Gwerful Mechain’s Ink Stained Hands, Part 2

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TRANSCRIPT: Welcome back to Her Ink Stained Hands. This is Part 2 of My Favourite Word is Quim. We’re talking about Ode to the Cunt by Gwerful Mechain, a fifteenth century Welsh Poet. 

I have many favourite words that are savoured as they roll off my tongue, but none so much as ‘quim’ (1). Mm. That delightful single syllable. Not as harsh or as loaded as cunt. Yet, just as expressive. If only more people knew what it was. In our introduction we promised that we would discuss context, life, history for these poets and how they’ve been received from the time they wrote to the twenty-first century. I think Gwerful is a great place to start, because it is going to show you just how difficult it is to research some of these poets.

Erotic poetry is not as well studied – it’s low brow, it’s dirty, smutty, it arouses unusual feelings in its audience, but it can be just as beautiful and dedicated to form as any other poetry. Gwerful is labelled one of the most celebrated female Welsh poets. This title comes with a certain reclamation of her work by the 21st century. This reputation has not always been consistent. But let’s start at the beginning.

context of the poem

Gwerful Mechain is writing around 1480. At this time in Europe, the conquest of Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella, parents of Katherine of Aragon, is well underway. They have just begun the violent undertaking that is the Spanish Inquisition. 

England is at the tail end of the War of The Roses. It started around the 1450s, before Gwerful was born, and ends around the 1480s. Wales has been under the control of the English since the 13th century. The 1200s are marred by several conflicts, but by the end of it, the Princes of Wales have lost control. England is their leader. Wales in the fifteenth century is enjoying a period of wealth and prosperity after recovering from two disastrous events – the Black Death, which ended in 1369 and Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion against the English in 1416. At the end of the fifteenth century, Arthur Tudor will become the Prince of Wales, but this can’t happen until the Tudors have won the War of the Roses. 

Wales generally abides by English law at this stage. This means Gwerful is writing in a traditional patriarchal society where sons inherit. Welsh poetry has existed in a myriad of forms and styles for more than 300 years. Now that the English are in control, the responsibility for patronage has passed from the princes to the landed gentry. At this time the professional guild of poets are known as the Cywyddwyr. They write to celebrate the virtues of Welsh gentry. Poems were composed for oral entertainment, and many of them were on love – these were performed at feasts or for small company in private chambers. We think that many of the poems performed for small companies were bawdy – it fits the audience better. However, this doesn’t dispute the fact that bawdy poetry is entertaining for everyone.

Now, the Cywyddwyr write ‘cywydds’ – one of the most important metrical forms in Welsh poetry. The first recorded examples of cywydds are from the early 14th century. They are written for the next 300 years, until the seventeenth century, so Gwerful is writing in the middle of this tradition. There are a variety of forms of the cywydd, but the word on its own is generally used to refer to the cywydd deuair hirion as it is by far the most common type.

Now, cywydds consist of a series of seven-syllable lines in rhyming couplets, with all lines written in cynghanedd. One of the lines must finish with a stressed syllable, while the other must finish with an unstressed syllable. The rhyme may vary from couplet to couplet, or may remain the same. There is no rule about how many couplets there have be in a cywydd.

This tradition was originally thought to be entirely male but the existence of Gwerful Mechain has disputed this assumption among critics. Existing alongside the cywydd meter was also an oral tradition known as ‘hen benillion’ (old verses) that some critics believe were written predominately by women. This tradition proved influential on the work of  several later female poets, including Ann Griffiths, an 18th century Welsh poet often grouped with Gwerful. Among the Welsh poems that people read now, we often find obscene and erotic poetry, that often disassociated body parts and genitals from their subject. Analogy is common. You heard this in Gwerful Mechain – she makes repeated analogies to nature, to clothing. This is quite common. Looking at other poems of the period, we know that Gwerful is directly responding to her contemporaries. We suspect that the Ode to the Cunt is a retort to Daffyd ap Gwylim’s Ode to his penis. To give you a sense of exactly what I’m talking about, I’m going to read it to you. 

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That poem, in the context of Gwerful’s, is quite interesting. Though hers is written a good 80 years later, it is similar in format and obscenity but not in tone. For Daffyd, his penis is something to be guarded – it gets him into trouble. For Gwerful, her cunt must be praised, not avoided. She venerates her sexuality. This is a complete contrast to many takes on women’s sexuality in this time period

the poet’s life and history

So what do we know about Gwerful Mechain? We know that she was born approximately 1462 and lived about fifty years. Many historians have said that we don’t know very much about her personally. The one extensive source on her, the biographical entry by Leslie Harris, for Gwerful Fychan, a contemporary poet also writing in the 15th century.

She is the only female poet of medieval Wales for whom a substantial body of poetry has survived. We know of other female poets of this century but they have one or two poems left. Her subject matter is varied and the erotic poems are a small proportion of her work. Obviously for this podcast I am focusing on those, however you can find religious, poetry, poetry that condemns domestic violence in her body of work. So this poem itself is a reaction to poems by men. It reacts to the very detailed descriptions given in courtly love poetry of the female body, of their limbs, of their breasts, of their hair, of their eyes, of their smile, but never of their cunt. For Gwerful, this is ignoring the most important part of their bodies.

So the fact that she wrote erotic poetry and religious poetry is not unique. Devotion and ecstacy, and ecstatic devotion are often intermixed. There is some interesting twentieth century poetry that talks about Moses’ rod, which I’ve mentioned on Patreon.  Katie Grammich thinks that female poets have a unique position within which to write both types of poetry.

It might indeed be argued that the female poets of this period had more freedom than many of their male counterparts in that they were not obliged to sing empty praises of their patrons in order to earn their daily bread. On the contrary, their praise is reserved for those things which in their view were truly worth of praise, whether they be the female genitals or Jesus Christ.

So, that’s an interesting comparison to the male poets, to think that female poets in this period because they’re not bound by financial concerns. It’s an interesting point. I’d be curious to see if this extends to the rest of Europe or internationally. Now we know that Gwerful isfriends with other poets, particularly Daffyd Llwyd of Mathafarn. I suspect that Gwerful most likely lived among the gentry. In the poem, it mentions that she is of great noble stock. Whether this is just a literative reference or not, we know that she is responding directly to other poets who are using these courtly love tropes. Her work directly responds to others in this period and she uses obscenity as much as  than her male counterparts.  This obscenity may have in fact been a weapon of equality for her – a tool to rebuke the status quo. She clearly venerates female sexuality.

how the work has been received over the years

Now looking at critiques of her poetry. Critique has been made against Gwerful about this obscenity. Daffyd Johnston in his book ‘Obscenity and Social Control’ compares her to the fourteenth century Italian poet Christine de Pisan.

Pisan is famous for the Querelle du Roman de la Rose, in which she questioned the literary merits of Jean de Meun and his work Romance de la Rose, which depicted women as nothing more than seducers. Pisan objected to the use of vulgar terms, arguing they denigrated the proper and natural function of sexuality, and that such language was inappropriate for female characters as noble women did not use such language. This is in direct contrast to Mechain, who undoubtedly used such language. Now Pisan is writing in a different context to Mechain. She’s writing as a court poet, in fourteenth century Italy, undoubtedly more obsessed with etiquette than fifteenth century Wales, which is amidst turmoil, as the landed gentry become the ruling class, who probably did not have the same influence in regards to etiquette.

This obscenity may have affected the study of this poem – we know that her religious and anti-domestic violence poetry has received more study. It has been copied in more manuscripts. Her cywydd to Jesus Christ appearing in 49 extant manuscripts. Because of this, Gwerful Mechain has been called the most celebrated female poet of Welsh history. The study of her poetry has definitely increased in popularity in the 21st century. Now notably, there aren’t many famous female Welsh poets. If you go on Wikipedia, you’ll find about thirty entries but she is indeed a critical part. She was included in anthologies of women’s poetry after she died, notably Angharad James’ The Red Book (c. 17th c.). Welsh women’s poetry circulated in random manuscript collections and orally. It wasn’t even until mid-19th century that the first volume of Welsh poetry by a woman was even published, the Telyn Egryn. So we know that there is a wealth of handwritten books belonging to women that are personal anthologies, including The Red Book, but actual published manuscript material is rare up until the 19th and 20th centuries when manuscript collections of Welsh poetry really took off.

Now, I’ve spoken about how she was well receieved – but she wasn’t always so. I suspect this is going to pop up a lot in this series. Erotic poetry is one of those topics where it’s authors aren’t going to go along without being degraded by someone. Popular erotic poetry is lowbrow and treated as such. 

A warning for this section – I do use a slur that many use for sex workers. I’m going to read this as it is an important part of the reaction to Gwerful and will give you a sense of the context of the criticism.

In Leslie Harris’ 1933 Unpublished Thesis, he discusses several Welsh poets, including Gwerful Mechain. Later he publishes an anthology which gives her no importance at all. Why? He included her in his thesis. She’s clearly critical enough to discuss but not enough to actually publish. Now, when discussing this with other academics, it was pointed out to me that poetry critics in Wales in the early twentieth century are known for their misogyny – they’re living in a religiously conservative society. Harris is no different. While he is critical for scholarly studies of her poetry, he is undoubtedly biased against her. 

A direct quote from his thesis:

The most important thing to remember in evaluating the poetry of Gwerful Mechain, especially her pornographic songs, is that she should not be judged in the light of the moral principles of this century. The tendencies and principles of her own age are those which determine the standard of her work. In the light of the twentieth century, Gwerful Mechain is nothing more than a wh*re, but in her own century singing dirty songs was more or less a common thing to do, especially on the Continent.

Harris dissociates Gwerful’s poetry as something more typical of continental Europe, not of Wales. This is ridiculous. It doesn’t reflect the 15th century Welsh poetry I’ve found – obscene poetry is common (as you heard earlier). It’s incredibly frustrating as he is responsible for preparing critical scholarly traditions of her poetry. It’s important for context, it’s important to consider for the early twentieth century perspectives on erotic poetry but it’s also a reminder that no matter our admiration for something, this isn’t always the case.

Thankfully, 21st century Welsh academia has experienced a revived interest in Gwerful Mechain. The first proper scholarly edition was published in 2001. Its title is a rather nice smack in the face for Harris, whose anthology was entitled The Work of Huw Cae Llwyd and Others. Nerys Ann Howell’s anthology is called The Work of Gwerful Mechain and Others (take that, Leslie Harris).

The best essay I’ve found on Gwerful Mechain is Katie Grammich’s Orality and Morality: Early Welsh Women’s Poetry. Kate Grammich is an excellent source on Gwerful, she’s quite positive, and considers the entire tradition. She is my sources for much of this analysis. Grammich sees Gwerful as a testimony to the existence of early Welsh female poets, proof that they did participate in the poetic tradition. She points out that Mechain’s work contains more echoes of oral tradition than her male peers. This is something that Harris critiqued. Harris critqued Gwerful for not following proper forms. As someone who is influenced by the tradition of Hen Benillion, Gwerful is showing more flexibility than her male counterparts. Also, the fact that in her Cywydd to Jesus and other works she does stick to the proper forms shows that she can do it – she just chose not to, so for Harris to critique that as laziness and sloppiness is ridiculous. Back to Grammich –  Mechain’s critiques come from a position of inclusion within the tradition, not as an outsider and exclusion. Personally, I think this points to her being associated with the gentry in Powys in the 15th century, whether she lived among them or just corresponded with them, it’s clear she knew them. I think an entire thesis could be done on Gwerful. 

and the importance ithe has had to the history of poetry

Gwerful Mechain is clearly a critical voice in the history of Wales and Welsh poetry. Her obvious feminist principles can be seen in her other poems, including To Her Husband for Beating Her, which is an indictment of domestic violence, her unshaking discussion of female sexuality in Ode to the Cunt, and the female body. Her place in the history of female Welsh poets is undisputable.

Her 21st century influence comes from her willingness to discuss women’s issues, including condemning domestic violence, and praising women’s sexuality. I think she has been so venerated because she has shown the values we want to see in history – venerating women and freedom of sexuality. She was a women in a deeply patriarchal society, in a country that 400 years later would be deeply conservative, writing praise to something considered the seat of all sin. To call her the most celebrated Welsh poet ignores the controversy. To call her a celebrated and notorious Welsh poet would probably be more accurate.

Disclaimer: You could do a thesis on Gwerful Mechain and there’s a possibility that my analysis contains inaccuracies. I’m fine with that – as long as my analysis has prompted you to think of how erotic poetry fits into a political landscape. For now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little diatribe on Gwerful Mechain’s ode to the cunt and you go back and listen to it with a greater understand of how and why she’s writing. Thank you for listening to Her Ink Stained Hands.

CREDITS: All our artists and guests are carefully selected with the aim to celebrate the feminine. Thank you to Nguyen Tran of Brass Ringo Photography, photographer Daphne Mir, and model Kaitlin Cornelle for granting us permission to use their gorgeous portraits of ink stained hand in our cover art. Thank you to sound designer Liz Duck-Chong for the use of her recording equipment and her skilled editing. We’ve not yet found suitable music by a female instrumentalist or sound artist, so if there is anyone you would recommend, send us an email or at us on Twitter!

  1. Noun, British slang for a woman’s genitals.

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