Women, Linen and Gender in the Cyfraith Hywel Dda

Wednesday 26 June 2019

Mediaeval women’s and gender history always present some particular challenges arising from the sources. Women are rarely mentioned, either as individuals or as a class in mediaeval texts; Women almost always had no part in writing the documents from which modern historians must write their history; and when Women are mentioned, it is only briefly. This problem is particularly acute in  regions and periods which have relatively low documentary survival, such as Wales prior to the English conquest in the 1270s-80s. One of the most interesting sources for discussing native Welsh society in this period are the Cyfraith Hywel Dda – the Laws of Hywel the Good. All the extant versions of the law text, both in Latin and Welsh, date from between the Twelfth century and the Sixteenth Centuries, but all claim to represent a legal tradition which reaches back to the tenth century Welsh king Hywel Dda.[1] Generally, it is accepted that even the earliest extant manuscripts, whilst baring a significant imprint of the time of their composition, contain significant archaic elements. Hence, whilst the Cyfraith provides a valuable resource for looking at mediaeval native Welsh society and culture, a balance needs to be struck between looking at the specific context of each redaction and wider, slowly evolving, cultural understandings and norms.

Studies of women and gender the Cyfraith Hywel Dda, have generally focused on two main areas: the tractate (section) on ‘The Laws of Women’ and the ‘Laws of the Court’. Whilst not seeking to ignore the potential that the Cyfraith Hywel Dda functioned as a ‘working’ document,[2] how the laws themselves are gendered both produced and reflected the gendered attitudes of their context. Therefore, even though women may not have sworn accusations of rape with ‘the man’s penis in her left hand, …  [and with] … her right hand on the relic’,[3] that this was included in redactions of the text certainly reflects on societal attitudes and understandings (at least among the redactors/editors).

One tractate which has attracted particular attention for the construction of women’s history of Mediaeval Wales are ‘The Laws of Women’. These mostly discuss marriage, divorce (an oddity of Welsh law compared to continental norms during this period), the regulation of sexual activity, and child maintenance. To the first glace of modern eyes, the ‘Laws of Women’ hardly match our expectations of the Middle Ages. Firstly, separation/divorce is presented as an extant institution, with separations after the seventh year resulting in a division ‘into two halves everything which is theirs which is in their possession’.[4] However, this division only includes movables, so the divorced wife had to ‘go with what is hers from the house at the end of the ninth day, the goods in front’ without anywhere to go to apart from in disgrace to her kin, and potentially with a substantial caravan to watch over. The goods which each party were allotted make little sense on the surface: the quern stones and bed linen are separated and one cat has to do the job of many.[5] This separation of the inseparable might be a poetic expression of the futility of divorce,[6] or it might well have been intended to be used with the tractate on the ‘Value of Wild and Tame’ to divide property of roughly equal value to the division in the law text between the partners.[7] However, the lack of case law from Wales during this period prevents us viewing the ‘reality’ of how the law has been applied. The use of narrative sources, ranging from chronicles to literature such as the Mabinogion, which I will be using in the second part of this summer’s research, can provide some insight.[8] Secondly, the near complete absence of the church from the regulation of sexuality in the Cyfraith is also surprising to the modern reader. Whilst this may represent the Gwynedd (the Welsh principality where most of the redactions of the Cyfraith originate) polity attempting defend their jurisdiction,[9] Welsh marriage practices were subject to stern comment by contemporary churchmen such as Archbishop Peecham, and were generally non-Canonical compared to the rest of Europe.[10] The Laws of Women hence present an interesting view of women in Mediaeval Welsh Society, even if the degree to which this represents reality is difficult to determine.

MS Peniarth 28, a copy of ‘Latin Redaction A’, f. 5r, showing the pencynydd (chief huntsman) and a kissing couple. Image Public Domain, accessed from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Laws_of_Hywel_Dda_(f.5.r)_Kissing_couple.jpg

Additionally, the ‘Laws of the Court’ also provide a useful viewpoint for how mediaeval Welsh society was gendered. Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of these are the gifting of different materials between different court officials, including the queen. This inclusion of the queen in this network of exchange allows for the application of the ‘Scottian’ approach to the gendering of power relations within the court.[11] The first payment to be outlined is the thrice annual payment of clothes to the twenty-four principle officers of the court at Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. The king gives them their ‘woollen clothing’, i.e. their outer garments, and the queen their ‘linen clothing’, i.e. their undergarments.[12] The queen’s role as patron can be viewed with several symbolic meanings. As Stacey has highlighted, linen is reflective of the queen’s role – acting behind the king in a more private sphere of court life removed from public view.[13] This internal/external divide can also arguably be considered in the materials being gifted. As the product of pastoralism, wool could have an association with uncultivated land, external to settled life, whilst linen could be associated with settled agricultural production. This gendering of the external as masculine and the internal as feminine is also seen in relation to the captain of the household sharing booty from raids: according to the Llyfr y Damweiniau ( a supplementary book of laws to the Cyfraith) the king gave a third of raided material to the queen from within Wales, whilst the queen is not entitled to her share if it comes from a ‘strange country’.[14] Another potential gendering present in the division in clothing distribution is of comfort as feminine. This is perhaps clearest with reference to the goods which the Court Justice is entitled to. The Iorwerth redaction states that ‘His lodging is the king’s chamber, that in which he sleeps, with a pillow from the queen, and a sheet; and with the cushion on which the king sits by day under his head at night’.[15] Whilst this reference does not appear in other redactions, that the queen is presented as providing a pillow, and hence comfort, for the Court Justice adds an additional angle to the other references to the queen’s linen. We can potentially view the queen, embodied as linen, sitting between the king and his subjects, making the warm but itchy woollen outerwear more comfortable. That the queen’s role seems particularly concerned with the comfort of the Court Justice is also significant. Mediaeval queens regularly acted as intercessors, and advocates of mercy, and hence deeply connected with the exercise of Royal Justice.[16] Hence we can potentially consider the queen’s gendered role as intercessor in a way reflected in her linen protecting the king’s officers from uncomfortable woollens.

I’m now moving onto the next section of my research, looking at how narrative sources from pre-conquest mediaeval Wales present issues of women and gender. Having the opportunity provided by the Laidlaw Scholarship to be able to read widely and deeply into a topic without needing to produce assessed work as an output has been both liberating and rewarding. Whilst it has made the decision of ‘what to read next’ in some ways more challenging, it has allowed me to follow rabbit holes (for example Linen production,  and the legal history of the Cyfraith Hywel Dda) that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to explore.


I would like to thank Lord Laidlaw, and all those involved in the running of the program at St Andrews, for making this opportunity available. A particular ‘diolch yn fawr iawn’ goes to Dr Alex Woolf, my supervisor, whose advice and assistance has been invaluable in my Laidlaw work. I also would like to thank the rest of the Laidlaw scholars, who have provided a stimulating and cogent network of discussion.


[1] Robin C. Stacey, ‘Hywel in the World’, Haskins Society Journal, Vol. 20 (2008), p.175.

[2] Though this is not uncontroverted – Ibid. pp.175-203.

[3] Morfydd E. Owen, and Dafydd Jenkins (eds.), The Welsh Law of Women [WLW], (2nd edn. Cardiff, 2017) p.193.

[4] WLW, p.185.

[5] WLW, p.183-5; See also Robin C. Stacey, Law and Imagination in Mediaeval Wales, (Philadelphia, 2018), pp. 155-6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Dafydd Jenkins (ed. and trans.), The Law of Hywel Dda, (Llandysul, Ceredigion, 1986) pp.171-196.

[8] E.g. Joan M. Gallagher, ‘Grounds for Divorce? Applying Nau Kynwedi Teithiauc to Math uab Mathonwy’, Peritia, Vol. 28, (2017) pp. 77-90.

[9] Stacey, Law and Imagination, p.165.

[10] Huw Price, Native Law and the Church in Medieval Wales, (Oxford 1993), pp.71-81.

[11] Joan Scott, ‘Gender: A useful category of Analysis’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 91, No.5, (1986) pp.1053-1075.

[12] Jenkins, The Law of Hywel Dda, p. 5.

[13] Robin C. Stacey, ‘Clothes Talk from Mediaeval Wales’, in TM Charles-Edwards, Morfydd E. Owen, and Paul Russel (eds.), The Welsh King and His Court¸(Cardiff, 2000) p.346.

[14] Jenkins, The Law of Hywel Dda, p.10.

[15] Jenkins, The Law of Hywel Dda, p.16.

[16] Theresa Earenfight, Queenship in Medieval Europe, (Basignstoke, 2013), pp. 11-12.  e.g.  Lois L. Huneycutt, Matilda of Scotland: A Study in Medieval Queenship, (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2003), p.82; Eleanor, Princess of Wales, Letters to Edward I, Documents  433, 435, and 436 in Huw Price with Chharles Insley (eds.), The Acts of Welsh Rulers 1120-1283, (Cardiff, 2005), pp.629-633.

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