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Dafydd ap Gwilym's 'the clock' and foliot 'decoy bird' in 'The Owl and the Nightingale.'

THE word foliot ~a type of clock escapemeat consisting of a bar with adjustable weights on the eads' was discussed some years ago by Professor Rigg.(1) His paper quotes Jean Froissart's descriptioa of a clock in his Li Orloge Amoureus, written probably in England in the later fourteenth century, which mentioas how a clock is controlled ~by the power of the foliot (par la vertu dou foliot), which moves it continually'. The foliot, turning from side to side each second, is never still, since by it the mechanism ~is checked and held back accordiag to proper measure'. In Froissart's elaborate love-allegory the foliot branle ~oscillates' like the loyal heart of the lover.

Rigg believes the French poem casts light on line 868 of The Owl and the Nightiagale, ~Ne singe ih hom no foliot'. He takes foliot here as referring either to the foliot of a clock, with its oscillating motioa and monotoaous tick-tock, or (since there is no evidence the foliot was known before 1271, up to eighty years after the English poem was written) to some other mechanical ~governor' known as a foliot.(2)

Yet both explanatioas seem on the wrong tack. Stanley has noted the Old French use of foliot as ~a fowliag term, some sort of foolish trick to catch foolish larks, consisting perhaps of a device, roughly in the shape of a bird, with glistening mirrors, which, to the enticing sounds of skilful whistling, drew the larks into the fowler's net'.(3) The interpretatioa of foliot in The Owl and the Nightiagale as also referring to a real or dummy bird, and not to part of a clock or other machine, is confirmed by the line ~A' i hwyaid yn tybiaid dydd in a poem by Dafydd ap Gwilym (fl. 1330-60), which has not previously been discussed in this context.(4) In his poem, Dafydd curses a clock that disturbed his sleep when he was dreaming of the girl he loves.

Alas the clock beside the dyke

black-countenanced, which awakened me,

let its mouth and tongue be vain

with its two ropes and its wheel,

the stupid balls which are its weights,

with its four-square case and hammer,

with its ducks (hwyaid) who think it day,

and its restless mill-wheels.(5)

This odd allusioa to ~ducks' in the clock has apparently not received comment.(6) But it is easily explained as referring to a foliot, a bar fixed horizontally about a vertical column (a ~verge'), and moving alternately from side to side. A diagram makes this clear.(7) The foliot is there shown as a bar having ends beat upward and then forward, with weights suspended from them. These weights could be moved or changed to modify the rate at which the clock operated (a functioa later taken over by the pendulum, first used on clocks in Holland about 1657).

The shape of the foliot explains its name. The beat end looks like the head of a bird, while its constant waggle from side to side resembles the waddling of a duck. Hence the English name foliot ~decoy bird, device in the shape of a bird', and (even better, since a foliot has two ends) the Welsh name hwyaid ~ducks'.

If this explanatioa is correct, it has five implicatioas. First, it vindicates Stanley's interpretatioa of foliot in The Owl and the Nightiagale as a decoy for birds, used with the fowler's low whistling (aa image brilliantly apposite to a bird debate). It can hardly refer to part of a machine, as Rigg would have it. Second, it reveals how precise Dafydd's descriptioa is, his poet's imaginatioa fired by the new technology of his day. Third, it indicates that Dafydd's account deserves notice from horologists at large, especially since it must predate the poem by Jean Froissart (c. 1337-c. 1404). It may be almost as old as the clock designed c. 1328 by Richard of Wallingford for St Albans Abbey, the oldest mechanical clock of which we have detailed knowledge (it had an oscillating mechanism using, not the verge-and-foliot, but an extra wheel). Fourth, it allows us to translate foliot in The Owl and the Nightiagale more accurately. Since a foliot was bird-shaped, Davis's reference to Old French foliot ~snare' and Stanley's gloss ~foolish snare' are misleading.(8) The original foliot was surely a decoy, not a snare; hence its use for a clock part with birdlike outline and motion. Finally, it means we can discount the derivatioa of foliot from the Latin word for leaf offered by G. J. Whitrow's recent book (the foliot looks nothing like a leaf; if anything, it resembles a twig).(9)

Yet the question remains, how exactly to translate Ne singe ih hom no foliot? Since foliot means ~decoy bird', we could take it as in appositioa to ih, translating ~I do not sing to them as a ~decoy bird'. But there seems no parallel for this constructioa; and decoy birds, of their nature, do not sing. Perhaps, therefore, foliot here refers rather (onomatopoeically?) to the low whistling made by a fowler usiag this decoy. This reading is paralleled by lines 220 (&al pi song is ~wailawai') and 412 (pu singest a winter ~wolawo'). If so, we could read Ne singe ih hom no ~foliot' ~I do not sing to them "foliot" -- the treacherous alluring whistle of a fowler usiag such a decoy. (1) A. G. Rigg, ~Clock, Dials, and Other Terms' in Middle English Studies presented to Norman Davis, ed. Douglas Gray and E. G. Stanley (Oxford, 1983), 255-74, at 270-1. (2) Rigg, 271 n. 48. (3) The Owl and the Nightiagale, ed. E. G. Stanley, 2nd eda (Manchester, 1972), 125, citing his paper on the poem in English and Germanic Studies, vi (1957),30-63, at 46. (4) Gwaith Dafydd ap Gwilym, ed. Thomas Parry (Caerdydd, 1952), 178. (5) Dafydd ap Gwilym, A Selectioa of Poems, tr. Rachel Bromwich, 2nd eda (Harmondsworth, 1985), 112. (6) Cf. Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (Caerdydd, 1950- ), 1936; I. C. Peate, ~Dafydd ap Gwilym a Jean Froissart', Llea Cymru, v (1958-9), 119-21, and his Clock and Watch Makers in Wales, 3rd eda (Cardiff, 1975), 14-15; Helea Fulton, Dafydd ap Gwilym and the European Context (Cardiff, 1989),203. (7) G. J. Whitrow, Time in History (Oxford, 1988),103. (8) Early Middle English Verse and Prose, ed. J. A. W. Bennett and G. V. Smithers, 2nd eda (Oxford, 1968), 481; Stanley, 180. (9) Whitrow, 103.
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Author:Breeze, Andrew
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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