This week, in my (largely futile) search for primary sources on everyday life in seventh-century Gwynedd/North Wales, I returned to two old favourites. The first is the account bequeathed to us by Gerald of Wales and the second is the Dream of Rhonabwy, traditionally included among the tales of the Mabinogion. I know, I know, neither of them are from anywhere near the seventh century. Gerald was writing about a journey he made in 1188 and the Dream of Rhonabwy is set during the rule of Madawg ab Maredudd, who died in 1160. However, they both provide deliciously evocative passages about sleeping arrangements.
The following quote is from the Penguin Classics edition of Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales (translated Lewis Thorpe, 1978), p. 237 [part of chapter 10 of the Description of Wales]:
“Alongside one of the walls is placed a communal bed, stuffed with rushes, and not all that many of them. For sole covering, there is a stiff, harsh sheet, made locally and called in Welsh a ‘brychan.’ They all go to bed together. They keep on the same clothes which they have worn all day, a thin cloak and a tunic, which is all they have to keep the cold out. A fire is kept burning all night at their feet … and they get some warmth from the people sleeping next to them. When their underneath side begins to ache through the hardness of the bed and their uppermost side is frozen stiff with cold, they get up and sit by the fire … they go back to bed again, turning over on their other side … so that a different part is frozen and another side bruised by the hard bed.”
On his father’s side, Gerald was a member of the Anglo-Norman nobility but his mother was half Welsh, the daughter of Nest verch Rhys, and therefore related to the princes of both Powys and South Wales. Members of Gerald’s family moved in the highest circles of Anglo-Norman society. His grandmother, Nest, was reputedly a mistress of Henry I and Gerald himself was chaplain to Henry II. In 1188, he accompanied the Archbishop of Canterbury on a tour of Wales to recruit pilgrims for the Third Crusade. His Journey Through Wales was published in 1191 and the Description of Wales in 1194. Both provide an affectionate but condescending view of Wales and the Welsh from an Anglo-Norman perspective. The passage above tells us as much about upper-class Anglo-Norman sleeping arrangements as it does about the Welsh. Clearly Gerald was accustomed to a thicker mattress and more blankets and despite being a man of the church, he seems to have seen no virtue in being cold or uncomfortable.
Gerald, by the way, spent a large part of his life not becoming Bishop of St David’s, a position held by his uncle and to which he was elected on his uncle’s death. The king intervened with a royal veto – something about not wanting another ‘troublesome priest’ in a powerful position. (Thomas a Becket was murdered in 1170).
My second quote is, if possible, an even more evocative passage, from the Dream Of Rhonabwy. This time, the well-thumbed book on my shelf is the Everyman edition of The Mabinogion, as reprinted in 1973 (I think I am showing my age here!). The translators were Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. On pages 137-8, we find the following:
“… they could see a black old hall with a straight gable end, and smoke a-plenty from it. And when they came inside, they could see a floor full of holes and uneven. Where there was a bump upon it, it was with difficulty a man might stand thereon, so exceeding slippery was the floor with cow’s urine and their dung …
And when their resting-place was examined there was nothing on it save dusty flea-ridden straw ends … A greyish-red, threadbare, flea-infested blanket was spread thereon, and over the blanket a coarse broken sheet in tatters, and a half-empty pillow and filthy pillow-case thereon on top of the sheet …”
Now I have loved this particular passage for years and I always thought that it evoked an age-old house type where cattle occupied one end of the building and people the other.
Well, it seems I was wrong.
The house type might be ancient in North Germany, and even Brittany, but according to Mr Wikipedia and friends it only dates from the 12th/13th century in Devon, Cornwall and Wales, i.e. this was an arrangement that still possibly had a certain novelty value when the Dream of Rhonabwy was written (somewhere between 1150 and 1250?). See, for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dartmoor_longhouse, http://www.mabinogion.info/rhonabwy.htm
So I learned something this week, even if it was not what I hoped. I remain as ignorant as ever about seventh-century sleeping arrangements.