I imagine many of you have heard of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, the glories of medieval Welsh prose; they’ve been famous in English since Lady Charlotte Guest‘s translation (1838-1849). I read the first branch, Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet (‘Pwyll Prince of Dyfed’), in my Middle Welsh class in grad school, and the first line (“Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet a oed yn arglwyd ar seith cantref Dyuet” [PPD was the lord of the seven cantrefs of Dyfed]) is embedded almost as deep in my brain as “asid raja Nalo nama” (‘there was a king named Nala,’ the opening of the Nala and Damayanti story from the Mahabharata, the first thing Sanskrit students read in my day).
Well, it turns out there’s a fifth branch! The discovery of a medieval Welsh manuscript might not mean much to the man on the Clapham omnibus, but it’s pretty damned surprising to me, and in this wonderful era of the internet it’s online. I quote from its editor, Mark Williams:
The Four Branches of the Mabinogi – Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan and Math – are the greatest works of medieval Welsh prose. They are based on a rich vein of orally-transmitted folklore and mythological material, but were synthesised in the early 12th century by a redactor of genius. They take the form of four roughly chronological and interlinked short-stories, termed ‘branches’, which are set in a pre-Christian, pre-Roman Britain which resembles an idealised version of the redactor’s own high medieval era. His humane, sober style contrasts fascinatingly with the violence and shape-shifting which loom so large in the four tales…
But the existence of the ‘fifth branch of the Mabinogi’, Amaethon uab Don, was unsuspected until very recently, when a hitherto-unknown medieval Welsh manuscript was discovered in the library of Judas College, Oxford… It seems very likely that the tale is the work of the same redactor or author who penned the familiar Four Branches of the Mabinogi, or at least of a close associate. The language does not seem to be any earlier or later than the PKM, and the existence of numerous verbal echoes and parallels of incident suggests that Amaethon uab Don is the final part of the Mabinogi as a consciously-composed and unitary work dating to the end of the 11th or early 12th century…
As with the other branches, fragments of lore and onomastic tales are woven into the texture of the narrative. Indeed Amaethon furnishes us with two hitherto-unknown triads – the ‘Three Unfrequented Graves’ and the ‘Three Chief Warrior-Women of the Island of Britain’. The last of these is a remarkable piece of evidence that Buddug/Byddug (Boudica) was the subject of a body of Welsh narrative tradition, in which she sacked Rome (!) in revenge for Julius Caesar’s abduction of Fflur from Caswallawn fab Beli. Similarly unexpected is the occurrence of a teichoscopia, a topos of heroic narratives throughout the Indo-European world, in which the heroes of an opposing army are pointed out one by one from the walls or ramparts of a besieged city. Examples occur in the Irish Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Iliad, and the Ramayana, and with our text a further Celtic instance of the topos can be added to this distinguished list of epic comparanda.
I can’t tell you how much I’d love to read a Welsh account of Boudica’s sack of Rome; in its absence, this will do nicely, and the first line of the text gave me a thrill of recognition: “Amathaon uab Don a oed arglwyd ar y seith cantref Dyuet…” Thanks for the link, Trevor!
Addendum. As Daniel Nolan says in the comments:
“Judas College” is a famous, but entirely fictional, Oxford college – made famous by Beerbohm’s comic masterpiece Zuleika Dobson. This “fifth branch” is presumably then not a medieval survival – it’s an apparently very entertaining piece written in the style of the Mabinogi, probably by its “editor” Mark Williams. So lots of kudos to Williams for a fun document, but let’s not rewrite our understanding of medieval Welsh prose just yet.