Two Bardic Themes: The Virgin and Child, and Ave-Eva

By Breeze, Andrew | Medium Aevum, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Two Bardic Themes: The Virgin and Child, and Ave-Eva


Breeze, Andrew, Medium Aevum


In early Welsh poetry, two Marian themes are treated with remarkable originality: the Virgin and Child, in poems before c. 1300; and, in later poems, the play on Eva and the Ave of Gabriel's greeting to Mary at the Annunciation. Since Welsh poetry develops these themes in such an unusual way, an account of them should interest students of mediaeval spirituality, iconography, poetry (in English and other languages) and even literary theory, as well as Celticists.

The Virgin and Child

Friar Madog ap Gwallter's poem on Christ's Nativity, Mab a'n rhodded (|A Son was given'), has been widely admired.(1) Often called the |earliest Christmas carol' in Wel;sh (though it lacks the refrain of a true carol), its |freshness' and |atmosphere of the early Franciscan world' have led to the belief that Madog was an early Franciscan.(2) The fact that Madog's poem shares motifs with thirteenth-century English poems (written probably by friars) strengthens this case, even if the |Franciscan spirit' did not end in 1300, or lack precursors before 1200.(3)

The first friary in Wales was founded by 1242.(4) This gives a terminus a quo for Madog, since it is agreed that he was a friar. His terminus ad quem is given by Cardiff, Central Library, MS 2.611 (c.1275-1325), if he is the |Frater Walensis madocus edeirnianensis' whose Latin hexameters figure there; if not, by the Red Book of Hergest (c. 1400), the earliest manuscript containing his Welsh poems. Arguments for dating Madog to c. 1250, on the basis of a statement by Dr John Davies of Mallwyd (c. 1567-1644), and for considering him a Franciscan, are strengthened by this apparent knowledge of Sawles Warde, a text copied by Hereford Franciscans about then, but not circulating after 1300.(5)

The date of Madog's career has implications for English poetry. No Middle English poem (Franciscan or otherwise) on Christ's Nativity is known before 1372, when John of Grimestone compiled his preaching book.(6) It has thus been assumed that nativity lyric was a late form due to the influence of miracle plays, where the Nativity was detached from its liturgical season. But the danger of arguing from such negative evidence, and the possibility of a |find' from the thirteenth century transforming the picture, have been noted.(7) If Madog's poem was written before 1300, as seems to be the case, it is the |find' Anglicists have been waiting for. It suggests that vernacular Nativity lyric existed in Britain at an early date, that it had nothing to do with the drama, and that it was the work of the friars.

Madog's poem on the Nativity has unusual stylistic interest. Despite alleged simplicity and homeliness, it contains the ancient European paradox of God's humility, of the divine king born in a stable:(8)

  Ych ac assen,   Arglwyd pressen,   presseb pieu;
  A sopen weir    yn lle kadeir      y'n lliw kadeu.
  Pali ny mynn,   nyt vryael gwynn   y gynhynneu;
  Yn lle syndal   ygkylch y wal      gwelit carpeu.

(An ox and an ass, the Lord of this world, a manger is his; bundle of hay instead of a cradle for our Lord of hosts. No silk he wishes, no splendid fabrics are his for covers: instead of linen about his bedstead, one saw but tatters.)(9)

A Franciscan would naturally stress the pathos of the scene: significantly, it is absent from the earlier Welsh lyric on the Virgin and Child discussed below."(10) But in Latin poetry the theme itself is as old as the hymn Agnoscat omne saeculum by Venantius Fortunatus (c. 530-609).

Praesepe poni pertulit, Qui lucis auctor exstitit, Cum patre caelos condidit, Sub matre pannos induit.(11)

(He allowed himself to be laid in a manger, he who showed himself creator of the world, he who created the heavens with his Father is wrapped in swaddling in the arms of his mother.)

Smaragdus (fl. 809-19), of Saint-Mihiel-sur-Meuse near Verdun, expresses the idea more boldly:

Qui totum mundum vestit ornatu, pannis vilibus involvitur . …

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Two Bardic Themes: The Virgin and Child, and Ave-Eva
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