What Planet is This?

04 Aug 2005

De Mirabilibus Britanniae

It was traditionally thought that the Historia Brittonum, a 9th century historial tract, was written by Nennius. The actual author is, however, unknown, as shown by Prof. David Dumville's research on the subject. Though extremely unreliable historically, the Historia Brittonum is one of the most important works of the post-Romano-British period, as the Dark Ages are better called, and makes for fun reading. One of its most charming sections is the De Mirabilibus Britanniae, or account of the Marvels of Britain.

The first of the Marvels of Britain is the "Stagnum Lumonoy", now called Loch Lomond. The rendering of the name in the Historia Brittonum may be connected to the Brythonic word "llumon", meaning beacon, and hence the lake would find its etymology in the overlooking munro of Ben Lomond.

The second marvel is the mouth of the Trahannoni, which appears to be the River Tese or Test in Hampshire. Of the river's mouth, William Camden wrote in his Britannia of 1586 that: "Ninnius, an old writer, giveth it almost the same name when he termeth it Trahannon Mouth. As for the river running into it at this day is called Test, it was in the foregoing age (as wee read in the Saints lives) named Terstan, and in old times Ant or Anton, as the townes standing upon it, namely Antport, Andover, and Hanton in some sort doe testifie".

The third marvel is the "stagnum calidum", the hot waters, and one of the manuscripts of the Historia Brittonum links this to a place called Badon which may be modern day Bath, famous for the baths there powered by hot springs. At the same place is the fourth wonder, the fact that salted waters are available even though it's far from the sea.

The fifth marvel is that of the bubbles of froth at the Fluminis Sabrinae, i.e. the River Severn. Sabrina was the Roman transmogrification of "Habren", the name of both the river and a Celtic princess. The "bubbles of froth" refer to the Severn's tidal bore, where water flowing downstream meets the upcoming tide to create an amazing, and surfable, waterform.

The sixth is a bit of a conundrum. Described as the Finnaun Guur Helic in Cinlipiuc or Cynllibiwg, a lost area of ancient Britain rediscovered only in the 1980s by Bruce Coplestone-Crow, it may be the same lake as one mentioned in the Mabinogion. The marvel of it was that it was neither fed by a water source nor drained by any stream, that it was extraordinarily shallow, and that it contained a huge variety of fish. It was twenty cubits square, i.e. about thirty-five feet by thirty-five feet, and had high banks.

The seventh marvel is of the ash trees that bear apples, next to the Guoy, which is the River Wye. These trees are likely the True Service Tree, or Sorbus domestica, which looks like an ash tree but has edible fruit. It's a rare tree that still exists in Britain, and was thought to have been a native species, though there's no definite evidence for that and DNA tests now suggest otherwise. The eigth wonder is a cleft or cave in adjoining Guent, modern Gwent, that constantly had air blowing out of it. In British, it was called Chwyth Gwynt, which means Windblow. I'm unsure exactly where it was situated.

The ninth wonder was an altar at Loyngarth. Loyngarth was also called Loingraib or Llwyngarth-in-Gower, according to the Onomasticon Goedelicum, which identifies it as Oystermouth near The Mumbles. It was said to have been placed there whilst St. Illtud prayed within the cave that he was forced to flee to, and in which he stayed for a year and three days. St. Illtud's cave has also been identified as being at Coed y Mwstwr near Bridgend, however, not far away from The Mumbles.

The tenth wonder is Carn Cafal in Bocuilt, modern day Buellt or Builth, where a stone had imprinted upon it the paw mark of King Arthur's dog Cafal. It is said that the stone was unstealable, i.e. that when taken it would work its way back to the original place. The eleventh wonder was a sephulcre in Argingi, which is the modern Archenfield according once again to Edmund Hogan's Onomasticon Goedelicum of 1910. The twelfth wonder is a stone "in the region which is called Ercing". A tomb there is situated next to a spring called Licat Amr, after the man in the tomb, Amr, who is said to be the son of Arthur.

The rest of the wonders are less consistently recorded. The thirteenth wonder may be an underground quern in Machlin in Cul, possibly modern day Mauchline, that grinds every day of the week except for Sunday. In the same district, not numbered as marvels, it's said that bird bones were constantly being churned up from a well, and that birds dove under the sea from a certain rock. There were also limpets appearing inland, probably an early reference to fossils. Elsewhere there was a valley called Glen Ailbe where shouting with no source was constantly heard, and a stone that moved around by itself at night in the valley of Citheinn. Jeremy Harte says that the latter was the "Maen Morddwyd, the Stone of the Thigh, which could be found at Llanidan in Anglesey".

The Radio Times recently ran a competition where people voted for the finest natural wonders of Britain, the results of which were broadcast on Five. The caves at Dan-yr-Ogof won. Surprisingly, however, the only wonder that is also one of the marvels in the Historia Brittonum is Loch Lomond. Though it appears first in the list of marvels, it was only voted into sixth place, and the fact that Bath and the Severn's tidal bore were entirely omitted is strange indeed. The De Mirabilibus Britanniae still stands up well.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "De Mirabilibus Britanniae", in: What Planet is This?
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