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Early Medieval Personas (7-11th centuries)

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This is a collection of responses to questions about resources for early medieval personas -- covering roughly around the 7-11th centuries. I'll have a separate file for the "sub-Roman" era -- basically the few centuries after the end of Roman rule in Britain -- since I tend to point people in different directions for that period. A lot of the resources mentioned in the discussions below will apply equally to the whole range (to the extent that they apply to any of it), and there's likely to be a fair amount of repetition. All I've done here is to collect individual responses I've made to specific questions.

7th Century

Question: I am trying to come up with a name for my early 7th century Welsh persona. I suppose that would stick me in Old Welsh, and I was wondering if it is correct to use 'merch' instead of 'ferch' -- I just want to be sure that I'm as accurate as possible. I looked in a history book about the rulers of Britain and I noticed that a lot of the rulers in Wales ca. 550 and thereabouts only listed one name. Were the authors just saving space by not sticking in full titles or is it period to have just one name for 600 A.D.? I know these are strange questions, but any help would be appreciated!

Answer: "Strange questions"? You have no idea how strange the questions are that some people send me! These are extremely normal.

The era you've picked is one that presents a lot of difficulties, particularly for women's names, simply because of the scarcity of sources. The major sources for Welsh personal names from this period are a handful of inscribed stones (primarily memorial stones, and pretty much all written in Latin), a collection of charters (with lists of witnesses) preserved in the Book of Llandav (the contents were re-copied at various later dates, but the 7-10th century spellings of the names were often preserved fairly well), and a very small number of other sources, such as legal records recorded in the margins of gospel books (e.g., a couple of records of this type in the gospels of St. Chad). At a slightly greater remove, we have historical annals, compiled at a later date in Latin, and translated into Welsh even later, that refer to various prominent figures from the time-period you're interested in. These can be somewhat useful for knowing what names may have been in circulation, although they're not useful for the specific early forms of names or the overall name formats. There are also some non-Welsh sources (e.g., the Anglo-Saxon chronicle and similar works) that refer to prominent Welsh people of the time. Even less reliable, although still useful, are genealogies and saints' lives compiled at various later dates that include mention of people alleged to have lived at the period you're interested in. Among these sources -- with the exception of the genealogies -- the number of women named from the period you're interested in can be counted on the fingers of one hand. This doesn't give us a lot to work with (and some of what we have is of questionable accuracy), but it's more than nothing.

Have you read my article titled "The First Thousand Years of British Names"? If you haven't, I'm going to suggest that you go look it over first. It covers a fairly broad scope of time (from the Roman era up through the turn of the millennium) so not all of it will be applicable to the period you're interested in, but it will give you a better "hands on" idea of the type of evidence we have to work with. A copy of the article is included in Arval's Medieval Names Archive.

To answer your immediate specific questions: the 7th century would be the early part of the Old Welsh period, in terms of language. I haven't found any examples of what the "daughter" word would look like in Welsh that early, but there's a probably 10th century example in a genealogy in the form "merc" that is probably close to how the word would have been written in your period. The pronunciation, however, would still be closer to the later medieval "verch" -- spelling took a while to catch up with the pronunciation changes in the language. In your period, the initial sound-changes (mutations) were not normally reflected in the written language, although they were present in the pronunciation. As far as the "one name only" pattern in history books, part of that comes from a difference in attitude towards "names" versus "identifying descriptions". To some extent, yes, a person's "name" was more likely to be thought of as just their given name at that period -- but if you wanted to be more clear about which Iudgual you were talking about, you would add the sort of identifying descriptions that we're used to thinking of as bynames: patronyms, personal nicknames, occupations, etc. History books generally get away with only using a single name because, once they've established the identity of the person you're talking about (by describing their date, location, parentage, etc.) they don't have to use a longer description for clear reference. It's not so much a matter of saving space as avoiding awkward repetition and unneeded information. If you're reading a history book about the early history of the USA, you'll find a lot of references simply to "Washington" and "Jefferson", but it certainly doens't mean that that was all there was to their names! In medieval historic narratives, you'll often find the pattern where the first time an individual is mentioned, you get a full genealogy and reference to place of residence and what territories (if any) the person ruled -- but after that the person is only referred to by their given name. It's much more a matter of literary style than of naming practices. (You find similar things in later medieval legal records: the first mention of a person is fairly detailed, and subsequent mentions in the same entry are only by given name.) In general, don't rely on how people are identified in history books for information on how their names would have been understood by their own contemporaries -- writers of history books have very different concerns and priorities (and may refer to people by versions of names that were never used in that person's lifetime).

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8th Century

(No current questions)

9th Century

Question: I'm just wondering if any of you could reccomend me some information for 8-9th century Welsh history books or websites, I'm trying to develop a persona for myself.

Answer: It's a harder time-period to research than many. For the early medieval period, I tend to point people first towards Wendy Davies' "Wales in the Early Middle Ages" (Leicester University Press, 1982) which, unfortunately, seems to be out of print in the US, although it's still available in the UK. It'll give you a solid basis of history, social structure, and available sources to work from.

After that (and similar more general history books, like John Davies' A History of Wales from Penguin Books) you're going to find yourself hunting down obscure sources for snippets of information and extrapolating both backwards from later sources and sideways from non-Welsh sources. The richest source of surviving documentary evidence from that period (and it needs to be used with a fair amount of caution) are the charters compiled in the Book of Llan Dav. A good introduction to the historic and social issues around these is Wendy Davies' An Early Welsh Microcosm: Studies in the Llandaff Charters (Royal Historical Society, 1978). These charters are also our best source of information on Welsh personal names of the time.

You can get a certain amount of sideways feel for the period in Wales by looking at the earliest surviving heroic poetry: the Gododdin (although it isn't speaking of Wales, but rather of the northern Brythonic tribes in the south of Scotland), and the poetry attributed to Llywarch Hen and Taliesin. Poetry needs to be treated gingerly as historic source material, and there are questions around the date of the actual surviving texts of this material (since the form of the language in the surviving texts is much later than the alleged date of composition), but in terms of imagery and larger social issues and concerns, they can give you something of a working model.

You're going to find pretty much nothing directly available on the more perishable types of material culture (clothing, food, housing, etc.) although you may be able to turn up occasional archaeological reports including pottery, metalwork, etc. (one problem being that the scattered nature of Welsh settlement at that period means that sites are unlikely to have any significant concentrations of material). And for material culture issues, you may find yourself falling back on extrapolating from only slightly better documented Anglo-Saxon sources.

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10th Century

Question (from, "the Rialto"): I am new to the SCA and I have chosen 10th Century Welsh and am having trouble finding the clothing and food and such of the time and all for that area, can anyone help me?

Answer: Despite the aforementioned difficulties, a good place to start is Dafydd Jenkins' edition of the law tracts, The Law of Hywel Dda (Gomer Press), which is quite readable although it helps to have some more general historic context to put the information into. Also as good background for the early medieval period (although much less useful for details of material culture) is Wales in the Early Middle Ages by Wendy Davies.

Question (same questioner on Sca-Welsh): I am looking for 10th cent welsh clothing and recipes, and tent and etc, I want to do a complete thing as authenic as possible, but I'm haveing trouble finding sources.

Answer: I don't have much to add to what I said on the Rialto on the same topic. You've picked a time and a place for which there isn't a lot of direct information. A great deal of your material culture is going to be based on vague or fragmentary references combined with extrapolations from neighboring cultures and best guesses (of greater and lesser degrees of informedness).

I mentioned in my Rialto post that a certain amount of information on clothing and food can be recovered from the law tracts -- although a certain amount of care needs to be used in assigning a particular date to the references. Information on food, at least in terms of available ingredients, can be found in archaeology reports that discuss plant and animal remains, as well as from secondary sources on agriculture. (The massive An Agrarian History of England and Wales is the sort of text that no doubt has lots of basic information, but takes a bit of work to sift it out.)

The topic of tents is a good example of the problems involved in this type of research. Several years ago, after someone asked a similar question on the Rialto, I did a bit of digging on exactly what information there is available on tents in Wales before 1600. To summarize, there is a fair amount of written evidence (starting in the 13th century, when we start getting significant numbers of surviving texts) that something loosely interpretable as tents (i.e., temporary, portable shelters, most likely involving fabric supported on a framework of poles) were in use in Wales, especially in military contexts. But there is essentially no information about what shape or structure these tents took. For that, your best bet would be to extrapolate from illustrated examples in manuscript art from the continent from around this period -- with the knowledge that the Welsh may have used entirely different styles. (The entire article is much too long to include in e-mail, and I can't figure out a good way of excerpting it.)

I don't mean this to sound discouraging -- heck, one of my sub-personas is 10th century (I drift a bit in time). Just that you've got a lot more work ahead of you to do a historically plausible persona than you would if you were working in, say, 15th century France. And even at the end of all that work, you're going to have a much lower level of certainty about what you're doing than that 15th c. French persona will have. But there sure is a lot of scope for feeling like you've accomplished something when you've gotten there!

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11th Century

Question: A friend of mine is interested in having a welsh persona. He is in the 11th century. What makes him different from an English man other than the language? Are Welsh clothes the same as English or were there things that -- when he stepped over the border -- someone would know at first glance that he was a Welshman? Would he be able to read and write ? Was the food all the same as England?

Answer: It's a difficult question to answer, mostly because the available sources are so few. Written sources for the 11th century consist of a handful of poetry, some historical chronicles, and a few miscellaneous things like land charters. In addition, you have works from a later date (mostly 13th century) which almost certainly date in some form from the 11th century or previous (e.g., a small number of literary tales and the law codes) but also include later material that must be sifted out. Then you have written sources from the 12th century (such as Giraldus Cambrensis and Walter Map), whose observations about Wales can be extrapolated backward to some extent. Archaeological evidence for this period does exist, although the impression I get is that it's rather scanty -- and getting at it generally requires reading through lots of obscure journals. Pictorial sources for 11th century Wales are virtually non-existant.

Yes, there were probably differences in clothing -- but what were they? In the 12th century, both Gerald and Walter seem to consider the use of the 'brychan' (a rectangular cloak) to be both characteristically and peculiarly Welsh, but Anglo-Saxon fashions could include a rectangular cloak, so it is less certain whether this would have comprised as significant a difference in the 11th century. Native Welsh sources tend to use generic words like 'pais' (tunic) or 'gwisg' (garment) that give no clue to the precise cut or style (and, indeed, change in application over the centuries).

For food, again our nearest, most detailed information comes from Gerald (who, among other things, describes meals as being served on a thin flat bread instead of on plates), but the laws have a surprisingly large amount of information on the types of food available. As to how different the food was from English food -- again, I don't think we know enough details of either to make strong claims (although the pair of books entitled Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink by Ann Hagen give a lot of useful comparative material from the English side).

Literacy is a question that cuts across all cultural boundaries at this period. Yes, there were literate people in 11th century Wales, but like everywhere else, they were a fairly small minority, and mostly consisted of people associated with the church.

A short starting reading list for this period might be:

But to apply the information here in a practical fashion to SCA artifacts and activities, you're also going to have to do a certain amount of extrapolating from other, better-documented cultures.

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