Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Gwerful Mechain, Fifteenth-Century Author of "Playfully Erotic Poems"

 Gwerful Mechain, Welsh poet (c. 1462-1505)

A "playfully erotic" detail from a
fifteenth-century Book of Hours,
Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. lat. 33

In his introduction to the poems of Gwerful Mechain, Donald Foster writes that she "is the only female poet of medieval Wales with a substantial body of work to have survived." 

Foster speculates that Mechain's work--perhaps as many as thirty-eight poems survive--may have been preserved "because the male scribes who controlled the transmission of Welsh poetry were amused by Gwerful's saucy and frank celebration of sexual intercourse." 

But Mechain's work also seems also to have survived because of her "respect" for the "complex Welsh poetic meters." She knows the tradition, but she can also play with it. And play with it she does.

While a substantial body of work exists, little biographical detail about Mechain's life is available. She was one of five children born to a Welsh nobleman, Hywel Fychan from Mechain, Powys. Her mother was a woman named Gwenhwyfar. She was married to a man named John ap Llewelyn Fychan, with whom she had a daughter, Mawd. And that's it.

Mechain may or may not have had a sexual relationship with the poet Dafydd LLwyd--the two exchange some frank verses, among them his poem in praise of a penis and her response, variously translated as "The Female Genitals," "To the Vagina," or "Cunt," depending on the squeamishness of the translator.

In her Broadview edition of Mechain's poetry, Katie Gramich goes with "To the Vagina," as she does in her online essay, to which I've linked, above. There Gramich refers to her "blushes" when reading aloud the Welsh version of the poem, with its "extremely rude words." I prefer Donald Foster's approach--in translating the Welsh, he titles the poem "Cywydd [Welsh verse form] of the Bush," which seems to be the meaning of the title in its original, "Cywydd y Cedor," Instead of Gramich's use of the obscure "quim" in her English translation of the Welsh cedor, Foster goes for the gusto--in addition to the "bush" of the title, he uses "twat," "snatch," and "cunt." That's my kind of translation. 

Another detail from Bibliothèque de Genève,
Ms. lat. 33 (This manuscript has nothing
to do with Gwerful Mechain except for its few
--and randomly placed--explicitly 
sexual illustrations . . .
weird in a book of hours, but okay)

I also appreciate Foster's observation that, in this poem, Mechain writes back to the Petrarchan catalogue of the female beloved's beauties: she "lampoons the newly fashionable tradition of hyper-praising every female body part except the unmentionable one that the woebegone male lover has had in the back of his mind although not on the tip of his tongue." (For more on how a female writer responds to Petrarch's anatomization of the female body, click here and here.)

As vital and joyful as Mechain's "playfully erotic poems" are, she also addresses angry lines to her husband in "To Her Husband for Beating Her," a simple, frank curse that you will not forget: 

Through your heart’s lining let there be pressed, slanting down,
A dagger to the bone in your chest.
Your knee smashed, your hand crushed, may the rest
Be gutted by the sword you possessed.

(translated from the Middle Welsh by A.M. Juster)

In addition to Gramich's online essay and her edition of Gwerful Mechain's poetry, you may enjoy Danièle Cybulskie's "Gwerful Mechain and the Joy of (Medieval) Sex" (here) and Lauren Cocking's "On the Gleefully Indecent Poems of a Medieval Welsh Feminist Poet" (here).

Click here for the Dictionary of Welsh Biography entry for Gwerful Mechain.

The phrase "playfully erotic poems," used in the title of my post, comes from Katie Gramich. 

I have posted on Mechain today, 1 March, because it is the saint's day of St. David, patron saint of Wales.

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