Aug 22 2016 3:30pm

Love and Survival in Dark Age Wales

Between Two Fires by Mark Noce

Today we're thrilled to welcome Mark Noce (Between Two Fires) to Heroes and Heartbreakers. When fierce warriors can be found in your backyard, marriage—and love—is an important part of survival. Mark is here to talk about love and survival in the Dark Ages. Thanks, Mark!

During the Dark Ages, the Welsh people must have felt like it was end of the world. Saxon invaders harried their borders, bitter infighting ensued amongst the nobility, and plagues occasionally swept the land with devastating effect. Yet in the midst of all this potential bitterness, the resilient people of Wales showed extreme courage in defending those they loved. Much of the historical record of the time period has been forever erased due to the tumult of the times, but legends have naturally sprung up to fill the gap. One famous example are of course the Arthurian sagas, where knights and ladies battled the Saxons by day and kept their loved ones close at night, never knowing what tomorrow would bring. It must have been a difficult era to live through to say the least, but it doubtlessly added a zest to life knowing that the joys of today had best be enjoyed now for they might not be there tomorrow.

People lived for the moment and this added an almost modern sensibility to an otherwise very medieval era. For instance, St. Gildas noted how kings like Maelgwyn of North Wales was married, divorced, then fought a man in a duel so that he and the other man’s wife could marry. Whether his motives were for love or lust, this definitely wasn’t always an era of carefully planned alliances, but a time and place where people tried to find some genuine happiness in the short span of life allotted to them. Women often took matters into their own hands, seeking husbands as they sought fit, such as the Celtic queen of Dumonia whom clerics simply referred to as the ‘lioness’ due to her reputation for commanding her own fate and her subjects like a man.

SEE ALSO: Holding Out For A Hero in the Medieval Era

Love in medieval Wales had a practical side to it as well. An old Celtic pre-marriage tradition survived Christianity in parts of Ireland and Wales, where a man and woman would live together of one year before deciding whether to tie the knot. They shared the same bed, the same house, and any children that resulted were recognized as theirs ever after. But the decision to stay together remained their own. If after a year they wanted to be officially married they were. But if they decided they’d had enough, both parties could part without a blemish on either of their characters. This is but another prime example of the pragmatic mix of pagan and Christian customs in a land where people preferred to ‘seize the day’ rather than wait for an uncertain tomorrow.

And of course, we have the ever-favorite motif of Celtic literature: the love triangle. Folk memory best exemplifies this typical love story of a married woman and her knightly lover both bound to defend their people, but also deeply in love. Examples in legend abound with tales of such lovers who we still talk about today: Guinevere and Lancelot, and Tristan and Iseult, just to name a few. But theirs are not the only tales of love and courage from the Dark Ages.

The Tale of Culhwch and Olwen, probably one of the oldest Welsh stories ever written down, details a story of a young knight named Culhwch battling giants and worse all for his love Olwen’s hand. This tale doubtlessly resonated with many Welsh men and women who often had to struggle against invaders and misfortunes simply to find their true loves and a small piece of happiness in another otherwise uncertain world.     

The love stories and sagas of the Welsh people have both a sad and happy ending during the Dark Ages. On the one hand, the Welsh people survive to this day, and so all their struggles were certainly not always for naught. However, the few archaeological remains from the early medieval period attest to the level of destruction that occurred. Relatively few ruins and only a paltry handful of texts remain from this bloody era of warfare and strife that lasted several centuries. Imagine if all that survived of modern civilization for future generations were a few broken walls, some oral legends, and a handful of Twitter feeds!

So what can we say for certain was happening in Wales from the years 500-800? Certainly many thousands of people lived their daily lives as best they could, but they were also extraordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances. When one border village was attacked, a monk wrote of a peasant woman taking up reaping hooks to defend her family, and slaying several assailants in the process. Love is perhaps the strongest motivation that exists, and whether man or woman, noble or commoner, the Welsh people did not have time for fussy proprieties in an era when each moment could be one’s last.

SEE ALSO: Why Are Medievals Less Popular Than Regencies?

The origins of many unique Welsh laws take root during the early Dark Ages, many of which gave equal rights to women in various circumstances. This was another holdover custom from the more matronly Celtic tribes who had gradually become petty kingdoms under more male-oriented Christian kings. For instance, children were legally recognized regardless of whether the parents were married or not. Land was distributed equally amongst sons, and in some regions amongst daughters as well. And a wife could punish her husband or even divorce him if she caught him with another woman. Also if a man and woman eloped, their families could not by law force them to separate. Love, true love, without other motivations, seems to have been paramount on people’s minds even in the heart of the Welsh Dark Ages.

Perhaps most shockingly, even to modern readers, was that the age of adulthood in medieval Wales began on a person’s fourteenth birthday. That’s right, at fourteen you were considered a man or a woman, and aside from familial obligations, you were legally an adult with the same rights and desires as others. Of course, it’s important to remember that during this time, people did not live as long as we do today, and with so many threats to their daily lives, the birth rate usually just barely kept the population even. People wed young, they often wed for love (if they were commoners at least), and they had children young. It may seem like a small thing today, but in their own way, simply by falling in love and having families, these early Welsh people defied the chaos of their times by attempting to live happy, normal lives despite the hazards that daily beset their lands. That in and of itself makes their ancient lives legendary to me, and is something that I think anyone who has ever been in love can understand.    


Learn more about or pre-order a copy of Between Two Fires by Mark Noce, available August 23, 2016: 

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Mark Noce writes historical fiction with a passion, and eagerly reads everything from fantasy to literature. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he’s an avid traveler and backpacker, particularly in Europe and North America. He earned his BA and MA from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where he also met his beautiful wife. By day, he works as a Technical Writer, having spent much of his career at places like Google and Facebook. In addition to writing novels, he also writes short fiction online. When not reading or writing, he’s probably listening to U2, sailing his dad’s boat, or gardening with his family. 

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Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. Kareni
Thanks for educating me about Dark Age Wales; I certainly learned some new facts today. Best wishes on the release of your book!
2. MarkNoce
Thanks, Kareni! It's definitely an endlessly fascinating time period for me. Thanks for the best wishes too:)
3. Nick Wilford
What a fascinating post, especially as I don't know much about Wales during this period. The Celtic laws sound surprisingly modern, given this was the Dark Ages. I definitely learnt things here!
4. Christine Rains
Fantastic post, Mark. I loved learning more about the Dark Ages.
Heather Waters
5. HeatherWaters
I love European history and romance, so this is the perfect essay to me. Thank you!
6. MarkNoce
@Nick - Thanks! I was surprised too at how forward-thinking some of these laws were. I think they may have actually been derived from even older Celtic customs when their society was more matriarchal. Just my theory:)

@Christine - Thank you sooo much, Christine! It means a lot:)

@Heather - So glad you liked it! I definitely find this time period endlessly fascinating myself:)
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