The April 2019 rare book of the month is Cyfreithjeu Hywel Dda ac Eraill, printed in London, 1730.
The Laws of Hywel (Cyfreithjeu Hywel Dda ac Eraill) are a c. 940 codification of laws by the Welsh king Hywel Dda (Hywel the good or well). Hywel Dda was king of Deheubarth and eventually most of Wales. His codification of laws would come to represent foundational laws across Wales for six hundred years until the union with England. The surviving early versions are predominantly printed in Welsh. However, some are printed in Latin or side-by-side translation of Welsh and Latin. Of the copies still extant, their sources are presumed to be from surviving versions of the laws dated to the twelfth to thirteenth century. In the surviving versions of the Laws there is a general common organization. However, there is still much variety in the form and content between versions. The extant versions are categorised as: Cyfnerth, Iorwerth, Blegywryd, and Latin A,B,C,D and E. The chronology between and within the Latin and Welsh versions are not certain. It is believed that Latin A to E could be either precursors or descendants of the Welsh texts. While they are comprised differently, it is believed that all of them share a common tradition in their origin. Of these sections the Cyfraith y Gwragedd (Law of Women) is unique among contemporary laws of the period and throughout much of history.
The Law of Women recognised ‘the rights of women and children’ and, while not seeing women as equals, the laws gave women some protections, freedoms, and responsibilities in their own right. The Laws saw each person within society to have roles, rights and freedoms of differing degrees. Among the various laws concerning women, the mentioning of the position of the Queen is an excellent example for the laws uniqueness. Among other contemporary, and later, codes found within Germany, England, or Ireland, no mention of the position is found. The Laws of Hywel Dda and specifically The Law of Women, were influential in the earliest codification of regional Swedish law: the Law of Västergötland. Some of the most unique legal statutes concerning the position of women are found in the extensive section on repayments, rights, and payments concerning chastity, marriage, and property.
The Law of Women codified the rights of women in a variety of areas concerning marriage and in property. Under this codification, marriage was seen strictly as a secular matter, a civil contract, which was of no concern legally to ecclesiastical powers. Unlike Anglo-Saxon law, this contract could be undone by either the man or the woman. This could also be followed by transfers of money or possessions: aweddi, being a woman’s separation payment to the man unless the union had lasted less than seven years. Or the argyfrau which was a sum of money which could be returned to the woman upon separation. Separation could be done for a variety of reasons including, not providing an heir, on the third incident of a husband being unfaithful, or simply on mutual agreement. As well, if the wife was pregnant at the time of separation the husband was required to provide financial support to the upkeep of the child. This was given at two-thirds the cost up to the age of 14. Law of Women also had requirements relating to the term Diweirdeb (chastity/purity from unlawful sexual intercourse). This was a payment made by the husband to the wife for the preservation of virginity. In association with diwerideb were dilystod or dilysrwydd, which were in effect payments to the woman by the man responsible for the unlawful loss of virginity. With regards to property, women could also inherit and hold property, once they had attained majority, and could live where they chose. Stipulations did remain, as land ownership could only be by tir gwelyauc (clan or group). The Laws of Hywel Dda were extensive in laying out a legal place for women within the law which was unique in its time. The above are just samples of the laws concerning women.
The Law of Women within the Laws of Hywel Dda or Cyfraith Hywel continued to function within Wales to varying degrees for six hundred years. It was under Edward II and later Henry VII, under the Laws in Wales Acts of 1535 and 1542, that saw Wales become completely subject to English laws. However, one thousand years later ‘the Welsh Government contuine[s] to look to the laws of Hywel Dda … as they pursue recognition for the role of women.’