By Danièle Cybulskie
It’s easy to think of the Middle Ages as a bleak time; after all, there was war and plague, and people spent their short lives working very hard, indeed. What we need to remember, however, is that the world has always had its share of troubles, and that there’s always room for joy in the midst – especially for the pleasures of the body.
Enter Gwerful Mechain, a Welsh poet from the fifteenth century, whose poems cover a wide range of topics guaranteed to make a medieval person smile. Her most formal words she saves for what we might think of as conventional medieval poetry: that devoted to religious themes like Jesus’ crucifixion, and the Last Judgement. But her most famous poems are dedicated to that other beloved medieval topic: sex.
For medieval Europeans, talking openly about sex in what we might think of now as explicit detail was a very normal part of life. Pilgrims’ badges and manuscript images frequently showed the human form in all its glory without raising any eyebrows. Like toilet humour, sexual explicitness was just a very funny, very normal part of the culture. (And if it’s not your particular cup of tea, you’ll want to stop reading this now!)
To the medieval mind, women were far lustier than men, and were nearly uncontrollable in their appetites. Our modern impression of medieval women being quiet and demure, and simply tolerating sex in cold, arranged marriages is based not on widespread reality, but on the works of (mainly religious) men who were advising women on how they should behave. Though Gwerful Mechain’s devout poetry on religious themes speaks to her acceptance of some religious teachings, her writings on sexual themes are enough to turn these male writers’ hair white.
In To Jealous Wives, Gwerful bemoans the fact that wives won’t share their husbands with other women (especially her), suggesting that every wife is so enamoured with her husband’s penis that she can’t bear to share. Gwerful says,
It means more to her than her family, any day,
Her own father and eight of her relations,
All her jewels and her fashionable creations,
Even her mother, I’m sad to say,
And her brothers, cousins, sisters, all away.
For Gwerful this possessiveness is a sorry state of affairs. But she, herself, is just as enamoured with sex as the wives she censures for it. A very short poem of hers puts this plainly:
I’d give a sweet plain jane or a thousand damsels,
As I kick my heels in vain,
I’d give all my great lust, a hundred maidens,
To have one strong lad beside this bush again.
Some of Gwerful’s cheerful exchanges with another Welsh poet, Dafydd Llwyd, go even further, celebrating the pleasures of sex without even a hint of the modesty we might expect of women from the past (or, often, the present). Dafydd challenges her:
Tell me, lovely girl, whose brows are slender,
Your expression is tender;
Do you, strange girl, have a big enough receptacle,
A sheath long enough to accommodate this tackle?
Gwerful replies that he’s welcome to find out: she’s ready, willing, and most appreciative of his offer (and his size). Then, she says,
The best thing there – ten times better than silver –
Is chiselling a girl who makes you quiver;
The best thing in life is thrusting fast, it’s fun,
And striking the flint before firing the gun.
Gwerful matches Dafydd wit for wit, lust for lust, and embraces her appetites openly and without shame. Her most famous poem, To the Vagina, is a similarly immodest praise poem, scolding men (and poets especially) for wasting their time praising a women’s hair, eyes, and breasts when the most worthy and amazing body part is the vagina. This longer poem is full of elaborate, graphic, and explicit praise, ending:
Let songs to the quim grow and thrive,
Find their due reward and survive.
For it is silky soft, the sultan of an ode,
A little seam, a curtain, on a niche bestowed,
Neat flaps in a place of meeting,
The sour grove, circle of greeting,
Superb forest, faultless gift to squeeze,
Fur for a fine pair of balls, tender frieze,
Dingle deeper than hand or ladle,
Hedge to hold a penis as large as you’re able,
A girl’s glade, it is full of love,
Lovely bush, you are blessed by God above.
Although life in medieval Wales could sometimes be no picnic, and both men and women were encouraged by the church to keep their lusts carefully contained for the sake of childbearing alone, Gwerful Mechain’s unbridled enjoyment of sex and her own body demonstrates the happiness and pleasure that medieval people – even women! – could find in the simple act of physical love.
You can find these modern verse excerpts in Katie Gramich’s The Works of Gwerful Mechain, along with more of Gwerful’s lusty lyrics, as well as word-for-word translations.
Top Image: British Library MS Egerton 881 f. 141v