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Welsh History Review


The Welsh Laws 1963

Legal and comparative aspects of the Welsh laws

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to be most valuable to us. Of course, any system of law may contri-
bute something to our understanding of Welsh law, just because it is
law and governs human relations: so Maine and T. P. Ellis made use
of what they had learnt in India; but when we have to pick and choose
our starting-point, we should be well advised to start nearer home.
The law of the Punjab is not a good starting-point because it is too
remote; nor is Roman law or post-medieval English law, because it
is too sophisticated; we can expect results most quickly if we
concentrate first on the medieval systems of western Europe.
Among those systems Irish law has an obvious primacy, and I hope
I shall not be misunderstood if I urge a certain caution in using Irish
law, for I am particularly conscious of my own debt to those who
have worked on Irish law. But there seem to me to be two reasons
for caution--one permanent, the other temporary. The permanent
reason for caution is also the reason for the great value to us of Irish
law: the fact that Irish law is preserved in a form so much earlier
than that of Welsh law. The Irish manuscripts give us early law texts
glossed and commented on, rather than law developed and amended,
such as we find in the Welsh manuscripts. This means that compari-
sons with Irish law are invaluable when we are seeking the original
form of the Welsh rules: so the explanation of the development of
mach, given above, rests largely on a basis of work on the correspond-
ing Irish institutions.24 But (as we saw with mach) a legal institution
may change its significance without changing its name; hence an
Irish comparison must be very carefully handled when we come to
examine the meaning of a Welsh institution in the twelfth or
thirteenth century.
The temporary reason for caution is of even greater practical
importance. This reason is that the Irish material is particularly
difficult to use both because its language is so archaic and because
so much of it has as yet not been adequately edited. To deal with the
unedited and inadequately edited Irish material, a much higher
degree of competence in a much more difficult language is needed
than for any of the Welsh material; so the legal historian who is not
a quite exceptional Celtic scholar will be well advised to confine
himself to the properly edited material. Fortunately the study of
Irish law is being vigorously carried on in Ireland, and we in Wales
can benefit from this work, the more so because Irish scholars make
such good use of the more tractable Welsh material in comparisons.
24 See D. A. Binchy, Early Irish Society, ed. Myles Dillon (Dublin. 1954). pp. 63-4.
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