Lwfer ni ad lif o’r nen,
One of the most spectacular ways to decorate houses in the fifteenth century was to hang tapestries on the walls. As many houses had an open hall with high walls, there was plenty of space to hang large tapestries which would demonstrate the status and wealth of the owner of the house.
The period from about 1450 to 1550 was the golden age of tapestries and this is reflected in the poetry. The Welsh word aras is borrowed from the Middle English arras, itself derived from Arras, the name of a town in Artois. Arras was famed for the manufacture of tapestries, using locally sourced threads together with silken threads of gold and silver from Italy and Cyprus to create striking works of art. Flemish tapestries were imported into Britain from a very early period, many being commissioned by the wealthy gentry.
The word aras, or variants such as ares or eres, were used by the poets to denote high-quality tapestry work, not necessarily originating in Arras itself but just as beautifully made. Guto’r Glyn, for example, refers to the bed in Cochwillan as Gwely ares goleurym (‘A bright and sturdy arras bed’, poem 55.11). While praising the home of Sir Siôn Mechain in Llandrinio Guto refers to a tapestry that covered the walls:
Lwfer ni ad lif o’r nen,
A chroeslofft deg a chryslen.
A louvre which does not let in a flood from the roof,
a fair cross-shaped loft and a tapestry.
In another passage from the same poem Guto apparently refers to three tapestries, though he could also be comparing the roof-beams to tapestry work (see Carpentry):
Tri brwyd a weuwyd o wŷdd,
Troi’n gwlm bob tri ’n ei gilydd.
Three embroideries woven on a loom,
every three yarns bonding with each other.
There were all kinds of figures embroidered on these tapestries and it appears that images from nature such as birds, flowers and plants were popular in Wales, judging by some of the poems of request and thanks that describe their workmanship. Similar figures were also used in wall-paintings as these became increasingly popular in the grander houses.
Some of the most famous surviving tapestries of medieval period depict hunting scenes, stories from the Bible, and figures of saints and heroes. A reference in the title of an englyn in a sixteenth-century manuscript in the hand of William Bodwrda implies that there was once a tapestry depicting the Nine Heroes at Plas Bodwrda. Tapestry representations of three of the Nine Heroes, created around the year 1385, are now held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. These heroes were also very popular as images in the poetry (see in particular Guto’s poem to Siôn Hanmer, poem 75).
We may never know exactly what was illustrated on tapestries on the walls of Welsh gentry houses during the fifteenth century, but the bright colours of the weaves and the fine embroidery work were clearly quite spectacular and impressed the poets very much.
It was probably Guto’r Glyn’s familiarity with seeing tapestries around the hall at his patrons’ houses that led him to use them as metaphors to describe other objects. He describes the purse he received from Catrin daughter of Maredudd of Abertanad as eres o goed (‘a valuable tapestry of wood’, poem 87.61). The tapestry is a familiar metaphor in poems by his contemporary poets too. Gutun Owain, for example, saw a similarity between the woven golden thread of a tapestry and his patron’s generosity whilst sharing his gold with his poets.
Bibliography: E. Broudy, The Book of Looms (London, 1979), 60.
: ‘The Oxford English Dictionary’ s.v. arras, n.¹.
: A.M. Jones, ‘O’r Brethyn Brith i’r Damasg Disglair: Tecstiliau’r Cymry yn yr Oesoedd Canol’, in Cof Cenedl, XXIV, gol. G.H. Jenkins (Llandysul, 2009), 1-29.
: D. Ifans, 'Nawwyr Teilwng Plas Bodwrda’, Cylchgrawn Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales journal, (1973), xviii, 181-4.
: See further M. Haycock, ‘Defnydd hyd Ddydd Brawd’: rhai agweddau ar y ferch ym marddoniaeth yr Oesoedd Canol’, ed. G.H. Jenkins, Cymru a’r Cymry 2000 / Wales and the Welsh 2000 (Aberystwyth, 2001), 52-3.
: E. Bachellery (éd.), L’oeuvre poétique de Gutun Owain (Paris, 1950-1), poem 30.
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