The Celtic Literature Collective

Harlian 3859:
The Early History of Britain

Manuscript 3859 of the Harly collection--otherwise known as Harlian 3859--is an important document, containing the version of Nennius' Historia Brittonum which identifies the author as Nennius. It also contains the Annales Cambriae (i.e. "The Welsh Annals"), as well as a large collection of genealogies, stretching from Adam to Owain ap Hywel Dda.

The version of HB in this manuscript is the only complete form, but misses the prologue; it is one of only two versions which contains sections 57 through 66, containing the "Wonders of Britain" section, wherein we find an early version of "Culhwch and Olwen", namely the hunt for Twrch Trwynt. This manuscript is usually dated to the 11th century1, which is prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia in the 12th. The importance of this--and the fact that the earliest version of the HB can be dated to around 9002--shows that Geoffrey was not purely inventing much of his history: Brutus is here, as is Vortigern and the story of Merlin and the dragons (though here "Merlin" is Ambrosius; see 41).

The contents of Harlian 3859 consist of what might be thought of as two books in one volume: the first is mainly religious texts, some Latin, etc; and the second contains the historical texts:

1. Some date the Harlian MS. to 954, believing that it was drawn up for the house of Hywel Dda; this would make sense, as the genealogies end with Hywel. However, certain elements, such as the Historia, are thought to date back to 796.

2. The earliest version of Historia Brittonum is the Chartres 98, believed to have been written for Merfyn Frych of Manaw (Man) around the year 900, when Maelgwn Gwynedd's line died out. (Another of Maelgwn's line survived in the Pictish monarchy; this is another story, however.)

The most important surviving copies of the HB are as follows:

  • Chartres 98: "900"
  • Harlian 3859: either 954 or a century later.
  • VR 1964 (The Vatican version): 11th or 12th century (This is the version that Giles uses to contrast with Harlian 3859)
  • Lebor na hUidre: 1100 (This is the "Irish Nennius," called in the manuscript "Lebor Bretnach" (the Book of the Britons) found in The Book of the Dun Cow. It is one of the two version which contains the introduction of 1. A digital version of the ms. can be found at Lebor na hUidre at CELT.)
  • MS CCCC 139 (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge): September 1164 (also contains the introduction)
  • MS B 2.35 at the Durham Cathedral Library: 1166.

For a lot more on the dating and authorship of HB, see Vortigern Studies, a wonderfully elaborate study of the history of "Dark Ages" Britain and its texts.

For the standard Latin edition of HB, see: Historia Brittonum

3. This is also found at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, one of the best sites for medieval studies, and a treasure-trove of texts, ranging from Iceland to the Middle East and Byzantium.

Six Old English Chronicles ed. and trans. J.A. Giles. London: H. G. Bohn, 1848.

Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts. ed. by P.C. Bartrum. University of Wales Press, 1966.

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