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21.10.32 Sims-Williams, The Book of Llandaf as a Historical Source

21.10.32 Sims-Williams, The Book of Llandaf as a Historical Source

The Liber Landavensis, or Book of Llandaf (Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales MS 17110E) is a compilation of gospels, saints’ lives, and charters and papal documents dating to the twelfth century and associated with the Llandaff diocese in Glamorgan, Wales. Among the oldest surviving medieval Welsh manuscripts, it is also among the most notorious regarding the historical authenticity of its contents, in particular of the 159 charters gathered within its covers and ostensibly dating between the 5th and 11th centuries. The book’s purpose was to serve as evidence for Bishop Urban’s (1076-1134) petition to Rome and Canterbury to strengthen the boundaries of the Llandaff diocese against the neighboring bishoprics of St. David’s and Hereford. Its contents sought to establish Llandaff as an ancient episcopal see that had lost much of its lands and tithes to despoilation following the Norman Invasion. Because of the difficulty in authenticating them, the charters included as evidence of this claim have proved contentious as historical sources. In a series of investigations culminating in a brace of monographs, the 1978 An Early Welsh Microcosm: Studies in the Llandaff Charters and 1979 The Llandaff Charters, Wendy Davies laid out evidence for understanding the charters as documents that had been subject to editing and established foundations for their historical study given their limitations as primary sources. The Book of Llandaf as a Historical Source developed from Sims-Williams’s initial review of Davies books, published inJournal of English History in 1982, and his ongoing preoccupation with the critical conversation they generated, and is therefore the product of nearly forty years of inquiry and investigation. Familiarity with Wendy Davies’s work, and with John Reuben Davies’s 2003 monograph The Book of Llandaf and the Norman Church in Wales, are essentially prerequisites for readers who wish to obtain the maximum benefit of reading this book.

Following an introduction that establishes the position of this study within the larger framework of investigations on the Book of Llandaf, with particular attention to the book’s critical reception, lack of an accurate English translation, and various controversies, fourteen chapters provide a highly technical and largely revisionist discussion of the history of the charters and their significance as historical sources. In the first nine chapters, each sets forth a particular concern or subject--the types and transmission of Welsh charters, the origins of Llandaff’s claims, the authenticity of the witness lists, the integrity, chronology, donors, and recipients of the charters, the fake diplomatic and revision of the Book of Llandaf--then provides evidence and summary conclusions about the chapter subject based on that evidence. Among the findings presented here are the possibility that the charters in this book could be based on earlier Welsh charters either located in the margins of Gospel books or on single-sheets (16); that the Book of Llandaf “resembles a genuine archive that has suffered the arbitrary ravages of time rather than the product of a forger with genealogies at his side” (31); that comparison of the Llandaf charters with their Llancarfan counterparts--the latter most often used to question the veracity of the former--regarding evidence such as the geneaologies and witness lists in these charters suggests they derive from earlier, and in at least one case, the same, sources rather than being forgeries (41); that the Book of Llandaf is “a basically credible collection of grants of named estates by named donors to named recipients...even contains some distortions...and some crude forgeries that can be easily detected--as well, possibly, as some very ingenious forgeries that never will be found out” (49); and that, contrary to Wendy Davies’s work dating the charters, their absolute chronology cannot be determined (58).

From these initial investigations, chapter ten, “A new approach to the compilation of the Book of Llandaf,” begins a turn to an assessment of how, given the limitations imposed upon the book’s reception as a repository of authentic original historical documents, historians might approach the book for the information it could provide regarding early medieval southeast Welsh history and culture. Sims-Williams argues that rather than judging the reliability of the book’s charters based on hypothetical earlier compilations, close examination of the Book of Llandaf’s contents on their own recognizance as a collection, focusing on the work of the book’s compilers and comparison of the book’s charters with the doublets, is warranted. Chapter eleven presents an examination of those doublets, finding that in general they agree on the details of the charters and the names of the witnesses, although their originality is limited. Sims-Williams then moves in chapter twelve to examine whether and what of social and economic change the book could reveal, following this examination with discussion of the royal genealogical and episcopal frameworks in chapters thirteen and fourteen, these final three chapters concluding that the book emphasizes ecclesiastical rather than royal powers and therefore is limited in its presentation of historically useful data concerning actual power structures. The idea developed through chapters ten through fourteen is that by approaching the book for what it is, rather than what it has been judged as being or what it might be, scholars can potentially identify and set aside some of the unreliable findings that have contributed to the book’s reception. However, Sims-Williams also demonstrates through his own foray here that this approach may or may not actually be tenable, concluding that “the compilers ofLL may well have been in a similar position to ourselves: struggling to make historical sense of a disparate and disordered collection of ancient charters” (178).

The concern displayed throughout to tease out the differences between notions of what is genuine, authentic, and/or original in the Book of Llandaf’s charters is admirable and nicely showcases the reassessment program Sims-Williams has undertaken in this book. A formal conclusion pulling together the individual chapter findings and detailing their implications, particularly in a book as dense and technical as this one, would be welcome; as it stands, readers need to have a relatively expert understanding of the Book of Llandaf and its historical contexts to be able to draw those conclusions for themselves. This book is not suitable for general interest readership, but will be important for anyone working specifically with the Book of Llandaf. Rather than seeking to have the last word on this subject, Sims-Williams has provided a generous and learned, if ultimately relatively ambivalent, contribution to the ongoing debate concerning the usefulness of the book’s charters as historical sources.