Chaucer ‘to Walys fledde’

It is difficult to describe our excitement when we learned about the anonymous Welsh play based on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as well as Henryson’s  Testament of Cresseid.  And we were practically beside ourselves when Sue Niebrzydowski, senior lecturer at Bangor University, agreed to write a short series of posts for Global Chaucers.  To top things off, she also laid the groundwork for us to use 6 gorgeous images from Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales’ Peniarth MS 106.  From NLW, we owe our gratitude to Iwan ap Dafydd and Maredudd ap Huw for their gracious and generous help. And a special thanks to Jacqueline Burek for making us aware of this understudied appropriation of Troilus and Criseyde. By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol
Cymru / National Library of Wales.

The following is Part 1 of Sue’s two-part posting.  Stay tuned for the second part, in the queue for the end of November.

Chaucer’s poetry has a long association with Wales. In ‘The Man of Law’s Tale’ Chaucer recounts how, in the face of the pagan conquest of Northumberland, the Christian community had ‘to Walys fledde’ (The Canterbury Tales, II (B1) 544). During the early modern period Chaucerian manuscripts found a haven in Wales, entering the country via gentry families on the Chester/Denbighshire border. Among these was the earliest copy of The Canterbury Tales, now Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales MS Peniarth 392 D (c. 1399) that by the 1570s was associated with the Banestar or Bannester family, who had Chester connections but whose three youngest children were born at Llanfair-is-gaer, near Caernarfon.

Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde was translated into Welsh, and from poetry into drama, not long after the Hengwrt copy of The Canterbury Tales came into the Banestar’s keeping. The National Library of Wales holds the unique copy of a late sixteenth-century, Welsh-language play, Troelus a Chresyd.[1] Troelus a Chresyd is preserved in MS Peniarth 106 (formerly Hengwrt 338), the only text contained within a modestly sized, manuscript book. Troelus a Chresyd was one of many works copied by John Jones (b. before 1585–1658) of Gellilyvdy in Flintshire.[2]

Picture 127
By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales. NLW Peniarth MS 106: p. 30, Full page image showing speakers’ names in red.

In Jones’ manuscript speakers’ names, written in red, appear generally in the margin against their speeches. In the latter part of the codex space has been left for the rubricated names but Jones never went back to fill them in. Embellished initials suggest that Jones was aiming at an artistic product but, unfortunately, the quality of his ink was, on occasion, too acidic. This has led to blotches and the paper being burned through in places.

Who wrote Troelus a Chresyd and when remains a matter for debate. As he records in the manuscript, Jones copied the play in three sections, comprising two phases: section one complete by 14 February 1613, section two by 11 September 1622, and section three by 25 October 1622. Jones was the scribe but not author who remains unidentified but whose dialect suggests that he may have come from North Wales, probably Denbighshire or Flintshire. Although copied in the seventeenth century, Troelus a Chresyd may have been composed at any point from the 1570s onwards.

Troelus a Chresyd makes available in Welsh a synthesis of Books 1–4 of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and the conclusion of The Testament of Cresseid by Robert Henryson (c. 1475). The conclusion of Book 2 and the beginning of Book 3 are missing, suggesting that Jones’ exemplar was itself incomplete. The play’s fusion of Chaucer and Henryson can be explained by the edition of Chaucer’s romance to which our playwright turned. Since William Thynne’s 1532 edition of The works of Geffray Chaucer newly printed, with dyuers works whiche were never in print before, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde had been followed by the unattributed Testament of Cresseid, leading early modern readers to believe that Chaucer was the author of both. Our playwright most probably used an edition of Chaucer’s work by Thomas Speght (1598, 1602) that reiterates Thynne’s identification of The Testament of Cresseid as Chaucer’s. The language of Speght’s edition was neither Chaucer’s Middle English nor Henryson’s Middle Scots but an ‘early modernised’ version of both. It is this that the playwright translates into his native Welsh, as can be seen in the translation of the Canticus Troili:

Picture 129
By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales. NLW Peniarth MS 106: p. 39, Full page image showing stanza 39, ‘Onid oes gariad’ (If no love is).

If no love is, O God, what fele I so?
And if love is, what thing and which is he?
If love be good, from whennes cometh my woo?

Speght, 1598, fol.153v

that the playwright renders as:

Onid oes gariad, O Dduw, pa beth sy’m trwblio?
Od oes gariad pa vodd pa sut sydd arno?
Os da kariad, of ble mae’n dyfod i’m blino?

Troelus a Chresyd, stanza 39, 1–4

Following Chaucer’s narrative structure, Troelus a Chresyd is divided into five books (the Welsh used is llyfrau (‘books’) not actiau (‘acts’)) and is written in a variety of stanzas, including rime–royal (for the Chaucerian sections), in places the bob and wheel familiar from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the nine-line stanzas of Henryson’s verse form. The action is commented upon by a Chorus. The play includes the Canticus Troili, and the aubade spoken after the lovers have spent the night together. Their encounter at Pandarus’ house occurs ‘offstage’, and lacks Chaucer’s deft comic handling of the episode. Events follow Chaucer’s poem until Diomedes discards Chresyd. At this point, the Chorus summarises Chresyd’s demise as found in Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid. Having been called a whore by Diomedes, Chresyd berates the Gods for which she is punished with leprosy. The play concludes with Chresyd’s death, and Troelus’ building her a tomb.

The playwright tells his audience that, ‘A mine, er mwyn yr wyllys da ytt a ddygais a’i trois i’th iaith Gymraeg yn ore ac i medrais’ [And I, for the good will which I bear you, translated it into your Welsh tongue as best I could] (Troelus a Chresyd, 62). Knowing Chaucer’s own commitment to translation, we can be confident that the London-based poet would have been delighted that his ‘litel bok’ had travelled so far through space and time.

Picture 130
By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales. NLW Peniarth MS 106: p. 160, detail of colophon.

[1] The entire Welsh text is available online at <http://people.ds.cam.ac.uk/dwew2/hcwl/tch/TCh_dipl.htm> [accessed 10 October 2016] as part of the Cambridge University Corpws hanesyddol yr iaith Gymraeg [Corpus of historical Welsh Language works] 1500-1850. See also Troelus A Chresyd (O lawysgrif Peniarth 106) edited W. Beynon Davies (Caerdydd: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1976) and for an English translation see Hadley Phillip Tremaine, The Welsh Troelus a Chresyd, University of Michigan PhD thesis, 1965.

[2] See Nesta Lloyd, ‘Jones, John (b. before 1585, d. in or before 1658)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 <http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.unicat.bangor.ac.uk/view/article/68197> [accessed 11 October 2016].

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