Chapter 6

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The Flowering of Literature

After the death of Dafydd ap Gruffudd (left), the place of the Welsh princes as patrons of the poets was filled by the native Welsh gentry, whose growing importance and influence had been recognized as early as 1176, by an event that is of great significance in the long Welsh poetic tradition. This was the calling together of the bards of Wales to compete for a chair -- the tradition of the national Eisteddfod:
At Christmas in that year the Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd held court in splendour at Cardigan, in the castle. And he set two kinds of contests there: one between bards and poets, another between harpists and crowders and pipers and various classes of music-craft. And he had two chairs set for the victors.
Lord Rhys ruled supreme in much of Ceredigion (Southwest Wales), and it was he who richly endowed the Abbey at Strata Florida (left) in 1184. Henry II had made him a deputy in Wales as a counterpoise to the increasing power of the great Norman lords in Ireland. The 1176 Eisteddfod was one of the ways that he showed his importance and his independence. It was also of major importance to the continuance of the craft of the Welsh bards, a situation that was to change rapidly.

At the end of the 12th century, Giraldus Cambrensis had described the magic of Welsh poetry, with its special emphasis on alliteration. He could not have anticipated the full flowering of what we now term "the poetry of the gentry" that replaced that of the courts of the princes. Though the church, long supportive of the native literary culture, continued to patronize the Welsh bards, it was the native gentry (the uchelwyr), the land-owing classes who took upon the task of maintaining the Welsh bardic order, especially since poetry now dealt with secular themes.

No longer given an honored place at the courts, the bards could not rely on being permanently employed by the gentry either, so they were forced to travel from home to home on "bardic circuits." They were especially welcome at special occasions such as religious festivals or seasonal feast times. Poets were now free from the obligation to write works in praise of lords and princes. Highly trained in their craft, the bards were distinguishable from the host of itinerant mistrals. They were so popular throughout Wales, that they were encouraged by lesser and greater nobleman alike, always anxious to enhance their social status by having the services of a skilled, practiced bard at their disposal, but only when occasion demanded it.

One of these bards was certainly most skilled and most practiced. At the time of Chaucer in England and just following that of Dante in Italy, Wales had its own "world-class" master of the poetic art. Many modern writers see Dafydd ap Gwilym (1320-70) as the greatest Welsh poet of all time, but certainly the most distinguished of medieval Welsh poets.

Even in spite of the sad conditions following the death of Llywelyn and Dafydd and the harsh social and economic conditions that accompanied loss of political independence, Dafydd ap Gwilym was able to unite harmoniously the old Welsh bardic tradition and the newer European concepts of courtly love. Indeed, a body of literature was created in Wales that fully equaled that produced in either England or the continent.

It may have been that the loss of power of the Welsh princes helped to strengthen the self-awareness of the Welsh people. In any case, during the reigns of Edward II and Edward III, there were periods of considerable tranquillity and stability in Wales. In particular, there was an increased contact with France and French literature that could encourage the Welsh poets to emulate such works as "Roman de la Rose." As exemplified by the works of Dafydd ap Gwilym, the period was one of the most glorious times in Welsh literary history.

Dafydd's specialty was to exuberantly sing the praises of nature, of beautiful women, and finally, the fullness and joy of life itself. It is significant that his poetry contains no reference to any racial tension or national bitterness. He was thoroughly at home in the world of Welsh officialdom, being welcomed in all the Welsh courts, where he entertained his patrons with stories of love, beautiful and unattainable girls, or of the wonders of nature. In his poetry, written in such elegant county seats as Sycharth, there is no suggestion that presaged the soon-to-come national revolt under its owner, Owain Glyndwr.

Chapter 6 Continued
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