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Nennius

Nennius, or Nemnivus, is the name of two shadowy personages traditionally associated with the history of Wales.

The better known of the two is Nennius, the student of Elvodugus. Elvodugus is commonly identified with the bishop Elfoddw of Gwynedd, who convinced the rest of Welsh portion of Celtic Christianity to celebrate Easter on the same date as the other Catholics in Britain in AD 768, and is later stated by the Annales Cambriae to have died in 809. This Nennius is traditionally stated as having lived in the early 9th century, and is identified in one group of manuscripts of the Historia Brittonum as the author of that work. The careful scholarship of professor David N. Dumville on this text has instead shown that the manuscripts that make this claim come from an exemplar dating to the later eleventh century, far later than the exemplars of other versions of this manuscript -- as well as over two hundred years after this Nennius is supposed to have lived.

The other Nemnivus, or Nennius, is mentioned in a Welsh manuscript of the ninth century. In response to the snide accusation of a Saxon scholar that the Britons had no alphabet of their own, this Nemnivus is said to have invented an alphabet on the spur of the moment in order to refute this insult. The alphabet Nemnivus is said to have invented is preserved in this manuscript, and according to Nora K. Chadwick it is derived from the Old English futhark or runic writing. "Indeed the names given to some of his letters seem to show evidence of an actual knowledge of their Saxon names," Chadwick concludes.

It is traditional practice for students of Welsh history to assume that these two personages are the one and the same individual. However, as the first is arguably a fiction, it is dangerous to make this assumption; the history of both Wales and Britain in these years is full of holes, and to make assumptions like this will not build a satisfactory bridge over these holes.

References: David N. Dumville, "'Nennius and the Historia Brittonum," Studia Celtica, 10/11 (1975/6), 78-95; Nora K. Chadwick, "Early Culture and Learning in North Wales" in Studies in the Early British Church (1958).



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