A Welsh medieval bard like no other
The furore over the BBC continues, and I am on the side of those who want the BBC to be suitably chastised over the Bashir/Diana fiasco without turning it into an opportunity to cripple the organisation forever.
We have already extolled Auntie’s virtues on these virtual pages, so I don’t intend to do a rerun here. Nevertheless, a chance tuning in to Radio 4 on a wet Sunday afternoon provided us with a gem of a half hour. We had never heard of the extraordinary Welsh medieval poet Gwerful Mechain, but I can tell you she was some dame.
Welsh speakers please stay calm: I am only writing the name of this remarkable woman – please don’t ask me to say it out loud. The fact is that Gwerful Mechain is the only female medieval Welsh poet from whom a substantial body of work is known to have survived. She is known for her erotic poetry, and the Beeb’s 9 o’clock watershed was definitely ignored during the programme.
While her precise date of birth is not known, Gwerful wrote between 1460-1502. She came from a noble family with several siblings and lived in Mechain in Powys. She married and had at least one child, a daughter. Her high birth no doubt helped her achieve the standing she desired, but her writing talent, choice of subjects and popularity were of her own making.
Gwerful was writing about female sexuality and domestic issues during a time when women’s rights were non-existent. What is totally fascinating is her active participation in the poetic culture of her day. Many of her surviving poems are examples of ‘Ymrysonau’, which were poetic or bardic debates with her contemporaries, all of whom seem to have been male. Her most famous opus is ‘Poem to the Vagina’, where she criticises male poets for celebrating so many parts of a woman’s body but ignoring ‘the middle’. This was written in response to the Welsh bard, Dafydd ap Gwilym, and his famous poem ‘Ode to the Penis’.
Gwerful’s writings were well received by the bards of her day. She addressed her topics freely and frankly and did not hesitate to criticise social injustice. She used robust and playful language to express how women are often the victims of male oppression and how it is women who are more honourable and virtuous than men. One example is ‘To Her Husband for Beating Her’.
To her husband for beating her
A dagger through your heart’s stone‒on a slant
To reach your breastbone;
May your knees break, your hands shrivel
And your sword plunge in your guts to make you snivel.
Another poem addresses ‘Jealous Wives’ who won’t share their husbands:
But these damn wives, so respectable
Won’t give up their cocks delectable.
Her poems also talk freely about female sexual pleasure – a topic that remained taboo for centuries after, and they frequently mix sex and religion. We are fortunate that this body of work has survived, as it is a rare example of its time. No hiding behind male pseudonyms, no beating about the bush – literally, as it turns out; here is an extract from ‘Ode to the Vagina’:
‘Lovely bush you are blessed by God above’.