Session 39: Ystafell 3
Medieval Welsh poetry

Sponsored by: CSANA

Chair: Bleddyn Owen Huws

The steel claw, the ash-spear and the ‘Welsh knight’: contextualizing the lance-rest in late-medieval Welsh poetry

Jenny Day
Canolfan Uwchefrydiau Cymreig a Cheltaidd Prifysgol Cymru (CAWCS)

The lance-rest (Welsh rest, rhest or arést), used to help support a couched lance and prevent it from rebounding on impact, was eagerly adopted by late-medieval Welsh poets into their vocabulary of praise, along with other aspects of ‘chivalric’ material culture. First mentioned by Iolo Goch in a poem addressed to Owain Glyndŵr, lance-rests become more prominent in fifteenth-century and later praise poetry. The context is usually general and perhaps stereotypical praise of martial prowess, but two fifteenth-century poets mention a lance-rest in request poems, a genre in which the poet asks a patron for a specific gift, often on behalf of another patron. Guto’r Glyn asks for a brigandine, of which the lance-rest is just one desirable feature, whilst Gutun Owain asks for a lance and rest. This latter poem includes an extensive description of the lance-rest, using the allusive dyfalu technique and describing it as, amongst other things, a ‘steel claw’ (ewin o ddur) and a ‘piece of ice’ (iäen). This paper presents a new edition and translation of this poem, discussing the evidence it provides for the form and function of the lance-rest and the significance (poetical, symbolic and practical) of these items in contemporary Welsh society. The question of how, whether and in what context the poets’ patrons might have fought with a couched lance is addressed with reference to the documented military activities of some patrons, the role of the tournament, and the wider literary tradition of the ‘Welsh knight’.

Of rain & cuckoos: further explorations in englynion & Japanese traditional verse

Jessica Hemming
Corpus Christi College, Vancouver

It has been noted by various scholars over the last 100 years (usually just in passing), that some of the Welsh englynion—especially those labelled ‘gnomic’ or ‘nature’ poems—are curiously reminiscent of haiku. At the 2018 CSANA conference I presented a preliminary paper examining exactly how these englynion were like haiku, and arguing that the equally long but much better documented Japanese verse tradition could provide valuable comparative insights to help illuminate aspects of the non-panegyric, non-narrative englynion. This next paper builds on that first step, looking more particularly at the englyn-sequences and at the repetition of specific phrases, both within and across such sequences. Here the medieval Japanese renga (‘linked verse’), a non-narrative additive genre which itself gave rise to haiku, offers an intriguing possible analogue, while the formal element called makura kotoba (‘pillow-words’) may lead to a more appreciative understanding of ‘conventional’ phrases in the Welsh stanzas. The fact that Japanese literary commentary dates back to at least the tenth century allows modern scholars to see the medieval tradition through the eyes of its contemporaries, with an enviable abundance of detail about the circumstances of composition and performance. Some of the resulting information may be cautiously compared to those englynion for which we have minimal context, thus suggesting new angles of approach to a body of poetry often regarded as enigmatic.

The prehistory of the Book of Aneirin corpus: towards a new approach

Stefan Schumacher
University of Vienna

After Canu Aneirin appeared in 1938, Ifor Williams’s hypothesis of how the heroic poetry contained in the Book of Aneirin had come into existence and how it had eventually found its way into the manuscript known as the Book of Aneirin soon became standard doctrine in Wales and outside. It was all but forgotten that there had been different views beforehand, such as that of Saunders Lewis. Subsequent scholars such as Kenneth Jackson basically followed Williams but tried to explain more precisely how the poetry came to Wales. Common to most of these explanations is the assumption that the missing link between North Britain and Wales was an early (seventh-century) northern manuscript, a copy of which eventually found its way into Wales. Even John Koch’s explanation does not differ essentially from this, the main difference being that he assumes that even two manuscripts came to Wales and that they did so at different times.

In my paper, I will approach the question of the prehistory of the Book of Aneirin from a different angle. So far, the question of where the subject matter comes from has always been lumped together with the question of how the heroic poetry in the Book of Aneirin came into existence. By contrast, I hope to show that these questions can and should be separated from each other. I will then go on to present a new hypothesis dealing with all details of the prehistory of the Book of Aneirin corpus.