Early Stone Inscriptions and their Languages

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Commemorating the Dead

The stonework surviving from early medieval Wales is of particular importance owing to the near-total disappearance of more perishable materials such as wooden buildings, fabrics and manuscripts. Stonework shows us styles of decoration and calligraphy that may once have been common in many materials. Inscriptions tell us a good deal about the languages of Wales and their development in sound and spelling.

In the immediate post-Roman period, from about AD 400 to 600, the most striking monuments — shared with Ireland and the Atlantic seaboard from Brittany to Argyll — are the so-called ‘Early Christian’ inscribed stones. Only some of these are explicitly Christian, but it seems probable that most of them were erected within Christian communities. Typically they commemorate the dead, sometimes specifying the deceased’s social status, for example as bishop, priest, priest’s wife, king, ‘protector’, ‘leader’ (tovisaci), magistrate or doctor (medicus). Some, as one would expect, follow the tradition of sub-Roman Christian memorial stones: an example is the pillar now in the church at Llanerfyl, Montgomeryshire, commemorating Rustica, daughter of Paterninus, aged thirteen, in horizontally inscribed Roman capitals, and ending with the formula IN PA[CE], ‘in peace’.

A surprisingly high proportion, however, are inscribed vertically and include little more than the name of the deceased and his father. In this they resemble the contemporary Ogam stones of Ireland and it is likely that many of them were erected by Irish settlers or by native Welsh people responding to Irish practices. This explains both their concentration in the areas most open to Irish influence (for example, there are thirty-six in Pembrokeshire but none in Monmouthshire) and the predominance of Irish personal names on them. In Pembrokeshire twenty-five early inscriptions use Ogam script and/or Irish names as opposed to a single inscription with only Welsh names (plus a number with only Latin names, which could have been used by both communities).

Some inscriptions use both Roman and Ogam letters, as if to assert the equal status of the two scripts and the communities who used them. An example is the Crickhowell stone, now in Brecknock Museum, Brecon. The Roman letters commemorate Turpillus, ‘boy’ of Trilunus Dunocatus (an early form of the Irish name Dúnchad). The Roman name Turpillus created a problem, as the Ogam alphabet originally lacked a symbol for P, a sound absent from early Irish. Hence an X-shaped ogam symbol is used instead, as also on the dual script Pumpeius Carantorius stone in Margam Stones Museum. An impressive example of an inscription solely in Roman letters but with an Irish name, Corbalengas, is the pillar stone from Penbryn, Dyffryn Bern, Cardiganshire, as photographed in raking light by the Royal Commission. Originally the stone stood on a cairn covering an earlier Roman cremation burial overlooking the sea. Corbalengas is styled Ordous, a spelling of Ordovix, suggesting that his family had been established in Wales long enough to identify itself with the native tribe of Ordovices.

Later inscriptions

By the early ninth century Irish names recorded in inscriptions had disappeared, since the settlers had adopted Welsh names and merged with the local population. A cross-carved stone in the church of Llanwnnws, Cardiganshire, bears a Latin inscription, lettered in a form of manuscript-influenced ‘minuscule’ (small cursive script): it asks ‘Whoever reads this, may he give a blessing on the soul of Hiroidil son of Carotinn’. The father’s name seems to be Irish but he has given his son a definitely Welsh name: Hirhoeddl, ‘he of long life’.

Inscriptions like this show that the carvers of Welsh inscriptions and their patrons were familiar with manuscripts. Unfortunately, nearly all contemporary Welsh manuscripts have perished — the few exceptions, including the Lichfield Gospels, left Wales at an early date and were preserved in Anglo-Saxon England, being valued there for their Latin contents rather than for the incidental marginalia in Old Welsh considered so important by modern linguists. Any manuscripts written mainly in Welsh would be unlikely to be preserved abroad. It might be hoped, therefore, that Wales’s stone inscriptions would make up the deficiency. Unfortunately, the grip of the Roman and Christian epigraphical tradition was so strong that stone memorials used the Latin language exclusively for many centuries. The one remarkable exception is the inscription in Tywyn church, Merioneth, possibly dating from the early ninth century, commemorating Tengrumui, wife of Adgan, and Cun, wife of Celen, with a poetic phrase in Old Welsh: tricet nitanam, ‘the grief-loss remains’. Was the mother-tongue used because the deceased were female?

In the later inscriptions Roman names die out (apart from those that had become wholly naturalized in Wales) and native Welsh names predominate, with the occasional English name and possibly even a Norse name in runes, as on the cross at Corwen in Merioneth. Sometimes the names can be identified with historical figures. Thus, a cross in the church at Llantwit Major, Glamorgan, records that ‘Houelt prepared this cross for the soul of his father Res’. This must be Hywel ap Rhys, king of Glywysing, who allied himself with Alfred, king of Wessex, in the 880s. The imposing cross is typical of this later period, when major sculpture is concentrated in the prosperous south-east. A later and debased example, in the church at Llanarthne, Carmarthenshire, reveals further socio-linguistic changes in Wales round about 1100. The inscription is damaged (in 1833 the cross was used as a stile), but on the mid-left the English name of the sculptor, Elmon, can be read and at the right there is a French formula, merci et g[ra]ce.

Story contributed by: RCAHMW