Y saethau aur a saethych
Tables and benches
The high table
The bwrdd tâl (‘high table’) was a long trestle table and is called ‘high’ because it was located at the upper end of the hall. It was usually raised a few inches above the floor level of the hall, on a small platform called a ‘dais’. People who sat at this table were of higher status than those who sat at the tables on the floor level of the hall.
It was at the high table that the gentleman of the house would sit, along with his family and important guests. The remaining guests sat at the other tables in accordance with their social status: those of higher status, or who had a strong connection with the family, would sit closest to the high table.
The earlier medieval Welsh laws note that the bardd teulu (‘household poet’) and the pencerdd (‘chief poet’) would each sit in a specific place in the hall, the one next to the captain of the household and the other next to the court justice or the household priest. Although we do not know exactly where the poets sat during the feast by this later period, the poets would often note that they were sitting close to the high table, as does Guto’r Glyn in his praise of Siancyn Havard of Brecon:
Y saethau aur a saethych
Yw rhoddion y gweision gwych;
Dy nodau dianwadal –
Dy feirdd teg ar dy fwrdd tal.
The golden arrows which you shoot
are the gifts of your magnificent servants;
your unwavering targets
are your fair poets at your high table.
The food on the high table was more spectacular, with creative dishes such as a boar’s head, a peacock or a swan as centre-pieces. Indeed, the word bwrdd (‘table’) in the poetry became a metaphor for the feast itself, highlighting the patron’s generosity in providing food (see poem 111.31-2, poem 8.3-4). Furthermore, the patron himself is sometimes called bwrdd tâl, as in Guto’r Glyn’s reference to Dafydd Llwyd ap Dafydd of Newtown as the ‘high table of the poets’ (A bwrdd tâl y beirdd wyt ti, poem 37.68).
Fifteenth-century tables are extremely rare today, but there are a few examples of trestle tables from a later date. The platform that was used to raise the high table is still visible in some hall-houses such as Cochwillan. Also at Cochwillan, there seems to be a wooden canopy which was built as a small roof above the dais (see Construction: Carpentry).
Another piece of furniture on the platform was a large bench, located behind the high table, and secured with hooks which were installed into the wall that separated the hall from the private family room behind.
Chairs were rarely seen in medieval houses. The word cadair (‘chair’) is often used figuratively in the poetry; it can mean ‘song, metre’, ‘throne, lordship’ or ‘bardic chair’. Gradually it became customary in the wealthiest houses for the head of the family to sit on a carved oak chair at the high table. Two grand chairs have survived from the early sixteenth century which are magnificent examples of Tudor furniture. It seems that they belonged at one time to Sir Rhys ap Thomas, a patron described by Guto’r Glyn as a ‘roofbeam over the three counties’ when he was a young man living at Abermarlais (poem 14.21). The chairs are now on display at the National History Museum at St Fagans, but are originally from Dinefwr. Panelled oak chairs like these were also used as a means to display the family crest, as were other pieces of oak furniture in this period.
Bibliography: D. Jenkins, ‘Bardd Teulu and Pencerdd’, in T.M. Charles-Edwards, M.E. Owen and P. Russell (eds), The Welsh King and his Court, (Cardiff, 2000), 142-66 (147, 152) and see also Glossary, 571.
: R. Bebb, Welsh furniture, 1250-1950: a cultural history of craftsmanship and design, Vol. 1. (Aberystwyth, 2007), 118.
: Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, s.v. cadair, 375.
: M.P. Siddons, The Development of Welsh Heraldry: Vol 3 (Aberystwyth, 1993), 70.
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