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Yr Hen Iaith part twenty eight: ‘Shit-man’ – bardic debates from the later Middle Ages

26 Nov 2023 10 minute read
Colour frontispiece of vol. I of The Welsh Harper by John Parry (1848), featuring an imaginary portrait of medieval Welsh-language poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (14th century).

Continuing our series of articles to accompany the podcast series Yr Hen Iaith. This is episode twenty eight.

Jerry Hunter

A vast body of verse in the strict-metre cywydd form survives from the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Some of the poets employing this metre used it to engage in a specific kind of bardic practice, the ymryson. This was a bardic debate or dispute carried out by poets through the medium of poetry.

Most surviving ymrysonau are also about poetry in one way or another – its source, its proper use, the reputation of the contending bards or the patronage which they thought they deserved because of their craft.

It is often difficult to know how long these debates were, as it is always possible that only some of the poetry composed for any given debate has survived in manuscripts.

There are eight cywyddau surviving from the ymryson which Dafydd ap Gwilym and Gruffydd Gryg conducted during the first half of the fourteenth century, four poems by each poet.

More than fifty poems survive from the sixteenth-century debate between Edmwnd Prys and Wiliam Cynwal. (As there is so much of this intriguing material to discuss, we’ll confine ourselves here to a few select ymrysonau from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, leaving the astonishingly long sixteenth-century one for the second series of this podcast.)

Social context

Of course, as we only have the surviving ymryson texts, we must use the internal evidence of this poetry, our imagination and perhaps some theory and evidence borrowed from other fields in order to reconstruct the lost social context to which these bardic debates belonged.

Some of these texts ask us to imagine that the bardic debate to which they belonged was conducted live, part contest, part entertainment and all performance. Others – especially ones form the later period – seem to have conducted by means of letters.

As we have seen in this series, Dafydd ap Gwilym is associated with emergence of the cywydd form and its use for composing love poetry. His ymryson with Gruffydd Gryg began, apparently, when Gruffydd satirized the conceits central to much of Dafydd’s love poetry.

Truan mor glaf yw Dafydd,
Trwyddew serch trwyddo y sydd.

‘What a pity that Dafydd is so sick,
Love’s spike is transfixing him.’

This, the opening couplet, goes straight for the jugular. In much of his verse, Dafydd complains that he is lovesick and suffering from the pains of unrequited affection.

Gruffydd makes fun of the other poet’s exaggerated claims, exclaiming in tones of mock sympathy that ‘Pain has injured him a hundred times’, Gwewyr ganwaith a’i gwywawdd adding that it’s a ‘wonder’, eres, he’s even alive.

The great King Arthur, Gruffydd jibes, wouldn’t survive the wounds Dafydd claims to have suffered from love.

Gruffydd Gryg’s name tells us that he was cryg, that he suffered some kind of vocal impediment. In responding to Gruffydd’s attack on his poetry, Dafydd begins by dismissing his opponent’s own art and making fun of his disability:

Gruffydd Gryg, wŷg wag awen,
Grynedig, boenedig ben . . . .

‘Gruffydd Gryg, empty and useless awen [poetic inspiration],
Painfully stuttering mouth.’

Crude simplicity

Complex, elaborate and witty insults are thrown in reply, but some hit hard because of their crude simplicity. For example, Dafydd calls Gruffydd (or his song) hen faw ci, ‘old dog shit’.

The counter attacks aimed in Gruffydd’s next poem (or counter-counter attacks, if we remember that he started the debate) include labelled Dafydd bawddyn, literally ‘a shit-man’.

One clue to a specific social context to which this ymryson might have belonged is found in another of Gruffydd’s poems:

Am radd y mae’n ymroddi
Ymryson ym Môn â mi.

‘For the sake of a grade he engages
In an ymryson in Anglesey with me.’

Reputation at stake

Môn, Anglesey, was Gruffydd’s home, and – recalling Dafydd’s cywydd praising Niwbwrch, Newborough, discussed in episode 24 – we know that the southern poet was indeed venturing to the northern island and enjoying a warm welcome there.

Whether the debate between the two was conducted in a semi-formal performative-competitive context in Anglesey or whether Gruffydd is use the reference to a gradd, ‘degree’, awarded a poet in an eisteddfodic assessment, this is a clear statement that status and reputation are at stake here.

Dafydd asks if Gruffydd is trying to ‘put me out of a job’ (i’m diswyddo), perhaps referring to a specific place in a specific patron’s hall, or perhaps suggesting a more general attempt at overshadowing his reputation.

In addition to all of the boasting and the eye-wateringly nasty personal insults, there is a very serious philosophical questions being debated in this ymryson.

Gruffydd is questioning the value and use of the new-fangled love poetry which Dafydd was composing and, Dafydd, in turn, defends his chosen artistic path.

However, the very nature of the ymryson tradition ensures that the subject being debated cannot be disentangled from the nature of the debate; in one sense, the medium is also the message, and this medium involves rubbishing one’s opponent in the harshest possible manner.

Indeed, at one point Gruffydd indulges in the kind of ‘your mamma’ slagging which might be familiar to some readers from aspects of modern American popular culture. He invokes the name of Dafydd’s mother, Ardudful, saying ‘I am a husband of hers from Anglesey’, Gŵr iddi wyf i o Fôn.

Not content to claim that he’s had sexual relations with his opponent’s mother, Gruffydd goes on to say that, os mab ym oedd, ‘if he is a son of mine’, then ‘it is badly that the poet Dafydd respects his father’ (ys drwg y peirch . . . y prydydd Dafydd ei dad).

It was said that another poet, Rhys Meigan, had insulted Dafydd ap Gwilym’s mother and that Dafydd replied with a satirical poem (which does survive in manuscript) so scathing that the offending man dropped dead when he heard it!

Gruffydd Gryg references that episode in Dafydd’s bardic career by warning him that he is ‘no Rhys Meigan’ and will not be so easily dispatched.

Disgusting imagery

In the fifteenth century, a poet known for religious and moralistic verse, Siôn Cent, questioned the source of awen, or bardic inspiration, driving the work of his contemporaries. One of them, Rhys Goch Eryri, entered into an ymrysonwith him over this topic.

This poetry explores a very serious philosophical point about the nature of poetic inspiration and the honest (or dishonest) ways in which bards use their craft. However, it also includes the ad hominem attacks found in many other ymrysonau.

Rhys Goch calls Siôn Cent [g]was ystabl, ‘a stable boy’ or ‘stable servant’.  The opening salvo aimed in the poem’s first couplet casts Siôn Cent as ‘a sad nit-headed man, a rascal chewed [by lice],’ trist nedd frig, cnoëdig gnaf.

By stating that ‘there is the breath of an old devil in you’, anadl hen gythraul ynod, could be saying that the other poet is himself inspired by less than lofty forces while also suggesting that he has bad breath.

Indeed, like the disparaging description of his lice-chewed head, Rhys Goch focusses to a great extent on describing a grotesque physical appearance, employing this memorably disgusting image: surferw creichion crach, ‘the sour oozing of a scabby one’s scabs’.

If the combination of high poetic artistry, debating complex philosophical subjects and scathingly personal insults seems strange, it might help to contextualize these ymrysonau by employing some anthropological theory.

Anthropologists studying various societies in various parts of the world have identified what they term ‘joking relationships’, social interactions dictated by traditional social expectations.

For example, in discussing the culture of the Bachama people in north-eastern Nigeria, Philip Stevens observed that:

. . . joking relationships obtain only among people . . . who have experienced a degree of close friendly, and mutually beneficial association; . . . the degree of freedom of language and behaviour tolerable . . . is an expression of the nature of the relationship; . . .  the ‘privileged’ nature of the association is thus revealed to nonparticipants and . . . participation in the joking exchanges . . . helps to maintain and, indeed, to strengthen the underlying relationship.[1]

Stevens stresses that, this kind of relationship means that there are social situations when one person is expected and even required to tease the other who, in turn, is required by social norms to take no offense.

Name calling

Many of us will have experienced a similar (if less defined) phenomenon in our society. Close friends call each other names which would otherwise be considered offensive but which, are in fact an expression of friendship.

And there can be a performative aspect to this familiar behaviour; when this is done in the presence of other people, it can be interpreted as a demonstration of friendship to others (‘We are good friends, so I am allowed to call him this’).

Let’s return to our medieval ymrysonau with this in mind. When Gruffydd Gryg called Dafydd ap Gwilym bawddyn, ‘a shit-man’, it might be possible that, rather than expressing a genuine animosity, the word was actually something quite different.

It might have been a way of articulating – performatively, in front of other people – the fact that the two men were in fact close. Whether or not the two were actually friends (something we can never know), it is true that the two were close in one important way: they were both members of the bardic fraternity.

It is possible that the very act of engaging in an ymryson was a bardic practice which defined or re-defined the simple but crucial fact that both poets were poets.

Whether conducted publicly in front of a live audience, by means of messenger-reciters or by means of letters, engaging in a bardic debate demonstrated that the participants were in fact bards, a status with considerable implications in medieval Wales.

Men only

The last instalment of Yr Hen Iaith focussed on the poetry of Gwerful Mechain. We noted that there is no praise poetry by Gwerful surviving in manuscript, an absence which can be explained by the assumption that only men were allowed to be professional poets and sing praise to patrons.

We also suggested that Gwerful, being a woman not bound by those expectations, was free to compose the kind of verse which she wanted to compose, whether religious, satirical or erotic.

However, there are surviving cywyddau which demonstrate that Gwerful Mechain engaged in two ymrysonau, one with Dafydd Llwyd of Mathafarn and one with Ieuan Dyfi.

If the theory that the very act of engaging in an ymryson was a way of demonstrating to others that a poet belonged to the bardic fraternity, then Gwerful Mechain’s ymryson poetry can be seen as a very bold – an apparently successful – way for that Welsh woman to carve out a place for herself in an elite group which otherwise tried to restrict its members to men.

Further reading:

Dafydd ap

  1. Howells (ed.), Gwaith Gwerful Mechain ac Eraill (2001)

Dylan Foster Evans (ed.), Gwaith Rhys Goch Eryri (2007)

Ann Matonis, ‘Barddoneg a Rhai Ymrysonau Barddol Cymraeg yr Oesoedd Canol Diweddar’, Ysgrifau Beirniadol 12 (1982).

Morgan Davies, “ ‘Aed i’r coed i dorri cof’: Dafydd ap Gwilym and the Metapoetics of Carpentry”, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 30 (Winter, 1995).

Jerry Hunter, “Cyd-destunoli Ymrysonau’r Cywyddwyr: Cipolwg ar yr ‘Ysbarddiad Barddol’)”, Dwned 3 (1997) a Bleddyn Huws ac A. Cynfael Lake (eds.), Genres y Cywydd (2016) and ‘Professional Poets and Personal Insults: Ad Hominem Attacks in Late Medieval Welsh Ymryonau’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 13 (1993).

  1. Philip Steves, ‘Bachama Joking Categories: Toward New Perspectives in the Study of Joking Relationships.’, Journal of Anthropological Research 34 (1978), pp. 49-50.

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Arthur Owen
Arthur Owen
7 months ago

Why no RWJ?

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