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Period Welsh Models for SCA Households and the Nomenclature Thereof

copyright © 1994 Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved

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Family Relations

Given the Welsh fondness for the subject of ancestry, a natural place to begin is social groupings based on blood relationship.
If you study the medieval Welsh law codes, you find copious remnants of the original clan-based structure of Welsh society. The inheritance of land, the obligations for blood-debt and many other areas trace the lines of a system already fading at the time of the Edwardian Conquest at the end of the 13th century. It is hard to tell from the remains exactly how these clans functioned and how they were viewed by the people of the time. Although several terms may be found that describe subsets of this clan structure, there is only a little evidence for the nomenclature of specific groups.

P.C. Bartrum's Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts is a good source for terms referring simply to ancestry - without the complicating factors of legally significant subgroupings. Some words appear referring to an individual's ancestry and so aren't of interest here, and some seemingly can mean either a person's ancestors or their descendents. It is terms referring to a group of descendents we want to consider here.

A group of siblings can be referred to as meibion X (X's sons) or merched X (X's daughters) or more generally as plant X (X's children). In each case, "X" most often appears as the father's full name, but occasionally simply as the given name. Meibion, though it literally means "sons", in one case includes a daughter in the listing.

Plant (children) also shows up referring to more distant descendents. This shouldn't be too surprising when you consider that it is cognate with the Gaelic word clann. A similar pattern of usage shows up with the word llwyth (tribe), appearing as llwyth X where X is most often just the given name of the common ancestor, but sometimes the full name. Llwyth can also appear followed by a place name, where the place is apparently the land traditionally held by the family in question. Place names can also follow the terms gweheliaeth (descendents), gwyr (men), or the combination gwehelyth gwyr X (the lineage of the men of such-and-such a place). This last is also found followed by a given name.

Although it isn't found in Bartrum, a similar type of term is wyrion (grandchildren). We find it used more generally for "descendents" (similarly to the Gaelic ua). There are 14th century references to Wyrion Eden', "the descendents of Ednyfed" (Ednyfed Fychan, seneschal to Llywelyn ap Iorwerth in the early 13th century) who were identifiable as a class because they had inherited a special form of land tenure. [Roberts 1969 p.182] Wyrion appears in some place names of the form Gwestfa Wyrion X (the gwestfa being a type of rent, this may mean something like "the land held by X's descendents in return for a gwestfa").

A different sort of construction is found in the example of Glastyniaid, which may refer either to the people associated with the place called Glastyn or to the eponymous founder of those lands: Glas or Glast. The same suffix appears in constructions such as Britaniaid (Britons) and Cesariaid (Caesar's men) [Bromwich 1978 p.86], showing some of the range of roots to which it may attach.

In one case in Bartrum, we also find Gwyr X (X's men) being used for the unrelated followers of an individual.

But unlike the Scottish clans, Welsh clans did not simply accumulate with the generations. Legal relations and obligations depended on relationship within a specified number of generations: seven for obligations relating to murder and blood feud [Jenkins 1986 p.149], and four for most everyday matters such as land tenure. [Jenkins 1986 p.99] This meant that the Welsh clan was reanalyzed with every generation.

The term corresponding to the seven-generation group seems to be cenedl [Jenkins 1986 p.325] (used in modern times to mean "nation" in the political sense) and the laws refer to the pencenedl (head of the kindred) who acted as a spokesman or leader of the group. I have found no examples of how cenedl might be used in the context of a proper name for a clan, but it seems likely that it would follow the previous examples: cenedl X, where "X" is the name of the common ancestor.

When discussing clans and kindreds it would be a natural step to consider tribal names, but for practical reasons these fit better in the section on place names.

The gwely (literally "bed") or gwelygordd ("gwely" family) was the set of descendents of a common great-grandfather, the four-generation group. Gwely is also used to refer to the lands in which this group of people had a common interest. [Jenkins 1986 p.277] Alternately, some authors use it to refer to the principal habitation of a family, the place occupied by the oldest surviving member of a particular lineage. [Owen 1989 p.64]

Gwely shows up in a reference in Bartrum to Pedwar Gwely Llwyth Edryt (four "gwely"s of the lineage of Edryd) [Bartrum 1966 p.116] where each "gwely" is the set of descendents (of three to five generations) of one of Edryd's sons (or in one case, of his brother).

Gwelygordd also shows up in this source in the example of tair gwelygordd saint "three saints' families", where each of the three is referred to as plant <full name of ancestor>. [Bartrum 1966 p.83] A 12th century poem mentions the clans (gwelygorddau) of Powys and in this context mentions names such as Yorueirthyawn (modern Iorwerthion), Madogyon, Gwyr Weirnyawn (the men of Gwernion), and Tyngyrion. These fall into the general category of eponyms which is discussed in greater detail below, but they provide rare concrete examples of how Welsh clans were referred to. [Richards 1965 p.206]

Within the gwely, a particular family would have its tyddyn or homestead (with buildings and enclosed fields) [Jenkins 1986 p.99] and the use of a share of the rhandir ("share land"), which was the collection of lands in which a kin group had an interest. [Owen 1989 p.64] The theory was that when the oldest generation died off, the descendents could agree to redistribute the land evenly within the next generation. After four generations, this right to redistribution disappeared. (But presumably at each generation a new gwely could also be defined.) Thus, after a number of generations the lands of different gwelys could be well-intermingled. [Owen 1989 p.203] The gwely was named after the common ancestor of those who held it. [Dodd 1972 p.25] There is some evidence that as early as the 12th century this complicated system of sharing had been simplified to an equal inheritance between brothers only. [Owen 1989 p.178] In some cases, the term gafael was used to refer to the product of partitioning an older gwely [Owen 1989 p.204] but in other cases it seems to refer to grazing land as opposed to the cultivated rhandir. [Owen 1989 p.64] In the examples I have found, names using gafael are of the form gafael <personal name>. In some cases, the name can be shown to be that of the first holder at partitioning (as in Gafael Gron' ap Eden' in Caernarvonshire which was granted in the 13th century to Goronwy ap Ednyfed). [Roberts 1969 p.183]

Many place names show traces of this kinship system. Names using hendref "old town" refer to the cluster of buildings originally forming the nucleus of a kin-group's settlement. [Owen 1989 p.64] It often referred to the main, winter dwelling as opposed to the summer home or hafod in the higher pastures. Hafod, hafoty, lluest and llety all refer to summer dwellings and would not be referring to permanent residences until later in period than those with elements indicating a main, winter residence. [Owen1989 p.238]

Under the old system of land tenure, there was no concept of the individual ownership of land (with the possible exception of a king or prince "owning" the land that he then distributed to his followers and their descendents). The land belonged not to the individual but to the kindred as a whole, for they could have rights to a share of it in the next generation. Thus the selling of land was extremely rare, and the only practical way to acquire more land was to clear and cultivate previously wild areas. With the gradual takeover of English forms of land tenure after the Edwardian conquest of 1284, the institutions of communal ownership of gwely and gafael faded. Previously scattered family holdings tended to be consolidated, often by sale and purchase, and individual separate farmsteads became the rule rather than the hendref or clustered village at the center of the communal lands. With the Acts of Union in the 16th century, primogeniture became the law and the last remnants of the Welsh system of equal inheritance disappeared. [Owen 1989 p.64] But there is evidence that the gwely system continued in some areas as a viable institution right up until that point. [Owen 1989 p.233]

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