You may recognise the name of the medieval Welsh bard, Dafydd ap Gwilym, and that of his famous poem, Cywydd y Gal or Ode to the Penis. What you may not know is that medieval poet, Gwerful Mechain, wrote a response to his poem nearly a century later. Cywydd y Cerdor is an ode to the vagina, praising it and condemning the men who ignore it in favour of a woman’s more acceptable features: “Lovely bush you are blessed by God above”. It is one of her most well-known verses and encapsulates the themes and values that her poetry embodies.
Gwerful Mechain (c.1460-c.1502) wrote about female sexuality and domestic issues during a time when women’s rights were non-existent. Her poetry has been brought to a modern English-speaking readership through translations by academics. Most notably by Katie Gramich in her 2018 anthology of The Works of Gwerful Mechain.
You might think that Mechain’s work would be isolated from her male contemporaries, and that she would have been shunned as a social outcast. However, her poetic exchanges with popular contemporary bards such as Dafydd Llwyd and Llywelyn ap Gutyn suggest that Mechain enjoyed popularity and her poetry was well-regarded by her male contemporaries.
The medieval feminist
She was a poet with a strong sense of justice and morality. For many poets of the time, such sentiments were confined to religious devotion. For Mechain, however, they were not. Instead, she drew on religious learning to represent the lowly serving class by writing poetry about domestic and corporeal acts in a sacred and almost ritualistic way.
To her maid as she shits
She squats and lets out her water‒cascading
From the cauldron of her pants as she totters;
Her twin holes make a great bubbling clamour
Then comes the dung and a rainbow arch of water.
Her use of language here would have been expected in religious poetry celebrating Christ, not in a poem about an act that medieval society would have considered unworthy of refined praise.
The righteous sense of justice revealed in her poetry extends beyond the serving class. To Her Husband for Beating Her is a scathing and surprising remark on domestic abuse in medieval households.
To her husband for beating her
A dagger through your heart’s stone‒on a slant
To reach your breastbone;
May your knees break, your hands shrivel
And your sword plunge in your guts to make you snivel.
This theme is continued in her response to Ieuan Dyfi’s poem, Red Annie, a cywydd (Welsh poetic measure) that laments how false women have been throughout the ages. Mechain uses robust and playful language to express how women are often the victims of male oppression and how it is women who are more honourable and virtuous than men.
Tiborea, the mother of Judas the traitor,
She was a loving wife, don’t hate her,
No one was safe from her pointed words. To Jealous Wives, a satirical poem, is a favourite.
But these damn wives, so respectable
Won’t give up their cocks delectable
In this poem, she berates married women for keeping their men to themselves. Her choice of language reduces men to their genitalia. She presents it as a separate identity that has an important position within the household, and in married women’s hearts. This poem is an example of her humorous and satirical writing style.
A nobel poet
Her collection of satirical, religious, righteous and humorous verse gives Mechain’s unashamedly feminist poetry a timeless quality. To understand why Mechain was allowed to have such a strong and overtly female voice in a patriarchal society, it is important to consider her social standing. She was the daughter of Hywel Fychan (later anglicised to Vaughan) from Mechain, Powys. Her father was part of the noble Vaughan family of Llwydiarth. Her nobility might have given her the confidence to speak with authority.
Her poetry has interested academics and modern readers not just because she is a medieval female bard ‒– the only known one to have a substantial surviving body of work –‒ but because of how equally she was received and how the content of her work was not dissimilar to that of her male contemporaries.
It seems to me that she was never a curiosity of her age, although she had all the qualities of one, and that she was regarded as an equal by her male counterparts. As Katie Gramich states in her introduction to The Works of Mechain, she is “confident in her own craft and opinions”. And, in that, her work remains as powerful today as it did in the 15th century.