Monday, July 13, 2009

Was the Mabinobigion written by a woman?

A new book coming out this month suggests that the Mabinoigion, a medieval masterpiece of Welsh literature, was written, at least in part, by a Welsh princess. In The Origins of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi
Dr. Andrew Breeze of University of Navarre argues that The Mabinogion's first four stories were the work of a female, which he beieves was Gwenllian, daughter of Gruffudd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd.

In an interview with the Western Mail, Dr. Breeze explains some of his reasons behind his theory: "What we can say about these stories is that they are very good at describing children, babies, breast feeding, motherhood, and even though warfare occurs the writer is not interested in swords and daggers and axes. Then we get these small characters like Rhiannon and Branwen and in some cases they get the better of their men."

He adds, "Then we get these small characters like Rhiannon and Branwen and in some cases they get the better of their men."

Other Welsh literature scholars are not convinved by Dr. Breeze's arguments. Iestyn Daniel, of the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, said: "I don't think he is correct in deducing it is the work of a woman.

"Personally I think it is by a Dominican [monk]. If the author were a Dominican he might well have been experienced in treating women's spiritual needs and that might have been reflected in The Mabinogi."

He added: "What he has written is valuable in that it draws attention to the feminine element but I don't think it follows that the author was therefore a woman."

Dr Sioned Davies, the head of the school of Welsh at Cardiff University, was more forthright in her criticism. She said: "I know Andrew Breeze well and he is a good academic. But he has a bee in his bonnet about the conceit that a woman wrote it.

"Nothing would give me more pleasure than discovering this, but scholars have shown quite clearly that his arguments are unfounded. We cannot even date the Four Branches of the Mabinogi so he has a rather circular argument.

"And the level (of argument) is not what I would expect of a someone of his calibre."

But Dr Breeze respond against his critics by saying, "People are unwilling to change their minds. In a tiny way I feel like Galileo."

The Mabinobigion is a collection of eleven prose stories from medieval Welsh manuscripts. The tales of the Mabinogion were preserved in two manuscripts, White Book of Rhydderch (c. 1325) and the Red Book of Hergest (c. 1400).

The Mabinogion was first translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest. It was Lady Charlotte who gave the title of "Mabinogion" to this collection of tales. Also, Lady Charlotte had included a twelfth tale, called Hanes Taliesin ("Tale of Taliesin"), belonging to the Independent group. However, the Hanes Taliesin was not found in the two early manuscripts, so some of the later translations of the Mabinogion do not include the story of Taliesin.

The tales from the Mabinogion can be divided into three categories. The first four tales belonged to the Four Branches of the Mabinogi ("Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi"). The next four (or five, if including Taliesin) were the Independent tales, two tales of which Arthur appeared in the scene. While the last three tales falls into a category known as the Welsh romances, similar to those of the French romances written by Chretien de Troyes.

Dr. Breeze's presumed author of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Princess Gwenllian, is also famous for her role in the wars between Wales and England. Born in 1098, she lived in the valleys around Dinefwr, then dense with protective forests, where she married and raised four sons: Morgan, Maelgwn, Maredued and Rhys. In 1136 an attack was launched on the Normans and her husband left to join the battle. While he was away, Maurice of London and other Normans led raids against their territory, and Gwenllian was compelled to raise an army for their defense. In a battle fought near Kidwelly Castle, Gwenllian's army was routed, and she was captured and beheaded by the Normans. In the battle her son Morgan was also slain and another Maelgwen captured and executed. Gerald Cambrensis, writing later that century, said: "She marched like the Queen of the Amazons and a second Penthesileia leading her army."