genealogies begin with Owain ap Hywel Dda and were probably compiled during his reign. The last event mentioned in the Annales is dated 954, and this is possibly the date for the genealogies. Some of these genealogies are also given in the Jesus College MS 20 genealogies, and links to these are given in the text.

The Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd (Pedigrees of the Men of the North) is a collection found in a number of manuscripts, principally Peniarth MS 45. my text is based on that MS version.

Closely related to the Harleian genealogies are those from Jesus College MS 20, folios 33r to 41r. Drawing on the same body of material, they contain variants and additions that suggest that they do not derive from them; there are links where the two traditions over the same ground. However, the Jesus College genealogies are much later in date than the Harleian and therefore rather less reliable. They were printed in Y Cymmrodor 8 (1887), 83-9. My text reproduces it. The symbol ‘6’ is an approximate representation of a form used in certain Welsh manuscripts for what is now represented by ‘w’; other conventions follow those for the Harleian collection.

If you have any texts you are willing to make available or
know of any links to sites with other sources, please email me with details!

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