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Celebrating LHMP Publication 200: Queer Welsh Literature

Wednesday, June 20, 2018 - 07:00

Life and work have been so chaotic this past week that I somehow managed to space out on Monday's usual go-live for the LHMP blog! So here it is on a Wednesday instead. (Making a lie of my reference in this week's podcast that it was published on Monday, of course. Such is the life of a poster of pre-scheduled material.)

I chose this article to highlight for the 200th entry in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast because Welsh history and language have always been a deep love of mine, and because I’ve longed for someone to address queer female themes in Welsh literature so that I could include them. The material is, alas, scanty. And the inescapable male focus of both the surviving queer Welsh material and the modern context in which Mihangel Morgan is discussing it in this article is frustrating. It matters if those developing a vocabulary for queerness within their language and culture focus on terms that not only historically, but semantically, prioritize the male experience and ignore or erase the female experience. It matters if one argues for the adoption of a queer-equivalent term like cadiffan that has always specifically meant “an effeminate or homosexual man, or a man cross-dressing as a woman” in preference to a term like hoyw (lively, spritely, gay, elegant, splendid), which has always historically been gender-neutral in its application, even skewing a bit toward use for women. (The title and reference in my Mabinogi-inspired short story Hoywverch draws on this play of meaning: one character improvises a verse addressing the other as hoywverch following poetic convention, but my use of the word is to celebrate and reflect the modern adoption of hoyw to mean “gay” in the inclusive sense.)

But I don’t want to focus only on criticism of approach. Morgan is examining the topic of queer historical heritage in very much the same way that the Project does: finding and discussing material with queer possibilities, even when those possibilities exist far more in the modern imagination than in the historic material. The point is, the material exists and the possibilities exist, and it’s important to struggle against the conservative academic reflex to explain it all away with non-queer interpretations.

One of the contexts for my interest in Welsh history has been via historic re-creation within the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). Expressing queer identity--and especially trying to re-create queer lives--within this type of group has not always been comfortable or welcome. My experience of the SCA was that it imposed a requirement of “compulsory symbolic heterosexuality” that was even more intense than that of the modern world I was trying to escape. So I was always delighted to be able to bring in scraps of historic queerness, such as reciting excerpts from Huw Arwystli’s poem, “The slender shapely maid prefers her business with her girlfriend than her boyfriend, she prefers desire for a girl than a boy,” with the full force of historic authenticity behind them. I wish I’d known then about the poem about the salmon love-messenger from Margaret Harry to Jane Owain. I would have memorized it and recited it at every campfire!

If anyone is interested in following up on some of the sex-focused poetry mentioned in this article, I highly recommend the following: Johnston, Dafydd.  1991.  Canu Maswedd yr Oesoedd Canol - Medieval Welsh Erotic Poetry.  Tafol, Cardiff.  ISBN  0-9517181-0-X. It seems to have had a revised 2nd edition in 1998 but is not currently in print.

Major category: 
Publications: 
Full citation: 

Morgan, Mihangel. 2016. “From Huw Arwystli to Siôn Eirian: Representative Examples of Cadi/Queer Life from Medieval to Twentieth-century Welsh Literature” in Queer Wales: The History, Culture and Politics of Queer Life in Wales. Huw Osborne (ed). University of Wales Press, Cardiff. ISBN 978-1-7831-6863-7

Publication summary: 

An article reviewing plausibly queer themes in Welsh literature, with a discussion of the creation of a vocabulary for queer identities in modern Welsh.

[Note: I’ll be including additional data and discussion of some of the vocabulary discussed in this article for my readers. The original article was written for an audience that is assumed to have a familiarity--perhaps even fluency--in the Welsh language. I think it’s not entirely self-serving to think that my PhD in Welsh historical linguistics might be excuse enough to think I can bridge that gap for my readers. Additional discussions of historic vocabulary are taken from the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (University of Wales Dictionary, University of Wales press, Cardiff), a comprehensive historic dictionary of the language.]

Morgan takes on the entirety of queer literary history in Welsh in a single article. He starts with a review of terminology for various flavors of queer identities, to counter the claim made that Welsh is lacking in a vocabulary for the topic--including a claim made in the Welsh literary magazine Taliesin that there’s ddim gair Cymraeg boddhaol am ‘gay’ hyd yn oed (no satisfactory word for ‘gay’ in Welsh yet). Morgan points out that this lament says more about the lack of status accorded to the native vocabulary that Welsh has--and has long had--for non-normative gender and sexuality.

[Note: There’s another unnoticed lack even in Morgan’s review of terms such as gwrywgydiwr (one-who-copulates-with-men) or hoyw (lively, spritely, gay), which is the almost exclusive focus on the male point of view, not only in his discussion, but in the historic material it’s based on. After all, a heterosexual woman could, technically, be described as a gwrywgydiwr, except to the extent that cydio--to copulate--is typically treated as having a male agent by default.]

Gwrywgydiwr at least has the virtue of time-in-grade, having been used by William Salesbury in his 1547 translation of the Bible for the term in 1 Corinthians 6:9 that is rendered “sodomite” in English translations. [Note: Gwrywgydiwr has no citations earlier than Salesbury’s Biblical translation but seems to be used regularly after that in religious contexts where “sodomite” would be used in English. Related forms such as the abstract noun gwrywgydiad “sodomy, homosexuality” or gwrywgydio “to commit sodomy, to commit a homosexual act” are found by the early 18th century.]

The use of hoyw is less clear in terms of its lineage for sexuality. It was adopted as an equivalent for “gay” in the late 1960s and 1970s, but sex-adjacent uses in older literature are more diffuse in implication, such as in Huw Arwystli’s phrase gwidw hoyw (“hoyw” widow) in a 16th century poem discussed below, where it is often interpreted as something like “lusty”. But in this ambiguous evolution, it closely parallels the fairly modern evolution of “gay” from a general sense of performative effusiveness to a more specific sense of queerness. [Note: Hoyw has a long history in Welsh, showing up in some of the earliest surviving texts and appearing consistently thereafter, though with some general shifts in semantic field. In general, it is a positive descriptor, conveying a sense of energy and motion, often translated with words like “sprightly, lively, vivacious, cheerful”. It is often applied in medieval love poetry to the girl who is the object of the poet’s affection. Because of the somewhat diffuse cluster of senses it has in early records, it can be difficult to pin down the introduction of possible senses having to do with sexuality. Some triangulation can be made when the word is glossed in another language or in dictionary entries. William Salesbury’s 1588 dictionary renders it in English as “jolly” though the correspondences it’s used for in his Biblical translation are all over the map. In the 17th century it becomes common as an attribute of clothing and appearance, with a sense of “splendid, elegant”. But I can’t find any example or related word with a clear reference to sexuality within the dictionary citations, which tend to stick to pre-20th century material. And my impression is that the adoption of hoyw as an equivalent for “gay” was a self-conscious innovation of the later 20th century.]

Morgan points out the oldest known citations for several other terms which are parallel with the development of English vocabulary, at least on an order-of-magnitude scale. Gwryw-fenywaidd, meaning variously “bisexual” or “hermaphrodite” can be found as early as 1866. [Note: The dictionary entry seems to imply this citation refers to a botanical or zoological meaning “able to self-fertilize” so I’d be hesitant to claim it as used for human behavior at that date. The etymology is “male+female+abstract noun suffix”.]

Deuryw to mean “bisexual” can be found in 1604. [Note: the word derives from “two+kinds” but the second element, while it means very generally “sort, class, type, family, group” was picked up for the meaning “gender (grammatical or biological)” by at least the early 16th century. While the compound deuryw “of two/both kinds” is found in non-gender-related senses as early as the 14th century, the 1604 citation mentioned here is noted as being biology-related and the specific use is glossing the Latin bigeneris which means “cross-bred from two species”. By the 18th century, both deuryw and related words are being glossed “androgynous, epicene”, so with a sense of “partaking of both genders”. But I don’t see any citations that mean “bisexual” in the sense of “attracted to more than one gender” in these pre-20th century examples, except by implication that a bi-gendered person would naturally be attracted to both “opposite” sexes.]

The term cyfunrhywiol which is used today to mean “homosexual” can be found in 1785. [Note: Once more we have an over-eager interpretation here, though Morgan’s statement is technically correct. Cyfunrhywiol derives from cyf+un+rhyw+iol “together+same+type/kind/sort+adjectival suffix” which builds the literal meaning given for the 1785 citation: “of the same kind or sort, homogeneous, uniform.” Rhyw has a broad scope of meaning as noted above, and specific gender/sex-related senses have never been the primary use. The specific text example for the 1785 date is Canu’r holl bennillion yn gyfunryw “sing the entire verse in unison” which is quite a distance from a sexual meaning. I point out all these details, not to undermine the thrust of Morgan’s argument--because Welsh is simply behaving like every other language in taking up words with pre-existing unrelated meanings and applying them to sexual senses--but to make it clear that Welsh did not have the modern concepts of bisexuality and homosexuality in the 16th century any more than English did.]

Morgan’s point is that Welsh has an existing vocabulary, if one is willing to let go of the notion that English is the central and default language of the topic. But even Welsh speakers working in queer theory and writing in the Welsh language give the impression of feeling embarrassed to use that existing vocabulary, as when Dafydd James balks at using cadiffanllyd to describe his work in “queer theory”.

Yet cadi in the sense of transgressive gender and sexuality has a much longer history than “queer” in the sense of “homosexual”. [Note: I feel that Morgan is stacking the deck a bit here, because queer has been used for a diffuse sense of transgressiveness much longer than it’s been used specifically to mean homosexual.] Deriving originally from the feminine given name Catrin (Catherine), it picked up a sense of performative femininity in the same way that “Nancy” or “Molly” did in English. [Note: I’m not sure if Morgan is ignoring the connection between Molly as meaning an effeminate man and the Latin mollis (soft) used widely in the same sense, or if his sources simply don't make that connection. Though the existence of the feminine name Molly almost certainly helped it along as a slang term.]

In Welsh, the use of Cadi to mean an effeminate man, a sissy, or a man cross-dressing in seasonal theatricals such as May Day dances dates back to 1600-1630. [Note: This is an accurate rendering of the dictionary entry. Cross-dressing in seasonal performances (most often men dressed as women) dates much earlier than 1600 and was associated with Carnival in Catholic cultures. Compare also to the Robin Hood plays in which the Maid Marion character was traditionally a cross-dressed actor. While cadi itself could mean “an effeminate man, a sissy”, the compound cadi ffan that emphasizes this specific meaning has its earliest citation in the 19th century.]

The transfer of such terminology from slang, to everyday vocabulary, to technical academic terminology is simply a matter of practice and acceptance. Some academics have begun this process, as in Richard Crowe’s discussion of cross-cultural parallels for various historic Welsh gender/sexuality traditions, in which he references the Cadi Haf tradition (the “May Cadi”, a festival figure who dresses half-male half-female), makes a bilingual pun on the word “camp” in the Mabinogi (where it means “a feat, an achievement”), and discusses the concept labeled sgwarnogrwydd (hare-like-ness) by Twm Morys [Note: I’m guessing it would be this Twm Morys] with Crowe concluding by casually using the term hoywder (gayness). [Note: the “hare” reference invokes animal-related folklore dating back to classical times in which the hare was reputed to be either hermaphroditical or homosexual or both.]

Now we plunge into the Welsh literary tradition to find examples of that hoywder, beginning with the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi (composed ca. 1200), in which two sons of King Math fab Mathonwy are magically transformed in sex and species (as punishment for performing and abetting rape) such that each alternately in turn spends a year as a female creature (deer, pig, wolf) to his brother’s male of the species, and bears a child in that form.

Most of the historical examples adduced here are less clear and overt, though. And Morgan discusses the necessary inclusion of possibilities, rather than certainties--a “queer historical touch” as discussed by Carolyn Dinshaw, to find connection in the past. For that, it is necessary to discard presumptive heterosexuality and to give potential queer readings of the material an equal standing with potential straight readings.

The motif of deep and intense same-sex friendships in medieval romance is a fertile ground for such readings, as in the story Kedymdeithyas Amlyn ac Amic (The Friendship of Amlyn and Amig) dating at least as early as the early 14th century. (This is an adaptation of an international tale, known in English as Amis and Amiloun.) The story involves two men who, although unrelated, have twin-like characteristics: born at the same time and identical in appearance. They become fast friends as children, sharing food and drink, and sleeping in the same bed, but then are separated. When reunited as adults, they swear an oath of friendship and each undertakes significant (and sometimes horrific) sacrifices for the other’s sake.

Queer interpretations of intense same-sex friendships are a regular theme, even when the friendships are asymmetrical in terms of social status. Morgan cites Peter Busse’s article “The Poet as Spouse of his Patron: Homoerotic Love in Medieval Welsh and Irish Poetry” that pulls examples both from the earliest known poets (Aneirin and Taliesin in the 6th century) and those of the medieval period (Cynddelw in the 12th century, Dafydd ap Gwilym in the 15th) that illustrate intense emotional bonds between poet and patron. One example is this excerpt from a poem by Dafydd ap Gwilym for his patron Ifon Hael:

...Fy mod ers talm, salm Selyf
Yn caru dyn uwch Caerdyf
Nid salw na cham fy namwain,
Nid serch ar finrhasgl ferch fain,
Mawrserch Ifor a’m goryw,
Mwy no serch ar ordderch yw.
Serch Ifor a glodforais,...

(...I have now been a while courting a being near Cardiff. No fortune ugly or perverse is mine, no love for slender smooth-lipped girl, but I am overwhelmed with love for Ifor, More than the love of any girl it is. I have celebrated Ifor’s love...)

One striking feature of this verse is the prominence of the word serch for “love” (six times in all, though I only quote four of them) compared to caru (here translated as “court” but more directly meaning “love”). Welsh has two basic verbs for love where serch has an implcation of “eros” (sexual love) while caru is used more neutrally not only for romantic love but for the love of family and friends.

Another praise poem  by Guto’r Glyn from a similar era uses the language of marriage (priodas) for the bond between poet and patron, noting that it was different from the marriage of man and woman, being “without jealousy.” Poems of this type were part of public culture and can be interpreted as expressing sentiments that would not have been considered shocking or unacceptable. Although they may well have been understood metaphorically, as many modern scholars insist, the literal wording creates space for imagining queer relationships.

Morgan’s analysis so far has been overwhelmingly masculine (to the point where terminology like gwrywgydiwr or cadi can only be viewed as queer if understood through the male gaze), but he suggests queer possibilities in the words of one of the few female poets whose work has survived from the medieval period, Gwerful Mechain (later 15th century), whose works reflect an earthy, woman-centered, sex-positive sensibility.

[Note: I find interesting parallels between this analysis of Gwerful’s poetry with that of some of the female troubadour poets from several centuries earlier, in the ways they challenged male-centered tropes in romantic poetry to demand a more egalitarian and realistic relationship between the sexes.]

Some of her pieces are satires on standard poetic tropes, such as the popular motif of male poets railing against “jealous husbands” of the women they desire, turning her verses instead on “jealous wives”. But the most striking and sexually explicit poem left by her is a praise-poem to female genitals: Cywydd y Cedor (probably best translated as “Ode to the Cunt” in parallel with Dafydd ap Gwilym’s Cywydd y Gal or “Ode to the Penis”, which it may have been a direct response to). [Note: The tradition of praise-poems for objects began in the early middle ages as part of the economics of poetic patronage, where poets would extravagantly praise objects that they hoped their patrons would bestow on them in payment for their poems (e.g., horses, jewelry, garments). But in the later middle ages, with the erosion of the patronage system (which women like Gwerful don’t appear to have had access to anyway), the form was generalized to other objects.]

Dafydd ap Gwilym’s Cywydd a Gal operates as a self-mocking boast, wherein the poet describes the magnificence of his organ while complaining about all the trouble it gets him into. Gwerful Mechain’s Cywydd a Cedor parodies this format to some extent, but also serves to scold male poets for praising a woman’s appearance--her hair, her clothing, her figure--while ignoring the most important parts relevant to a sexual relationship: [y]r plas lle’r enillir plant, a’r cedor clyd...lle carwn i, cywrain iach, y cedor dan y cadach. (The place where children are conceived, the warm cunt...where I loved, in perfect health, the cunt below the smock.)

Gwerful’s poetry expresses a forthright sex-positive attitude regarding women’s bodies. As Morgan notes, “she sings from the female body to the female body. ... She connects with other women, empathizes through herself with them.” [Note: I’m less willing than he is to claim that Cywydd y Cedor is “an expression of love between women” as opposed to being an expression of love for one’s own female physicality. Morgan admits that the poem’s references to sexual activity are all between men and women, just as Dafydd ap Gwilym’s penis poem glorifies his heterosexual exploits.]

This is not the only medieval Welsh poem with imagery of love between women, though. Another popular poetic form was that of the llatai or “love messenger”, in which the poet addresses an object, creature, or other human being who is requested to bear the expressions of his (or her) desire to the beloved. Typically in a llatai poem, the poet begins with extravagant praise of the messenger itself, and then moves on to the request.

In the poem Cywydd i yrru gleisiad yn llatai oddi wrth ferch at ferch arall (Ode to send a salmon as love-messenger from one girl to another girl) it is the context of the sender and recipient that introduces queer sensibility--quite explicitly this time. (The llatai always operates within the context of romantic and sexual love.) And in the text of the poem, we get an entire little love-story: the poet sends the salmon to dos i drin fy nghyfrinach (go deal with my secret), going to Siân Owain (Jane Owain) who used to be Siân Griffith, a maiden who used to be free but is now dan ben yr iau (under the yoke [of marriage]). She broke with Marged Harri (Margaret Harry) who presumably represents the narrative voice of the poem, and who was previously fel chwaer i mi (like a sister to me). Giving up the freedom of love between women for the restrictions of heterosexual marriage. [Note: I’m going to have to track down the full original of this poem, since I’ve never encountered it before.]

Another poem with overtly queer imagery is Huw Arwystli’s 16th century poem about “a boy dressed as a girl”, in which the poet simultaneously expresses attraction to the subject’s feminine appearance while being aware of the contrast with her anatomy, yet always using female pronouns and grammatical constructions. And to further complicate the depiction, the subject of the poem is described as desiring women:

Gwell gan dda’i llun, fun feinwar,
neges â’i chares no’i char.
gwell genti serch merch no mab

(The slender shapely maid prefers her business with her female-beloved than her male-beloved. She prefers desire for a girl to a boy.) Regardless of other interpretative questions, the poem includes expressions of love and sexual desire from a female grammatical subject to a female grammatical object, which gives it an unerasable queerness.

Traditional scholarship treated this poem as simply depicting a boy in temporary female costume, aligning the language to the appearance, but assuming a steadfastly heterosexual desire. Perhaps a participant in play or a pageant. (Keep in mind that this is an era when female characters on stage were played by young male actors.) But reading the poem through a queer lens invites an interpretation that completely disrupts gender and sexuality expectations, depicting a trans woman with lesbian desires.

The remainder of Morgan’s article engages with 20th century literary depictions of homosexuality and how they supported or challenged homophobic attitudes. [Note: I’ll add one last grumble on gender imbalance in that Morgan notes the lesbian themes of prominent Welsh short story writer Kate Roberts, and then declines to examine them, saying, “so much good work has already been carried out on this important figure in queer Welsh literature” that he feels compelled to spend his attention instead on a male (of course) writer whom he considers a possible influence on Roberts’ work.]

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historical