Brau gig, bara gwyn a bragod brigwyn
Bread was part of everyone’s basic diet in the fifteenth century and it was served with every meal. Bread possessed the necessary nutriment together with the ability to fill one up, and the fact that it was available throughout the year also made it one of the most useful foods. According to Giraldus Cambrensis, the early Welsh did not eat much bread although there is plenty of evidence that, in fact, they ate every kind of bread.
The word for ‘bread’, bara, came to mean ‘sustenance’ generally in the poetry as the poets frequently noted that a patron had given them bara, i.e. patronised and supported them. It also became a word to be used so as to emphasise succinctly that the patron supplied meals at his court. For instance, in his praise of Rhisiart Cyffin Guto’r Glyn says all of his patron’s expense goes on bread and wine (poem 108.6), thus praising his hospitality.
Details are given in the poetry regarding the kind of bread that the poets received at the feasts of their patrons, and some kinds of bread were clearly more expensive and nutritious and therefore a delicacy in the poets’ opinion. The bread that was most costly to produce in the Middle Ages was white bread. White bread is listed among other delicacies by Guto in his praise of Dafydd ap Tomas ap Dafydd of Blaen-tren:
Brau gig, bara gwyn a bragod brigwyn
A pherwaith gwenyn a ffrwyth gwinwydd.
tender meat, white bread and white-topped bragget
and the sweet produce of bees and the fruit of vines.
White bread is consistently called bara can in the poetry, can referring to the white colour of the flour used to make white bread. This bread was regarded as a purer kind because of the purity of the flour made from white wheat which was used to make it.
In the poetry, can came to be used on its own to denote this bread. In his ode in praise of Abbot Rhys ap Dafydd of Strata Florida, Guto says Ei gan a’i fedd a gawn fyrdd ‘A crowd of us have his white bread and mead’ (poem 8.9), and he also mentions white bread when expressing his fondness for the victuals that were in copious supply at Oswestry in the fifteenth century: caru’r can a’r cwrw a’r cig ‘to desire the white bread, the beer and the meat’ (poem 102.10). He received can a rhost faeth ‘white bread and roast’ (poem 15.31) from Rhys ap Siancyn of Glyn-nedd and complained of the lack of this bread in his satire on Syr Rhys:
Na thola dy dda’n ddyun,
N’ad dim o hwn yt dy hun,
Ac oni chawn gan a chig
A chwrw nid ai’n iach orig!’
don’t readily spare your wealth,
don’t leave any of this wealth to yourself,
and if we don’t receive white bread and meat
and beer you’ll not for a moment get better!’
This contention between Guto’r Glyn and Syr Rhys is especially interesting since the ‘Satire by Syr Rhys of Guto’r Glyn when he was ill at home at Christmas’ (poem 101a), together with Guto’s ‘Reply to Syr Rhys’s satire’ (poem 101), discusses different sorts of bread - from the best white bread to tasteless plain bread - and their nutritional value. It was Syr Rhys who launched his satire on Guto first. He says:
Fwrw ei gost ar fara gwyn;
Bara rhyg a bawr a’r haidd,
Bara disyml, bwrdeisiaidd.
Guto, er ysgwrio’i gau,
A gny penial gnopennau.
on white bread with a piece of cheese;
he grazes on rye-bread and barley-bread,
plain bread befitting a burgess.
Guto chews pieces of bread made from wheat-flour
in order to purge his bowels.
Guto was clearly suffering from some illness, and Syr Rhys says that Guto was chewing penial gnepynnau, namely bits of bread made of wheat flour and considered beneficial. Bara rhyg, namely bread made of flour prepared from rye grain, was not considered beneficial. Indeed, that kind of bread was used to feed animals. So too barley bread, namely bread made from barley or a kind of bearded corn. Its grain was used in flour to make bread which was considered inferior.
Bibliography: R. Richards, Cymru’r Oesau Canol (Wrecsam, 1933), 367.
: T. Scully, The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 1995), 36; A. Hagen, Anglo-Saxon food and drink: production, processing, distribution and consumption (Oxford, 2006), 9; C.A. Wilson, Food and Drink in Britain from the Stone Age to Recent Times (London, 1973), 237-55; A.T. Lucas, ‘Irish Food Before the Potato’, Gwerin (1960), 3, 8-43.
: A. Hagen, Anglo-Saxon food and drink: production, processing, distribution and consumption (Oxford, 2006), 12.
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