Trydydd i Ddafydd a ddoeth
The Black Death
Bubonic plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, was the source of the Black Death that affected Europe and large areas of Asia and Africa in the middle of the fourteenth century. It is generally believed that this bacterium was spread by fleas on rats, although by now this traditional opinion on the mechanism of the infection is questionable. The lymph gland closest to the area bitten by the infectious flea would swell (mostly on the legs, but also under the arms and neck), creating a lump called a bubo. The infection can also take a pneumonic form (which affects the lungs), and in this case can spread directly from person to person.
After the first visitation of the plague in the middle of the fourteenth century, it returned on several occasions, in 1361-2, 1369, 1375 and again in 1379. Many areas were affected during the fifteenth century and there is evidence to suggest that it remained a threat in Britain until the seventeenth century. Sometimes the disease affected a particular area or town, but on other occasions large parts of the country were affected as the disease spread rapidly from one village to another.
Two main symptoms of the plague are described in the poems of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: firstly, the bubo or swelling that appeared on the body, called y nod in Welsh, and secondly, the dark spots or small swollen lumps which appear on the skin and which were called y frech ddu ‘black measles’.
A deeply moving poem by an unknown author describes these symptoms appearing on his children, who were killed by the plague (the author may habve been Llywelyn Fychan, see GMBen, Atodiad, and pp. 172-5). The poem belongs to the fourteenth century, but the same symptoms are described by the poets of the fifteenth century. Dafydd Llwyd of Mathafarn describes the bubo and the dark spots on the skin in a sad poem for the woman he loved (see GDLlF poem 56), and Tudur Aled possibly refers to the spots on the skin as a kind of black rash (GTA LXXII.62). Is seems that some patrons of Guto’r Glyn were also affected. Dafydd Llwyd ap Gruffudd of Abertanad had a swelling on his skin which appeared three days before he died according to the poet:
Trydydd i Ddafydd a ddoeth
Tridiau cyn marw gŵr tradoeth:
Cornwyd ar y gŵr llwydwyn,
Carnedd o ddialedd ynn.
A third warning came to Dafydd
three days before the death of a very wise man:
a bubo on the fair and holy man,
a cairn of retribution for us.
It is not possible to know exactly when the plague returned to Wales or which areas were affected by it during the fifteenth century. The poets occasionally refer to a deadly disease or sickness in their poems, and it is quite possible that this was the plague. In the poem to Joan Burgh of Wattlesborough, Guto commends Joan and her husband as ‘saints who will not allow disease in the land’ (81.50), and this may refer to an epidemic of deadly disease. It seems that the years 1463-5, 1467 and the 1470s were periods when deadly disease struck Britain of a kind unprecedented since the thirties. Gottfried (1978: 41) notes: ‘In 1463 John Warkworth wrote in his chronicle of a freezing cold winter, and subsequent conditions ominously similar to those of the 1430s. This was followed in 1464 by what appears to have been a national epidemic of plague.’ In his poem to Sieffrai Cyffin Guto gives the impression that his patron overcame some disease, perhaps the plague when it affected the Welsh border sometime between the years 1463 and 1465 (96.45; 96.65-6).
Of course, although haint y nodau (‘pestilence’) or y frech ddu (‘black measles’) are sometimes used as contemporary names for the plague, poets very rarely name or describe in an elegy the disease that has killed their patron. In lamenting Angharad and Meurig Fychan of Nannau, Guto does use the phrase y farfolaeth fawr (‘the great death’, 50.8); however, the precise significance of this is unclear, since it seems that the use of ‘y Farwolaeth Fawr’ for the Black Death is quite a modern one.
The origin and cause of most diseases in the Middle Ages are still unknown, and it is believed that elements such as lifestyle, poor sanitation and malnutrition contributed greatly. It was an advantage to live in the country rather than within the walls of a town, where the filth and sewage produced by the inhabitants caused many problems. Evidently not everyone had the wealth to eat nutritious food, and consequently vitamin deficiency diseases such as scurvy were very common (see Guto’s illness).
Guto refers to an illness that affected Abbot Rhys ap Dafydd of Strata Florida (5). The disease is described as a haint oerfudr ‘horrible disease’ (5.52) which has made the abbot ‘captive’ (5.67). Clearly the abbot is very ill, possibly even on his death bed:
Digiaw yr wyf, deg ei rudd,
Dyfr gost, am dy fawr gystudd.
Dy glefyd, fy niwyd nêr,
Yn Actwn yw fy nicter.
I am grieving because of your great disease,
expense of waters, fair-cheeked one.
Your sickness in Acton
is the cause of my grief, my true lord.
The life of a nobleman involved many physical activities such as fighting on the battlefield or hunting, and as a result cuts and wounds were also very common. Indeed, it seems that Guto’r Glyn himself broke three of his ribs after a fall (109). Hywel ap Ieuan Fychan of Moeliwch injured his knee, specifically his kneecap (92.14). Guto goes on to describe the injury:
Dy gwymp oer a’m dug o’m pwynt,
Dy gymal a’m dwg amwynt.
Dig a phrid i gyffredin
Dy wlad fu friwo dy lin.
Your unpleasant fall took me from my health,
your joint brings me ill health.
The injuring of your knee caused anger
and loss to the common people of your land.
Dafydd ap Llywelyn ab Ieuan was wounded with an arrow, or possibly the tip of a spear:
Yr haeernyn ar hirnos
A wnâi ’m na chysgwn y nos.
Brynarwyd y morddwyd mau
Yn ei geisio yn gwysau.
The iron weapon on a long night
caused me sleeplessness.
My thigh was reduced to wounds
as I sought it.
These lines are from Guto's supplication to the Rood in Chester to heal the wound on Dafydd's behalf (see further Cures).
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