Mishandled vessels: heaving drinks and hurling insults in medieval Welsh literature and law.
Medieval men and women took their insults much more seriously than perhaps we do, and often comments or gestures, whether unintentional or calculated, could spark a violent blood feud. Today, the term feud carries negative connotations: there is a current western cultural bias against groups who practice self-help violence associated with insult and redress, but to the participants in the feuding process, such violence functioned as a "... reasonable and eminently moral form of social action." (4)
Feud can be engendered by insult and once begun, is itself treated as a form of insult requiring reparation. In essence, feud is aggressive social competition integral to the creation and maintenance of social order. Feud is motivated by scarcity, both material and moral, and takes the form of a game played between relative equals who keep score and endeavour to take the lead from one another. (5) This game of exchanges is potentially interminable, but the understanding of a never-ending conflict motivates the parties involved to limit their conflict. Still, even after a resolution, any affront or assault will likely spark additional hostilities. (6) It is this concept of talion that accounts for the cyclical nature of insult and redress in Welsh literature and law. Simply put, any act that brings about dishonour must be somehow either atoned for or paid back. Finally, feud is driven by the participants' belief that their honour has somehow been threatened or compromised. "The feud was more than the series of overt actions that made it up," according to one scholar. "It was the relationship between the groups, the state of the participants' minds, the postures of defiance, antagonism, and coldness filling the intervals of time between hostile confrontations. These things were every bit as much a part of the feud as vengeance killing." (7)
The single most important factor which informs the mentalite of feud cultures, the fundamental characteristic of feud which cuts across temporal and geographic boundaries, is the need to acquire and defend the intangible commodity of honour. Feud, therefore, occurs where institutions of governance are weak or absent. It is driven by scarcity of material and moral resources, and is a potentially interminable game played between equals.
II. Texts (8)
In the tale of Peredur, the hero, clad in threadbare rags and mounted on a bony nag, arrives at the court of Arthur seeking to be knighted. Immediately prior to his coming, a knight-errant had approached Arthur's court and snatched a wine-filled goblet from the hand of the queen, emptying the liquor over her face and breast, and giving her a great box on the ear. The knight challenged all comers to avenge this insult, yet all members of Arthur's retinue turned away, "thinking it likely that no one would commit such a crime as that unless he had with him strength and force or magic and brilliance, so that no one might take vengeance on him." (9) This offence parallels thematically and in near-exact gesture the casting of water on the stone in Owein, where warriors take up a chalice filled with water and cast the water upon a stone, triggering a vicious storm that summons a black knight against whom the challenger must battle. In each tale, the redactor makes a point of highlighting the deed itself and describing the response in such a way as to emphasise the magnitude of the crime.
I will deal with the example from Peredur first. After the blatant aggression of the stranger-knight and the shocked non-action of Arthur's household warriors, Peredur arrives and suffers ridicule at the hands of the court, especially from Arthur's steward Cei, who rebukes and strikes two dwarfs for hailing Peredur as the paragon of Arthurian chivalry. Upon commission by Arthur, Peredur then sets out to avenge the insult suffered by Gwenhwyvar, as well as those suffered by his dwarfish advocates, and the ridicule he himself has endured at court. It is significant that the stranger-knight of Peredur engages in a sequence of violence that consciously breaks the taboos set out in the laws. The insult to which Gwenhwyvar is subjected reproduces almost verbatim the section of the Laws of the Court concerning a queen: "In three ways is sarhaed done to the Queen. One is to break her protection. Another is to strike a blow upon her. A third is to snatch something from her hand. A third of the sarhaed of the king is paid to her for her sarhaed, and that without gold, without silver." (10) In fact, Peredur conforms amazingly to Welsh law--in Chretien de Troyes' Perceval, by way of contrast, the stranger-knight recklessly seizes the cup from Arthur and in doing so spills wine all over the queen, who is shamed to the point of considering suicide. (11)
Robin Stacey Chapman notes that the medieval Welsh tale itself might have been the inspiration for this set of laws, for while striking someone is a fairly common way of insulting them, violently snatching a cup seems "oddly specific" and "more a device for precipitating action" than an actual legal offence. (12) Nevertheless, the deliberate framing of the legal material in light of Welsh literature, if this is the case, reveals a symbolic or mythic sensitivity on the part of the jurist not lightly dismissed, regardless of whether anybody in actuality engaged in such a succession of sarhaed. Conversely, a literary borrowing from a legal source shows that the redactor and audience were both familiar with their native law and heightens the import of the offence, establishing the very calculated nature of the insult. In each case, the mythological significance of such an egregious criminal gesture is central to a more full understanding of the mental ite behind the literary narrative and the laws.
In Peredur, the assault on Gwenhwyvar is not only an insult to her but a grievous affront to her husband the king and, while she is not slain, could even be considered a direct violation of his protection insofar as the stranger knight has penetrated Arthur's hall and assaulted his closest dependent. The Laws of the Court are very clear on sarhaed payments in these cases: compensation is made to the king for his wife by means of a golden plate, a man-high golden rod, one hundred cows for every cantref of land he holds, and a white bull with red ears for every hundred cows paid. The sarhaed due to the queen was one-third of that payable to the king, excluding the gold. (13) Just like the sequence of events in the insult, which appears very formal and contrived, the payment itself seems artificial and almost mythological. Stacey points out that in matters of kingly sarhaed, plates as broad as a ruler's face have mythological connotations, and rods of precious metals are "well-known sovereignty attributes." (14) The legal and literary interlace reveals a way of conceptualizing the world of social interactions in a feud culture, and so it is not surprising that in terms of their respective mythological underpinnings, the payment fits the crime. As Glenys Goetinck notes, "dashing the wine over the queen and stealing the goblet constitutes the deliberate destruction of the bond between the king, the possessor of sovereignty, and the symbols of his authority." (15) While not without controversy because of its strong mythological reading of the text, Goetinck's work is very instructive in this case. Something more than sloshing wine over a queen before striking her head in order to provoke the king is at stake here, especially in light of the near-identical passages in both a literary and legal source. (16)
In addition to the obviously symbolic nature of this payment, its vast size demonstrates that for the king the greatest dishonour was the misuse of his wife. (17) In medieval Welsh society, like other societies that practiced feud, to insult a woman was considered an assault against her husband and her male relatives, since by calling into question their ability to defend their women, the insulter at once implied their impotence and questioned their honour. In this light, the stranger knight is guilty of camarferu, the misuse of the king's wife. Camarferu has been glossed both as "obstructing" and "lying with" another man's wife, so the crime can be conceptualised as sexual, or at the very least redressed in the same way as one would a sexual felony. (18) Moreover, the offence in the narrative surpasses simple cuckoldry, because in Arthur's case at least symbolically, the insult calls into question his right to rule, over and above threatening his manhood. The work of Goetinck on sovereignty themes in Peredur is again quite valuable for explicating this event: "Dashing the wine over the queen probably signified a challenge to the authority of the king, since the offer of a cup of wine in the sovereignty legends symbolized marriage and sovereignty, and the queen herself symbolized sovereignty and the kingdom." (19) It is interesting that in the Welsh Arthurian tales, Arthur is never the victim of an adulterous wife and chief retainer as he is in French tradition. Perhaps there was no need to portray the king as a literal cuckold when his inability to protect his wife from affront would have suggested a similar impotence to a Welsh audience and seriously called into question his right to sovereignty.
A similar gesture, albeit initially less contrived and deliberate, sparks one of the feuds which drive the narrative in Owein. At the outset of the tale, we learn that the warrior Cynon, seeking a means to prove himself, journeys to another country where, after encountering some colourful locals, seizes a vessel chained to a slab of stone and empties its contents over the slab. Although the story begins in a conventional romance fashion, the outcome of Cynon's escapade and Owein's subsequent quest are no mere adventures, as they appear to be in comparable romances, even if Cynon initially took up his expedition as such. Just as snatching a cup from a queen has implications with regard to the honour and sovereignty of the king, so too does summoning a storm and knight by means of casting water on a stone, for the knight who has been summoned is the ruler of the land and his wife, the prize of the subsequent combat. The destruction and attempted appropriation of land which occurs in Owein is a perfectly good excuse for a feud, but it is compounded because that destruction is initiated by means of an act analogous in gesture and sentiment to that which sparks the feud in Peredur. (20) Furthermore, elements abound in this tale, which in a Celtic context point directly to the theme of sovereignty, linking the tale to the sentiment that underlies the episode in Peredur as well as the laws, and the concept of sovereignty is itself related to the ideas of scarcity and honour which inform feud cultures in general and the sarhaed illustration from Peniarth 28 specifically.
I have already considered Arthur's response to this nefarious deed and the action taken by Peredur to avenge it. The same motivation drives the Black Knight, and explains his ferocious and unrestrained defence of the fountain, for the spilling of wine on the queen and the casting of water on the stone slab are both challenges to sovereignty, and while the first action contains an audacious element of sexual insult, the second can be conceptualized as carrying equal symbolic weight. Both challengers employ the same gesture: each takes up a cup and empties the contents either on the queen herself or on the very land of which she is a living symbol. Proinsias MacCana has observed that "in the traditions of the insular Celtic peoples the feminine embodiment of the realm is of necessity coeval with it." (21) In his exhaustive study on the topic, MacCana has noted that according to early Irish belief, each king of Tara was espoused to the goddess Eriu, the divine mother conceived anthropomorphically, and that lesser kings were espoused to local goddesses. (22) Moreover, the idea of the sovereignty goddess infused tenth- and eleventh-century legends in Ireland, and this tradition continued until the eighteenth century. (23) Because the Irish did understand the sovereignty myths that pervaded their stories, it is a reasonable assumption that where such myths exist in Welsh legend, the same holds true for the Welsh themselves. (24) Indeed, Chapman's "King, Queen and Edling in the Laws of the Court" convincingly establishes the intentional use of sovereignty themes and the appeal to mythological heroes in both law and literature as a way to express national unity and identity. She states emphatically: "However far removed from the realities of Welsh rule golden goblets and queueing cows may appear to us, they were clearly not viewed by the redactor as peripheral to the central concerns of his text." (25)
The gesture of snatching and spilling is significant beyond the mere taking away of a symbol of authority, for the cup is a particularly female object. Cups are associated with sovereignty goddesses, and in heroic societies it was the womenfolk who distributed the mead-cup to guests and retainers. (26) Cups, bowls, and goblets are also prominent in stories with female figures, as MacCana observes. (27) A queen and sovereignty are quite often associated with a cup and wine, and there is a particular sovereignty goddess is named Medb, "she who intoxicates." (28) He further argues that Eriu is a solar goddess because she possesses a golden cup, for the sun was regarded as a golden cup. While this heliogenesis seems tenuous, cup imagery does evoke the passage on the sarhaed of a queen in the Laws of the Court and calls to mind the cup or bowl chained to fountain in Owein. Earlier, I examined the incident in Peredur where a stranger knight horrifies Arthur and his court by pouring wine over Gwenhwyfar and stealing the chalice. This motif is very definitely present when the water is thrown over the rock slab in Owein. (29) Cups, especially the objects of the kitchen and house, are the chattels that belong to a woman specifically, and according to Welsh law, if the marriage fails she takes these with her save one milk vessel and one dish. (30) Conspicuously, all of the drinking vessels go with the man. (31) I suspect that one impulse that informs this is the same one that encourages the kin-group to control the access to and use of its feminine reproductive units. In premodern societies, rape was conceptualized as an attack on the male kin or husband of the victim. To a large extent this is due to the perception of women in the kin as chattels, so the act of seizing the cup, which is both symbolic of sovereignty and has a feminine quality, carries the connotation of a rape.
Red wine calls to mind the colour of blood, and it goes without saying that to spill another's blood is indeed a grave insult. Blood and wine are also representative of life and fruitfulness. Intentionally spilling out the fruit of the vine, a symbol of fertility, onto a woman not only suggests a shedding of blood but also can imply the breaking of the hymen on the first night of marriage or the spilling of semen. (32) This sentiment finds a parallel in Owein when a challenger casts water, another life-giving substance, on a stone slab and calls up a storm, normally a natural occurrence necessary for the fertility of any land. Given "the well-known Celtic tradition of conceptualising rule as the physical mating of the king with his land," taking up the vessel at the fountain and spilling its contents on the stone suggests laying claim to the woman of the land and the land itself by taking the object of power and symbolically mating with the sovereignty figure, or at the very least, announcing one's intention to do so. (33)
That the husband of the woman in question would take exception to such an action comes as no surprise, especially because the gesture threatens the sexual integrity of the woman and, therefore, the honour of the husband. The laws report that if unlawful intercourse happens with a woman, it engenders kin-feud. The corresponding stipend paid to the aggrieved husband increases by half, reflecting the seriousness of the offence. (34) "The preoccupation with the sexual purity of women and its protection," according to anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers, "relates to the belief in the transmission of moral qualities through physical inheritance." (35) The act of casting water or wine on a woman or the land she represents calls into question a man's ability to protect his women and also represents a claim to moral and physical superiority. Pitt-Rivers notes that the cuckold is an object of contempt and in a state of desecration not because adultery is an issue of right or wrong behaviour but rather one of sanctity and defilement. (36) Without question then, Arthur and the Black Knight have both been defiled. Furthermore, women derive their power from the world within, whether it be within the house or within their bodies. (37) The act of entering the house and ritually (or actually) defiling both it and the woman therein, who in these cases is also a sovereignty figure, constitutes an abominable insult. Pitt-Rivers goes on to note that the "lack of chastity in women places in jeopardy the family honour accumulated by forbears, whereas in men it destroys the honour of other families." (38) In Peredur the stranger-knight violates Arthur's house, his woman, and his sovereignty by means of the cup gesture, just as all comers symbolically violate the lady's dominion and by extension the lady herself by casting water on the stone. This destruction of the honour of another house and claiming of honour for oneself is what Cynon attempts and Owein achieves, but their deeds result in the lasting humiliation and eventual death of their rival. Finally, the combat at the spring fulfills a further purpose, also, sexual connotations: it functions as a test to gauge the value of a stranger. The entry of an outsider is an occasion for an ordeal or rite of incorporation that can end with some form of sexual hospitality. (39) in the case of Owein, the hero passes this test and is integrated into the Lady's dominion by means of a marriage union. What has begun on a very symbolic level is actualized by the end of the tale.
Immediately apparent in both romances is that while the law allows for a monetary stipend to be paid for sarhaed, and although there is no lack of available money, vengeance is the accepted manner of redress. Black-Michaud has observed that groups who settle for compensation are usually amenable if it is to their economic advantage or, more importantly, if they cannot afford to pursue the feud. (40) But since buying an apology then calls into question one's status and manliness, he notes numerous examples of pre-industrial Mediterranean and Middle Eastern societies where men, not prepared to sell their honour, rely on vengeance instead. (41) The same holds true in Welsh literature: the Welsh laws call for pecuniary remuneration, but the romances tell of battlefield vengeance. The desire for revenge is what motivates the respective heroes, since Arthur's men, fearing they will not succeed in wreaking vengeance, shrink from vindicating their queen. Arthur for his part is in an impossible situation, because if he makes a riposte directly he acknowledges the stranger as an equal, but non-action further heightens the perception of impotence. Buying redress would hardly fit within the conventions of any chivalric tale, and it would ill befit a king of Arthur's status to suffer the humiliation of buying an apology when his honour depends on his ability to command respect by force.
The conviction that one does not sell one's honour is much more than a literary topos. In any feuding society, honour belongs to those who can morally and physically command it. (42) The sensitivity to honour in medieval Welsh society as reflected in the legal and mythical literature can be understood within the framework of Black-Michaud's concept of total scarcity, which he defines as the prevailing notion that "everything felt by the people themselves to be relevant to human life is regarded by those people as existing in absolutely inadequate quantities." (43) The ideal of sovereignty ties in neatly with the concept of scarcity and the economy of honour articulated by Black-Michaud. With this in mind, one must consider the implications of a sovereignty figure selecting a ruler. Black-Michaud notes that leadership arises to coordinate the cooperation needed to exploit scarce resources, and is itself a scarce commodity which engenders competition. (44) We see in the personification of sovereignty the struggle for leadership and also a figure who is a concrete expression of an intangible concept. Furthermore, sovereignty personified reflects an idea widely held in feud cultures that women originate and perpetuate feud. (45) Although Welsh women had no independent legal capacity and were denied a public legal personality, in the context of feud they wielded an enormous amount of power both as object and incitrix. (46) There is more to the relationship between sovereignty and feuding. In Owein, the polity belongs to the Lady, and, because of her nature as a sovereignty figure, the polity is the Lady: she is both mistress of the realm and the very realm itself. (47) The narrative depicts a series of interlocking images: sovereignty is associated with possession of the land, and with regard to the Welsh economy, land was the source of wealth, status, and power. Sovereignty is also embodied in women, and achieved by union with the woman in question. Each series of associations comes back to women in feuding cultures. In the literature, women seem to be an empowering object over which the ambitious fought, hence the personification of sovereignty as woman.
As a final point concerning the pursuit of honour in medieval Welsh literature and society, a man is answerable for his honour only to his equals. (48) A challenge is made only to those worthy of the challenge, those who can ably riposte; (49) a reply acknowledges a man as a person of honour, and to disdain to reply denies symbolically that the challenger is one's equal. Again consider the image for sarhaed from Peniarth 28 (fig. 1). The insult twins are near-identical and virtually evenly matched; in the narratives, interesting things happen when non-equals indulge in feud. At the outset of Owein, the hero Cynon assays the trial at the fountain. His desire for glory has its price. In casting water on the stone, he has done considerable damage to the countryside. The black knight's speech is revealing and significant: "Lo Knight, he said, what would you have of me? What harm have I done to you, that you should do to me and my dominions that which you have done today? Did you not know that today's shower has left alive neither man nor beast in my realm of those it found outside?" (50) As soon as the black knight has uttered his complaint, Cynon attacks him and is unceremoniously unhorsed, His foe promptly claims Cynon's steed, and Cynon laments that "The black man out of pride did not so much as imprison me; nor did he despoil me." (51) With a single gesture, Cynon had at once insulted the knight and questioned his sovereignty, and subsequently has done serious and lasting damage to his lands. The indignities that the knight now heaps upon Cynon are very understandable, especially when considered within the framework of a feuding society. In refusing to despoil or fetter Cynon, the black knight pays back tenfold what he has received. Such refusal is an even greater insult than Cynon's, for the knight all but says that Cynon is beneath contempt. Cynon tells his companions that no one ever has confessed a tale of greater failure. (52) His is a failure because the loss of his honour means a loss of his status. Owein, unlike Cynon, does not press the attack but receives the knight and encounters him with spirit. Also, while Owein has wronged the black knight by casting water on the stone and presumably enacting the same dishonour and physical damage as Cynon, his challenge is not without provocation, for that same black knight humiliated one of Owein's companions, hence Owein's understandable quest for vengeance as opposed to mere adventure.
In Peredur, the cup-snatching stranger knight refuses to fight Peredur, presumably for the same reason the black knight would not fetter Cynon. Instead, the red knight butt-ends him with his spear when Peredur persists in his challenge. Later, Peredur deliberately rides over the fallen Cei twenty-one times after breaking his arm and collarbone; Owein also does this to Cei, who impugned his honour at the outset of that tale. When Arthur's retinue comes to the fountain, Owein unhorses Cei twice, and in the second pass strikes Cei's forehead with the butt of his lance. Owein has vindicated himself against Cei, and in striking his head and trampling him under his horse, Owein has deliberately added a degree of humiliation. Owein's rise at Cei's expense reaches its pinnacle at the end of the tale, when Owein is made pennteulu and as such outranks Cei, Arthur's distain or steward. (53) His sarhaed is now equal to the queen's. (54) This is further vindication for one who has been perceived as all talk and no action, and further disgrace for Cei, who according to Welsh law has Owein's hand-me-down clothing to look forward to three times a year and has been told in no uncertain terms that he is not worthy of playing the game of honour with Owein and Peredur. (55)
III. Concluding Remarks
The grappling hair-pullers of Peniarth 28 depict a concept in law and an attitude that lies behind the law. Indeed, the Welsh law codes are more concerned with the maintenance of honour than specific, prescriptive rules about governance. This notion, characterised by insult and redress, is further illustrated by examples from the prose narratives where sarhaed is enacted and evened out by specific gestures. The gestures themselves are interesting, because they point to a mytho logical underpinning in both law and literature which seems to have been very well understood by literary and legal redactors, and their respective audiences. Both the law codes and tales present a social order in which everyone has a definite place and function. The tales are a systematizing and redefining of insular legends about Arthur. (56) They draw their main characters from dynastic legends of the Old North, with the idea of land personified as a woman, "whose willing union with its ruler confers legitimacy on his rule and peace and fruitfulness upon his kingdom." (57) By the time these tales took on their present form, the sovereignty myth had become a hero's quest of courage where he is brought face-to-face with a living sovereignty figure--he proves himself, marries her, falls, and is regenerated. (58) The picture and prose tales further show how one only indulges in the game with an equal and show further the consequences of overstepping one's status. All three examples--the manuscript illustration, law texts, and literary texts--show sarhaed instigated by specific actions and informed by attitudes customary to feud. All three deploy traditional motifs and mythological archetypes to describe, codify, and personify the intangible commodities of reputation and sovereignty. All three illustrate the mentalite which lies behind the transaction of these intangibles, and consequently, offer insight about how the medieval Welsh came to grips with the perceived shortage of honour and power in their society.
(1) Sarhaed from Peniarth 28 is used with permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/The National Library of Wales.
(2) Cyfraith Hywel, "the Law of Hywel," is the term used to designate the body of medieval Welsh law. Tradition credits the tenth-century Welsh king Hywel Dda (904-950) with the principal formulation and codification of the Welsh laws. Hywel appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as an under-king to Wessex's AEthelstan, but the earliest evidence for the law itself dates from 300 years after the historic Hywel lived. Suffice it to say that the traditional compiler of Welsh law as we know it may well have been Hywel Dda, yet the exact nature of his contribution remains unclear.
(3) The various manuscripts of Welsh law are all organized into a series of tractates dealing with a variety of subjects. Each redaction (Cyfnerth, Blegywryd, and lorwerth) contains three broad headings: the Laws of the Court, the Laws of the Country, and the Justices' Test Book. The Laws of the Court deal with the duties and privileges of members of a royal court, as well as their relative status and monetary worth. The Laws of the Country deal with such topics as the Laws of Women, Insult and Redress, Surety and Contract, Land Law, and Family law. The Justices' Test Book includes information concerning homicide, theft, fire, crop damage, and animal husbandry. The Laws also include functional bits of case law difficult to integrate into the main body of law, yet compilers felt it necessary to keep them.
(4) Middle Welsh has several words which describe feud, including gelynyaeth, "enmity; hostility", and galanas, which means feud, homicide, and simultaneously the compensation payment for the feud and/or homicide. Both terms derive from the root * gal-, meaning hatred or passion, and are related to the word for enemy. Although by the fourteenth/fifteenth centuries galanas comes to mean wrongful death and the compensation for it, Dafydd Jenkins points out that "...the primary meaning of galanas is 'feud' or 'enmity' between kindreds. The meaning of 'homicide' develops because homicide is in the developed law the only recognised ground of feud, though it is clear that in earlier days feud could arise from a dispute over land or from wrong done to a woman, and probably other causes as well." The Law (Llandysul, 1986), p. 346. Interestingly, the term galanas appears in a Scottish context, Leges inter Brettos et Scottos, where it seems to mean compensation and honourprice. See Jenny Wormald. "Bloodfeud, Kindred and Government in Early Modem Scotland," Past and Present, 87 (1980), pp. 54-97.
Christopher Boehm, Blood Revenge: The Anthropology of Feuding in Montenegro (Laurence, Kansas, 1984), p. 62.
(5) Jacob Black-Michaud, Cohesive Force: Feud in the Mediterranean and the Middle East (New York, 1975), passim.
(6) Boehm, Blood Revenge, passim.
(7) William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago, 1990), p. 181.
(8) This article incorporates and builds on ideas first presented in "Insult and Redress in Cyfraith Hywel Dda and Welsh Arthurian Romance" Arthuriana, 10 (2000), pp. 27-43. I thank Dr. Bonnie Wheeler, the editor of Arthuriana, for permission to expand further those materials here.
(9) yn tebic ganthunt na wnaei neb kyfryw gyflauan a honno, namyn o vot arnaw milwryaeth ac angered neu hut a lletrith, mal na allei neb ymdiala ac ef. Glenys Witchard Goetinck (ed.), Historia Peredur vab Efrawc (Cardiff, 1976), p. 12.
(10) Teyr ford y serheyr y vrenhynes: un eu o torry y naud; eyl eu o tarav dyrnaut arney; trydd yv o grypdeyllavpeth o 'y llav. A thryderan sarhaety brenhyn a telyrydy am y sarhaet, a hynny hep cur, hep aryant. Aled R. Wiliam (ed.), Llyfr Iorwerth. (Cardiff, 1960), p. 2.
(11) Chretien de Troyes (ed and trans. D.D.R. Owen), Arthurian Romances (London, 1987), p. 387.
(12) Robin Chapman Stacey. "King, Queen and, Edling in the Laws of the Court," in T.M. Charles-Edwards, Morfydd E. Owen, and Paul Russell (eds.), The Welsh King and his Court (Cardiff, 2000), p. 36.
(13) Lllor., pp. 2-3.
(14) Stacey, "King, Queen, and Edling," p. 35.
(15) Peredur, pp. 182-83.
(16) Beyond the overlap of mythology and law articulated by Stacey, evidence abounds that proves that a very definite understanding of sovereignty, especially conveyed through the woman, was at play in Wales and beyond, both within and outside myth and story. Eleanor of Aquitaine's symbolic marriage of her son Richard to Aquitaine at Limoges in 1172 shows that the union of king and goddess was understood very well indeed. Serial marriages for Irish queens to high kings suggest that the queen did confer kingship on the man she married. Some historic kings even tried to make off with a rival's wife, and this was likely with an eye to tradition one captured one's rival's spouse in both flesh and spirit, slighting "the royal prestige of dangerous opponents through violating certain of its traditional attributes." Proinsias MacCana, "Aspects of the theme of King and Goddess in Irish Literature," III, Etudes Celtiques, 8 (1958-59), pp. 62-63. Since this was the case, it is no surprise that abductions figure prominently in Welsh literature and history. The Four Branches are replete with deceptions and abductions of wives Rhiannon and Gwawl in the First Branch come to mind, as do Blodeuedd and Gronw Bebyr in the Fourth. Nest, the daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr King of Deheubarth and wife of Gerald of Windsor, the Anglo-Norman constable of Pembroke Castle, was abducted by her cousin Owain ap Cadwgan. Owain had political motives as Nest held the lordship of Caerau in her own right, and Gerald married her in order to consolidate his claim to Pembroke against Cadwgan. Nest is famous for her affairs with Henry I and Stephen of Cardigan as well. In fact, Gerald owed his advancement to Henry I after the king had been with Nest. See James Doan, "Sovereignty Aspects in the Roles of Women in Medieval Irish and Welsh Society." Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 5 (1985), pp. 91-95; Proinsias MacCana. The Mabinogi (Cardiff, 1977), p. 112.
(17) Morfydd E Owen, "Shame and Reparation: Women's Place in the Kin," in Dafydd Jenkins and Morfydd E. Owen (eds.), The Welsh Law of Women (Cardiff, 1990), p. 47.
(18) Dafydd Jenkins (ed. and trans.), The Law (Llandusyl, 1986), p. 221.
(19) Glenys Goetinck, Peredur: A Study of Welsh Tradition in the Grail Legends (Cardiff, 1975), pp. 137-38.
(20) See note 4 above.
(21) MacCana. "Women in Irish Mythology," The Crane Bag, 4 (1980), p. 7.
(22) MacCana, "Aspects," III, p. 77.
(23) MacCana, "Aspects," III, pp. 60-62.
(24) Catherine McKenna, "The Theme of Sovereignty in Pwyll," Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 29 (1980): p. 317.
(25) Stacey, "King, Queen and Edling," pp. 36-39.
(26) The best-known example in English literature is Wealhlpeow in Beowulf. For a full discussion of the cup-bearing duties of women in heroic, and specifically Germanic societies, see Michael J. Enright's "Lady with a Mead-Cup. Ritual, Group Cohesion and Hierarchy in the Germanic Warband," Fruhmittelalteriche Studien, 22 (1988), pp. 170-204.
(27) MacCana, "Aspects," p. 78.
(28) Ibid. Medb is also the main female character in the Irish Tain Bo Culainge. She instigates the cattle raid which is the subject of the tale, dominates her marriage and cuckolds her husband. This behaviour is congruent with her namesake Medb Lethderg of Tara, a proto-sovereignty figure, and explains her original role as a sovereignty goddess. See Patricia Kelly, "The Tain as Literature," in J.P. Mallory (ed.), Aspects of the Thin (Belfast, 1992), pp. 77-78.
(29) Symbolically speaking, any cup-like vessel could serve this purpose, especially since other markers of a sovereignty myth are present at this point in the tale. In the narrative, after the water has been dumped on the rock and the vicious hail storm has run its course, a flight of birds alights on the nearby pine. One character of Welsh legend in particular, Rhiannon, is associated with birds, and she is very definitely a sovereignty figure. James Doan observes that the name Rhiannon derives from Rigantona, the "Great Queen," and Epona, the "Divine Horse." Doan also refers to Gerald of Wales' horrified description of a horse sacrifice to a sovereignty goddess. According to Gerald, it was customary in northwest Ulster for a king to mate with a sacrificial mare, bathe in its blood, and then eat its flesh. Doan, p. 88. Goetinck sees a similarity between Luned on her horse chiding Owein, and Rhiannon chiding Pwyll in the First Branch. Peredur, p. 269. It is significant that when helping the captured Owein out of his dilemma, Luned waits for him on the horse block. Rhiannon is forced to sit upon a horse block and carry visitors to her husband's court on her back as punishment for her supposed murder of her son. These are certain echoes of the equine associations of sovereignty personified.
(30) Lllor., p. 24.
(31) er holl lestrv llyn e 'r gur ed ant. Lllor., p. 24.
(32) My thanks to Ann Hutchison of York University and the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies for making me aware of this specifically marital connotation.
(33) Stacey, "King, Queen, and Edling," p. 36.
(34) Lllor., p. 26.
(35) Julian Pitt-Rivers, The Fate of Shechem: On the Politics of Sex (Cambridge, 1977), p. 78.
(36) Ibid., p. 24.
(37) Ibid., p. 77.
(38) Ibid., p. 78.
(39) Ibid., p. 96.
(40) Black-Michaud, Cohesive Force, pp. 82-83, 116-19.
(41) Ibid., p. 206.
(42) Ibid., p. 179.
(43) Ibid., p. 160.
(44) Ibid., p. 170.
(45) In Welsh literature, Rhiannon is contended for by Pwyll and Gwawl, and Branwen is traded like a commodity. In addition to numerous literary examples, as well as the infamous Nest mentioned above, history presents several other prominent Celtic examples. According to the Annals of Ireland, in 898 a certain Fland incited her husband against his nephews in a territorial dispute. In 1012, one Gormflaith provoked a war between Brian Boru and the Leinstermen. Gormflaith corresponds to the Kormlod of Njals saga, who is named as the first wife of Brian Boru and blamed for inciting the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Both the Irish and Norse report that she was exceedingly beautiful but manipulative. Kormlod "was a very beautiful woman and her best qualities were in matters outside her own power, but it was commonly said that her character was evil in matters which were within her own power." It is very significant that Gormflaith literally means "illustrious/splendid sovereignty." In the Norse tale Kormlod was oft-married, and the historic Gormflaith was involved in three dynastic marriages. These characteristics recall Hallgerd, perhaps the most famous incitrix of Norse literature, who is responsible for the many feuds that run their course in Njals saga. See Doan, pp. 92-94; George Webbe Dasent (trans.), The Story of Burnt Njal (London, 1911), 209 ft.
(46) W. Davies, "Celtic Women in the Early Middle Ages," in Averil Cameron and Amrlie Kuhrt (eds.), Images of Women in Antiquity (Detroit, 1983), p. 148.
(47) Ernst Kantorowicz's seminal work The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theory (Princeton, 1957), passim, presents interesting parallels to the conceptualization of sovereignty in Celtic literatures. Kantorowicz discusses at length the evolution of the practice of objectifying the public persona of rulers, as well as the notion that the ruler is both an eternal Body Politic and a finite and limited Body Mortal with overlapping and distinct capacities.
(48) Julian Pitt-Rivers, "Honour and Social Status," in J.G. Peristiany (ed.), Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society (Chicago, 1966), p 31.
(49) Pierre Bourdieu, "The Sentiment of Honour in Kabyle Society," in J.G Peristiany (ed.), Honour and Shame, p. 197-98.
(50) "'Ha warchawc, 'heb ef 'beth a holut ti y mi? Pa drwc a digoneis i ytti pan wnelut titheu y mi ac y 'm kyfoeth a wnaethost hediw? Pony wydut ti nat edewis y gawat hediw na dyn na llwdyn yn vyw y'm kyvoeth o 'r a gafas allan!"' R.L. Thomson (ed.), Owein, or Chwedl larlles y Ffynnawn (Dublin, 1968), pp. 8-9.
(51) "ny wnaeth y gwr duo vawred ymdanaf i kymeint a 'm karcharu inheu; nyi yspeilwys ynteu vi," ibid., p. 9.
(52) Ibid., pp. 9-10.
(53) Ibid., p. 30.
(54) Lllor., pp. 3-6.
(55) Distein a geiffmantell y pennteulu ympaub un o'r teir gwyk arbennic. The steward is to have the mantle of the chief-bodyguard at each of the three main festivals. S.J. Williams and J. Enoch Powell (eds.), Cyfreithiau Hywel Dda yn ol Llyfr Blegywryd (Cardiff, second edn, 1961), pp. 11-24.
(56) MacCana Mabinogi, p. 93.
(57) Quotation from ibid., p. 110. Also see Goetinck, Peredur, p. 29.
(58) Goetinck, Peredur, p. 130.
Michael Cichon is the head of the English Department at St. Thomas More College in the University of Saskatchewan, where he teaches English and Classical, Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies. His research interests include the Cult of Chivalry, the Religion of Love, and the Rhetoric of Feud.
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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